The University System of Georgia has emerged in the last decade as one of the most closely watched public networks in American higher education, nabbing nationwide attention for its aggressive consolidations and student success initiatives.
Now, it's a system looking for a new leader, as current chancellor Steve Wrigley will retire July 1. But the search for his replacement, which the governing board took up earlier this year, has proven tumultuous for the 341,000-student system.
The hunt was unceremoniously paused in late April, hours after The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported that some board members dissented over a leading candidate, Sonny Perdue. A former Georgia governor and agriculture secretary for the Trump administration, Perdue was a favorite of some board members, but he had not garnered enough support from the full panel. His lack of postsecondary leadership experience also had not endeared him to students and staff.
The search, which has since resumed, provides an object lesson on what higher ed observers deem a longstanding problem for USG. The regent board is frequently driven by state policymakers' desires, despite the legal firewall that supposedly separates them from the system. That's partially because the governor appoints all the regents, who then name a chancellor.
Republicans have controlled Georgia's legislature and governorship for more than 10 years. On one occasion, a GOP lawmaker overtly threatened to withhold funding from the system if its campuses did not bow to his wishes. And Perdue, as governor, publicly pressured board members, once spurring them to postpone a decision on adding academic programs.
Tapping Perdue now would be another overtly political move, according to several employees within the system and experts on executive searches in higher ed. And while his name holds great weight in GOP circles, his selection is already threatening consequences for USG.
The Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges, which accredits the system's campuses, said a politicized search could put it out of compliance with the agency's standards, the Journal-Constitution reported. Following this warning, the search firm hired to help find the next chancellor quit, forcing the board to seek out a replacement.
Partisan governance stoking controversy isn't unique to USG.
A recent scandal in neighboring South Carolina resurfaced longstanding tensions over the pick of Robert Caslen as president of the state's flagship institution. His appointment in 2019 was viewed as politically motivated, with the state's Republican governor reportedly calling trustees to ask them to vote for him. But Caslen, who resigned earlier this month after admitting to plagiarism, never meshed with the campus.
A partisan search at USG could put Wrigley's successor in a similar position and risk alienating employees, students and some supporters of the system. Wrigley, for one, has had to shape decisions around partisan considerations.
Politicized searches "really go against the tenets of shared governance," said Judith Wilde, chief operating officer and professor at George Mason University's Schar School of Policy and Government, who has studied these processes extensively.
Politics at play
USG's bold moves over the last decade yielded some success. Officials undertook a consolidation blitz that reduced its institution count from 35 to 26 in less than a decade, and which, however unpopular within the system, was closely watched nationwide. And USG's four-year graduation rate jumped nearly 10 percentage points, with the system awarding 70,879 degrees in the 2020 fiscal year — the most in its nine-decade history.
But even still, policymakers' hold on the system had officials in one case looking for a way to preempt their meddling.
In 2017, Wrigley initiated a major administrative review of the system out of concern that lawmakers would reduce its funding, according to two current and one former system employees interviewed by Higher Ed Dive.
Wrigley announced the review with the goal of finding ways to make the system more efficient. It grabbed headlines. On the heels of significant consolidation, a prominent public system was looking to streamline further. A committee of senior administrators from across USG, along with a faculty and student representative, would comb through the system's administrative operations and those of its campuses, looking for places to trim. Core faculty work, such as teaching and research, would remain untouched, according to an announcement of the review.
But the effort amounted to little more than political theater, according to the three employees, two of whom are directly familiar with the review, and another who was a high-level leader within the system at the time it was initiated. They spoke with Higher Ed Dive under the condition of anonymity in order to candidly discuss the system's operations and avoid professional repercussions.
Around the time the system announced its review, legislators were considering whether to intervene in its finances. They were displeased that students' cost of attendance had been rising steadily for years, though the trend stemmed from reduced state appropriations.
The state cut the system's funding considerably during and immediately after the Great Recession. Though it has increased in recent years, the funding remains below 2008 levels and is likely to stay that way, according to the Georgia Budget and Policy Institute.
USG's funding is mostly determined through a formula driven largely by student enrollment, Jennifer Lee, a senior policy analyst for higher education at the institute, said in an interview. But lawmakers are not obligated to follow it, she said, and they have scaled back funding during periods of economic uncertainty.
This year, the state slashed USG's fiscal 2021 budget allocation by 10%, the institute found, representing the steepest one-year drop in state support in the system's history.
The three officials said the review was a demonstration for lawmakers. The system was already pursuing austerity measures, but they were made to look like they were part of the review for show.
Lawmakers "want proof we're fiscally responsible," said one of the employees who is familiar with the review. "Everything we do is calibrated to the politics and the optics of how efficient we are. When we ask for money, we have to say everything we've done to operate effectively."
Lee backed the idea that even though lawmakers can't make decisions for the system directly, they exert influence on it "in other ways," such as by trying to freeze tuition.
Little has been said publicly about how the review went or what changes it led to. The system said in January that the review resulted in administrative savings of more than $110 million and enabled the system to hire more student advisers. But the only update on the "News Releases" page of the website set up to share information about the review is one announcing its inception in 2017.
A USG spokesperson did not respond to a detailed list of questions Higher Ed Dive sent via email last week, which included a request for more details on the review and the current chancellor search. Higher Ed Dive followed up multiple times via phone and email without a response prior to publication.
When the state runs the board
This isn't the first time state policymakers swayed USG's decision-making.
Before his retirement in 2018, state Rep. Earl Ehrhart, a Republican, chaired the subcommittee that signed off on higher ed funding, and he openly used that money as a "bargaining chip," the Journal-Constitution outlined in 2017. Ehrhart was reportedly furious when a fraternity at the Georgia Institute of Technology was disciplined after being accused of using racial slurs against a Black female student. Ehrhart threatened to withhold bond money from colleges that didn't follow "due process," according to the publication.
And in 2012, then-governor Perdue caused the regent board to postpone a decision to add three new engineering programs at the University of Georgia after he reminded them that the governor and legislature have the final say on how much state money the system gets. Perdue said the regents should have gained support for the programs among lawmakers first.
The "partisan capture" of governing bodies can be a huge prize for political parties, said Brendan Cantwell, a higher ed professor at Michigan State University. This trend dates back to the 1980s and '90s, when Republicans in California were galvanized to ban affirmative action in college admissions and used the issue as a springboard to promote themselves on a national platform, he said.
More recently, systems such as the University of North Carolina have reaped the consequences of a deeply politicized governing panel. After Republicans took over both chambers of the legislature in 2011, they started stocking the system's trustee board with like-minded individuals. Since then, UNC has endured several high-profile scandals and significant turnover among campus and system leaders. One such episode involved the UNC governing board's resistance to removing a Confederate monument on one campus, putting them in lockstep with state Republican leaders.
Similarly, the regent board in Wisconsin approved two policy changes in 2017 and 2019 intending to crack down on free speech concerns, which were considered to be directly in line with Republican lawmakers' position at the time.
Hyperpartisan boards can become indebted to the state leaders who appointed them, which also could drive a wedge between them and students and employees, said Felecia Commodore, a higher ed professor at Old Dominion University, in Virginia.
Governing bodies should be more ideologically diverse to avoid falling into "groupthink," which can lead to "an unhealthy confidence in decision-making, and rushed decisions and processes," Commodore said. A Chronicle of Higher Education analysis last year unearthed that nearly 70% of 411 governing board members nationwide found to have been appointed through political procedures assumed their roles through processes directed by a single political party.
Picking a new leader — with help
Politicized and secret presidential searches exemplify the problems that come with partisan governing boards, George Mason's Wilde said. Such opaque processes are not the norm, but the industry is "headed in that direction," she said.
The appointment of Caslen, who recently resigned as head of the University of South Carolina, is a prime example of a partisan-influenced search gone wrong, Wilde said, noting that the same accreditor that delivered the warning to USG also raised concerns about his hiring. SACSCOC said the governor's involvement in the search represented "undue influence," but it declined to formally sanction the school.
Such politically laced dramas eventually play out publicly, which can be off-putting for candidates who might want to apply to a particular system down the road, said Alvin Schexnider, a senior consultant and senior fellow at AGB Consulting, which provides colleges with guidance on governance.
If they think they'll spend all their time "trying to satisfy political stakeholders to get the job done," then they might not pursue the job — and finding good contenders for president is already difficult, Schexnider said.
He worries regional public colleges in particular have become outposts for policymakers looking for a plum job. In one such case, a UNC board member left that position to pursue the presidency at Fayetteville State University, a historically Black institution within the system, amid complaints from employees and alumni.
"The goal should be to find someone with the best qualifications to lead," Schexnider said. "Start there, not with someone with ties to a governor or legislators." He commended Virginia, which established a commission to evaluate appointees to public college governing boards.
Wrigley, the current USG chancellor, was a longtime fixture in state government, notably having worked for five years as chief of staff to former Democratic Gov. Zell Miller, who led the state in the 1990s. Prior to taking the helm at USG, Wrigley was its executive vice chancellor of administration.
"The goal should be to find someone with the best qualifications to lead. Start there, not with someone with ties to a governor or legislators."
Senior consultant and senior fellow at AGB Consulting
Higher Ed Dive could find no evidence that the USG regents publicly shared information about the process that led to Wrigley's appointment. The board named Wrigley interim chancellor the day his predecessor's retirement was publicly announced. Two months later, they announced he would be the new chancellor. He assumed the position in January 2017.
The system did not respond to questions regarding Wrigely's appointment.
A closed search for a college executive might occur for a few reasons, said Demetri Morgan, a higher ed professor at Loyola University Chicago. Contenders from outside the institution might be put in an awkward position if it's made public they're being considered and they don't get the job, he said.
The downside, however, can be a search that's shrouded in secrecy, Morgan said. An open process allows the governing body to gauge the qualities constituents want in a leader and to explore a diverse range of candidates. If a board already has a pick in mind, then it renders the discussions with the public moot, he said.
Mitch Daniels, now head of Purdue University, jumped almost immediately from his governorship into the presidency in 2013. He previously appointed members of the board that ultimately handed him the role. However, Daniels is popular partially because he's been successful at keeping the college affordable, Morgan said.
But campuses don't always embrace leaders whose appointments were politically motivated.
John Thrasher, who became the head of Florida State University in 2014 and announced his retirement last fall, was a longtime state legislator and was widely known to have gotten the job because of his state ties. Yet he was initially disliked among faculty and students, who said he didn't have the credentials to lead the college.
Morgan said an institution is gambling if it appoints a leader through a politicized search, especially if they end up not being well liked.
"And that points to a structural issue within a system."