Deal is set to put his stamp on higher education

Gov. Nathan Deal has a unique advantage over his predecessors in impacting the direction of higher education -- his chancellor Hank Huckaby.
Since the creation of the University System of Georgia in 1931 to oversee all of the state’s public colleges, governors have wanted to exercise influence on the Board of Regents. Of course, too much interference can cost them politically. Just consider Eugene Talmadge.
He was governor in 1941 when he decided to fire the dean of the University of Georgia education department for wanting to integrate a demonstration school in Athens. Talmadge eventually replaced three regents to do it and began a crusade to remove all foreign professors whom he considered communists, sparking student protests and drawing negative attention from the national media.
Not only did the whole University System lose accreditation, but the American Medical Association and the American Bar Association also ended ties. Enrollment at the University of Georgia fell 37 percent.
Many observers say the uproar cost Talmadge re-election. And every governor afterward has had less control because a resulting change in the constitution gave the regents almost complete autonomy.
That autonomy frustrates governors and legislators because it makes the University System a $7 billion government unto itself. For instance, it added 5,000 employees while the rest of state government cut 10,000 since the last recession.
About all the politicians can do is appropriate money, but the regents can simply raise their own through tuition and mandatory fees if they’re not happy with what they get from taxpayers.

The last Athens-area lawmaker to chair the House Higher Education Subcommittee on Appropriations in recent decades, ex-Rep. Bob Smith, R-Watkinsville, even pushed to end the regents’ constitutional protection up until his retirement.

One power governors still have is appointing regents, but their terms last longer than governors, giving them some isolation from threats about reappointment. That’s the reason that the people who are appointed are always close associates, large donors or both.

Consider that one of Deal’s first official acts in office was the appointment of Philp Wilheit Sr. from Gainesville, one of his largest contributors. The two have been political allies since the governor ran for his first public office, and Deal even appointed Wilheit’s son to the Board of Natural Resources.

But regents tend to be accomplished executives, attorneys and doctors who are accustomed to professional independence. So Deal went beyond appointing trusted regents by quickly installing a new chancellor, the man who runs the University System day to day.

He selected Hank Huckaby, who at the time was a freshman legislator from Athens and administrative floor leader in the House. Huckaby’s connections with Deal go much further back.

Huckaby, born in Spalding County, began his career as a college professor and administrator, and until he retired from UGA had hopscotched between state government and the University System, most significantly as then-Gov. Zell Miller’s budget director when Deal was the senior member of the Senate.

Not all budget directors, though, are as personable and competent, notes Sen. Jack Hill, a Reidsville Republican who chairs the Senate Appropriations Committee.

“He has the qualities that went beyond the jobs that he held,” said Hill, the longest serving member of the Senate.

Usually, Georgia’s chancellors have come from out of state, bringing their own agendas with them. When Sonny Perdue was governor, he went outside of academia to selected Erroll Davis, an energy-company executive from Wisconsin who had also been a university trustee elsewhere. Many critics say that Davis ended up reacting to the academic establishment rather than changing it.

Deal may have better luck in Huckaby.

One of the duo’s first initiatives is in graduation rates. The pair sat all the presidents of the colleges and universities down at the Governor’s Mansion to give them marching orders.

A more telling example is money related.

Deal ordered every state agency, including the University System, to cut 3 percent of its current budget by targeting low-priority programs. When Huckaby read the cuts each president proposed, he lowered the boom on them.

Some had used a standard political tactic of selecting the most popular programs in hopes that public pressure would soften the cuts. That’s what happened under Davis, but Huckaby wasn’t buying it.

“Unfortunately, a number of plans simply offer to return allocated funds that were deemed to be high priorities or continue the practice of cutting a little from all programs,” he wrote the presidents in a memo he personally released to the press. “In the days ahead, (University System) Fiscal Affairs staff will be in touch to discuss plans that fail to adhere to previous instructions.”

Hill agrees with the private observation of system insiders that Huckaby is making a difference.

“He’s an understated kind of guy, but he’s running that system,” Hill said. “He’s impressing those presidents that he’s got a finger on it. ... There’s a sobering reality that’s setting in.”

(Walter Jones is the bureau chief for the Morris News Service in Atlanta.)



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