ATLANTA — The Georgia Board of Regents has tapped a retired university administrator and veteran political operative to become the system’s new chancellor in the hope that a trusted hand with close ties to the state’s political powerbrokers can smooth strained relations with lawmakers.
The regents voted unanimously Friday to elect state Rep. Hank Huckaby to oversee the system of 35 colleges and universities across the state. He replaces Erroll Davis, who is retiring from the University System of Georgia after five years at the helm of the nearly 320,000-student system.
In picking Huckaby, a Georgia native and recently elected Republican state legislator from Watkinsville, the regents opted for a Georgia native who is familiar with the university system’s strengths and weaknesses. He retired in 2006 as the senior vice president for finance and administration at the University of Georgia, where he oversaw the school’s $1 billion budget. He also worked as a budget officer for Govs. Zell Miller and Sonny Perdue.
Davis was a retired utility chairman and an outsider to Georgia’s higher education system who drew fire from state lawmakers over how the university system responded to potential budget cuts. He threatened to eliminate the 4-H program and warned that he would have to dramatically increase tuition, infuriating the lawmakers in charge of the system’s finances.
Huckaby has a tough task ahead of him. He takes over a campus system struggling with several years of deep budget cuts that have led to layoffs and slashed programs. State funding for the system has dipped to levels not seen since the mid-1990s, forcing the schools to hike tuition rates and consider deeper cuts.
He said one of his first tasks when he takes over in July is to hire a top deputy and to start working more closely with Georgia education officials such as Superintendent John Barge. He said the top goal is to make the system “the model of the nation.”
But a more immediate challenge is to repair rifts with lawmakers, who have also criticized the system for steep tuition hikes they say led to the lottery-funded HOPE scholarship program nearly going broke. The Legislature voted this year to scale back the popular scholarship, cutting awards for all but the brightest students and eliminating stipends for books, fees and remedial classes.
“It’s not rocket science,” Huckaby said of his approach to mending fences with lawmakers. “I learned early in my career if you’re going to get anything done in most any endeavor, so much has to do with relationships.”