Sonny Perdue is Not the Right Choice to Lead the USG

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Photo Courtesy of Students Against Sonny

Georgia students protesting in front of the Board of Regents office

Keegan Brooks, Staff Writer

The University System of Georgia is made up of the 26 public colleges in the state of Georgia, the largest ones being Georgia State University, Kennesaw State University, the Georgia Institute of Technology, and the University of Georgia. Its roles include overseeing the colleges, dictating policy for these institutions, and distributing public funds, among others. More than 340,000 students were enrolled in USG institutions in 2020, and the USG has an annual budget of more than $8 billion for the 2021 fiscal year.

The USG is governed by a Board of Regents, which is led by a chancellor. The position functions as the chief executive officer and the chief administrative officer of the USG, making it one of the most significant, influential, and highly paid jobs in Georgia’s state government. The chancellor is elected by the Board of Regents, who are appointed by the governor. The current chancellor of the USG, Steve Wrigley, announced earlier this year that he was planning to retire in July 2021.

In March, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported that “Former Gov. Sonny Perdue is under serious consideration” for the position of chancellor, citing “five people with direct knowledge of the search.”

The search for a chancellor has been shambolic, to say the least. A short timeline of what has transpired so far:

  • January 12: Steve Wrigley, the current chancellor of the USG, announces that he is retiring on July 1.
  • January 25: The Board of Regents announces the search for the next chancellor of the USG.
  • March 16: The AJC reports that Perdue is under consideration to become the chancellor of the USG.
  • April 21: The student-led coalition Students Against Sonny launches a petition on Change.org opposing Perdue’s candidacy for chancellor.
  • April 22: The Board of Regents announces it is pausing the search for a chancellor, stating this is being done in order to “reflect and determine our next steps.”
  • April 26: The president of the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges (SACS, which accredits all of the schools in the USG) sends a letter to the Board of Regents asking “whether there has been undue political pressure” to appoint Purdue as chancellor.
  • April 27: A protest is held in downtown Athens opposing the selection of Perdue as chancellor, organized by the student-led coalition Students Against Sonny. A concurrent demonstration occurs at the Board of Regents office in Atlanta.
  • May 7: The search firm hired to help find a chancellor quits, stating it was because of “misinformation throughout the search.”
  • May 11: The Board of Regents announces that it is restarting the chancellor search process. No information was given about possible candidates, but the AJC has reported that Perdue is still a candidate.

The Students Against Sonny coalition is active on Instagram and Facebook, has a petition on Change.org, and also has a sharable USG campaign toolkit. As of May 20, their petition has received nearly 1,500 signatures.

Perdue’s previous positions include serving as the Governor of Georgia from 2003 to 2011 and serving as the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture from 2017 to 2021 under President Donald Trump.

However, there are several reasons that Perdue is not the right choice to lead the University System of Georgia:

First, Perdue has no experience in the field of higher education. Although business sense is important for leading a university system with a huge budget, what’s more important is understanding the stakeholders in higher education–especially students and faculty. Perdue has shown he is out of touch with USG faculty across the state. USG faculty and researchers make the institutions what they are. The chancellor should be a trusted leader who understands student and faculty needs.

Second, a candidate who values higher education would support public institutions and access to these schools for all students. According to Students Against Sonny, Perdue’s past actions in regard to educational items such as HBCUs and the HOPE scholarship show he does not value supporting these schools or student access. Along with his “his long track record of making public education less accessible during the Great Recession.”

Additionally, Perdue has a track record of suppressing publicly-funded research during his tenure as the Secretary of Agriculture, where he also gutted the USDA’s Economic Research Service. Perdue spent much of 2020 either campaigning for Trump or harming low-income Americans. Perdue has supported reducing access to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, reducing federally mandated wages for farmworkers, enacted troubling safety policies for poultry slaughterhouses, disputed the idea of climate change, supported voter suppression laws, shown nostalgia for the Confederacy, and stayed loyal to Donald Trump. It’s important for our universities to increase people’s access to resources and opportunities, but Perdue’s history has shown that is not his top priority.

Third, the chancellor position shouldn’t be a de facto political appointment, and the vetting process should be transparent. All 19 Board of Regents have been appointed by the most recent Georgia governors, and Perdue appointed Brian Kemp as Georgia’s secretary of state in 2010. Clearly, appointing your own friends and political cronies to a board that can then turn around and give you one of the highest paying government jobs in the state is shady. At the very least, it’s a conflict of interest. The search process for this position has been so opaque that the firm hired to run the search quit due to misinformation from the Board of Regents, and the public has been uninformed about the progress of the search.

For more background about why “the Georgia Board of Regents’ reported plan to make Sonny Perdue the next chancellor is so dangerous” and the “historical origins of the notion of a politically independent chancellor in Georgia,” the podcast Residential Spread (a weekly podcast about college and coronavirus) talked to two student activists with Students Against Sonny.

Perdue is not the right person for the position of chancellor. A truly stringent search should proceed and ensure this important job will be granted to the strongest possible candidate.