What the heck is going on in Georgia higher ed?

From Sonny Perdue’s chancellorship to the end of tenure as we know it, here’s a look at the recent controversies affecting Georgia’s public colleges and universities and where everything stands right now.

Georgia State University

Photograph by Rachel Garbus

Last month, the Board of Regents of the University System of Georgia announced that former Governor Sonny Perdue was the sole finalist to serve as Chancellor of Education. The announcement left some people aghast, others triumphant, and still others wondering, “Wait, what is the Board of Regents?

From changes to tenure to accusations of political meddling, here’s a breakdown of what’s going on, for those of you who haven’t donned a mortarboard in a few years (or decades).

Chancellor Perdue?
It’s official: on March 1, the Georgia Board of Regents, which governs the University System of Georgia (USG), appointed former Republican Governor and former U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue as Chancellor of Education for the USG. He starts work in April.

The chancellor leads the state’s 26 public-funded colleges and universities, as well as the state’s public library system and archives. It’s one of the most powerful jobs in the state, overseeing over 340,000 students, 155,000 employees, and a budget of nearly $10 billion.

Perdue, a veterinarian and agribusiness owner, has no professional experience in higher ed—one of many reasons critics have attacked his appointment—but Board Chair Harold Reynolds said Perdue’s public leadership experience made him the standout candidate in the search for a new chancellor.

Though Perdue said he’s “excited to get started,” the former governor hasn’t shared many details of his plans for Georgia’s higher ed. When asked by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution last year what he would bring to the position, Perdue indicated he would push for “conservative values,” noting concern over the “culture revolution that we’re seeing.”

Didn’t this come up last year?
Yes. After then-Chancellor Steve Wrigley announced he was retiring in January 2021, the AJC reported that the Board of Regents was considering Perdue for the job. They also suggested that Governor Brian Kemp—long a close ally of Perdue’s and himself a political appointee under Perdue’s governorship—was working his networks to get Perdue appointed.

The specter of political meddling immediately sounded alarm bells: with faculty and student groups voicing concerns that Perdue’s chancellorship could threaten the independence of the university system, the Board of Regents halted their search.

The following week, the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges (SACSCOC), which confers accreditation on public colleges and universities across the Southeast, sent the Board of Regents a letter warning that political interference could violate compliance standards and threaten accreditation, which would bar students at USG schools from receiving federal financial aid.

The week after that, the search firm hired by USG to find a new chancellor quit, though it declined to specify its reasons.

So how did Perdue get the job?
Several faculty and student groups kept up a steady campaign against Perdue’s appointment, but the odds eventually fell in his favor. In January 2022, Governor Kemp replaced two outgoing Board of Regents members; his new appointments proved more favorable to Perdue’s appointment.

The USG’s announcement of Perdue as its sole finalist was met with public outcry, particularly from faculty who were already concerned about political interference in academia. The American Association of University Professors (AAUP) issued a statement condemning the closed-door search process that led to Perdue’s appointment.

“It’s a slap in the face to those who work on campus,” said Dr. Matthew Boedy, an English professor at University of North Georgia and president of the AAUP’s Georgia Conference. “Sonny Perdue has no experience managing higher education.”

Boedy asked SACSCOC to review Perdue’s appointment, but the accreditation agency declined to do so. In a call with Atlanta, Dr. Belle Wheeland, president of SACSCOC, said her original letter concerned only the suggestion in the AJC’s reporting that “the governor was telling (the board) who to hire.”

Wheeland said the Board of Regents then sent her a letter assuring SACSCOC that they were steering the process, not the governor. “The issue was not who was supporting Mr. Perdue—the point is that the board makes the decision,” Wheeland said. As to the politics of Perdue’s appointment? “We have no argument with what they did,” Wheeland said.

What’s going on with tenure?
In another controversial move, the USG implemented changes to post-tenure review last October, eliciting criticism across Georgia higher ed and beyond.

Tenure, a long-hallowed academic practice that covers around 5,800 professors in Georgia, protects faculty from dismissal without just cause, allowing them to research and teach controversial concepts without fear of reprisal. Once a professor achieves tenure, they traditionally can only be fired after a peer-review due process involving other faculty members. USG’s amended post-tenure review—the first of its kind, according to the AAUP —authorizes administrators to fire, without faculty input, any professor who does not take appropriate measures after failing two consecutive annual reviews.

The USG says the new policy simply ensures accountability and performance. But tenure is about more than job performance, said Irene Mulvey, president of the AAUP. “It doesn’t give you a job for life,” she told Atlanta. “It protects academic freedom. It protects your research and your teaching from undue political influence.” Crimping faculty’s academic freedom, Mulvey said, leads to a lack of risk-taking in research and teaching, which is bad for students and the university as a whole.

Over the weekend, the AAUP National Council voted to censure the entire University System of Georgia for “effectively abolishing tenure . . . in flagrant violation of long established principles on academic freedom.”

Typically, AAUP’s censure list—which Mulvey compared to a black eye in the academic community—includes only individual colleges or universities: that the association has censured an entire statewide system is a testament to the organization’s level of concern.

“This is a dismal outcome for the university system of Georgia,” Mulvey said. “When there’s no academic freedom, you’ve killed higher education as a public good.”

What about Governor Kemp’s plan to ban critical race theory?
After Kemp’s January State of the State address decried the teaching of “divisive ideologies” like critical race theory, Republicans in both the state House and Senate moved forward bills that would ban the teaching of such ideas in public schools.

Originally, a Senate version of the bill, which bans a list of nine “divisive concepts”, extended to Georgia’s public colleges and universities, but on Monday, the Senate Education and Youth Committee amended the bill so that it would only apply to K-12. A similar House bill, which bans K-12 schools from teaching concepts such as “the United States of America is fundamentally racist” or “merit-based advancement policies and practices are racist”, passed the House last week in a party-line vote, 92-63.

“What (this bill) does is empower parents to ensure that kids in our schools of all races are not pitted against each other,” Rep. Will Wade (R-Dawsonville) told the education committee last month.

But some of those kids aren’t having it: on February 25th, dozens of Decatur High students rallied in front of the capitol to protest the bills. “Hands off my education!” read one student’s sign. “I can’t believe I’m marching for school” read another.

What do Georgia’s public university faculty think about all of this?
It’s been a difficult few years for educators in the state’s public universities and colleges; though the USG system returned largely to in-person instruction back in 2020, the Board of Regents declined to implement either a mask mandate or a vaccine requirement, which many professors say left them at risk. Last September, Georgia State University faculty staged a die-in to protest USG’s pandemic response.

“The last year has been hell,” said an associate professor at one of Georgia’s public universities, who asked to remain anonymous out of fear of retaliation. She thinks the political firestorms have already degraded outside perceptions of Georgia’s public colleges and universities: “I definitely see our reputation going down.”

“Quite frankly,” she said with a sigh, “If I had a friend who was sending a kid off to college, I’d say, ‘Don’t go to a USG school.’”