ATLANTA — Sonny Perdue isn’t your typical University System of Georgia (USG) chancellor.
His two immediate predecessors – Steve Wrigley and Hank Huckaby – spent much of their careers in academia. Huckaby served as a professor and later administrator at several USG institutions, including the University of Georgia, while Wrigley served in the system’s central office as executive vice chancellor of administration.
Perdue, a Republican, served as governor of Georgia for eight years and US agriculture secretary in the Trump administration for four more. He thinks the leadership experience will stand him in good stead as he takes charge of Georgia’s 26 public colleges and universities.
“It’s a big job,” Perdue said last Thursday, four weeks after taking over from Teresa MacCartney, an executive vice-chancellor who took on the interim lead role last summer when Wrigley retired. “It requires good judgment, wisdom in decision-making, and the courage to implement those decisions. … That doesn’t mean you have to be an academic to do it.”
To be fair, Perdue is no novice when it comes to higher education. He chaired the state’s Senate Committee on Higher Education in the 1990s, before his election in 2002 as Georgia’s first Republican governor since Reconstruction.
His tenure on the committee coincided with the launch of the lottery-funded HOPE scholarship program, which encouraged Georgia’s top high school students to attend top colleges in the university system instead of leaving the state.
“It was an exciting time as we saw the University of Georgia’s reputation 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 opposed his candidacy during the months-long process that led upon his appointment by the University System’s Board of Regents in early March.
Last August, the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges sent a letter to regents warning them against letting politics interfere in choosing a new chancellor. The letter came after the Georgia Chapter of the American Association of University Teachers accused Gov. Brian Kemp of appointing two new regents in favor of Perdue’s appointment to the board and complaining about his lack of it. experience in higher education.
Perdue is committed to an inclusive approach to decision-making, taking into account feedback 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 was not entering his new role with preconceived goals or policies, but rather was in the “assessment phase.”
One issue that’s on its radar screen is the decline in enrollment in the university system reported last fall after seven straight years of growth.
Enrollment at state universities in the system, including Albany State, Savannah State and the University of North Georgia, fell 3.7%, while state colleges, including Georgia Gwinnett, College of Coastal Georgia, and Abraham Baldwin Agricultural College, saw enrollment drop a more alarming 6.7%. %.
Perdue said the uncertainty surrounding the pandemic contributed to the decline. Another factor stemming in part from the pandemic is the growing demand for workers, he said.
“Young people, the traditional higher education market, can come out of high school and find jobs for $15, $20, $25 an hour,” he said. “It feels good to them. It’s instant gratification.”
But Perdue said settling for a job that doesn’t require a college degree isn’t a recipe for long-term success.
“Our job is to showcase the value of a four-year education over a lifetime,” he said.
To appeal to today’s generation of students, including adults who haven’t finished college, the university system will need to become more flexible, Perdue said. The system has begun this process with 439 online degree programs offering over 10,000 courses.
“We left [the University of] Phoenix is taking this deal,” he said.
On other issues, Perdue said he supports changes to the post-employment review policy that the regents passed last fall. The board voted to replace a system that allowed tenured professors to be fired only for a specific cause following peer review with a system that allows for dismissal if they fail to take corrective action after two below average consecutive exams.
“We all need accountability,” Perdue said. “I am accountable to the board of trustees, families, students and faculty, the legislature, the governor’s office.”
Perdue said he was interested in resuming plans to overhaul the system’s core curriculum, a process that began in 2019 but was put on the back burner by the pandemic.
“We have to be more creative than naming a course ‘Something 101’ and asking students to memorize it,” he said. “We need to teach students soft problem-solving skills that most will use throughout their lives.”
The new chancellor said he had not yet formed an opinion on efforts by the General Assembly in recent years to set quotas to provide early admission to the best institutions in the system for students in the state. The University of Georgia and Georgia Tech in particular have become more difficult to access with the growing popularity of HOPE scholarships, crowding out some students from the state despite their high grades 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] foreign 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.