By Dave Williams and Maria Saporta
The University System of Georgia Board of Regents voted Tuesday to table until November any action about a possible engineering school at The University of Georgia.
The vote came after Gov. Sonny Perdue warned the board the state university system should not launch an engineering program at UGA without studying potential adverse consequences or gaining approval from the political leadership and public.
“Take a deep breath, relax, slow down and work diligently to win support,” the governor told members of the university system Board of Regents.
Perdue spoke early Tuesday afternoon at the beginning of the regents’ monthly meeting.
The board clearly did not want to take any action that would alienate the governor or legislators.
Board members had in front of them a proposal by UGA to begin offering undergraduate degrees in civil, mechanical and electrical engineering at the Athens campus.
The plan has drawn fire from administrators at Georgia Tech and some of its leading alumni, who argue that it would be more cost effective to concentrate the university system’s engineering mission at the nation’s fourth-ranked engineering school.
“I think the regents are being careful in their deliberation,” said Georgia Tech President Bud Peterson, after the vote. “I don’t think it’s clear what going to happen between now and November, but I have great confidence in them.”
Perdue accused the plan’s supporters on the Board of Regents of seeking to run it through quickly without coordination from the governor’s office, in contrast to what historically has been a close relationship between Georgia governors and regents.
“I’m hearing rumors that some of you might not care what your governor thinks,” said Perdue, who is leaving office at the end of this year. “[But] the governor and legislature still have final say on the state budget for the system.”
Perdue said even if it could be demonstrated that UGA and engineering are a good fit, the proposal is poorly timed because of current economic constraints on state spending.
“I have a lot of respect for the governor,” said UGA President Michael Adams, after the meeting. “He’s a friend and I respect him and I respect the office. I’m going to let it stay at that.”
Georgia Rep. Earl Ehrhart, R-Powder Springs, chairman of the House budget subcommittee for higher education, raised similar cost issues in an Oct. 6 letter to system Chancellor Erroll B. Davis Jr.
Perdue also dismissed arguments from supporters that the plan would give Georgia students interested in engineering greater access to the university system. He noted that most UGA students come from the northern half of the state and, in fact, 40 percent hail from just four metro-Atlanta counties.
“I question whether the prescription here really fits the diagnosis,” he said.
The UGA engineering proposal has generated divisive views among the members of the Board of Regents.
Dink Nesmith, a newspaper publisher who spoke in favor of the UGA proposal, urged his fellow regents to “put on our asbestos boots and walk over the hot coals” to vote yes. He spoke against further study, calling it “paralysis by analysis.”
But Larry Walker, who said his inclination is to support UGA, made a motion to table the proposal until November out of respect for the governor and the legislature.
Seconding his motion was fellow Regent Fred Cooper, a business leader who is close to Perdue.
“I did not expect the governor to come here today and appeal to us not to take action,” Cooper said, adding that it would not be good for the board to choose “to fly in the face of the sitting governor” combined with Ehrhart’s letter asking the regents to hold off.
The most outspoken regent against UGA’s proposal was Ben Tarbutton, who provided a detailed breakdown of his concerns about the potential cost of UGA’s program and the lack of a thorough study to determine the need and the state’s strategy.
“We need to do our due diligence,” Tarbutton said. “We need to get the train back on the track before doing irreperable damage.”
Several regents voiced their concern the issue was dividing the board and generating tension between two of the state’s premier institutions. Regent Richard Tucker even accused one institution, which he did not name, of “hiring outside consultants to fight UGA.”
In the end, there were two regents who voted not to table the issue until November — Tarbutton and Tucker.