Bookman: Regents pledged to find qualified new chancellor; they fished for Sonny Perdue instead

February 17, 2022 1:00 am

Columnist Jay Bookman writes that when Department of Agriculture research scientists produced findings that then-Secretary Sonny Perdue found impolitic in areas such as climate change and farm income, he tried to downplay or discourage their work. Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

A year ago, the Board of Regents announced it would begin a search to find the best-qualified candidate in the country to serve as its chancellor and lead Georgia’s 26 institutes of higher learning and their 340,000 students into what was sure to be a bright and glorious future.

What the regents sought, we were told – what they hired an executive search firm to comb the nation to find — was a person with “impeccable professional and personal integrity,” a person with the “understanding of and ability to lead a range of institutions from research universities to state universities to two-year colleges,” a person with “a successful record of and commitment to promoting diversity, equity and inclusion.”

But three months into the job, the search firm quit, apparently because they realized the fix was in, it was all a sham and they wanted no part of it. They were wise to do so. After a unanimous vote by the regents this week, what we’ve gotten instead of the highly qualified person described above is a 75-year-old Georgia man with no direct experience in higher education since his college graduation 50 years ago, a man with a long history of self-enrichment in previous jobs, a man whose most important qualification is that he has done our sitting governor important favors that needed to be repaid, a man who has demonstrated a deep disdain for scientific inquiry and has attempted to squelch and even punish it when he didn’t like its answers.

What we got is Sonny Perdue.

As a former governor himself, Perdue is infamous for finagling a special $100,000 retroactive tax break, designed solely for his personal benefit, and introduced secretly by an influential legislator who also happened to be Perdue’s business attorney. His greatest initiative in eight years in office was his “Go Fish” initiative, a legacy cemented in a $14 million “fishing museum” built in his hometown, a taxpayer-funded boondoggle that today is as withered and forgotten as a sunfish left to flop around on the dock until it died, while Georgia taxpayers continue to pay the bill.


Not surprisingly, Perdue’s ethical shortcomings followed him into his later role as U.S. secretary of agriculture, where he proved willing to inject politics into areas where politics, by law and practice, had no role to play. When Department of Agriculture research scientists produced findings that Perdue found impolitic in areas such as climate change and farm income, he tried to downplay or discourage their work. When the research continued, Perdue backed efforts to slash agency budgets by 50%. When Congress refused to go along with that reduction, Perdue backed a scheme to banish the two major research agencies to Kansas City from Washington. When half of the workforce refused to transfer, Perdue had accomplished his goal, significantly reducing the amount of pesky research they were able to produce.

That’s the person being put in charge of our state’s research institutions and entrusted to protect academic freedom and integrity. That’s the person whom the Board of Regents, at the insistence of Gov. Brian Kemp, believes best exemplifies the qualities that they initially claimed to be seeking.

Up in Washington these days, folks are all atwitter at President Biden’s commitment to appoint a black woman as our next Supreme Court justice, as well as his choice of Lisa Cook, a black woman from Georgia, to serve on the Federal Reserve Board. Despite the sterling credentials of the potential nominees, all of whom are far more qualified for their posts than Perdue is for this one, we are told that this is an assault upon the traditions of an American meritocracy.

They actually have the nerve to say such things, in public, as if none of us have any idea how the world really works.

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Jay Bookman
Jay Bookman

Jay Bookman covered Georgia and national politics for nearly 30 years for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, earning numerous national, regional and state journalism awards. He has been awarded the National Headliner Award and the Walker Stone Award for outstanding editorial writing, and is the only two-time winner of the Pulliam Fellowship granted by the Society of Professional Journalists. He is also the author of "Caught in the Current," published by St. Martin's Press.