Sonny Perdue under consideration to lead Georgia’s higher ed system

Former Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue, who was most recently secretary of agriculture in the Trump administration, is under serious condition to become the next chancellor of the University System of Georgia. (AJC Photo/Stephen B. Morton)
Former Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue, who was most recently secretary of agriculture in the Trump administration, is under serious condition to become the next chancellor of the University System of Georgia. (AJC Photo/Stephen B. Morton)

Credit: Stephen B. Morton for The Atlanta Journal Constitution

Credit: Stephen B. Morton for The Atlanta Journal Constitution

Former Gov. Sonny Perdue is under serious consideration to lead Georgia’s higher education system, one of the most powerful and influential jobs in state government, five people with direct knowledge of the search told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

The Republican has not yet formally applied to lead the University System of Georgia, which oversees the state’s public colleges and universities, and officials say the national search will be an open and transparent process. Still, people involved in the search who spoke on condition of anonymity acknowledge the former two-term governor is a strong contender.

Perdue, 74, declined to comment through an aide. He recently finished a stint as President Donald Trump’s agriculture secretary, often referring to the sprawling government agency and its roughly $140 billion-a-year budget as a business. He was one of the few Cabinet secretaries and top aides who remained in their jobs throughout Trump’s term in the White House.

Perdue and his political network, among the most powerful in the state, have close ties to Gov. Brian Kemp, who has broad influence over the chancellor post and also declined to comment.

In 2010, Perdue picked 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.

The final say for the decision belongs with the Board of Regents, whose members are appointed by governors to staggered six-year terms.

Among Perdue’s potential allies on the board are Dr. Thomas Hopkins, whom Perdue appointed to the panel in 2010, and Erin Hames, who was a top education policy aide to Perdue when he was governor.

The job of chancellor of the higher education system is among the most coveted and highest-paid posts in Georgia government. Steve Wrigley, a former chief of staff to Gov. Zell Miller who was named chancellor in 2017, announced in January that he was retiring. Wrigley, who earned $524,000 last year, steps down July 1.

Then-U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue, right, gives a high-five to Gov. Brian Kemp as he prepares to make remarks at a rally in October for President Donald Trump at Middle Georgia Regional Airport in Macon. Perdue and Kemp have close ties. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)
Then-U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue, right, gives a high-five to Gov. Brian Kemp as he prepares to make remarks at a rally in October for President Donald Trump at Middle Georgia Regional Airport in Macon. Perdue and Kemp have close ties. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

Wrigley’s departure comes as the system of 26 colleges and universities races to increase graduation rates, expand degrees in subjects in high-demand fields and provide additional mental health services to students.

Like other higher education systems, Georgia’s 340,000-student system is also grappling with challenges brought on by the coronavirus pandemic, including struggles over whether to return to more in-person learning and what to do about enrollment declines at some smaller institutions as the outbreak worsened.

A spokesman for Georgia’s higher education system declined to comment on Perdue’s potential candidacy. The Board of Regents in January named a seven-member advisory group to work with Parker Executive Search to find Wrigley’s successor, and those advisers recently held a slate of listening sessions for students, faculty and staff.

The talk on campuses

The possibility of Perdue leading the system was a hot topic on many University System campuses Tuesday.

Matt Boedy, a University of North Georgia professor and Georgia chapter president of the American Association of University Professors, is wary of Perdue leading the system, saying he has no leadership experience at a college or university. Similar concerns were made in 2016 when the Board of Regents hired then-Georgia Attorney General Sam Olens to lead Kennesaw State University. Olens stepped down less than two years later.

“I would strongly encourage the Regents to hire someone with higher education experience,” Boedy said.

Boedy and some faculty members said discussions about Perdue confirmed their suspicions that the search process is a mirage and that the decision will be swayed by Kemp and other politicians. Some critics, though, believe agriculture-based academic programs could benefit from Perdue’s expertise in that area, and he may still have many strong relationships with state lawmakers who are often critical of the University System.

Georgia State University College of Law professor Tanya Washington said talk of Perdue’s candidacy surprised her, in part because the search firm created digital platforms for stakeholders to nominate people for the position and to highlight priorities to advance the University System. Washington said she’s hopeful the search will be open and transparent.

Terry Hartle, senior vice president of the American Council on Education, an organization that includes more than 2,000 college presidents, said it’s not surprising that political leaders such as Perdue would be considered. He noted some elected officials who took such posts, including former Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano, who became president of the University of California; and former Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels, who became president of Purdue University.

“The leader of any university system is a politician, whether he or she knows it,” Hartle said. “Balancing a multiplicity of interests is what a public university system head does.”

Experience in office

Political experience cuts two ways, though.

As governor, Perdue backed as chancellor Erroll Davis, a retired utility executive who pushed for big tuition hikes when the higher education system faced stiff budget cuts during the Great Recession. Between 2008 and 2013, tuition at the University of Georgia and Georgia Tech rose more than two-thirds.

Citing those increases, the United Campus Workers of Georgia said it opposes Perdue as a potential candidate to head the University System.

“USG needs a proponent of affordable and accessible education at its head, not an opponent,” it said in a statement.

Perdue, who was governor from 2003 to 2011, also 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.

As tuition rose, so did many salaries in the University System. An AJC review found that between 2007 and 2010 — durng Perdue’s second term — the number of six-figure staffers in the University System jumped 30% and the total making at least $200,000 rose 46%.

Perdue also championed adding medical school studies at UGA — his alma mater — and earmarked millions for a new health sciences center there.

Staff writer James Salzer contributed to this article.

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