Search for new chancellor begins with wide range of views

Depending on whom you ask, the next chancellor of the University System of Georgia should be someone with experience in academia or someone who has never worked in higher education.

He (or she) should be from Georgia, possess a strong business background and have deep-rooted knowledge of the state’s history, needs and politics. Or the best person should be selected from a national search, regardless of ties to the state.

The next chancellor needs to advocate for students and for faculty and for two-year colleges and for research universities. The ideal candidate must be able to collaborate with lawmakers but at the same time wrangle enough money to teach more than 311,000 students and support more than 40,000 employees at 35 public colleges across the state.

These are just some of the characteristics different groups expect from the next leader of the state's University System. The 21-member search committee will hold its first meeting Monday to find a replacement for Chancellor Erroll Davis, who will retire when his contract expires in June.

"We basically need Superman," said a jokingWillis Potts, chairman of the State Board of Regents and a member of the search committee. "We need someone who has a good understanding of issues related to higher education but doesn't necessarily have to be in higher education. We need someone who can work in big, complex organizations and manage big complex budgets."

Several other members of the search committee declined to comment, citing an e-mail that went out last month telling them not to talk with the media. The University System requires members of search committees to sign confidentiality agreements to provide privacy for possible candidates, spokesman John Millsaps said.

Some students provided a specific wish list for the next chancellor.

Students want someone who is approachable and will take students' perspectives, concerns and issues into consideration, said Kaitlin Miller, a sophomore at the University of Georgia. Students are worried about any new increases in tuition or fees that might make it even more difficult for them to afford college, she said.

Ali Kamran, a junior and the student body president at Kennesaw State University, said students are worried about graduating on time. They can't get all the classes they need as colleges cut back on hiring professors and adding course sections because of budget cuts, he said.

"We want someone we can go up to and introduce ourselves to and then talk with about real issues without being treated as little kids," Kamran said.

Davis said it's difficult to appreciate how hard and time-consuming the job is.

Davis, who started in 2006, said he needed more patience when he started the job. A retired engineer and CEO, Davis said he was unprepared for how much state history and politics plays into every decision.

"Southern culture is different, and it has taken me longer than it should to understand that," he said. "It is much more a relationship-based culture, and I was used to a dispassionate, fact-based culture."

Rep. Len Walker, R-Loganville, said it's critically important that the next chancellor have a strong understanding of state history and politics. Walker, chairman of the House Higher Education Committee, declined to name names but was convinced Georgia already has people qualified to serve as chancellor.

Rep. Earl Ehrhart, R-Powder Springs, said there are current college presidents who could do the job.

"I'd like to see the same type of good business mind that Davis has," said Ehrhart, who heads the committee that oversees college budgets. "We need someone who has experience dealing with legislative bodies and who can work with the elected officials that control the budget."

Davis said a challenge over the years has been convincing lawmakers that colleges are "an investment and not a cost."

The system lost more than $630 million in state funding during the past three fiscal years because of the recession, and more cuts are expected. At the same time, enrollment has grown by more than 55,000 students during Davis' tenure.

Lawmakers provide the regents with a lump sum of money, and the board doles it out to the different campuses. This relationship has caused tension, as some lawmakers say the regents have been unwilling to cut back on spending.

"I have respect for the regents and respect their constitutional authority, but they need to function like other state agencies," Ehrhart said. "The next chancellor needs to be someone who can question the institutional bias and make real changes. Do they really need 35 campuses? Maybe they can make do with 24 or 26."

Davis said juggling the needs of 35 different campuses isn't too difficult, but the grind is relentless.

As for the best part of the job? Davis said it's visiting college campuses. His replacement better get ready for a lot of driving as Davis visits about three or four colleges a month.