Former Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue spoke to Republican state lawmakers at the Capitol Nov. 9 2020 during the party’s caucus elections.

Former Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue spoke to Republican state lawmakers at the Capitol Nov. 9 2020 during the party’s caucus elections.

Credit: Stanley Dunlap/Georgia Recorder

Former Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue, who also served as United States secretary of agriculture, has been named sole finalist to lead the state’s public college and university system despite worries over his lack of educational experience and fears that his conservative political past may be seen as divisive to some students.

The Georgia Board of Regents voted unanimously to approve Perdue as finalist for chancellor of the University System of Georgia at a special called meeting Tuesday afternoon. By state law, the regents must wait at least 14 days between naming a finalist and voting to approve them. If, as expected, Perdue passes the full vote, he will take the reins from interim Chancellor Teresa MacCartney, who has been leading the system’s 26 public colleges and universities since former Chancellor Steve Wrigley retired in July.

“I consider being named the finalist as the Chancellor of the University System of Georgia to be a wonderful capstone to a career of public service,” Perdue said in a statement. “Education is the most important issue at the federal, state and local level and it’s why, as a legislator, I sought to be chair of the Senate Higher Education committee to work on important initiatives with Gov. Zell Miller and former USG Chancellor Steve Portch.”

Perdue rose through the state Senate as a Democrat before switching parties in 1998 and becoming Georgia’s first Republican governor since Reconstruction in 2002. He handily won reelection in 2006.

In 2017, he was tapped by then-President Donald Trump to serve as agriculture secretary, and he served until the end of Trump’s term.

Board Chair Harold Reynolds said Perdue’s impressive resume makes him an ideal candidate.

“He has extensive background in public service, including government management experience and leadership at the highest levels. He was twice elected by the people of this state to serve as our governor, and he has served our nation as the United States Secretary of Agriculture. He was also the chair of the Senate Higher Education Committee, during his time in the Georgia General Assembly. He holds a doctorate of veterinary medicine degree from his beloved alma mater, the University of Georgia, and has a passion for higher education, and specifically for this state’s public colleges and universities. I’m excited about the future of the university system with him at the helm.”

But critics point out that his resume does not include academic leadership.

“He is completely inexperienced in education, and this appointment — though it shouldn’t be — is blatantly political,” reads a petition with 1,529 signatures created by a group called Stop Sonny. Gov. Brian Kemp sought to fend off those charges in a statement congratulating Perdue released shortly after the hearing.

“As a cabinet level official who was confirmed with overwhelming, bipartisan support, he managed a budget roughly 15 times that of USG and navigated challenging times of disruption that required innovative thinking,” Kemp said. “Georgians will benefit from his decisive and creative leadership over a system which now serves more than 340,000 students. I look forward to working with future Chancellor Perdue to ensure the quality of our higher education continues to be worthy of the best place to live, work, learn, and raise a family.”

Perdue was long reported to be Kemp’s top choice, despite the fact that Perdue’s first cousin, former U.S. Sen. David Perdue is challenging Kemp for the governor’s job. Sonny Perdue helped accelerate Kemp’s political rise by naming him secretary of state in 2010. Although Kemp is now on the outs with Trump for failing to overturn the 2020 election, the former governor reportedly convinced the president to offer Kemp his endorsement in 2018, helping him defeat then-Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle in the GOP primary.

The search has been clouded by charges of political paybacks. The Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges sent a letter to the Board of Regents warning about undue political interference, and an executive search firm hired to help find the replacement for the retired former Chancellor Steve Wrigley quit last year amid questions of whether Perdue was a done deal.

“The search for a chancellor must be conducted in the open and must include meaningful faculty participation,” the American Association of University Professors wrote in an open letter to the regents Monday. “The USG system deserves and demands a chancellor who understands higher education, who has the confidence of the faculty who work in the system, and who will work to enhance the entire Georgia system to ensure Georgia students have the best educational experience.”

Some of his past political stances may also put Perdue at odds with some in Georgia’s campus communities. His first election as governor was fueled by debate over the 1956 state flag, which his predecessor Democratic Gov. Roy Barnes changed to remove the Confederate cross. Perdue supported a statewide referendum which would have included the old flag with its Confederate symbolism. He later declared April 2006 Confederate History Month in Georgia. Just over a quarter of Georgia’s 340,638 public college students are Black, and for many Georgians, the Confederate flag is an enduring symbol of racist hatred.

Perdue’s full-throated support of Trump also causes heartburn for some young people in a state that narrowly rejected the former president in 2020. Georgians between 18 and 29 supported President Joe Biden over Trump by 56% to 43%, a wider margin than any other age group in the state, according to Washington Post exit polling.

But Perdue’s reputation as a staunch conservative may endear him to other members of the state government, which is still dominated in all three branches by the GOP. Republican lawmakers have filed multiple bills this session seeking to push back against what they see as an increasing cultural shift in Georgia universities, including bills to ban the promotion of “divisive concepts,” in classrooms, and expand campus free speech zones after receiving complaints of censorship from right-wing speakers.

If Perdue wants to weigh in on those hot button issues, he did not signal that Tuesday, instead vowing to support students in learning and employees in teaching.

“I want to make a difference by providing leadership and resources so that faculty can thrive in their teaching, research and service and students are inspired and supported so they graduate, find rewarding careers and become productive citizens,” he said. “I am honored to be considered for such an important role.”

This story comes to GPB through a reporting partnership with Georgia Recorder.