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VOL. 40 | NO. 3 | Friday, January 15, 2016

Chancellor steps aside, avoids fight

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Gov. Bill Haslam’s plan to restructure higher education didn’t take long to shake up the hierarchy. It led to the early retirement of Board of Regents Chancellor John Morgan, who blasted the proposal in a letter to the governor, before legislation even hit the printing press.

The longtime state official said he would rather step down than support a plan he feels will be detrimental to colleges and universities.

Morgan slid into the seat five years ago under former Democratic Gov. Phil Bredesen after the Board of Regents changed its rules to allow someone without a doctorate to take the post. But even after Haslam took office, he followed the directions of the Republican governor, helping initiate the Complete College Act and Drive to 55 – until he felt the governor went too far.

The 40-year state government veteran and former Tennessee comptroller and deputy governor had already informed Haslam he planned to retire in January 2017.

But he moved up the date a year after Haslam unveiled the FOCUS Act, which will remove oversight of six state universities from the Board of Regents and shift its responsibility primarily to community colleges and technical schools. He’ll be gone Jan. 31.

“Given the announcement of plans to form separate governing boards for six TBR universities, I cannot, in good conscience, continue as chancellor for another year,” Morgan wrote in a letter to Haslam and Emily Reynolds, vice chair of TBR.

Haslam’s proposal would give local boards the ability to hire and fire university presidents, set strategies, handle curriculum, etc. But instead of reporting to TBR, they’ll fall under the Tennessee Higher Education Commission, which will take on more power.

It’s all part of Haslam’s Drive to 55, an initiative to put degrees or certificates in the hands of 55 percent of Tennessee adults by 2025. But apparently Morgan doesn’t like the idea of watering down TBR’s authority or its ability to fight for those universities collectively.

“Simply put, I believe the path being proposed is the wrong one for many reasons. However, as an employee of the board, I will not act contrary to the board’s stated interests and objectives, and because of my feelings, I would not be in a position to help implement a proposal that, in my view, will do nothing to further TBR’s work to accomplish the state’s goals.”

Rather than pretend he is backing the plan, Morgan decided to step aside and give Haslam time to appoint someone else to the post.

“I cannot be objective on this topic. I believe the proposed FOCUS plan is unworkable and will seriously impair the critical alignment of the state’s needs, the TBR’s oversight responsibility, and each institution’s accountability,” Morgan wrote.

The retiring chancellor said other models such as one used by North Carolina offer more local involvement without “destroying the effectiveness and accountability of a comprehensive system focused on the state’s agenda. It would be prudent to consider alternative structures to the one proposed.”

The Board itself, on which the governor sits along with THEC interim leader Russ Deaton, is made up largely of Haslam appointees and more than likely will back him on the proposal – a position leaving Morgan out in the cold.

Says Reynolds: “We are deeply grateful for Chancellor Morgan’s leadership and distinguished service. We will continue to encourage and make progress toward the system’s completion goals in support of Governor Haslam’s Drive to 55.”

The Board will consider appointing an interim chancellor soon, she says.

Although most Republicans probably aren’t shedding tears, in part because of the controversy surrounding Morgan’s ascension to the job, this isn’t as much of a political falling out between the chancellor and governor as it is a philosophical disagreement.

As such, Haslam downplays the development, which is typical, declining to comment about Morgan’s letter of criticism.

“With the Complete College Act and the Drive to 55 initiative, the state has been asking more of its higher education system than ever before, and John has guided the Tennessee Board of Regents system admirably since becoming chancellor in 2010,” the governor says in a statement.

Morgan put a great deal of effort into building up community colleges and tech schools, helping increase graduations by 40 percent, and those appear to be where Haslam is placing most of his emphasis. The governor essentially made community college free to attend through the Tennessee Promise scholarship program and trying to make JUCOs and technical schools the sole responsibility of the Board of Regents.

By most measures, Morgan has been successful with TBR.

The retiring chancellor brought new attention to the Board of Regents system, recently landing a $2 million grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to increase graduation rates, on top of $1 million it netted from the Lumina Foundation. Morgan’s been invited to the White House to work on expanding college opportunities and serves on numerous national education boards.

Thus, he is defending the status quo.

But he says he believes Haslam’s proposal to create local boards to run universities such as MTSU and the University of Memphis – even though Memphis is dying for more autonomy – will put them on uneven footing with the University of Tennessee, which usually holds sway over TBR universities, from the standpoint of funding and capital project construction.

The Higher Education Commission was created decades ago to act as a referee, of sorts, between the UT system and TBR universities.

Under the proposed realignment, it would be fully in the corner of MTSU, TSU and Memphis. The question remains whether it will be a strong lobbyist for those institutions or whether they will be left to fend for themselves in the constant battle with the state’s flagship university system.

Until the state of Tennessee makes the decision to give every university equal standing, this competitive environment will remain.

Obstacles remain

Most public comments about Haslam’s proposal have been positive, but it won’t sail through the Legislature.

“I’m concerned about the realignment they’re trying and how it’s going to go and affect advances we’ve made in higher education,” says state Rep. Craig Fitzhugh, House minority leader. He made that statement even before he’d heard about Morgan’s critical letter to the governor.

Board member appointments over individual universities is likely to be a sticking point.

State Sen. Bill Ketron, an MTSU graduate and a Republican, says he wants the speakers of the House and Senate to have a hand in appointments. Legislators also could seek authority to approve board member appointments.

Meanwhile, a task force made up mainly of legislative leaders and state education officials is said to be working on the FOCUS Act – Morgan undoubtedly won’t be in on those meetings. The governor doesn’t face the same deadline for introducing bills as other legislators.

Tennessee hasn’t redesigned the higher education structure in decades. A task force set up under Republican Gov. Don Sundquist delved into the matter and decided it had a good set of checks and balances.

Considering the legislation hasn’t been written yet and it’s already driving out TBR’s top man, this legislation deserves the General Assembly’s full attention. More than likely, though, many legislators will spend more time on pressing matters such as guns, gay marriage and states’ rights.

Sam Stockard can be reached at sstockard44@gmail.com.

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