A Trump Cabinet Secretary Is Poised to Take Over Georgia’s Public-College System
Former Gov. Sonny Perdue of Georgia, a Republican and former cabinet official in the Trump administration, has been named the sole finalist to become chancellor of the University System of Georgia. The choice follows months of speculation that the regents were poised to hand the keys of the public-university system over to Perdue, who has no experience leading colleges.
The system’s Board of Regents announced their pick after a meeting on Tuesday afternoon. Though the board must still vote to approve the former secretary of agriculture, Tuesday’s vote all but finalizes the appointment.
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Former Gov. Sonny Perdue of Georgia, a Republican and onetime cabinet official in the Trump administration, has been named the sole finalist to become chancellor of the University System of Georgia. The choice follows months of speculation that the regents were poised to hand the keys of the public-university system over to Perdue, who has no experience leading colleges.
The system’s Board of Regents announced the selection of George Ervin (Sonny) Perdue III after a meeting on Tuesday afternoon. Though the board must still vote, after a 14-day waiting period, to approve the former secretary of agriculture, Tuesday’s vote all but finalizes the appointment.
“Governor Perdue stood out for his impressive experience and leadership in public service, as well as a vast understanding not only of Georgia and its communities but of the issues facing the university system as we move forward,” Harold Reynolds, chairman of the regents, was quoted in a news release.
Perdue’s candidacy has been condemned by faculty members within the system and nationally, who say the process has been marred by secrecy and politics. “Aside from a small number of ‘listening sessions’ in March 2021, the entire search process has been hidden from public view,” said a news release from the American Association of University Professors.
Perdue had been named a possible candidate for the post nearly a year ago. But the regents paused the search after the agency that accredits the state’s public colleges raised questions about whether Gov. Brian P. Kemp, a Republican, had influenced the board’s decision.
If the board confirms Perdue, he will join a growing list of higher-education leaders chosen because of partisan connections, or political pressure, rather than their expertise in academe.
As chancellor, Perdue would have oversight of not only the system’s offices, but also several matters that directly affect the system’s 26 colleges and universities, such as budget and capital spending, the hiring of new campus presidents, and the tenure process.
Some faculty members are concerned that a chancellor with no experience managing an academic institution will allow the system and the board to micromanage, or to pursue a political agenda.
“It’s critical to have someone as chancellor who is an academic or at least has experience with academic institutions,” Janet Westpheling, professor of genetics at the flagship University of Georgia, in Athens, wrote in an email. “It’s also critical for this not to be a purely political appointment,” she added. “If the new chancellor is to have credibility with students, staff, and faculty of our institutions, they must have relevant credentials we can relate to.”
This isn’t the first time that the regents have been accused of mismanaging the campuses. In June 2020, for example, as Covid-19 was causing colleges across the country to shut down or enact new safety measures, the University System of Georgia pressured institutions not to require masks. Later, the system reversed that policy.
Faculty members were outraged in October when the regents changed the system’s rules for post-tenure review by requiring that two years of annual performance deficiencies could trigger a formal process leading to dismissal. In the past, tenured professors underwent a post-tenure review only every five years.
Perdue’s ties to the Trump administration have also stirred strong opposition to his appointment. During both his candidacy and single term in office, Trump frequently targeted higher education with vague and often unenforceable threats to cut off federal funding for what he called violations of free speech and sought to remove protections for undocumented students. He also signed executive orders meant to curtail international students, and later to halt training on diversity and inclusion on college campuses.
In its news release, the AAUP blasted Perdue for denying climate change and “allowing politics to intrude into what should be nonpartisan scientific research.”
Perdue “reportedly buried publicly funded, peer-reviewed research showing the dangers of climate change to agriculture and public health, and cherry-picked for promotion studies that favored the meat industry,” the association wrote.
In the board’s announcement, Perdue is quoted as saying he has long been a supporter of higher education and saw the “benefits of university research” daily during his tenure as secretary of agriculture. “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,” Perdue said in the news release.
Some critics see Perdue’s candidacy as part of the larger conservative movement that has put higher education at the front in the culture wars. Legislatures in Georgia and several other Republican-controlled states have escalated this battle by passing bills that forbid the teaching of certain topics in college classrooms.
The regents’ announcement “comes at a moment when the state legislature has shown an unprecedented interest in limiting the ability of state-university faculty to teach so-called ‘divisive concepts’ about race or promote diversity, equity, and inclusion at their institutions,” said Daniel K. Williams, professor of history at the University of West Georgia, in an email to The Chronicle.
“Perdue’s appointment will probably exacerbate the state government’s attempts to politicize the public-university system,” Williams wrote, “and it will probably increase perceived tensions between faculty and administrators — none of which will benefit students.”