Perdue slams brakes on UGA engineering plan

The State Board of Regents postponed until November a decision on the University of Georgia's plan to offer three new engineering programs after Gov. Sonny Perdue urged them to slow down and build support among lawmakers and the public.

The governor spoke at the opening of Tuesday's meeting, shortly before the regents were to discuss UGA's request to offer civil, electrical and mechanical engineering degrees -- areas long dominated by Georgia Tech. The request has evolved into a heated debate as some question the wisdom of expanding the second-most-expensive degree program when the state is still struggling economically. For others, the proposal has escalated a long-held rivalry between the state's two most respected public colleges.

Perdue reminded the regents – all of whom he appointed or re-appointed – that while they are a governing board, they need to check with the him and the Legislature to make sure they're "pulling in the same direction." He described the relationship as "interdependence." While the board has had a collaborative relationship in the past, Perdue said the regents seem more interested in quickly passing UGA's plan.

"Somehow we have arrived at a place where I’m hearing rumors that some of you don’t care what this governor thinks about your work," said Perdue, a UGA alum. "[But] the governor and Legislature still have final say on the state budget for the system."

Regent Larry Walker said they needed to "respect the governor and his request." The delay, he said, is fair and allows the request to be properly vetted.

Two regents voted against tabling the item -- Richard Tucker, who support UGA's plan, and Ben Tarbutton III, who is against it.

The delay means the regents will consider UGA's request and a similar request from Georgia Southern University at the same meeting. The Statesboro school wants to morph three existing engineering technology degrees to engineering degree programs.

It also means the regents will take up the issue after the November elections.

Regent Jim Jolly questioned whether 30 days is enough time to conduct a thorough review from a holistic academic and economic perspective. He was among the three regents who previously voted against adding UGA's request to this week's meeting agenda.

Perdue's spokesman expressed similar concerns. "I don't know if 30 days is enough to do all they need to do," Bert Brantley said.

Some regents were not happy with the governor's visit and statements from other lawmakers. Rep. Earl Ehrhart, R-Powder Springs, who heads the committee that oversees college budgets, sent a letter that didn't dispute the regents' authority to make decisions, but said there was need for "at the least a modicum of communication on the issue."

Regent William "Dink" NeSmith Jr. said while he was grateful for the governor's interest, the board must make decisions they feel are in the best interest of the system and state. He said UGA's request is not new and that he sent a letter to the governor about the request on Sept. 27.

Regents worked closely with Perdue and lawmakers when expanding medical education programs because that involved new a college, facilities and partnership between UGA and the Medical College of Georgia. But this request is different, Regent Donald Leebern Jr. said.

"We're talking about modifying three degree programs," Leebern said. "I’m really concerned, and I hope we all are, about the political interference."

While some described UGA's proposal as a minor addition to its current offerings of engineering degrees, Perdue said it could have significant implications for this system. He said he was surprised to hear that the proposal was viewed by many as a "foregone conclusion."

"With this UGA engineering school, sadly, I am late to the party," said Perdue, whose terms ends this year. "Ladies and gentlemen, my solemn advice and counsel to you is to take a deep breath, relax, slow down and work diligently to win universal support with the new governor, lieutenant governor, speaker, Legislature and the public at large."

He reminded the regents of the strained finances facing the state. While college enrollment continues to grow, state finances have yet to rebound and the federal stimulus money is going away.

"Even if this new school at UGA did make sense, I would be hard pressed to believe this is the right timing," Perdue said. "We are in an economically-constrained situation."

Georgia Tech President G.P. "Bud" Peterson expressed concerns over UGA’s costs estimates and the state’s need for more engineers. Tech officials have said they are in the best position to expand any programs.

"The regents are taking the time to carefully study the issue," Peterson said. "I have great confidence in them to take the right course of action."

President Michael Adams said UGAthe university went through a four-year process developing the engineering proposals and followed the same procedures that have been used when developing other academic programs. Allowing UGA to expand its engineering offerings would give students options, provide the state with more workers and let the university compete for additional grants, Adams wrote in the proposals.

"I have great respect for this process and I have great respect for this governor," Adams said. "I stand by the materials we submitted."

Perdue said he is in favor of expanding engineering education, but questioned whether UGA was the right place. He said about 40 percent of UGA's students come from four metro Atlanta counties and questioned how a program at UGA would serve the state.

"I also question whether the prescription here really fits the diagnosis," he said.