The University System of Georgia comprises an array of institutions, programs, activities, and personnel. Its twenty-six member institutions enrolled more than 328,000 students in fall 2018 and employed more than 50,000 faculty and staff members in 2017.
Members of the University System of Georgia are Abraham Baldwin Agricultural College, Albany State University, Atlanta Metropolitan State
Organization and Governance
University system institutions and their faculties, programs, and services are governed by the Board of Regents, a constitutional body of nineteen members appointed by the governor of Georgia. The board consists of fourteen members, who represent each of the state’s congressional districts, and five at-large members. Appointed by the Board of Regents, the chancellor serves as the university system’s chief executive officer and oversees all matters pertaining to the funding, administration, and operation of public universities and colleges. Steve Wrigley became the chancellor of the University System of Georgia on January 1, 2017. Working closely with the chancellor is a staff of professionals who are well versed in business and financial affairs, educational policies and practices, and the public interest in higher education. The presidents of university system institutions are appointed on the recommendation of the chancellor. They are an important link by which the authority and responsibilities of the Board of Regents are conveyed to relatively autonomous institutions located at varying distances from the university system’s central offices in Atlanta.
The university system came into existence when the state legislature passed the Reorganization Act of 1931. The act called for the creation of a Board of Regents to oversee the state’s higher education system, which at that time consisted of twenty-six independently run colleges and universities. The board met officially for the first time on January 1, 1932, and appointed Charles Snelling, then president of the University of Georgia (UGA), as the first chancellor. The board went swiftly to work organizing the University System of Georgia. Within two years, the Board of Regents had closed numerous colleges, opened two new ones, and reorganized the course offerings at numerous schools. By 1934 the system contained eighteen colleges and universities.
The university system experienced its first major crisis in 1941 during the Cocking affair. That year, Governor Eugene Talmadge sought the dismissal of Walter Cocking, the dean of UGA’s College of Education, asserting that Cocking favored the racial integration of a demonstration school near Athens. When the Board of Regents failed to comply with Talmadge’s request to dismiss the dean, the governor removed three members from the board and replaced them with Talmadge supporters. Cocking was fired during the next Board of Regents meeting. As a consequence of Talmadge’s interference, the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools withdrew its accreditation of all Georgia’s state-supported colleges for whites. Largely as a result of the Cocking affair, Talmadge lost the next gubernatorial election. Accreditation (made retroactive to September 1, 1942) was restored in January 1943 to the white colleges.
The university system experienced a period of growth after World War II (1941-45), due in large part to the passage of the GI Bill, which allowed thousands of returning soldiers to obtain a college education. In 1947 the university system enrolled 25,000 students, half of them GIs. In 1958 the National Defense Education Act helped boost both enrollment and faculty salaries as the nation addressed its critical shortages in scientific, technical, and professional manpower. The university system also launched a major building campaign; during the 1950s, the system spent $79 million on new construction.
The relative peace and prosperity of the 1950s did not last. In 1961 the system witnessed the first battle in what would become a twenty-seven-year-long struggle with desegregation. Two previous attempts had been made to desegregate the university system, one in 1950 when African American Horace T. Ward applied to UGA and another in 1956 when four African Americans applied to Georgia State College (later Georgia State University). These efforts proved unsuccessful, but the growing civil rights movement of the early 1960s ensured that another attempt would be made. This attempt came in 1961, when Charlayne Hunter and Hamilton Holmes became the first Black students to attend the University of Georgia, despite attempts by Governor Ernest Vandiver to close the school if it was desegregated. In 1973, within a period of five days, two different government authorities, the U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare and U.S. District Court Judge Wilbur D. Owens, ordered the Board of Regents to submit plans for the complete desegregation of the university system’s colleges and universities. The issue dragged on for more than a decade, as a resistant board presented various plans that were repeatedly judged unsuitable by federal authorities. In 1983 a plan acceptable to the parties was approved, and in 1988 the university system finally met all the requirements of that agreement.
The university system witnessed an intense period of activity and change during the 1990s. It played an important part in the 1996 Olympic Games, held in Atlanta. Georgia State University and Georgia Tech provided facilities for Olympic Village, while schools in other parts of the state hosted competitions and allowed their campuses to be used for training and practice. In 1998 all schools in the system converted from a quarter-based to a semester-based academic calendar. Most important, however, was the introduction of the HOPE Scholarship Program in 1993. Funded entirely through the Georgia state lottery, HOPE initially paid full tuition costs for all college students meeting residency and grade-point average requirements. Despite a recent crisis in funding, HOPE continues to provide tuition assistance for thousands of Georgians.
Several other factors contribute to the university system’s continued growth. One advantage is that its central offices are located in Atlanta, across the street from the state capitol. The system accrues benefits, direct and indirect, from Atlanta’s status as a regional hub and from the proximity of the home offices of the Southern Regional Education Board and the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools. The regional offices of the College Board and Educational Testing Service also have had significant influence.
The university system, progressing far beyond its early potential, has become a public resource in which Georgians can express pride. Its libraries, research laboratories, museums, and other facilities represent a substantial investment of state resources and play a significant role in the state’s economy.