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VOL. 40 | NO. 5 | Friday, January 29, 2016

Complex path to higher-ed reform

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Only half a year after taking on the presidency of Motlow State Community College, Anthony Kinkel is trying to keep his eye on the pea.

The task of running one of the state’s fastest-growing community colleges is becoming increasingly complex, and it has nothing to do with thousands more students enrolling to take advantage of free tuition through the Tennessee Promise scholarship program.

In just a few months on the job, Kinkel finds himself processing three major challenges, a shell game of sorts, as he works on the ultimate goal of graduating more students:

-- Gov. Bill Haslam’s proposed FOCUS Act, which restructures higher education statewide and shifts the responsibilities of the Tennessee Board of Regents and Tennessee Higher Education Commission, changing the governance of community colleges, technical schools and six state universities.

-- A plan to outsource or privatize many of the operations of Tennessee’s universities and colleges, potentially taking away some of the authority of college presidents.

-- The loss of John Morgan, who is retiring effective Jan. 31, a year earlier than expected, in protest of the governor’s FOCUS Act, which Morgan calls “unworkable.” The Board of Regents selected longtime administrator David Gregory to serve as acting chancellor until a fulltime leader is found.

Kinkle

Kinkel says he and other community college presidents were surprised by Morgan’s January announcement.

The decision hit home personally for the Motlow State leader because Morgan recruited him from Wichita Area Technical College.

“I picked up my family and moved clear across the country to have the opportunity to work and learn from John Morgan, and I’m just devastated that I only had five months to do that,” Kinkel says.

He’s seen just about every possible political battle and worked in every type of higher education set-up. In addition to the Kansas post, Kinkel held higher education leadership positions in Colorado, Arkansas and Maryland and served 16 years in the Minnesota Legislature, winning election to the state House at age 24.

With that experience, he’s uncomfortable with shifting more control to the Tennessee Higher Education Commission.

Although community colleges and colleges of applied technology will be the Tennessee Board of Regents’ primary responsibility under the governor’s proposal, THEC will take on more authority.

“Maybe it’s just because I’m new to Tennessee, but I couldn’t even tell you who’s on the Higher Education Commission and I’m just nervous if we shift power and decision-making further away from our community.

“I don’t think that’s in the best interests of the taxpayers here and the students. So I’m going to be anxious to see the bill and hear the testimony,” he explains.

The Higher Education Commission has representatives from each congressional district in the state. Murfreesboro attorney Evan Cope chairs the body.

But Kinkel says the Tennessee Board of Regents is more closely connected to communities, including former Motlow State President MaryLou Apple, clearly a community college advocate.

At the same time he is staring higher education restructuring in the face – the bill was filed just last week – Kinkel faces the potential for outsourcing of community college departments. Kinkel oversees Motlow State campuses in Moore County outside Tullahoma, Fayetteville, McMinnville and Smyrna, as well as a teaching site in Sparta and education center in Shelbyville, and those could be plums for a private vendor.

Not long after announcing his retirement, Morgan wrote a letter to the governor letting him know community colleges and technical schools would be opting out of the proposed outsourcing.

Community colleges are operating more efficiently than private business, and too much uncertainty surrounds higher education governance to make a change now, Morgan contends.

The question is: Is anyone listening?

A “business justification” plan for facilities management outsourcing won’t be presented by Finance and Administration until late February, and officials responded to Morgan in their own letter, saying it’s “premature” for institutions to opt out of privatization.

Even though Haslam reiterated this week that universities could opt out of the privatization, a letter to Morgan by Larry Martin, commissioner of the Finance and Administration Department, and Greg Adams, chief operating officer of the Governor’s Office, states: “Given the success experienced with the state’s current (facilities management) arrangement with a portion of our real estate where we’ve achieved savings of $13 million over two years we feel we have an obligation as part of our stewardship mission on behalf of all taxpayers to explore whether savings could be achieved in other areas of the state’s diverse real estate portfolio.”

Kinkel is not excited about the prospect of turning over Motlow’s building to a vendor.

“Why would we want to move the decision-making for our facilities to some for-profit bureaucrat in Nashville who’s only looking at the bottom-line numbers when I’m sitting there staring at a student who needs those lights to stay on in the biology lab, because that’s the course they have to have, and if they don’t get that course they don’t graduate,” he says.

Kinkel contends Morgan conducted a thorough study of community college and technical school building management before making the decision to opt out of privatization.

“I just wish we hadn’t lost John Morgan in this process because I think it’s a terrible loss to the state of Tennessee.”

If you ask some Republican legislators, though, Morgan’s retirement is no loss.

State Sen. Mark Norris, who is sponsoring the FOCUS Act, is glad Morgan is retiring and says if it took the legislation’s introduction to make it happen, “then it’s successful already.”

Norris, a Collierville Republican who usually carries the governor’s main legislative initiatives, clearly doesn’t consider Morgan’s departure a negative development.

“I think had he stayed he would have worked against it, which in some ways would have made my job in passing it easier, believe it or not,” Norris adds. “It was time for him to retire, and I wish him well.”

Considering Kinkel is a newcomer to Tennessee, in spite of his experience, he probably doesn’t hold enough political sway in the General Assembly to affect the outcome of outsourcing or higher ed restructuring.

Sure, Motlow grew dramatically this school year because of the Tennessee Promise program offering free tuition to qualifying students, and enrollment at its Smyrna campus is among the state’s fastest growing, if not the fastest.

But the governor appears bent on outsourcing state departments and retooling higher education.

It’s hard to find anyone who’ll say something bad about the Tennessee Promise, even though it’s taking money from the lottery scholarship program.

And his Drive to 55, an initiative to put degrees or certificates in the hands of 55 percent of Tennessee adults in 10 years is a laudable goal, even if it is repeated ad nauseam.

But if Kinkel can keep his job amid this shell game, he might be able to find the pea – which would be graduating students.

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

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