Some faculty, students push back on Perdue’s chancellor nomination

Former Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue is the sole finalist to lead the state’s public university system. Some critics fear he’ll support funding cuts and won’t look out for schools’ best interests.

J. Scott Applewhite / Associated Press file

Former Georgia Gov. and U.S. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue is poised to become the next chancellor of the state’s public university system. His supporters say Perdue has the executive experience needed for the job, but some students and faculty strongly disagree.

Campus backlash

Matthew Boedy is a rhetoric professor at the University of North Georgia and the president of the Georgia Conference of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP). He’s vehemently opposed to Perdue’s nomination.

“I’m outraged and disappointed that the Board of Regents chose an unqualified candidate to lead the system,” he said. Boedy called Perdue “unqualified” because he lacks experience working in colleges and universities.

“He has plenty of executive skills and administrative skills,” Boedy said. “I just don’t think he cares about higher education nor knows how it should work.”

Boedy pointed out that executive experience in higher education has been a qualifying standard for past chancellors, like Steve Wrigley and Hank Huckaby. 

The AAUP also denounced Perdue’s nomination, citing among other things, Perdue’s reported skepticism of climate science.

Some students are also skeptical of Perdue’s record, especially when it comes to education.

“We had a history of 20 years of de-funding education on the K-12 level,” said Yana Batra with the group Students Against Sonny, which has petitioned the regents not to hire Perdue. “And a lot of that happened under his purview of governor.”

Batra was just six years old when Perdue left office. Now she’s a senior in high school who’s heading to Georgia Tech in the fall.

She doesn’t like that Perdue approved an estimated $2 billion in cuts to schools when he was governor. (Perdue’s supporters are quick to point out the state was in a recession when he took office in 2003.) But that’s not the only reason Batra doesn’t think he should lead the system she’ll soon be part of.

“He at one point, I think, campaigned to keep Georgia state flag a confederate flag,” she said. “And so I knew that his record threatened the inclusivity and the equal access that I prize in my public education.”

In addition to supporting reinstating a state flag with a confederate symbol, Perdue also issued a proclamation making April Confederate History Month. He was sued by the NAACP for underfunding the state’s Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs).

Batra points out that Perdue also vetoed a bill that would’ve delayed cuts in HOPE scholarships while he was governor. She sees that as restricting access to scholarships and doesn’t think he’ll be a good financial steward of the university system.

“I knew that as COVID was becoming a bigger problem, and we needed money to go to our universities to help mitigate those issues,” she said. “I knew…that it was important that money be applied equally and to all of our universities as they needed it.”

Sonny stalwarts

But Perdue has some staunch supporters. The Board of Regents seems to have confidence in his ability to lead. The 19-member board voted unanimously last week to make him the sole finalist for the chancellor job. Before the vote, chair Harold Reynolds praised Perdue’s “extensive background in public service.”

“He was elected twice by the people of this state to serve as our governor and he has served our nation as the United States Secretary of Agriculture,” Reynolds said. “He was also the chair of the Senate higher education committee during his time in the Georgia General Assembly.”

Gov. Brian Kemp issued a statement in support of Perdue’s nomination. It reads in part:

“During his eight years as governor, [Perdue] incorporated USG strategic assets into community and economic development programs, setting Georgia up to become the No. 1 state for business. He established greater connections between all levels of education providers in the state,  from the Department of Early Care and Learning to higher education, all while protecting against deep cuts to K-12 and post-secondary education as the state battled two recessions.”

Perdue responded in a statement issued by the university system.

“I am honored to be considered a sole finalist for Chancellor of the University System of Georgia,” he said. “Through my years of public service, one of my biggest joys has been investing in the lives of the next generation of young leaders. This position would be a Capstone to that passion.”

A bumpy search

Former University System of Georgia Chancellor Steve Wrigley announced plans to step down in January 2021. A few months later, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported the regents were considering Perdue, although not every board member supported the idea. Soon afterward, the board paused the chancellor search.

The Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS), the USG’s accrediting agency, sent a letter to the board warning not to make a politically motivated appointment. If it did, SACS said, the board could put the entire system’s accreditation at risk. Soon afterward, the board’s search firm quit.

In the months that followed, the AJC reported that Gov. Brian Kemp replaced regents who may have been loath to support Perdue with people who were more likely to vote in favor of his nomination.

UNG professor Matthew Boedy asked SACS to write to the board again on Feb. 15, the day they voted on Perdue as the sole finalist. SACS President Belle Wheelan declined, saying the regents kept her informed as the search process progressed.

“Our concerns were that the BOARD [sic] made the decisions through a fair selection process and not because they were directed to make the appointment and that the person hired is qualified for the position,” Wheelan said in an email to WABE. “Given the fact that Mr. Purdue has been Governor and a member of a presidential cabinet, I’m sure the Board can demonstrate that he is qualified to lead the University System of GA.”

Wheelen added that SACS has no concerns about Perdue’s appointment.

The Board of Regents is likely to approve Perdue for the job after a required 14-day waiting period.