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VOL. 42 | NO. 8 | Friday, February 23, 2018

Clemmons: UT football fiasco at heart of Haslam's plan to shrink Board

By Sam Stockard

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Gov. Bill Haslam’s plan to shake up the University of Tennessee Board of Trustees is getting blitzed by legislators, some contending it’s linked to the hiring of the Tennessee Vols football coach.

“I think this is the Haslam family’s last gasp to maintain control, maintain their iron grip on the University of Tennessee,” said state Rep. John Ray Clemmons, a Nashville Democrat critical of the governor’s plan to outsource facilities management at universities statewide. So far, none of the UT chancellors at four campuses have opted into the outsourcing contract, which was opposed by a majority of lawmakers in 2017.

Clemmons says all reports he has seen show former UT Athletic Director John Currie and Ohio State’s defensive coordinator Greg Schiano were the Haslams’ choices at UT-Knoxville. But a social media campaign killed Schiano’s chances at the coaching job because of connections to Penn State and allegations he saw Jerry Sandusky act inappropriately with a young man and didn’t report it. Schiano denied the accusation.

After several coaches rejected the Volunteers coaching job, UT-Knoxville Chancellor Beverly Davenport replaced Currie with former coach Phillip Fulmer, who hired Alabama defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt to run the Vols program.

“I think it’s pretty transparent when he wants to eliminate the entire board and be able to appoint every single one of them himself this summer. It’s pretty clear what their ambitions are,” Clemmons said.

“They’ve gotten two black eyes after the outsourcing fiasco and their fumbling of the football program, so now they want to make this one last Hail Mary,” Clemmons added. “No one thinks it’s a good idea from everybody within my scope.”

Gov. Haslam has said several times he didn’t want to get involved in the coaching search but was glad to see the university settle on Pruitt and put the matter behind it. Haslam’s office has also said his restructuring plan is designed to make the Board of Trustees more efficient.

The governor’s brother, Jimmy Haslam, said after the search he had nothing to do with the process, according to reports, even though as owner of the Cleveland Browns he interviewed Schiano for the Browns coaching in 2014. He acknowledged being a “huge” supporter of the university, along with his entire family, but said he had no connection to the search. “Big” Jim Haslam, the governor’s father, played football for the Vols in the 1950s.

House Minority Leader Craig Fitzhugh, a critic of Haslam’s UT plan, said he doesn’t know whether the governor decided to reshape the board because the university hired Pruitt instead of Schiano, but he questions the timing of the proposal.

“I know football’s important and outsourcing is important, but to change a whole board of trustees and a whole system because you lose a couple of battles, I don’t think it’s appropriate,” said Fitzhugh, who is seeking the Democratic nomination for governor. “I’m not saying that’s what happened. But, really, I don’t know what else it could be. Why all of a sudden do we decide that we’ve got too many on the board? It just seems a little coincidental.”

Fitzhugh said he didn’t find out about Haslam’s plan to restructure the board until just before Christmas 2017, which was shortly after the Vols coaching search wrapped up.

President Joe DiPietro has said he agrees with Haslam’s proposal because the board is too unwieldy. A similar proposal was made by former President Wade Gilley too.

Under the legislation, the 27-member UT Board of Trustees would be disbanded at the end of June and reconstituted with 11 new members appointed by the governor and confirmed by the Legislature. DiPietro also could be leaving the system at the start of 2019 or the end of that year with his contract set to expire in mid-2019.

Numerous legislators dislike the timing in Haslam’s last year in office and say it’s inappropriate for him to try to appoint a new board that would pick a new president in his swan song.

“I think it’s pretty transparent when he wants to eliminate the entire board and be able to appoint every single one of them himself this summer,” Clemmons said. “It’s pretty clear what their ambitions are.”

No backing in committee

The governor’s bill was deferred in a House Education committee Tuesday and postponed Wednesday morning in the Senate Government Operations Committee, but not before its chairman, Sen. Mike Bell, had some unsavory words for the legislation.

Bell, a Riceville Republican, urged the committee’s members to study the UT FOCUS Act, talk to constituents and take a close look at any amendments they propose before it is considered next week.

“I guess an analogy I would use … when we get a piece of legislation we like to take that piece of legislation and chew on it and break it down into something digestible,” Bell said. “Well, I would compare this bill to an old, tough piece of bear meat. The more I chew on it the bigger it gets. And I’m somewhat concerned about the future of this bill.”

Senators made no other comments about the measure Wednesday.

But it received plenty of talk during the House Education Administration & Planning Committee meeting Tuesday. At one point, Fitzhugh asked the bill’s sponsor, Rep. David Hawk, why the change is needed if the system isn’t broken.

Hawk responded by saying some people think the “system is broken.” In response, Fitzhugh said he didn’t want to reduce and change the board’s makeup because of some “hiccups” at the University of Tennessee-Knoxville.

Fitzhugh, a Ripley Democrat who earned his degree at UT-K, was referring to controversy surrounding emails about Christmas parties from the Office of Diversity, which the Legislature defunded two years ago. He also mentioned “problems the governor possibly had with the Board and Trustees and chancellor.”

Hawk responded saying, “I think you answered your own question. Those are concerns, yes sir, I believe those are concerns.” The Greeneville Republican also said there are “concerns the board is not effective in terms of its approach” in addition to being too large.

Hawk says he’s trying to consider “all the concerns” coming from different sources and hopes to “clarify the situation and relieve some confusion” about the bill before next week.

“As folks know, confusion’s the best way to kill a bill down here and I think that was the purpose of many folks, just to create confusion (Tuesday),” Hawk said.

Picking the trustees

The legislation, which is being carried in the Senate by Majority Leader Mark Norris, would reduce the UT Board of Trustees to 11 members from 27. The governor would be removed, and it would drop student and faculty members with voter powers and several members who live in the areas where UT campuses are located.

An amendment introduced this week would create four positions for alumni members of the system’s four campuses, UT-Knoxville, UT-Martin, UT-Chattanooga and the UT Health Sciences Center in Memphis, to serve on the “big board.”

House Education Committee Chairman Harry Brooks, a Knoxville Republican, said he understands UT people are typically “conservative” and don’t want change “for the sake of change.”

Nevertheless, Brooks said the board needs to be shrunk to make it easier to operate.

“We’ve got to create a board … if you’ve got an immediate need, boom, you can communicate with everybody and you can literally do it in a day’s time,” he said. “With 30 people on a board it’s hard to give them all a phone call. If you’ve got a board with 13, 11 or 9, it’s much more doable.”

Brooks said the main board still could contain a student and faculty member, but he said he would wait to seek what the governor’s office comes back with next week.

Another amendment would set up two subcommittees with faculty and student representation, including one for academic affairs and student success.

In addition, the plan calls for creating advisory councils at all four campuses with student and faculty members.

The House Education committee bandied about percentages showing whether students would increase their representation under those types of amendments and changes to the legislation.

But UT-Martin Student Government Association President Jordan Long raised questions about their mathematics during the meeting.

“On the big board, one minus one is zero,” as far as student representation, Long said.

Jackson resident Ron Kirkland, an alumnus of three UT campuses, urged the committee to consider whether changing the board’s structure is even necessary, though he didn’t complain loudly about reducing its size.

“We alumni want to have a centrally-run system with one board,” Kirkland said.

Kirkland also contended setting up campus advisory councils, which would make recommendations to the main board, would create a fragmented University of Tennessee system that could wind up disbanding it.

Bill Nolan, a UT-Knoxville graduate and lobbyist who was the first student to serve with voting power on the UT Board of Trustees in the early 1970s, told committee members having a student with a vote is a crucial part of hearing students’ voices, especially in a tumultuous time of school shootings and other campus disruptions.

“If you don’t have a vote and you’re at the table you’re probably on the menu,” Nolan said.

Nolan played an instrumental role in pushing the state to set up an off-campus student housing office after two students were killed in a fire in the Fort Sanders area at UT-Knoxville.

Students also fought in early 1970s against allowing Ole Miss fans to bring rebel flags to a football game at the Knoxville campus, he said.

“The first line of defense at an institution like UT has to be the students,” said Nolan, who said he gained some influence by sitting between “Big” Jim Haslam and Clyde York on the Board of Trustees during his term.

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

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