Updated at 3:55 p.m. Tuesday
The agency that accredits Georgia’s 26 public universities and colleges is asking whether there has been undue political pressure to appoint former Gov. Sonny Perdue as chancellor of the University System of Georgia.
Belle Wheelan, president of the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges, told The Associated Press in a Tuesday telephone interview that she sent a letter Monday to the Board of Regents, who oversee the 340,000-student system, after reading news coverage suggesting that regents were being politically pressured to name Perdue to lead the system.
The Republican Perdue was a two-term governor and agriculture secretary under President Donald Trump.
Regents announced last week that they were pausing the search, not saying when or under what circumstances it would resume. The pause makes it likely that the system will choose an interim leader if outgoing Chancellor Steve Wrigley retires on time at the end of June.
Wheelan said she was not questioning Perdue’s qualifications, saying that “having been governor and secretary in a U.S. cabinet could very well make them qualified.” She said Gov. Brian Kemp and others are welcome to nominate candidates, but that regents must ultimately make the decision on their own.
“If it is shown that they did it because the governor said so, it was undue political interference,” Wheelan said.
The commission’s standards prohibit undue outside influence, trying to make sure that trustees truly run a college, and not some outside group.
“Governing boards are the ones that are responsible for ensuring the well-being of the institution, not the governor, not legislators, not Jane and John Citizen,” Wheelan said. “That’s the role of the governing board.”
Kemp spokesman Cody Hall said the governor’s office “respects the full independence of the board on this important matter.” He questioned whether the board was violating a separate SACS standard that bars a minority of board members from controlling board operations.
“A minority of Board of Regents members may be controlling or influencing key decisions of this critical personnel process without input from the majority of the board,” Hall said in a text message. “We look forward to the board completing their nationwide search in an orderly, timely manner.”
Hall deferred comment to regents when asked if he meant that a minority of regents may have improperly forced the pause.
Wheelan said the commission writes as many as 25 letters a year asking for an institution to explain what’s going on based on “unsolicited information,” typically news coverage.
Wheelan declined to provide a copy of the letter. The Associated Press filed a public records request for the letter and any associated correspondence Monday. The system’s legal office acknowledged receipt of the request Tuesday, but spokespersons for the system did not respond to requests for comment and for the letter’s quick release.
Board Chairman Sachin Shailendra didn’t immediately respond Tuesday to a telephone message seeking comment.
Accreditation is supposed to be the seal of approval guaranteeing that a school is providing an adequate education to its students. Crucially, students at colleges that aren’t accredited don’t qualify for financial aid. Students from unaccredited institutions could have trouble transferring credits elsewhere or having their diploma accepted for graduate study.
Wheelan said that if wrongdoing occurred, the agency could sanction all the universities in the system. Typically, the commission puts a noncompliant school on monitoring or issues a warning. More serious problems or the failure to clear up problems that sparked a warning can lead to probation. At its most serious, the commission can revoke accreditation, but that usually comes only after a college gets years to correct its problems.
The accrediting commission has in the past expressed concerns about political interference at a number of state universities. After SACS found that South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster wielded undue influence appointing University of South Carolina President Robert Caslen in 2019, the commission put the university on monitoring, requiring a compliance report.
A group called Students Against Sonny launched earlier this month, promoting a petition urging regents to reject him and planning an anti-Perdue rally Tuesday. Critics say he had a bad record as governor of reducing student access to higher education.
Perdue’s tenure as agriculture secretary and his efforts to help Trump fight his 2020 electoral loss to Democratic President Joe Biden could also prompt questions.