Ten Reasons Sonny Perdue Shouldn’t Be Georgia’s Next University Chancellor

Sonny lied!

In 1941, the anonymous writer “Atheneus” penned an epistle to decry Georgia Gov. Eugene Talmadge’s firing of a UGA dean for advocating “communism and racial equality” in the Cocking Affair. When the University System of Georgia Board of Regents balked at Talmadge’s demand that Dean Cocking be drummed out of the university, Talmadge replaced three board members with loyalists to rig the vote.

Eighty years after Talmadge’s coup against the regents, Athenian Brian Kemp tried to follow in Talmadge’s footsteps to make the board appoint former Gov. Sonny Perdue to the position of USG chancellor. After all, Perdue appointed Kemp secretary of state.

Here are 10 reasons Kemp may want to rethink this political move.

1. First, it must be asked, sui generis, if it is really a good idea to subvert the interests of educating Georgia’s future leaders to such a rank political favor. Is it worth the risk that a first-class system of higher education will not be the result?

2. In a flashback to 1941, according to the regional accreditation agency the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, any suggestion of undue political pressure to appoint Perdue could endanger the accreditation on which continued federal funding of the USG depends.

3. As Community Newspapers publisher and former chair of the Board of Regents Dink Nesmith once pointed out, former Gov. Nathan Deal endangered the university system by strongarming his hand-picked appointment of Hank Huckaby as USG chancellor in 2011. Can the USG get away with this gambit again?

4. The USG badly needs new blood. Most university systems remain vital by bringing in top-flight talent from the proving grounds of other major universities. But when was the last time the USG brought in a gunslinger from Ohio State or UCLA? Not for UGA president. To keep the system under political control, Huckaby was promoted from the Georgia legislature. Current USG Chancellor Steve Wrigley wormed his way up through the ranks from UGA. Perdue would just be another hire from within the Georgia good-old-boy system—the one the Republicans were supposed to replace when Perdue took over as governor in 2002.

5. The last time the regents rigged an insider appointment, it did not turn out so well. When the USG appointed the sole candidate considered, former Georgia Attorney General Sam Olens, as president of Kennesaw State University, despite vocal opposition at KSU and Olens’ lack of any educational qualifications, Olens did not last a year. Perdue’s resume is more like Olens’ than the candidates a national search would turn up.

6. Olens did nothing for the USG’s reputation. Three days after then-Secretary of State Kemp and KSU President Olens were served with a lawsuit over vulnerabilities in the Georgia Center for Election Systems on the KSU campus, the GCES servers were wiped clean, leaving questions of destroying possible evidence of Russian hacking in the 2016 presidential election and manipulation in the 2017 special election to replace Tom Price, Perdue’s colleague in Trump’s Southern-Strategy-heavy cabinet.

7. Perdue has his own public image problems. As governor, he stopped the purchase of 20,000 acres for a nature preserve in Oaky Woods while secretly buying adjacent land that doubled in value when the Oaky Woods parcel was sold to real estate developers instead of to the Nature Conservancy. As Trump’s secretary of agriculture, Perdue appointed lobbyists for agribusiness and the pesticide industry to key Department of Agriculture posts.

8. Does the USG need such an appearance of self-serving corruption? Even if a Perdue appointment does not cause another accreditation failure, who can forget the furor caused by Governor Perdue appearing to sign into law a $100,000 tax break for himself?

9. What about the temptation for real corruption for a chancellor with his fingers in the USG’s $15 billion budget? The USG already spent the last decade claiming sovereign immunity for fraud on the federal government. 

10. Talmadge’s vote-rigging did not serve him as well in the polls as Perdue’s championing of the Confederate battle flag that propelled Perdue into office in 2002. In the next election in 1942, the governor who seemed to be a fixture in Georgia’s reactionary establishment lost to that racially indifferent upstart Ellis Arnall. That same result in 2022 would be bad for Kemp, but maybe it would be best for the rest of us.