State lawmakers are pondering a constitutional amendment to make the presently independent University System of Georgia more accountable to the General Assembly and the governor's office. Such a move could trigger a major brouhaha in the upcoming legislative session.
House Speaker Terry Coleman, D-Eastman, disclosed discussion of restricting the regents' authority after Chancellor Thomas Meredith delivered to legislative budget writers a ringing defense of golden parachutes for the system's top administrators. Meredith endorsed the big-bucks severance deals in the same breath as he forecast drastic reductions in teaching positions and other "massive layoffs" if the state's spending cuts remain in place.
"There's talk in the halls [of the state Capitol] about a constitutional amendment to restrict the independence of the Board of Regents," Coleman told several reporters at a private luncheon.
Whether the idea is real or simply a warning shot across the bow of the regents is hard to tell. What's clear is that some legislative leaders are plainly unhappy with the University System of Georgia.
The regents' spending habits and the prolonged controversy involving UGA President Michael Adams and Athletics Director Vince Dooley have repeatedly irked Coleman and other legislative critics of the system.
For more than 50 years, the University System has enjoyed the protection of a state constitutional provision guaranteeing the regents and the system independence from the Legislature and the executive branch of state government.
The Legislature appropriates money for the regents as a lump sum and cannot legally specify how the dollars are spent.
The regents gained virtual autonomy in the Georgia Constitution of 1945 after a public outcry when the University System lost accreditation because Gov. Eugene Talmadge ordered faculty members fired for their moderate views on racial matters.
The "independence" clause, which was strengthened in 1982, was enacted to protect "academic freedom" in the system and facilitate restoration of accreditation.
Issues surrounding the firings have long since been resolved, but few state officials have dared encroach on the regents' impendent turf since. Not only do the regents enjoy constitutional protection, the board counts among its members some of the state's most influential men and women.
Gov. Sonny Perdue's administration has shied away publicly from trying to make peace between Adams and Dooley because it was fearful of treading on the system's autonomy.
However, Speaker Coleman has criticized the regents on several occasions for what he sees as profligate spending. He was particularly critical of former Chancellor Stephen Portch who resigned (with a $450,000 exit package) after a series of spats with Coleman.
The speaker has questioned the regents' decisions to increase tuitions and other enrollment fees, saying those repeated hikes are draining off HOPE scholarship funds unnecessarily and imposing financial hardships on nonscholarship students.
Reining in the regents could become one of several flashpoints in the 2004 General Assembly session that convenes Monday.
At the lunch, Coleman also revealed: