OPINION | Georgia universities’ chancellor job: Please don’t Perdue it

Then-U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue speaks at an event at the Spring Hollow Farm in Claxton, Georgia, on Jan. 7, 2021, about bringing high-speed internet to two rural Georgia counties. (AJC Photo/Stephen B. Morton)
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Then-U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue speaks at an event at the Spring Hollow Farm in Claxton, Georgia, on Jan. 7, 2021, about bringing high-speed internet to two rural Georgia counties. (AJC Photo/Stephen B. Morton)

Credit: Stephen B. Morton for The Atlanta Journal Constitution

Sonny Perdue is the past. The University System of Georgia needs someone for the future.

Apparently, the 19-member Board of Regents is getting closer to picking Georgia’s former governor to be the system’s chancellor, a plumb $500,000-a-year gig that would fatten Perdue’s state pension and be a distinguished nightcap to his career.

I said “apparently” because those who are regents aren’t airing their nasty little battle for us in public. Being a regent is a prestigious appointment made by governors. Regents are the executives, insiders and captains of industry, and they like to address each other as “Regent Smith” and “Regent Jones.” Out-and-out bickering is beneath such an august body.

Instead, they are left to grumble privately and get their arms twisted by the Perdue camp without the satisfaction of yelling in protest. It’s said there is a fierce effort to get the 10 votes needed to plop the big guy in the chancellor’s chair. On Wednesday, the board picked an interim chancellor, but that just buys time for those bucking for Perdue.

On the surface, it might seem Gov. Brian Kemp would want this to happen as a token of his appreciation to Perdue. After all, it was Perdue who appointed Kemp secretary of state in 2010 when he was already a candidate for that open seat. Becoming an incumbent helped Kemp breeze through his Republican primary and then past the Democrat that fall.

Then in 2018, Perdue, who at that time was President Donald Trump’s agriculture secretary, got his boss to endorse Kemp in the Republican primary runoff for governor. The endorsement helped finish off the one-time front-runner in that election, Casey Cagle, and sent Kemp hurtling to the governorship.

The latter is true, although it is now largely forgotten that as a candidate, Cagle was a dead man walking because former Republican candidate Clay Tippins had released a secretly recorded tape of Cagle being disingenuous. Not to mention that Kemp’s — the future Governor Shotgun’s — campaign ads had endeared him to GOP voters. Kemp already had the mojo in the race. Trump just swooped in to back a winner and then take credit.

Vice President Mike Pence (center) and his wife, Karen, speak with Gov. Brian Kemp and his wife, Marty after arriving Friday morning, May 29, 2020, at Dobbins Air Reserve Base in Marietta. Standing behind the vice president are U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue and his wife, Mary. (BEN GRAY for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)
Caption
Vice President Mike Pence (center) and his wife, Karen, speak with Gov. Brian Kemp and his wife, Marty after arriving Friday morning, May 29, 2020, at Dobbins Air Reserve Base in Marietta. Standing behind the vice president are U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue and his wife, Mary. (BEN GRAY for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Ben Gray

Credit: Ben Gray

So, despite whatever appreciation Kemp might have for Perdue, I cannot imagine him coming up with the brainchild, “I should bring in Sonny Perdue to be the face of higher education in the state of Georgia.”

Perdue was not well liked during his time in office, especially near the end. And I’m talking about Republicans here. Sure, he was feared. But so was Genghis Khan, and no one wants him to head our colleges.

Kemp would know he’d have a fight on his hands with all the baggage Perdue might bring, and that’s even before you factor in Trump. This undoubtedly came from Perdue, who needs something to keep himself occupied before he lands back in Bonaire, Georgia. I reached out to Perdue’s guy for comment but did not hear anything.

Kemp is left in a pickle. If he slights Perdue, he slights Trump. And he knows the wrath of Trump well, as evidenced by the former president’s looney tirades last year against him about a “stolen” election. If Kemp gets crosswise with Trump again during the 2022 election, then it’s hello Gov. Stacey Abrams.

I’m thinking, Kemp does not want to touch this dilemma with a barge pole. An aide sent me a response saying: “The Governor respects each Regent and the perspective they bring to our world-class university system, and trusts they are moving towards a positive resolution.”

But Perdue, who turns 75 this year, is in no way that positive resolution.

Georgia’s universities have been on an uplift since the 1990s when former Gov. Zell Miller pushed through the Georgia Lottery and the HOPE scholarship. Top-tier students who would have headed out of state remained here to matriculate. They have not only raised the stature of Georgia Tech and the University of Georgia, but many of the other schools.

The Georgia Tech Research Institute spent $1.1 million on entertainment for employees and their families to boost morale, a Channel 2 Action News investigation in 2020 discovered. (Photo credit: WSB-TV)
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The Georgia Tech Research Institute spent $1.1 million on entertainment for employees and their families to boost morale, a Channel 2 Action News investigation in 2020 discovered. (Photo credit: WSB-TV)

Look at all the construction cranes along the Downtown Connector near Georgia Tech, signs of the burgeoning tech and research industry growing there. That’s the impact of having top-notch bastions of higher learning. The draw of those industries is helping to drive the region’s growth.

Putting in a Trump confidant to head Georgia’s universities won’t exactly be a clarion call to the nation’s brightest and best when it comes to hiring.

Perdue’s supporters may point out he was a two-time governor and headed the U.S. Department of Agriculture, arguing the university position would be smaller in scope than either.

That would be true. But the job of chancellor takes a special combination of skills, with one foot in academia and the other in the governmental world. The outgoing chancellor, Steve Wrigley, has both sets of skills, as did his predecessor.

The regents, as I said, have remained largely mute. The news that Perdue was in the candidate mix for the job and that there was infighting among the regents caused the headhunting firm that was leading the search to run for the hills. They wanted no part of this mess.

Some emails The Atlanta Journal-Constitution obtained through the Georgia Open Records Act show that several regents were hoping to bring in former chancellor Stephen Portch, who left the job about 20 years ago, to help them in the search in an advisory role. But other regents didn’t want Portch brought in because he has already recommended someone for that job. That person, the AJC has reported, is none other than Sonny Perdue.

Regent Harold Reynolds, a big donor to Perdue’s campaign and a member of Kemp’s transition team, wrote in an internal email that he supported bringing in Portch “to get our board on track and fulfill our responsibilities.”

“We cannot let a few people acting as confidential sources for the media guide the present or the future of the” University System of Georgia, Reynolds wrote. “I welcome the historical context and insight into higher education, now and in the future, Dr. Portch can provide. He should not be ‘cancelled’ as a few have suggested.”

President Donald Trump signs the Executive Order Promoting Agriculture and Rural Prosperity in America as Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue looks on during a meeting with farmers on April 25, 2017, in the Roosevelt Room of the White House in Washington, D.C. (Olivier Douliery/Abaca Press/TNS)
Caption
President Donald Trump signs the Executive Order Promoting Agriculture and Rural Prosperity in America as Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue looks on during a meeting with farmers on April 25, 2017, in the Roosevelt Room of the White House in Washington, D.C. (Olivier Douliery/Abaca Press/TNS)

Credit: TNS

Credit: TNS

Portch does bring “valuable” advice. In the nine years after leaving his post in December 2001, he remained on the state’s payroll, collecting $823,000 as an adviser and consultant. Perdue was governor for eight years of that motherlode.

Perdue, a UGA veterinary school grad, said in a short interview with Atlanta Journal-Constitution reporter Greg Bluestein that he’d like the job. “I felt like it was probably, in this stage of my life, the only job in Georgia I felt like I was passionate about and that I would accept,” he said, adding that the schools are a driver of the economy.

He added he wanted to help push conservative “values” in the higher education system. Remember, the woke mob has taken over higher ed and someone needs to be in the ramparts to fight that.

“There are challenging times here, not only with the pandemic but with the culture revolution that we’re seeing as well,” said Perdue. “And there needs to be some stability there to help guide the state’s values and policies through higher education.”

So, in his first interview Sonny Perdue brought up politics. That might win with some voters. But, then again, he’s not running in a GOP primary.

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