It’s Always Cloudy at the Georgia Board of Regents
The near year-long saga to name Sonny Perdue as Chancellor of the University System of Georgia was the opposite of an open and transparent process.
Instead of restoring faith in the political independence of the Board of Regents, its status as Georgia’s quintessential Good Old Boys network was confirmed, leaving bitterness and cynicism in its wake.
Much of the blame lies with Georgia’s press, led by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
Instead of shining a light, it enabled secrecy. While public trust in institutions and the press dwindles, it reveled in a political soap opera.
How Georgia’s press covers its University System is well worth an outside investigation.
From legacy media’s dependence on college sports, to its ties to journalism schools, to revolving doors between newsrooms and USG public relations, citizens now must wonder if the public’s right to know comes first or last.
A review of the AJC’s coverage, from the paper’s first scoop that Sonny Perdue was under consideration in March of 2021 to this week, reveals stories filled with anonymous sources, official stonewalling, and one, brief interview with Perdue himself.
The effect was to launder the idea of Perdue as Chancellor, allow his backers to do damage control as outrage grew, and limit which outlets got the story and on what conditions.
It had all the trappings of a media campaign, one the paper willingly accepted its role in.
Sonny Perdue’s name was first mentioned as possible chancellor by the AJC in an article dated March 16, 2021.
It cites “five people with direct knowledge of the search.”
Sonny Perdue himself, Gov. Brian Kemp, and an unnamed “spokesman for Georgia’s higher education system” all decline to comment.
At the time the Regents’ Vice Chancellor for Communications was a former WSB TV reporter. While at WSB he managed to obtain many “exclusive interviews” with then Secretary of State Brian Kemp.
The USG’s current media contact, as named on this week’s Perdue announcement, is an expert in “reputation management” and “crisis communications” according to his LinkedIn profile.
The March 16th 2021 edition of “The Daily Jolt,” the AJC’s Politico-like morning newsletter, quickly began indulging in the political implications of it all. Despite the Regents and the Chancellor ostensibly being independent of politics.
Opposition to Perdue as Chancellor grew among faculty and staff and an active Students Against Sonny group quickly formed.
By Thursday April 22nd, the AJC’s “Jolt” was “picking up on mounting grumblings” from some of the Regents after talking to “multiple members.” None of whom did so on the record.
That same day the Regents paused their search.
The next day’s “Jolt” acknowledged this was because “some student and faculty opposition had bubbled up.”
The following Monday, The Southern Association of Colleges and Schools sent a letter to the Regents warning that the USG could lose its accreditation if the Chancellor search were politicized.
A May 11 article reported that the search firm the Regents were using had quit citing “misinformation.” But the article also highlights tributes and farewells to outgoing Chancellor Steve Wrigley, a longtime political insider and USG official.
Wrigley’s own appointment as Chancellor in 2016 was made without a national search.
By now columns and opinion pieces opposed to Perdue were appearing elsewhere and on social media.
On June 3rd, with less than a month left before Wrigley’s retirement, Perdue gave his first and only interview about wanting the job to the AJC.
It came out right before the paper’s first investigative piece on the process using Open Records Requests.
Ironically, they include the condemnation of anonymous sources.
“’We cannot let a few people acting as confidential sources for the media guide the present or the future of the USG,’ Reynolds replied to Waters’ email.”
Some Regents were opposed to the push for Perdue. All were engaging in the debate privately or through the “Jolt.” Not as a public, deliberative body.
This Open Records piece was important and shows how the AJC can illuminate the workings of institutions when it wants to.
But the piece only came out after grass roots opposition had built, the accreditation warning letter, and the search firm’s resignation.
The perception of a corrupt process was now widespread. The paper of record had to do more than parcel out more insider tips.
On June 23rd the paper’s Metro columnist Bill Torpy wrote an opinion piece opposing Perdue as Chancellor calling it “a dumb idea.”
While forthright, it was still a little late for a crusading columnist.
When Students Against Sonny had to lead the way on opposing blatant cronyism, there’s something wrong with our watchdogs.
That same day the Regents appointed an Interim Chancellor.
On June 29th the Washington Post published a lengthy investigative piece on a real estate deal involving Sonny Perdue titled “The land was worth millions. A Big Ag corporation sold it to Sonny Perdue for $250,000.”
Perdue declined to comment to the Post despite his seeking a new public servant position in Georgia.
The Post story includes background and links to AJC reporting on Perdue from 2006 when he was Governor.
The Great Recession hit the AJC and most newspapers hard making them more financially vulnerable, and perhaps less independent.
After the Interim Chancellor had settled in and a month since the Post story, an August 29th AJC article titled “Sonny Perdue Does Brian Kemp a Solid at GOP Rally in Middle Ga” suggests his quest for Chancellor is still alive.
On Sept. 8, the paper’s Get Schooled columnist publishes a guest article by a UGA historian critical of the Board of Regents.
While several opinion and guest columns critical of the search have now appeared in the AJC, none of them raise any concerns about the paper’s role in the convoluted process.
From demanding forthright, on the record answers from the Regents and other public officials to calling for Perdue to give a longer interview, or press conference with multiple news outlets, the paper could have done much more to make the process transparent and accountable.
Nov. 1st saw another Get Schooled guest column, this time a GSU Professor who also criticized the Regents for their Covid responses and efforts to alter tenure. It tells of a demoralized faculty.
The Dec. 15, “Jolt” cites “Multiple people close to Kemp say he still might pick Sonny Perdue for the coveted post, in part because he feels duty-bound to stick to his initial decision.”
The framing is of Kemp as a man of his word despite the decision not being his to make, but that of the Regents.
The Jolt admits this, as a parenthetical.
The item also mentions Axios Atlanta’s political reporting.
About a month earlier, Cox Enterprises, the AJC’s owner, became a major investor in Axios and gained a seat on its board.
Kemp appointed new Regents causing the paper to foreshadow the quickening of Sonny Perdue’s appointment.
A print/epaper article reiterated that Kemp’s new Regents appointments will hasten Perdue’s assent to Chancellor. The story sites “Multiple people with knowledge of the situation.”
Thursday Feb. 3rd.
An article on Sonny Perdue’s bid “gaining steam” appeared online Thursday Feb. 3rd. It cited anonymous Kemp administration sources and played up the political soap opera.
It gives all the backroom action while maintaining the fig leaf that the Regents are somehow independent.
Articles like this are a necessary part of the politicized process and come with a loss to the independence of the AJC.
It’s doing the governor’s bidding.
Refusing to grant anonymity to the officials involved and forcing them to go on the record would have created a more public and accountable Chancellor search.
Friday Feb. 4th
The next day Georgia House Appropriations Subcommittee on Higher Education Chair David Knight sent a letter to Interim Chancellor Theresa MacCartney asking for information on the teaching of anti-racism and Diversity Equity and Inclusion efforts within the University System.
Monday, Feb. 7th
Axios Atlanta’s early morning newsletter matched the AJC’s reporting by also citing an anonymous Kemp ally.
The AJC is owned by Cox Enterprises which is now a major investor in both Axios and Rivian, the electric vehicle maker whose new Georgia plant is Gov. Kemp’s signature economic development initiative.
The newsletter included a want ad for Cox Automotive.
Wed. Feb. 9th
These reports re-angered students and faculty prompting this AJC article dated Feb. 9th.
It appeared in the print/epaper edition of Thursday Feb. 10th.
Meanwhile, news of the David Knight letter appears to have been broken by USG faculty posting it on Twitter once they learned of it. This Tweet is dated Wed. Feb.
Thursday Feb. 10th
7:00 a.m. The House Appropriations Committees met to present budget changes to the FY22 budget.
David Knights’ Higher Ed subcommittee met but there was no discussion of the letter. Here’s Knight chairing the subcommittee that morning.
The AJC’s article on the letter is dated Feb. 10th online. It also appeared in print but not until Sat. Feb. 12th.
Friday Feb. 11th
The “Daily Jolt” confirmed Sonny Perdue would be formally interviewed by the Board of Regents later that day.
The Full House voted to approve the budget changes and send them to the State Senate.
Monday Feb. 14th.
8:00 a.m. The Senate Appropriations Higher Ed Subcommittee met to go over the House budget changes and hear testimony from state department heads including Interim Chancellor McCarthy. She’s greeted warmly but no questions about the House letter are brought up and no one comments on the Chancellor search.
Her appearance begins a few seconds after minute 50.
That afternoon, the AJC scoops that Sonny Perdue will be voted as sole final candidate on Tuesday.
Tuesday Feb. 15th.
The Regents name Sonny Perdue as sole final candidate for Chancellor. The AJC’s article quotes the Regents’, Perdue’s, and Kemp’s statements, briefly notes the opposition, and then includes some “both sides” quotes by supposedly independent experts. Former Regent Philip Wilheit,
“I like Sonny. I’ve known him a long time. But I have no doubt in my mind there are better people in this very important job than Sonny,” he said.
And ubiquitous Georgia Republican quote machine Brian Robinson.
Brian Robinson, a Republican strategist, said Perdue could address ongoing concerns such as conservative students have trouble expressing their viewpoints on campus.”
Robinson authored an infamous speech Gov. Nathan Deal gave to UGA’s Grady College of Journalism in 2015 arguing local media needs access to politicians like him more than politicians now need legacy media.
The speech was widely denounced, even by the AJC at the time, but foreshadowed Donald Trump’s use of social and conservative media.
The challenge was whether local media would acquiesce to their dependence on access to power or reassert their independence.
In Georgia higher ed reporting, access won out.
Wed. Feb. 16th.
Both the “Jolt” and Axios Atlanta give only terse mentions of the Regents’ vote, leaving out the “what this means for 2022” speculation. Perhaps a subtle nod to the sobering realization that cronyism at the USG had won.