Georgia Today: How Sonny Perdue's ascent to chancellor went from implausible to inevitable
Students and faculty members around the state are reacting to news that Republican former Gov. Sonny Perdue may soon head up Georgia’s public university system. This week, officials on the Board of Regents announced Perdue is the sole finalist for the top job of chancellor. Opponents of the choice say Perdue's appointment would jeopardize academic freedom across the system’s 26 campuses.
[News tape] FOX5: The Board of Regents has made its choice for the state's next chancellor. As expected, the board named former governor and U.S. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue as its sole finalist to head the University System of Georgia.
Steve Fennessy: Chancellor of the University System of Georgia — it's one of the most coveted jobs in higher education. But should it go to a politician? Gov. Brian Kemp thinks so, and it looks like he's getting his way. Earlier this week, Georgia's Board of Regents announced that Sonny Perdue was the sole finalist for the job. Sonny Perdue, of course, was a two-term governor of Georgia, as well as secretary of agriculture under former President Donald Trump. The board cited Perdue's, quote, "vast understanding of the issues facing the university system," unquote. Not surprisingly, the news has dismayed many, both inside and outside of academic circles, who worry that Sonny Perdue is conservative politics will set the university system on a dangerous course and even put the system's accreditation at risk. This is Georgia Today. I'm Steve Fennessy. Here to help us make sense of the implications of all this is Eric Stirgis, who covers higher education at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. So tell us, what does the job of chancellor of Georgia universities and colleges entail? What does it mean to be a chancellor?
Atlanta Journal-Constitution Staff Writer Eric Stirgus: The chancellor is sort of the person who makes sure all the trains run on time, so to speak. They have to be in charge of making sure that the schools comply with federal education policies and procedures, state education rules and regulations. Looking at the pandemic, they've also had to take on some additional responsibilities, such as, you know, managing coronavirus relief funds. Some would say the most important job is, you know, making sure that money that comes from the state is sent to the schools and is being spent properly.
Steve Fennessy: How big is the university system?
Eric Stirgus: There are 26 institutions in the system. They range from Georgia State University, which has the most students in the system, like about 53,000 students; Georgia Tech, Kennesaw State — both of those schools have about 40,000 students each — and then University of Georgia. You know, then there are many others outside the metro area. There are probably about 48,000 employees in the university system, and they range from professors, assistant professors, you know, associate professors, guest lecturers, you know, everything from electricians to people who work in the cafeterias.
Steve Fennessy: So how do you get a job to be chancellor? Who hires the chancellor?
Eric Stirgus: The chancellor is hired by the Board of Regents as a 19-member body, and all of those folks are appointed by the governor and so they serve seven-year terms.
Steve Fennessy: The last full-time permanent chancellor, why did they leave?
Eric Stirgus: His name is Steve Wrigley and he retired. He left in June.
Steve Fennessy: So he left in June. So we have not had a chancellor — at least, a non-interim chancellor — for at least seven or eight months, right?
Eric Stirgus: Correct. Yes, there is a acting chancellor. Her name is Theresa McCartney, and she worked under Mr. Wrigley.
Steve Fennessy: And when Wrigley said he was going to retire, was there kind of a shortlist floated around of possible successors?
Eric Stirgus: No, not officially, you know, because they are personnel decisions that the board makes. There may be that short list that some of these members of the Board of Regents have, but they're not allowed to discuss it publicly.
Steve Fennessy: But in the state of Georgia, I would think that, at least of jobs that are sort of in the employ of the state of Georgia, there are few that are more prominent or important than chancellor.
Eric Stirgus: You know, it's a pretty important job in the state of Georgia. It pays pretty well. I think Steve really was making maybe about a half million dollars when he retired, so that's way more than the governor of Georgia was making.
Steve Fennessy: The governor appoints the regents on the Board of Regents; there's 19 of them. Why is there 19? How is that number arrived at?
Eric Stirgus: Most of them are designated by congressional district. So you have 14 members who serve each congressional district in Georgia, and then there are five at-large positions.
Steve Fennessy: By definition, you're appointed as a regent by the sitting governor, but appointing and hiring a chancellor is supposedly, at least theoretically, not supposed to be political, right? Am I being naive to think that that that would be the case?
Eric Stirgus: I think you would have many people who would say that it is a political decision or that the board members themselves have, you know, some say depending on their own personal politics.
Steve Fennessy: When did we first hear that Sonny Perdue — who was the outgoing Secretary of Agriculture in the Trump administration, of course a two-term former governor of Georgia — was interested in the job of chancellor? How did we find out about that?
Eric Stirgus: Last March, we started hearing talk you know that Perdue was interested in the job or that some board members on the Board of Regents were interested in him becoming chancellor. And then a couple of months later, my colleague Greg Bluestein ran into him at an event and Sonny did say that he was interested in the position, if the regents would have him.
Steve Fennessy: OK, Sonny Perdue is, I think he's 75. He's a two-term former governor, Secretary of Agriculture. Why isn't he going back to his farm? What is it about this job that appeals to him?
Eric Stirgus: He has some interest in the job because, you know, he realizes the importance of higher education to the state's economy.
[News tape] WSB: He called being named a finalist a quote wonderful capstone to a career in public service.
Eric Stirgus: Georgia's top elected officials constantly talk about, you know, we need workers who are college and career ready, people who can just step into jobs. He also talked about, you know, bringing stability to the system. He referenced the pandemic and the phrase "Cultural Revolution." There's been a lot of different issues that colleges are facing regarding social issues and political issues.
Steve Fennessy: Sonny Perdue is a Republican, so when he uses an expression like Cultural Revolution, what is he referring to? What's the implication there?
Eric Stirgus: Well, he didn't go into specifics that day. But you know, obviously, you know, there's been a lot of talk recently about issues like critical race theory.
Gov. Brian Kemp: That's why I'm looking forward to working with the members of the General Assembly this legislative session to protect our students from the divisive ideologies like critical race theory.
[News tape] 11Alive: This is where angry parents are accusing the school board of trying to indoctrinate students with controversial curriculum on race and American history. It's called critical race theory, but other parents and some students said that's not what's going on in the classrooms at all.
[News tape] parent at recent school board meeting, 11Alive: "This isn't critical race theory. This is diversity and inclusion. This is the golden rule — do unto others.".
[News tape] parent at recent school board meeting, 11Alive: "I don't know how or why this would be debated."
Eric Stirgus: And then there's been issues that a lot of Republican lawmakers have been bringing up to in the Georgia Legislature in recent years about campus speech issues that they feel that, you know, students and groups cannot speak freely on college campuses, particularly conservatives. So those are some of the things that have concerned a lot of state leaders or particularly on the Republican side.
Steve Fennessy: When you look at past chancellors in the university system of Georgia, is that a position where the person who gets the job is typically coming from a higher educational background? Or are they sometimes coming from outside it?
Eric Stirgus: I think it's been a mix of both. You know, Steve Wrigley, you know, he worked in the university system before he became chancellor, so he did have some of that experience. But then prior to him, you had Errol Davis, who was a utilities company executive and he had no administrative experience in higher education. You know, he was brought on actually, you know, during Sonny Perdue's tenure to take on the job.
Steve Fennessy: There's something else going on here. Sonny Perdue is cousins with David Perdue, who is now engaged in a bitter primary battle against Brian Kemp — Brian Kemp, who, of course, is backing Sonny Perdue. So that's a little strange, isn't it?
Eric Stirgus: Yes, definitely. Sonny Perdue and Brian Kemp have a longstanding relationship politically, and then you have Sonny Perdue's cousin who is running against the governor now in the GOP primary.
[News tape] CNN: The former president recruited the former Sen. David Perdue to mount a primary challenge to Gov. Brian Kemp and thought — Trump thought his endorsement would spell immediate trouble for the incumbent. But Perdue is struggling. At least he is out of the gate.
Steve Fennessy: How Gov. Kemp has used congressional redistricting to add more Sonny Perdue supporters to the Board of Regents. That's next. This is Georgia Today.
Steve Fennessy: Welcome back to Georgia Today. I'm Steve Fennessy. I'm joined by Eric Stirgus, who covers higher education for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. I understand that the Board of Regents, at least in its previous iteration, was not necessarily too keen on the idea of Sonny Perdue as the next chancellor, is that correct?
Eric Stirgus: There was some support on the regents, but not enough support to get him across the finish line to be named as chancellor.
Steve Fennessy: So what happened then? Why are we still talking about this, then?
Eric Stirgus: Good question. You know, I guess at the time, they sort of came to an impasse and there was a search firm that was hired to help with the process, but pulled out of the process. The regents hired another firm, and then it put Ms. McCartney as acting chancellor, and so there really hasn't been much movement up until, I guess, the last few weeks.
[News tape] WSB: After what the board's chairman described as a nationwide search with, quote, "numerous highly qualified candidates," in the end, the board voted to pick Perdue as the sole finalist for the job.
Steve Fennessy: Well, there was also some changes that happened on the board itself, right?
Eric Stirgus: Yes. So you've had recently, you know, the Board of Regents members serve seven-year terms. The terms of two of those members expired at the beginning of January, and Gov. Kemp replaced them with two additional members. And then also there has been, through the congressional redistricting process, you know, because of some changes in some of the districts, you know, we've had two additional changes on the regents where two members are now no longer on the board and the governor has replaced another one of those members and all three of the members that he has replaced are people who have been, you know, very supportive of the governor in the past through campaign contributions and other ways.
[News tape] WSB: Gov. Kemp and Perdue are also close political allies, and Kemp recently replaced four members on the board before the vote.
Steve Fennessy: This has been percolating for a while now, Eric: this this idea of Sonny Perdue as the next chancellor of the University of Georgia system. And I'm curious about why it's elicited such a ferocious response on the side of those who are for the idea, but also those who are against it. Why is Sonny Perdue is such a polarizing figure?
Eric Stirgus: I think, you know, his critics have a couple of reasons that they're concerned. One is looking at his record, as you know, the governor of Georgia. You know, there were some complaints that, you know, he was involved in some changes that, you know, made it a little bit more difficult for students to get the HOPE scholarship.
[News tape] WSB: As governor, Perdue's record on education is also being called into question.
[News tape] Alex Ames, student activist, FOX5: And as governor, he chose to defund billions of dollars and begin, you know, a decades-long spree of defunding from our teachers and, you know, students and parent schools that we attend every day.
[News tape] WSB: In a statement, Perdue said education funding was affected by twin recessions while he was governor.
Eric Stirgus: During his time as agriculture secretary there was, you know, there's been some criticism about his record, you know, concerning issues such as climate change. So, you know, we've been hearing that— this from faculty members who have been upset about, you know, some of his credentials in that space. And then also, I think, you know, there's been some criticism that he's not the best qualified person for the position.
[News tape] FOX5: Critics have questioned Perdue's experience, pointing out his lack of experience in the higher education setting.
Eric Stirgus: Now, you know, conversely, his supporters say he was a governor of Georgia for eight years. You know, he provided the money for the budget for the university system, and he understands how the system, you know, to a certain degree, you know, how the system works. And so, you know, they point to things like that and they also point to issues, you know, point to things that, you know, hey, other states have hired elected officials and former politicians to lead colleges or universities. And so there are some ways to Sonny Perdue can help the university system of Georgia.
Steve Fennessy: What form has that opposition taken on college campuses or in academic circles?
Eric Stirgus: Well, there's been a few ways. One is there was a group of students who created a group called Students against Sonny.
[News tape] FOX5: Students against Sonny have collected more than a thousand signatures on a petition on Change.org.
Eric Stirgus: There have been some faculty members who have, you know, written letters to the University System of Georgia, you know, stating their opposition. There's been some social media push against him. And you know, I think there have been a couple of state lawmakers who have publicly come out against the idea.
[News tape] FOX5: The choice of Perdue has already drawn criticism from student groups and university professors who describe Perdue as a career politician with no experience in higher education.
Steve Fennessy: Initial discussion about the possible candidacy of Sonny Perdue for chancellor — for next chancellor of the University of Georgia System, the president of SACS, the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, Belle Whelan, sends a letter to the chair of the Board of Regents of Georgia. She says a lot of things. I'm going to read a paragraph towards the end of her letter. "The most important activity in which any governing board will be involved in is the selection of the CEO. While it is often especially difficult for members of a governing board who are appointed by the governor or legislative body to remain independent in their work, it is imperative that they do or they place the accreditation of the institution they govern in jeopardy." Now to me, Eric, that sounds like a kind of an implied threat that appointing Sonny Perdue as chancellor could mean that we'd lose accreditation. Why is accreditation important for a university system like Georgia's?
Eric Stirgus: Yeah it's an important issue because, you know, colleges and universities that do not have accreditation, they can — their students cannot get federal financial aid that helps pay for tuition for a lot of college students. So without that accreditation, it could severely impact, you know, enrollment.
Steve Fennessy: How unusual is it for a letter like that to be written?
Eric Stirgus: It's very rare.
Steve Fennessy: What did you think when you first heard about that?
Eric Stirgus: It was pretty newsy for us. You know, we reported as soon as we got the copy of the letter. And you know, for a lot of critics, you know, it did raise their concerns about all of this. And you know, in saying, you know, this is why we, you know, we are concerned about Sonny Perdue becoming chancellor.
Steve Fennessy: It's interesting the the letter was addressed to Sachin Shailendra, who at the time was chair of the Board of Regents, but is one of those members who redistricting kind of pushed out so he's no longer on the Board of Regents. And I understand that he wasn't the biggest supporter of the idea of Sonny Perdue as chancellor. Is that right?
Eric Stirgus: You know, he's never spoken publicly about it. You know, there was a faction of regents members who were not supportive of him at all. And so now he's no longer on the regents. But you know, we are hearing, you know, some of the newer members could be a lot more supportive of Sonny Perdue.
Steve Fennessy: So the faction that was opposed or is opposed to the idea of Sonny Perdue as chancellor seems to be getting smaller.
Eric Stirgus: Yes. I mean, you know, there is one former member now, Phillip Lehi, who did, you know, say, Hey, I like Sonny Perdue personally. You know, I've worked with him, but you know, I just didn't feel like, you know, he was the best person for the job. And so, you know, I think he was one of those, you know, members who, you know, was part of that faction were against it.
Steve Fennessy: Eric, you've covered higher education in Georgia for a lot of years. When you go this long without having a permanent chancellor on board, what signal does that send or how does that affect the operations of our schools?
Eric Stirgus: I think, you know, there's just some uncertainty among many faculty members about, you know, who will eventually serve in the position and you know what role they may take on, you know, on this, you know, systems operations. So I think there is some concern out there among some of them. And then also, you know, maybe among some who might be interested in working for the university system.
Steve Fennessy: Well, let's unpack a little bit more this rather awkward political relationship going on. So we have Brian Kemp in this fierce battle against David Perdue primary battle for governor. Is Sonny Perdue staking out any — does he have a dog in this fight, at least publicly? Has he said, "I'm supporting the guy who's pushing my candidacy for chancellor" or "I'm supporting my cousin who's running against him"?
Eric Stirgus: Publicly, I don't think he's said one way or another right now. You know, it's kind of a fascinating situation that, you know, your cousin is running for governor and at the same time his political opponent could be putting you in charge of one of the most important positions in state government.
Steve Fennessy: So I'm guessing that maybe he wants to stay out of this altogether, or do we know if he is going to make any kind of public statement endorsing one way or the other?
Eric Stirgus: For now, we have not heard any discussion about, you know, where Sonny Perdue will ultimately fall on the governor's race. So, you know, it'll be interesting to see.
Steve Fennessy: As you said, Sonny Perdue persuaded Donald Trump when he was president to endorse Brian Kemp. That relationship famously has gone — has gone south. President Trump is endorsing Brian Kemp's Republican opponent in the primary, David Perdue, to be the next governor. So Sonny Perdue is very much in the good graces of Donald Trump. Brian Kemp is not. Brian Kemp is in a fierce battle with David Perdue. David Perdue is saying, "I'm the big Trump guy here." But is there a way of, like, by appointing — by at least advancing the candidacy of Sonny Perdue for chancellor — is this a way for Brian Kemp to gain some political points with some Trump voters out there?
Eric Stirgus: Yes, I think the governor could certainly use this on the campaign trail and, you know, to, you know, David Perdue supporters and say, "Hey, look, you know, I've made Sonny Perdue, chancellor of the university system. You know, he's a strong conservative, you know, and he's David Perdue's cousin. Come on board with me. Let's go into November and be against Stacey Abrams together."
Steve Fennessy: Yeah. And Sonny Perdue was one of the only, if not the only cabinet member who went the distance in the Donald Trump administration. There were so many cabinet members who — who left, and then he had to appoint new ones. But Sonny Perdue was there from the beginning. He was there at the end.
Eric Stirgus: Correct. Yes. You know, looking at that and he can say that — Gov. Kemp can use that to the Republican base and say, "Hey, you know, I have one of the most loyal Trump guys you know, and, you know, if I appointed him to a very important position here in state government and we know we've had a long-standing relationship. So let's go into November with me as your nominee."
Steve Fennessy: You mentioned that there's a long political history between Sonny Perdue and Brian Kemp. What is that history?
Eric Stirgus: Sonny Perdue, you know, encouraged then-President Trump to endorse Brian Kemp in the Republican primary back in 2018.
[News tape] 11Alive: He tweeted, "Brian Kemp is running for governor of the Great State of Georgia. I give him my full and total endorsement."
Brian Kemp: Obviously, this is huge for our campaign. So very excited to have the president standing with us and I'm a lot like him. Quite honestly, I've been in the private sector for 30 years. I ran because I was frustrated with the government.
Eric Stirgus: You know, and then there have been other instances where, you know, Sonny has supported now-Gov. Kemp. We've been hearing that Gov. Kemp continues to be grateful for that support, and he feels some, you know, some loyalty, from what we've been hearing from our sources towards Sonny Perdue.
Steve Fennessy: So there's a school of thought that Gov. Kemp is sort of paying back a favor.
Eric Stirgus: Yes, Sonny Perdue backed Kemp's state Senate bid in 2002. You know, he also backed Brian Kemp to fill the position of Secretary of State.
Steve Fennessy: So that's not something you can just push aside because you don't like what one of their family members is doing.
Eric Stirgus: Yeah, I mean, and that's the argument that many of Kemp's team has said.
Steve Fennessy: Politics makes strange bedfellows.
Eric Stirgus: Indeed.
Steve Fennessy: News that Sonny Perdue will, in all likelihood be the university system of Georgia's next chancellor comes at a time when state legislators are debating bills about how racial history should be taught in classrooms.
[News tape] 11Alive: Critical race theory about whites, blacks and U.S. history, parents saying that CRT is now indoctrinating students disguised in the school system's initiatives on diversity, equity and inclusion.
Steve Fennessy: Matthew Boedy, a University of North Georgia professor and president of the Georgia conference of the American Association of University Professors, told the New York Times that, quote, "a chancellor's job is to defend the system against such bills. I can't imagine Sonny Perdue doing that." Unquote. The Board of Regents is expected to confirm Perdue's appointment in the next two weeks. Georgia Today is a production of Georgia Public Broadcasting. Jess Mador is our producer. Our engineers are Jesse Nighswonger and Jake Cook. You can keep up with Georgia today by subscribing to the show at GPB.org. Thanks for listening. We'll be back next week.