White man with white hair on side of head, wearing black jacket and light blue shirt.
Former Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue speaks at the White House while U.S. agriculture secretary on Tuesday, May 19, 2020, in Washington. (Evan Vucci/AP)

The regents of Georgia’s public universities voted unanimously Tuesday to name former Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue as the sole finalist to become chancellor overseeing 26 universities.

Regents are likely to affirm the choice of Perdue to lead 340,000-student system after a 14-day waiting period required by state law.

Board Chair Harold Reynolds of Greensboro said Perdue was the best choice because he has “extensive background in public service” including “leadership at the highest levels” and “has a passion for higher education, and specifically for this state’s public colleges and universities.”

Reynolds said the regents received applications from “numerous highly qualified candidates” and interviewed “a slate of excellent candidates.” A spokesperson for the board did not immediately answer questions from The Association Press about how many candidates were interviewed or when. The board met in executive session all day Friday.

Perdue was the first Republican governor of Georgia in more than a century, serving two terms from 2003 to 2011. He then served as U.S. agriculture secretary under President Donald Trump from 2017 to 2021.

Perdue, 76, said in a statement released by the board that serving as chancellor would “be a wonderful capstone to a career of public service.” He said it was a second chance to shape the state’s university system.

“Higher education is where I wanted to have a real impact as governor, only to be stymied by twin recessions. It is what I benefited from as Agriculture Secretary, where I saw daily the benefits of university research,” Perdue said in a statement. “I want to make a difference by providing leadership and resources so that faculty can thrive in their teaching, research and service and students are inspired and supported so they graduate, find rewarding careers and become productive citizens.

Perdue could be named at an exceedingly awkward moment, with his cousin, former U.S. Sen. David Perdue, challenging Kemp in the Republican primary for governor. David Perdue told Axios last year that his cousin hadn’t endorsed him and was “in an awkward position” because of his bid to be chancellor. “But I’ve stayed out of that, and I think he’s staying out of my little dog fight here.” On Tuesday, David Perdue issued statement calling Sonny Perdue “the best choice.”

The 19-member board was overhauled by Gov. Brian Kemp in recent weeks, adding four new regents. That may have cleared the way to name Perdue after a search for a permanent successor to previous Chancellor Steve Wrigley stalled in May amid dissension among regents.

When asked if Kemp encouraged his choice, Kemp spokesperson Katie Byrd said regents chose Perdue in an “independent vote.” The governor called Perdue “exceedingly well qualified” in a statement.

“As a cabinet level official who was confirmed with overwhelming, bipartisan support, he managed a budget roughly 15 times that of USG and navigated challenging times of disruption that required innovative thinking,” Kemp said. “Georgians will benefit from his decisive and creative leadership over a system which now serves more than 340,000 students.”

The American Association of University Professors, which represents some instructors in the system, said faculty were improperly shut out of the choice and that Perdue is unqualified because he has never worked in academia.

“There is still time to save the university system,” tweeted Matthew Boedy, president of the Georgia state conference of the AAUP and a professor at the University of North Georgia. “The regents should not trade their courage for the gift of being a Regent. Vote for the system, not the governor’s political demands.”

The Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, which accredits all 26 universities and colleges, asked in April whether there had been undue political pressure to appoint Perdue, but may be less interested this time. Belle Wheelan, the association’s president, wrote in a email to Boedy on Wednesday that the association did not intend to intervene to try to block Perdue’s appointment.

“The fact that two board members’ terms ended in December allowing the governor to appoint new members was serendipitous,” Wheelan wrote in an email Boedy provided. “While it may be that they also supported Mr. Perdue’s candidacy, they were also able to interview all of the candidates and, hopefully, made their own decision for the most qualified candidate.”

Perdue appointed Kemp as secretary of state in early 2010, aiding Kemp’s primary bid for that office. And Trump has said Perdue talked him into endorsing Kemp in a 2018 Republican runoff for governor, contributing to Kemp’s win over Casey Cagle.

Teresa MacCartney has been acting chancellor since June 30, when a stalemated board named her to run the system while saying it would continue to look for a permanent leader.

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