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Steve Wrigley, Head of Georgia Universities, Announces Retirement

USG Chancellor Steve Wrigley.

University System of Georgia Chancellor Steve Wrigley announced Tuesday he will retire July 1, capping a long career in Georgia higher education with a year of a spreading pandemic that disrupted the routines of students and faculty.

Wrigley oversees colleges and universities with more than 340,000 students across the state.

“It has been a great privilege and honor to serve the citizens of Georgia,” Wrigley said in a statement. “During a career in education policy and administration, I have worked with many incredible people and made countless cherished friendships. The mission of the University System of Georgia is essential to our state, the work of its faculty and staff invaluable and the leadership of its presidents and board extraordinary.”

News of Wrigley’s departure brought words of praise from the state’s top Republicans.

“Chancellor Wrigley has been a tireless advocate for our students and faculty throughout the University System and, thanks to his dedicated leadership, the Peach State is well-positioned to continue providing a world-class education to our best and brightest and produce a workforce that serves as a model to the country,” Gov. Brian Kemp said in a statement.

Wrigley was instrumental in creating the state’s HOPE Scholarship, said House Speaker David Ralston, a Blue Ridge Republican.  

“Throughout his tenure, both as a university administrator and Chief of Staff to Governor Zell Miller, Chancellor Wrigley has demonstrated his commitment to the future of this state and its people. He was a driving force behind the creation of our HOPE Scholarship Program which has provided more than $11 billion to help deserving students afford a world-class college education in Georgia,” Ralston said. 

For students, faculty and staff, Wrigley’s final semester will be a return to campus life upended by the COVID-19 pandemic. Quarantined dorms and Zoom classes marked the semester for many students. Throughout the crisis, Wrigley has pledged to emphasize in-person learning opportunities for students, which put him at odds with some students, faculty and staff worried about putting themselves at risk during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Dr. Wrigley indeed has had a long and effective career in higher education. He has fought for students and faculty in public and private. I wish him well in retirement,” said Matthew Boedy, a University of North Georgia associate professor of rhetoric and composition and conference president of the Georgia chapter of the American Association of University Professors.

“But the lack of more effective action by the USG and the Board of Regents to protect students and employees during the pandemic mar his term of service as chancellor,” he added. “By my count, the more than 14,000 cases of COVID on USG campuses in 2020 and new spikes already in 2021 call for different tactics.”

As Georgia colleges resumed in-person classes last fall, some students and faculty objected when they were required to return to campus. Protesters staged a ‘die-in‘ at Georgia State College and University in Milledgeville in early September to express fear and frustration with what they considered unsafe conditions on campus.

A small group of protesters who want a slower return to the classroom led by the United Campus Workers of Georgia staged a demonstration outside the Regents’ Atlanta office during the board’s first meeting of the year Tuesday morning while more spoke and watched online.

“We just survived the fall semester by the skin of our teeth. We went into the fall semester with policies that made no sense. There was not even any policy or threshold to when we might go to fully online classes,” said University of Georgia math professor Joe Fu.

Wrigley sounded a positive note about the future of this school year at the regents’ first meeting of the year Tuesday.

“Overall, the fall was a success in bringing students, faculty and staff safely back to our campuses, and I appreciate what our presidents, their teams, and system staff did to achieve this success,” Wrigley said. “We’re kicking off spring semester as 340,000 students continue or begin their college careers in the USG. As we know from the fall, direct and safe interaction with students in and outside the classroom is important for their well-being and educational development, and we’ve taken appropriate steps to emphasize in-person instruction as a vital part of campus life.”

Regents Chairman Sachin Shailendra echoed Wrigley’s positivity.

“This board has been unified on the importance of continuing to maximize safe in-person instruction, and Chancellor Wrigley has been very direct about why we need to do everything we can to give students the highest quality, most accessible education we can. That is especially true with in-person instruction,” he said.

Oconee County mom Joy Morin said she’s thankful for Wrigley’s push to hold in-person classes. She moderates a Facebook group with over 5,000 members supporting keeping Georgia colleges open.

Too much isolation is bad for young adults’ mental health, Morin said.

“There’s only so long that you can keep them isolated,” she said. “And they learn better in person. They need to be moving on with their lives. We are not that far from coming up on a year of having things really be very, very abnormal for them… Kids need to be able to live their lives.”

Morin’s son, a freshman at the University of Georgia, was set to start school Wednesday after administrators announced a revised schedule in October. The planned start date was Jan. 11. Other University System of Georgia schools have postponed their first day of classes, including Georgia Tech, Gordon State College and Abraham Baldwin Agricultural College.

“I don’t know if it would have been a bad idea for them to maybe postpone the start for maybe a week or two, shift the start of classes a little bit further past flu season itself, that might have given people a little more comfort,” Morin said. “But overall, my son’s back on campus, and I’m glad they’re open, and hopefully, they will stick with it.”

This article originally appeared in the Georgia Recorder.