Former Georgia Governor Sonny Perdue at a 2012 event in Sandy Springs. (File Photo)

Former Gov. Sonny Perdue is poised to become the next chancellor of the University System of Georgia.

The system’s Board of Regents voted Tuesday to name the Republican from Houston County the sole finalist to lead Georgia’s 26 public colleges and universities.

Perdue was Georgia’s first Republican governor since Reconstruction, serving from 2003 until 2011. Then-President Donald Trump tapped Perdue, an agribusiness owner, to serve as Secretary of Agriculture in 2017, and he became one of the few Cabinet secretaries to remain in his post throughout Trump’s four-year term.

The selection of Perdue came after a nationwide search. The selection committee interviewed many highly qualified candidates, board Chairman Harold Reynolds said Tuesday.

“This is a highly sought-after job, and that reflects well on our system,” he said.

The hiring process stretched out for months after former Chancellor Steve Wrigley retired last year and was succeeded by Teresa MacCartney as acting chancellor. Perdue had the support of some regents, but others were concerned about his lack of experience in education administration.

Gov. Brian Kemp recently replaced four regents with new appointees who favored Perdue, clearing the way for Tuesday’s vote, which was unanimous.

Student and faculty groups also have raised concerns about Perdue’s suitability for the job.

Matthew Boedy, president of the Georgia Association of University Professors, is asking the accrediting body for Southern colleges and universities to issue a second warning letter to the regents. The Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges (SACSOC) issued a letter last year when Perdue’s name surfaced as a candidate cautioning the regents against allowing political interference in the hiring process.

“It is clear that Governor Kemp’s shuffling of the board by appointing two new regents in January played a massive role in the speed at which Mr. Perdue’s chances of getting the job were resurrected,” Boedy wrote in an email to SACSOC. “While legally allowed to appoint regents, the governor’s move could be read as pushing off the board those who blocked Perdue’s path.”

While Perdue lacks administrative experience in education, Reynolds said he will bring government management expertise and high-level leadership to his new position.

“I consider being named the finalist as the Chancellor of the University System of Georgia to be a wonderful capstone to a career of public service,” Perdue said in a statement released after Tuesday’s vote.

“Education is the most important issue at the federal, state and local level and it’s why, as a legislator, I sought to be chair of the Senate Higher Education Committee to work on important initiatives with Gov. Zell Miller and former USG Chancellor Steve Portch.”

Kemp issued a statement after the vote calling Perdue “highly qualified” for the chancellor’s post through both his experience in state government and as agriculture secretary.

“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,” the governor said. “Georgians will benefit from his decisive and creative leadership over a system which now serves more than 340,000 students.”

Kemp might have been expected not to push Perdue’s appointment because his first cousin, David Perdue, is challenging the governor’s reelection bid in May’s Republican primary.

But Kemp and Sonny Perdue have longstanding political ties that go back to Kemp’s election to the state Senate in 2002 and Perdue’s support for Kemp in the 2018 GOP gubernatorial primary.

The regents will take final action on Perdue’s appointment at a future board meeting, no sooner than 14 days from Tuesday’s naming of the sole finalist.

This story is available through a news partnership with Capitol Beat News Service, a project of the Georgia Press Educational Foundation.

Dave Williams | Capitol Beat

Dave Williams is the Bureau Chief of Capitol Beat News Service.