How the Board of Regents pulls the strings at Georgia’s colleges and universities

Who controls Georgia colleges and universities? It’s not the university presidents. The buck stops with the Board of Regents.

How the Board of Regents pulls the strings at Georgia’s colleges and universities
The arch at the University of Georgia

Photograph SeanPavonePhoto / iStock / Getty Images Plus

When professors protested over lax Covid-19 precautions on Georgia campuses this fall, they called out a group of policymakers, not university presidents. The University System of Georgia’s Board of Regents oversees the state’s 26 colleges and universities and is ultimately responsible for decisions such as prohibiting professors from requiring masks in their classrooms. Recent board changes to tenure rules have also drawn protests and even national rebuke.

Who are the regents, anyway?
Most are prominent business leaders from around the state, often with political connections. For instance, members include a Morgan Stanley senior vice president, a top real-estate executive with CBRE, and the head of the Albany Area Chamber of Commerce. Governors appoint the 19 regents—one from each of the 14 congressional districts and five at-large—to staggered, seven-year terms of voluntary service. They must be confirmed by the state Senate and can be removed for not “fulfilling their duties” by the board’s executive committee. Governor Brian Kemp has appointed eight of the current regents, including his former campaign chairman, Harold Reynolds, now CEO of BankSouth Holding Co.

Does the governor control the board?
The governor and legislature set the USG budget, but the board is officially independent. It cemented that status after a dramatic case of political meddling: In 1941, then Governor Eugene Talmadge demanded the firing of a UGA dean who he believed supported racial integration. When the board eventually refused, the governor removed and replaced three regents, a move that cost the state’s white colleges and universities their accreditation for more than a year (Black colleges remained accredited). Talmadge went on to lose his reelection campaign, voters enshrined the Board of Regents’ independence in the state constitution, and the board created a policy that says: “The Board of Regents is unalterably opposed to political interference or domination of any kind or character in the affairs of any University System of Georgia (USG) institution.”

Why won’t the regents let schools set their own mask policies?
Because they are indeed following the governor. At a September board meeting, acting USG Chancellor Teresa MacCartney noted, “We continue to be in alignment with the governor’s expectations and requirements for state agencies through this pandemic.”

What other Board of Regents decisions have come under fire?
Two board policies passed in 2010 still prohibit admission of undocumented immigrants to flagship schools such as the University of Georgia and Georgia Tech and require them to pay out-of-state tuition at others. This applies even to DACA recipients and Georgia high school graduates.

And in October, the board unanimously approved new rules for “post-tenure review,” making it easier to remove faculty. It’s always been possible to fire professors for misconduct or incompetence. But, now, professors could face sanctions or even dismissal if they fail performance improvement plans; and, in a new requirement, they will be held accountable for how well they advise and mentor students outside the classroom. Moreover, the regents can take over the tenure process if they deem a particular institution is not “sufficiently rigorous.”

The board says its new policies aim to increase accountability and boost student success. However, the changes raise concerns about academic freedom, which tenure is meant to protect. The American Association of University Professors said it would investigate and threatened to put the university system on a censure list, which critics say could make it harder for Georgia schools to recruit top faculty.

Could any current controversies put accreditation at risk?
The Board of Regents is searching for a chancellor to lead the system, and former Governor Sonny Perdue (who was also agriculture secretary under President Trump) emerged as a leading candidate last spring, though he lacks experience in higher-education leadership. The Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges cautioned the board that its selection process must remain independent of outside influence and that the system’s “chief executive officer” must have “appropriate experience and qualifications.”

This article appears in our December 2021 issue.