Flowery Branch readies for playoffs
For the past few years, there has been a war between the University System and the members of the Georgia General Assembly. It is time to end the hostilities and negotiate a peace settlement.
The Board of Regents has decided to appoint as the new chancellor a person who should be able to work out the terms of a peace treaty: Hank Huckaby.
When it comes to understanding how legislators, governors, and government bureaucrats think, Huckaby is someone who has been there and done that. Over the past four decades he was put in charge of running several state agencies, was the top budget adviser to two governors, and served as vice president for finance at the University of Georgia.
Four years after he retired from government, Huckaby started a new career by getting elected last year to the state House of Representatives, where incoming Gov. Nathan Deal promptly named him one of the administration floor leaders.
He's not flashy and polished like some of the pampered executives you see these days, but he is a guy with a lot of common sense and political savvy. At this point in the history of the University System, Huckaby is the kind of leader needed to get things back on track.
When he is installed as the new chancellor, Huckaby will put a merciful end to what has been a troubled tenure by the person he replaces, Erroll Davis.
Davis had no academic background when he was hired for the job; he had been the head of a Wisconsin-based power company. Then-Gov. Sonny Perdue insisted on Davis' appointment in the erroneous belief that a corporate CEO was the perfect choice to run one of the nation's best systems of public colleges.
"He thought it would be a good idea to have someone with a business background in charge," said one of the regents who was pushed by Perdue into voting for Davis' appointment. "The experiment failed."
There were some serious missteps during Davis' reign. He persuaded the regents to install an expensive computer system to handle all the college payrolls, telling them that the move would save a lot of money. Instead, the new system ran up computer costs by more than $22 million (and counting).
There were also times when Davis was not around because he was fulfilling an assignment as a highly compensated member of a corporate board of directors. Davis missed the regents' April 2010 meeting, a time of the year when they are typically discussing vital budget and tuition matters, because he flew to England to attend a British Petroleum board meeting and was detained by the volcanic eruption in Iceland.
The low point of Davis' career as chancellor could well have been his appearance before a hearing of the House and Senate appropriations committees when legislators were trying to balance the state budget in the middle of the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression.
Sen. Seth Harp noted that state employees were being laid off or furloughed while programs important to his constituents were being eliminated. Harp asked Davis if he might be willing to freeze or even cut the pay of the college presidents, whose compensation packages sometimes exceed $500,000 or $600,000 a year.
"That's certainly something we're not going to recommend or even contemplate," Davis said haughtily.
That has to rank as one of the dumbest, most politically inept statements ever made to a group of elected officials.
The price he paid was high. For the past three years, lawmakers have been forced to cut the budgets of every state agency because of the economic downturn. Thanks to the chancellor's arrogance, legislators were inspired to make even deeper cuts in the money allocated to the University System.
In response to those funding reductions, the Board of Regents voted to increase tuition to maintain the operations of our public colleges. Those tuition increases just made legislators more determined to keep cutting the funds for higher education.
It's time to end the hostilities. Huckaby may be the best person to do it.
"He doesn't have the academic background you might want," said a University System official. "But we've got some damage control we need to do over in the House, Senate, and governor's office."
Tom Crawford is the editor of The Georgia Report, an Internet news service that covers government and politics in Georgia. His column appears Wednesdays and on gainesvilletimes.com.