It’s an important incident in Georgia history and politics. It happened in 1941 and was called “The Cocking Affair.”
Wikipedia tells us that this was “….an attempt in 1941 by Georgia governor Eugene Talmadge to exert direct control over the state’s educational system, particularly through the firing of Professor Walter Cocking because of his support for racial integration, and the subsequent removal of members of the Georgia Board of Regents who disagreed with the decision. “
Then, of all things, it was even “… made into an opera, entitled A Scholar Under Siege.”
That came to mind this week when word was circulated that former Gov. Sonny Perdue might be considered to become the next chancellor of the University System of Georgia, the agency that oversees the 26 public educational institutions in the state. The system has an enrollment of 333,507 students in 2019.
Dr. Perdue, himself a veterinarian, as the head of the academic institutions of our state? “Surely, they are jesting,” was one early thought.
Well, perhaps not quite that fast. We remember one veterinarian, Dr. Fred Davison, who was a solid president of the University of Georgia for 19 years (1967-1986).
But Sonny, something of a career politician, and former Secretary of Agriculture for President Trump, to be the chancellor?
Happily, some balked.
And those balking were significant, in that many of them were members of the Board of Regents of the University System of Georgia. Once Sonny’s name was circulating, word came that the Regents were “paused” in their search for the new chancellor. Translated, that meant to us that the Regents were also thinking: “What? Sonny as the chancellor? Not in my lifetime!”
So, the official “pausing.” Happily.
We can recall several superb chancellors in the last 20-30 years twho have continually made improvements in the overall system of higher education in the state. Some were more outstanding than others, but the main thread was significant improvements. Chancellors since the Regents were founded were:
- Charles Melton Snelling, 1932-1933;
- Philip Weltner, 1933-1935;
- Steadman Vincent Sanford, 1935-1945;
- Raymond R. Paty, 1946-1948;
- Harmon White Caldwell, 1948-1964;
- George L. Simpson, Jr., 1965-1979;
- Vernon Crawford, 1980-1985;
- H. Dean Propst, 1985-1993;
- Stephen R. Portch, 1994-2001
- Thomas Meredith,, 2002-2005;
- Erroll B. Davis, Jr., 2006-2011;
- Hank Huckaby, 2011-2016; and
- Steve Wrigley, 2017- present.
Back to the Cocking Affair: you may remember the outcome. As a result of the firings, all Georgia universities lost their accreditation. Students rallied, and…..Cocking w(as) eventually rehired. This incident also contributed to Gene Talmadge’s loss in the subsequent gubernatorial election to Ellis Arnall.
Wherever the trial balloon started to name the former Republican governor Perdue to run the University System, there’s no telling. You might imagine several who would start this rumor.
What got to us is that the move seemed a maneuver to return our state to the days when politics were more important than professional management in picking the leader of the University System.
Regents planned a standard “national search” for the best candidates to lead our educational institutions. We can’t imagine that a search firm would say that George Ervin “Sonny” Perdue III, age 74, would be at the top of the list. More likely the top candidates would, first of all, be educational leaders, and secondly, much younger.
Nineteen people balked. Happily, they were our Regents. They did us proud.
We don’t need another Cocking Affair look-a-like.
Editor's Note: this story first appeared at Elliott's GwinnettForum.com.
Image Credits: The feature caricature of George Ervin Perdue III, aka Sonny Perdue, was the the 81st Governor of Georgia and Donald Trump's Secretary of Agriculture was created by DonkeyHotey (Flickr/Creative Commons); the photo of the 1907 entrance to the University of Georgia was taken by Coxonian via Wikimedia Commons and used under a Creative Commons license; the photo of the 1907 University of Georgia football team is from the UGA Special Collections Library Online Exhibitions (Hargrett Rare Book & Manuscript Library/Public Domain) – The 1907 University of Georgia football team compiled a 4-3-1 and was coached by W.S. 'Bull' Whitney. The use of 'ringers' (paid semi-professional football players) in latter part of the season marred this team's reputation; 'Bull' Whitney was asked to leave the team, though he denied any wrong-doing. (It should be noted that Georgia Tech was also suspected of having used ringers during this season.) The 1907 team, under the leadership of Branch Bocock (who would coach the 1908 Georgia team), would close the season with a 6-0 victory over archrival Auburn. This photograph shows team captain R. Kyle Smith posing with the game ball from the Auburn game.