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The Georgia Board of Regents picked a star-crossed day four years ago to make a final decision on hiring Thomas G. Meredith as the state's most powerful bureaucrat.

If Meredith had known what was to come, he probably would have declined the lucrative post of University System chancellor.

As one knowledgeable source tells it, the regents were "in shock and weren't thinking straight. And neither was Meredith. But we had to get it done." So on a black Tuesday, Sept. 11, 2001 - the day terrorists attacked America - the regents agreed on final details of hiring Meredith.

"We knew what had happened in New York with the planes crashing into the World Trade Center. Frankly, we were in a daze. We should have waited," our source recalls.

After a stormy tenure in which several regents advised him to look for another job, Meredith resigned last week to move to Mississippi. The regents have set out to find a successor to oversee the state's $5 billion, 34-campus, 250,000-student system.

A senior administrator, Corliss Cummings, has been mentioned as acting chancellor. Retired Chancellor Stephen Portch may expand his role as a consultant to help run the system while the regents seek a permanent CEO.

A new chancellor, who may be announced by early December, will face serious problems. In the eyes of some, the University System of Georgia is a wreck.

Budgets have been slashed. Enrollment at some key institutions is expected to show a precipitous decline in the upcoming semester.

The system's flagship school, the University of Georgia, has been plagued for months by strife and major personnel shakeups. The regents fired the entire UGA board of trustees and instituted a new board to oversee the big school's endowment. In ousting the board, UGA turned its back on some of the school's wealthiest and most famous benefactors.

Though not quite as strident, similar controversies have erupted at Georgia Tech and the Medical College of Georgia, arguably the academic institutions best known in professional circles beyond our borders.

Faculty morale is said to be rock bottom at several schools.

An insecure governor and inexperienced legislative leaders have trod dangerously close to interfering politically with Georgia's colleges and universities.

At the same time, improving higher education has slipped from the top of the state's public to-do agenda. No one seems quite certain what, if anything, has replaced it in a statehouse poisoned by partisan politicking.

These are sad times in a state that once aspired to be a pacesetter in the progressive, upwardly mobile New South.

Problems in the University System may be emblematic of a wider array of headaches, some of which have infected the

economy.

In June, the Labor Department noted that Georgia's unemployment rate was higher than the national average for the first time in 16 years. This month, that trend continues as Georgia's unemployment rate stands at its highest level in more than 11 years. Georgia's jobless rolls grew faster than any other state's in the past 12 months, the department reported.

A year ago, Georgia and Florida were running neck and neck in employment. Both states reported less than 5 percent unemployment. Now Florida's jobless rate is under 4 percent, and Georgia's is 5.6 percent. Those numbers do not tell the whole story. Hard-to-quantify underemployment plagues areas where now-defunct high-tech industries once flourished. Computer specialists have become burger flippers.

The Peach State map is dotted with scores of red pins signifying plant closings and sell-offs. In metro Atlanta, the future of Delta Air Lines and the auto-assembly industry is ominously uncertain.

To be sure, bright spots exist. A German manufacturer has announced a 300-job die-casting plant for LaGrange. A chicken-processing plant has announced the addition of about 1,000 jobs in middle Georgia, most to be created in Gov. Sonny Perdue's native Houston County. (The poultry plant expansions may have an unwanted side effect. See immigration, Mexican.)

The bad news seems to outweigh the good. Traffic grows worse. Illegal immigration continues to overload our infrastructure. The prospect of private parties peddling the state's underground water supply has cropped up again. Our secondary school systems still struggle. And so forth.

Although making a direct connection between the condition of higher education and the general welfare of the state is difficult, Georgia seems to do best when our colleges and universities are riding high. Check out the 1980s and 1990s.

So perhaps we had better keep our fingers crossed as the regents' new chairman, Tim Shelnut, sets out to find fresh leadership to stabilize the University System and set it on a new course to achievement. Perhaps this time the decision-makers will consult a psychic to secure an otherwise uneventful date on which to choose their leader.

Syndicated columnist Bill Shipp writes on Georgia politics. Write him at P.O. Box 440755, Kennesaw, GA 30160, or e-mail bshipp@bellsouth.net . His Web site is www.billshipp.com . His column appears on Wednesday and Sunday.