Gov. Nathan Deal put education at the top of his list Monday, appointing Gainesville resident Philip Wilheit to the Board of Regents shortly after his own inauguration.
Before Deal swore in his top seven staff members, he asked Wilheit and his family to come forward to take an oath of office for a position that oversees the state's 35 colleges and universities.
"I'm excited and awfully flattered he picked me to be the first appointment," Wilheit said by phone Tuesday, snowed into a hotel in Atlanta. "I'm glad he has that level of confidence in me."
Wilheit, 66, will fill the unexpired term of Felton Jenkins, who died Jan. 1. Wilheit, president of Wilheit Packaging and Marking Images, was Deal's campaign manager, a transition vice chairman and treasurer of Deal's campaigns for 28 years.
"At my first opportunity to appoint, I choose a close personal friend who I've known a very long time," Deal said Monday in the Capitol's ceremonial governor's office. "He has long been dedicated to education in this state."
Wilheit served on the State Board of Education under Sen. Johnny Isakson and on former Gov. Sonny Perdue's Economic Development Commission and Water Contingency Task Force.
"It's a big job, and we're responsible for the state's 35 institutions," Wilheit said of the regents position. "I hope my background in economic development will come in handy because they go hand-in-hand and have to work in concert. I think that's something I can bring to the board."
Wilheit said he anticipates his first Board of Regents meeting, but it was announced Tuesday that the meeting scheduled for this week has been canceled due to the winter weather.
"My first meeting has yet to come, but I'll be dealing with everything that goes along with the state's universities," Wilheit said. "It's a tremendous line item in the budget, and education's the state's single largest expense."
Wilheit said he is looking forward to tackling this year's issues, especially budget concerns.
"The budget will be huge, and we'll hear a HOPE Scholarship report from the head of the lottery. We're going to have to face some harsh realities on what the lottery is able to give and make some adjustments in how that is administered," he said.
"Immigration is going to come up as well. That will be a hot political issue between the Board of Regents and legislature."
Wilheit also will continue to serve as Deal's representative to the regents' chancellor search committee, which will find the next University System of Georgia leader once Erroll Davis retires in June. The search committee will forward the credentials of up to five candidates to the full Board of Regents, which will interview and pick the next chancellor.
Deal named Wilheit to the search committee on Nov. 4, one of the first official appointments he made as governor-elect following his Election Day victory.
"All of this is a great experience for me and such an opportunity," Wilheit said. "I really hope it will benefit Gainesville and Hall County."