Sonny Perdue

Sonny’s new gig

Former Governor takes helm of University System of Georgia

Sonny Perdue isn’t your typical University System of Georgia chancellor.

His two immediate predecessors – Steve Wrigley and Hank Huckaby – spent large portions of their careers in academia. Huckaby was a professor and later administrator at several USG institutions including the University of Georgia, while Wrigley served inside the system’s central office as executive vice chancellor of administration.

Perdue, a Republican, was Georgia’s governor for eight years and U.S. secretary of agriculture in the Trump administration for four more. He thinks that executive experience will stand him in good stead as he takes the helm at Georgia’s 26 public colleges and universities.

“This is a big job,” Perdue said last Thursday, four weeks after succeeding Teresa MacCartney, an executive vice chancellor who had assumed the top role on an acting basis last summer when Wrigley retired. “It requires good judgment, wisdom in decision making, and the courage to carry out those decisions. … It doesn’t imply you have to be an academic to do that.”

To be fair, Perdue isn’t a novice when it comes to higher education. He chaired the state Senate Higher Education Committee during the 1990s, before his election in 2002 as Georgia’s first Republican governor since Reconstruction.

His tenure with the committee coincided with the launching of the lottery-funded HOPE Scholarships program, which incentivized Georgia’s top high school students to attend the university system’s top colleges instead of heading out of state.

“It was an exciting time as we saw the reputation of the University of Georgia almost skyrocket,” Perdue said.

But Perdue’s role under the Gold Dome in shaping higher education policy wasn’t enough to satisfy some students and faculty, who objected to his candidacy during the months-long process that led to his appointment by the university system Board of Regents in early March.

Last August, the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges sent a letter to the regents warning against allowing politics to interfere in the choice of a new chancellor. The letter came after the Georgia chapter of the American Association of University Professors accused Gov. Brian Kemp of appointing two new regents who favored Perdue’s appointment to the board and complaining about his lack of higher education experience.

Perdue pledged an inclusive approach to decision making, taking into account input from students and faculty.

“We won’t always agree,” he said. “But I have a responsibility when we don’t agree to give them a reason.”

Perdue said he isn’t entering his new role with preconceived goals or policies but is rather in the “assessment stage.”

One issue that is on his radar screen is the decline in enrollment portions of the university system reported last fall after seven consecutive years of growth.

Enrollment at the system’s state universities including Albany State, Savannah State and the University of North Georgia is down 3.7%, while the state colleges including Georgia Gwinnett, the College of Coastal Georgia and Abraham Baldwin Agricultural College have seen enrollment fall by a more alarming 6.7%.

Perdue said the uncertainty surrounding the pandemic has contributed to the decline. Another factor stemming in part from the pandemic is the growing demand for workers, he said.

“Young people, the traditional market for higher education, can walk out of high schools and get a job at $15, $20 or $25 an hour,” he said. “That sounds good to them. It’s instant gratification.”

But Perdue said settling for a job that does not require a college degree isn’t a recipe for long-term success.

“Our job is to put out the value of a four-year education over a lifetime,” he said.

To attract today’s generation of students, including adults with some college courses who didn’t finish, the university system is going to have to become more flexible, Perdue said. The system has begun that process with 439 online degree programs offering more than 10,000 courses.

“We’ve let [the University of] Phoenix take that market,” he said.

On other issues, Perdue said he supports changes in the post-tenure review policy the regents adopted last fall. The board voted to replace a system that permitted tenured professors to be fired only for a specific cause following a peer review with a system that allows dismissal if they fail to take corrective steps following two consecutive subpar reviews.

“We all need accountability,” Perdue said. “I’m accountable to the Board of Regents, the families, students and faculty, the legislature, the governor’s office.”

Perdue said he’s interested in resuming plans to overhaul the system’s core curriculum, a process that began in 2019 but was forced to the back burner by the pandemic.

“We’ve got to be more creative than naming a course ‘Something 101’ and having students memorize it,” he said. “We need to be teaching students the soft skills of problem-solving most will be using throughout their lives.”

The new chancellor said he hasn’t formed an opinion yet on efforts in the General Assembly in recent years to set quotas for offering early admission to the system’s top institutions to in-state students. The University of Georgia and Georgia Tech in particular have been become harder to get into with the increasing popularity of HOPE scholarships, crowding out some in-state students despite their high marks in high school.

“We’re going to get the data and look at the … mix of in-state and out-of-state [students],” Perdue said. “[But] out-of-state students bring value. We don’t want to get too possessive.”

This story is available through a news partnership with Capitol Beat News Service, a project of the Georgia Press Educational Foundation.