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Behind the Hedges: Big Money and Power Politics at the University of Georgia

By: Rich Whitt
Reviewed by: Karl Jones
NewSouth Books, 2009
$27.95, Hardcover

Behind the Hedges, written by Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative journalist Rich Whitt, is a riveting tale of self-interested bureaucrats, politicians, and power-brokers and how they will do most anything to preserve their power and influence. On the surface, the book is a stinging indictment of University of Georgia President Michael Adams, his senior staff, and the news media (including Whitt’s former employer, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution) that turned a blind eye to improper and perhaps illegal activities. As a sad aside, the author died as this book was published.

On a broader scale, the book tells the story of organizational politics and how certain interests can capture public organizations to serve their own purposes, not those of the public. Furthermore, it is an indictment of higher education’s trend toward selecting leaders with political and fundraising skills rather than knowledge and appreciation of universities and faculty governance.

Behind the Hedges starts with an exploration of how Adams was selected as president and how he gained control of a major Carnegie Mellon Research I university with academic credentials that would have been far less than those necessary to garner tenure. The book reports Adams’ rise to the top of the search list and then his eventual appointment to the post through the sponsorship of an influential member of the Board of Regents. Adams’ appointment did not engender faculty confidence and he quickly appointed a Provost, further isolating him from the faculty. Additionally, he appointed two of former governor Zell Miller’s top lieutenants to senior vice presidential posts. These appointees were also without academic credentials and the author suggests that because of this fact their loyalty was to Adams rather than to the larger University community. One of the appointees, Steve Wrigley, becomes a focus of the book as he is “investigated” by Attorney General and present gubernatorial hopeful Thurbert Baker (another Miller appointee) for possible wire fraud. The book states that even such actions escaped public notice and scrutiny by the state’s media and received a blind eye from the politically connected.

According to the author, Adams expressed no interest in the University’s athletic endeavors but quickly ran into conflict with legendary football coach and athletic director Vince Dooley. Dooley is “forced” into retirement, causing a riff in the Bulldog Nation. The riff extended to the University of Georgia Foundation (UGA Foundation) that then contracted for an investigation of Adams and his extravagant spending habits with donor money. Adams, with a degree in political communication, quickly spun the report as an indictment of the UGA Foundation, won a vote of confidence from the Board of Regents, cut formal ties with the UGA Foundation, and formed a competing foundation.

Adams did not exhaust his spin techniques with the above activities; the University of Georgia public relations arm quickly denounced Behind the Hedges as “rehashing issues” and “old news” (Athens Banner-Herald, May 31, 2009). Quite to the contrary, Behind the Hedges presents the facts of the Adams administration in the coherent style of an investigative journalist.

Behind the Hedges is excellent general reading and will be of particular interest to those associated with the University of Georgia and/or interested in Georgia politics. The book has significant potential for use as a supplemental text in courses in journalism, ethics, higher education administration, organizational behavior, public management, and foundation and non-profit management. June 2009

Karl Jones writes from Athens, Ga.

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