Georgia’s higher ed system taps acting leader, passing on Sonny Perdue for now

Deal administration officials, Chief of Staff Chris Riley (left) and Office of Planning and Budget Director Teresa MacCartney brief the press on the FY 2017 budget. Bob Andres,

Credit: Jim Galloway

Credit: Jim Galloway

Deal administration officials, Chief of Staff Chris Riley (left) and Office of Planning and Budget Director Teresa MacCartney brief the press on the FY 2017 budget. Bob Andres,

The state’s Board of Regents on Wednesday named a veteran finance official as the acting chancellor of Georgia’s public university system, stalling former Gov. Sonny Perdue’s immediate hopes of landing the coveted job.

The Regents voted in a brief meeting to appoint Teresa MacCartney to lead the system as members of the powerful group try to overcome internal confusion and friction to select the University System of Georgia’s next permanent chancellor. MacCartney will be in charge until the board finds a replacement for Steve Wrigley, who is retiring, effective July 1.

“I appreciate the Board’s confidence in me to ensure USG and our 26 institutions remain focused during this transition on doing all we can to help more Georgians earn their college degrees,” MacCartney said in a statement.

MacCartney is a former budget director for Gov. Nathan Deal who has been executive vice chancellor of administration for the university system since 2019. She will be paid $438,000 annually in the new position. Her appointment was immediately praised by some political leaders, who pointed out she is well respected among lawmakers of both major parties.

At least 17 candidates were under consideration to become the system’s chancellor when the Regents initially paused their search a few weeks ago amid the internal turmoil. Though the names weren’t mentioned, a behind-the-scenes push has ensued for months to promote Perdue to the post.

Perdue, the first Republican governor since Reconstruction, confirmed his interest in the job in an interview with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution earlier this month. He said he spoke with Gov. Brian Kemp about the job and that he was “passionate” about improving the system’s reputation as an economic engine.

“It’s obviously up to the judgment of the Regents, which I respect,” he said. “I just want the best chancellor Georgia can ever get. If that’s someone else, so be it.”

Without elaborating, Perdue also spoke broadly about his desire to push conservative “values” in the higher education system, which is struggling to increase graduation rates and navigate a social justice movement that many Republican leaders have assailed.

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

Credit: Stephen B. Morton for The Atlanta Journal Constitution

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Credit: Stephen B. Morton for The Atlanta Journal Constitution

The Regents in May resumed the process of finding a successor to Wrigley after months of debate and opposition involving Perdue’s push for the job. The fallout has led to threats of academic sanctions and the sudden departure of a search firm seeking finalists for the post.

Perdue recently finished a term as former President Donald Trump’s agricultural secretary and has a formidable group of allies pushing for his appointment to the post, which paid Wrigley roughly $524,000 last year.

Perdue’s supporters, including some in Kemp’s inner circle, point to Perdue’s eight years as the state’s top executive and his leadership of the USDA, which boasts a roughly $140 billion-a-year budget.

The former governor’s critics are concerned about the conservative stances he took during his two terms in office and later as one of Trump’s highest-profile supporters in Georgia. They say a veteran administrator with university experience — and not a powerful former politician — is needed to shepherd the system.

The search for a chancellor was initially put on hold after the AJC reported in March there wasn’t yet enough support among the sometimes-fractious Regents members to name Perdue to the post.

210427-Atlanta- Hannah Gebresilassie with Protect the Vote GA talks with State Rep. Derrick Jackson (D-Tyrone) in front of the University System of Georgia offices in Downtown Atlanta on Tuesday afternoon, April 27, 2021, before a protest against former Gov. Sonny Perdue becoming the new chancellor. Ben Gray for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Ben Gray

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Credit: Ben Gray

A few days later, the AJC disclosed that a regional accrediting agency warned the system could be found “out of compliance” if the process was politicized. Losing accreditation could make it harder for students to qualify for federal aid and transfer to other colleges.

Then in May, the executive search firm charged with recruiting for the post abruptly quit, leading to more questions about Perdue’s fate. A new search firm was selected several weeks ago to resume the process.

The Regents, whose members are appointed by governors to staggered seven-year terms, will make the final decision on the new chancellor. But Kemp also has broad influence over the chancellor pick, and he has retained close ties with the former governor.

Kemp spokesman Cody Hall said in a statement MacCartney “brings a wealth of knowledge and experience to USG and we thank her for her willingness to lead the University System on an interim basis. Our office looks forward to working with her and her successor once the Board completes the Chancellor search process.”

House Speaker David Ralston said through a spokesman in a statement that the Regents have “chosen well” by selecting her as the interim chancellor.

“Her experience is unmatched and her dedication to this state and its young people is unquestionable,” said Kaleb McMichen, his spokesman.

Georgia State University President Mark Becker, whom some wanted to become chancellor, also lauded the MacCartney’s selection in an interview with the AJC. Becker, who is leaving Georgia State in early August, said he was never interested in the position.

Board of Regents Chairman Sachin Shailendra said in a statement Wednesday the board was “grateful to Teresa for stepping into this interim role. As a member of the university system’s senior leadership team and a veteran public servant, she will keep a steady hand on USG’s progress as the Board finds the next chancellor of one of the top university systems in the nation.”

The story so far

In January, University System of Georgia Chancellor Steve Wrigley announced his plans to retire from the system at the end of June. The state’s Board of Regents hired a search firm to select a new candidate. More than 17 candidates were being considered, including former governor Sonny Perdue, whose supporters have lobbied, thus far unsuccessfully, for his appointment. The AJC reported, through open records, on the disagreements occurring between the Regents about the next chancellor. While a search firm continues its recruitment for the position, the Regents named an acting chancellor Wednesday to fill the role until a permanent replacement for Wrigley can be found.