The Board of Regents convenes May 17 and 18 to consider ending the Georgia career of University System Chancellor Thomas Meredith. The ghost of Gov. Eugene Talmadge may be present.
Moreover, Georgia government may be on the brink of repeating one of the saddest episodes in its tumultuous history. A governor is close to interfering directly in the affairs of the unusually independent University System of Georgia.
Gov. Sonny Perdue wants Meredith gone as chancellor. Several regents who were appointed by Perdue appear ready to do the governor's bidding.
The atmosphere is reminiscent of the early 1940s when Talmadge ordered the firing of University System personnel. He also attempted to pack the regents' board with Talmadge toadies. The University System lost its accreditation and gained a national black eye that did not heal for decades.
The political issues then were different, but the outcome of the regents' next meeting may be similar. Perdue regards Meredith as an impudent and insubordinate department supervisor. The chancellor went over Perdue's head last year to complain publicly about what he considered Perdue's unreasonable budget cuts.
Meredith asked for tuition increases to cushion reductions in state funds. He asked rhetorically, "Why should higher education receive 30 percent of the cuts when it represents only 10 percent of the spending?"
In Perdue's eyes, Meredith was plainly not a team player. Never mind that bleeding the state's colleges is a recipe for a dismal future.
After weeks of stonewalling the chancellor and even ignoring his phone calls regarding the budget, Perdue finally agreed to see Meredith. When the two came together, Perdue exploded into one of his infamous temper tantrums. Before and after the incident, communications between the chief executive and the chancellor were virtually nonexistent.
Now, word has leaked that several pro-Perdue regents will vote against renewing Meredith's contract.
They put out the word that Meredith failed to demonstrate firm leadership in dealing with the rebellious university foundations, especially the one at UGA. Perdue's regents also are unhappy about Meredith going public with his differences over the governor's budget. They are also irked that Meredith went job hunting when the regentswere delinquent in paying his full compensation.
Several regents have let Meredith know, mostly through the press, that they want him to resign. They want to avoid another controversy of the magnitude of the recent fiasco involving university foundations - a donnybrook that has cast a shadow over the $480 million UGA endowment. If Meredith declines to resign, these regents say privately that they will oppose giving him a new contract.
About half the regents appear just as determined to retain Meredith. At this writing, the game between the factions is too close to call.
One thing is certain, however: A sense of history is missing. Perdue's people regard the chancellor as simply another state agency manager. He is not.
Because of the Talmadge debacle and attempts to repair the damage afterward, a Georgia chancellor is a semiautonomous official. He is answerable to the regents, whose terms are staggered purposely to avoid too much gubernatorial direction. The current board is about evenly divided between Perdue appointees and those of former Gov. Roy Barnes.
Whatever happens between the regents and Meredith, the outcome will not be good for the state.
If the regents vote to keep Meredith, he will remain under a cloud. If the regents remove him, they will permanently mark his position with political interference. Recruiting a well-qualified replacement will be difficult. Georgia may regain its once-soiled reputation as a third- or fourth-tier career choice for qualified educators.
In recent years, the University System of Georgia achieved national recognition partly because the Board of Regents hired several smart, high-energy chancellors. Among them were George Simpson and Stephen Portch. Simpson, who came to Georgia from the North Carolina Research Triangle, is credited with overseeing the rapid expansion of the system. Portch, a Briton who came to Georgia via Wisconsin, stressed enhancing the schools' quality.
Both chancellors fought fierce turf battles with governors, legislative leaders and even their own college presidents. Simpson and Portch succeeded because, in the end, most of their political adversaries recognized the importance of keeping the chancellor's role free of undue political influence.
The Meredith matter may decide whether anyone in the Perdue crowd still recognizes that kind of independence. It also may determine if Georgia stays on a path toward achieving parity in higher education with Virginia and North Carolina, instead of reverting to the ranks of Alabama and Mississippi.
Syndicated columnist Bill Shipp writes on Georgia politics. Write him at P.O. Box 440755, Kennesaw, GA, 30160 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org. His Web site is www.billshipp.com. His column appears on Wednesday and Sunday.