Former Gov. Sonny Perdue cast himself as an experienced public leader who could bring stability to the state’s higher education system in an interview on Thursday, his first public remarks about the secretive push to tap him to the coveted position.
Perdue told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution he would help burnish the University System of Georgia’s reputation as an economic engine if the 19-member Board of Regents selects him to lead the state’s 26 public colleges and universities, one of the most powerful and high-paying jobs in government.
“It’s safe to say I’m willing to serve. The governor and I had a conversation about it. 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,” Perdue, 74, told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
“It’s obviously up to the judgment of the Regents, which I respect,” he added. “I just want the best chancellor Georgia can ever get. If that’s someone else, so be it.”
The Regents in May resumed the process of finding a successor to retiring Chancellor Steve Wrigley after months of drama involving Perdue’s push for the job, fallout that has led to threats of academic sanctions and the sudden departure of a search firm seeking finalists for the post.
Perdue, the first Republican to be elected Georgia governor since Reconstruction, recently finished a term as 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.
His supporters, including Gov. Brian 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.
Perdue’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.
Credit: Ben Gray
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 scouring for the post abruptly quit, derailing the process and leading to more questions about Perdue’s fate. A new search firm was tapped this week to resume the process to replace Wrigley, who is retiring at month’s end.
The final say for the decision belongs with the Regents, whose members are appointed by governors to staggered seven-year terms. But Kemp also has broad influence over the chancellor pick, and he has retained close ties with the former governor.
In 2010, Perdue chose Kemp to fill the open post of secretary of state, giving him a leg up over Republican rivals months before the election. And Trump credited Perdue with helping to talk him into endorsing Kemp during a bitter 2018 GOP runoff for governor, powering his runaway victory over Casey Cagle.
As governor, Perdue backed as chancellor Erroll Davis, a retired utility executive who pushed for huge tuition hikes when the higher education system faced budget cuts during the Great Recession. Between 2008 and 2013, tuition at the University of Georgia and Georgia Tech rose more than two-thirds.
Perdue, who was governor from 2003 to 2011, firmly opposed expanding gambling to boost revenue for the lottery-funded HOPE scholarship program, which covers most of in-state tuition for students who maintain a “B” average.
Perdue told the AJC he’s “always been interested in higher education” though he has no formal experience as an administrator. He invoked former Gov. Zell Miller, who championed the state’s scholarship, which is credited with helping to keep a generation of top-performing students in Georgia.
“I’m of the opinion that the way the higher education system goes in Georgia, thus goes the state in the years to follow. I really believe that,” Perdue said. “I think Governor Zell Miller kind of discovered the power of higher education connectivity with the economy, as a driver of growing the reputation of the state.”
Without elaborating, he 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.
“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.”
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