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VOL. 42 | NO. 2 | Friday, January 12, 2018

UT president agrees with Haslam on trimming Board of Trustees

By Sam Stockard

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University of Tennessee President Joe DiPietro favors trimming the system’s Board of Trustees and altering the executive selection process, agreeing with Gov. Bill Haslam’s efforts to streamline the governing body.

“My view is it needs to be statewide representation because we’re a statewide institution. But outside of that, downsizing it to make it more efficient and easier to do its work, I think, would be a good thing,” DiPietro said this week as the Legislature convened.

The UT president said he is also talking with Tennessee media leaders about a new vetting process for the system’s executive candidates. Under the current rules, three candidates are to be introduced publicly and considered for top leadership positions.

Haslam, a Republican from Knoxville, confirmed recently he is having “conversations about ways to help the UT Board of Trustees operation more efficiently and effectively.” The governor, who declined to comment further, is set to announce his legislative and policy initiatives when he makes his State of the State on Jan. 22.

Lt. Gov. Randy McNally, an Oak Ridge Republican, said this week the number of members grew through “mission creep,” but he acknowledged the Legislature made it happen.

“I think everybody’s in favor of reducing the size, because 26 is unmanageable. But there’s not universal agreement about how to do it,” said McNally, a graduate of the University of Tennessee Pharmacy School in Memphis. “We want to make sure that all individuals aren’t just from Memphis, Knoxville, Chattanooga and Nashville, that type of thing, that’s there’s rural representation, and we want to make sure they’re spread throughout the state.”

At least one state representative, though, believes changes likely to be proposed this legislative session could hurt transparency in executive searches and might even be a form of “retribution” over UT’s refusal to outsource jobs at its five campuses at the behest of the Haslam administration.

“It’s no secret the Haslam family likes to control or have the appearance of controlling the University of Tennessee, especially the flagship in Knoxville, and this just seems to be one more way to try to exert that control in a formal manner while Haslam is still governor,” says Clemmons, a Nashville Democrat.

Clemmons was among the Legislature’s most outspoken opponents of the Haslam administration’s effort to outsource facilities management at Tennessee’s colleges and universities. So far, none of the UT campuses have tapped into the outsourcing contract.

“I think all of the chancellors landed in the right spot on that issue. But I am concerned this is Haslam’s last-ditch attempt to try to seek some sort of retribution as a result of that,” adds Clemmons, though he admitted he’d like to have more information about the situation.

Haslam chairs the 26-member Board of Trustees, which includes at-large members from Tennessee’s nine congressional districts, two students, two faculty members and three state department commissioners who can cast votes.

The UT Board of Trustees also includes Mike Krause, ex officio and non-voting member as executive director of the Tennessee Higher Education Commission, Education Commissioner Candice McQueen and Agriculture Commissioner Jai Templeton.

DiPietro said he doesn’t know how many members might be cut from the board, calling it “all speculation” at this point but pointed out the new FOCUS Act put nine members on boards of trustees at Tennessee’s state universities such as MTSU, TSU and East Tennessee State.

“This institution, because of its size, might need a little bigger board than that. But I don’t think the exact number matters as much as, at 26 members, that’s pretty big,” DiPietro said.

Asked what specific problems have been created by the board’s size, DiPietro said bringing members together at locations across the state, in addition to bringing staff for meetings can be expensive and require a good deal of effort.

The UT system has an enrollment of more than 49,000 students at UT-Knoxville, UT-Martin, UT-Chattanooga, the UT Health Science Center in Memphis and the UT Space Institute near Tullahoma.

Clemmons pointed out the state should eliminate department commissioners if it wants to reduce the size of the board, not at-large members appointed from across the state.

“I certainly don’t think Candice McQueen’s going to add anything of value to the conversation of higher education discussion as it pertains to the University of Tennessee,” Clemmons said. “I would prefer that she focus on preK-12.”

Slicing the selection process

The lieutenant governor said he understands DiPietro is working with the Tennessee Press Association to maintain “transparency” in the executive search process. McNally recently confirmed the number of finalists made public for executive searches could be reduced to one from three and noted the Legislature “will have some concerns about that.”

DiPietro appears to be leaning toward a proposal to cut the number of finalists, saying some university leaders shy away from applying for executive positions in the UT system because of the two-week period required for vetting and the fact their name could be made public. This gives the system a smaller pool from which to select experienced candidates, he said.

As a result, the UT president said he is suggesting a 15-day mandatory period for the media and public to look at the “the single candidate or more, depending on the circumstances.”

“We think that’s more than adequate for you to do your due diligence. And we’re not afraid of your due diligence or anybody’s or the public’s. So I see it as a possible advantage of being able to make sure the pool, the goal should be that the pool needs to be filled with the very best,” DiPietro said.

On the other hand, McNally pointed out, the selection process can be tainted if the system tells one person “you’re the man” and then puts two other candidates in the finalist pool who aren’t worried about their job future.

“Hopefully, (DiPietro) can work out something with the press association and the public to make sure it’s a transparent process and there is enough time for input and review,” McNally said.

Clemmons, however, said the state’s goal should be to put the most qualified people in charge of higher education and reiterated his concern about “those in power trying to solidify their power and exert more control.”

“Any time you’re dealing with public positions like this, publicly-funded positions, the more accountability and transparency the better,” Clemmons said. “I don’t understand why you would want to limit access to those being considered for some of the highest positions in our higher education system.”

Clemmons said the state should be focusing on openness and honesty with Tennesseans, not fretting about how a person’s job application will affect job security.

“If (transparency is) our priority, we need to operate within that realm and all the other stuff should be secondary,” he said.

Sam Stockard is a Nashville-based reporter covering the Legislature for the Nashville Ledger, Memphis Daily News, Knoxville Ledger and Hamilton County Herald. He can be reached at sstockard44@gmail.com.

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