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VOL. 40 | NO. 11 | Friday, March 11, 2016

Higher-ed shuffle stokes fears of UT-TSU merger

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Anthony Joshua, who moved to Nashville from Madison, Wisconsin, to attend Tennessee State University, says he’s worried his historically black institution could be in for serious change – for the worse.

Joshua, a senior majoring in therapeutic studies, enrolled here in part because it runs in the family, going back to his grandmother. He was among dozens of TSU students who packed the halls of the Legislative Plaza recently and filled up a House committee meeting room to oppose Gov. Bill Haslam’s FOCUS Act.

They say they believe it will undermine TSU by giving more preference to the University of Tennessee, even going so far as to say their university will become UT-Nashville and its status as a Historically Black College and University (HBCU) removed.

“TSU has been a longstanding source for black excellence throughout the years, actually over 100 years,” Joshua says. “It’s produced a lot of well-known alumni like Oprah Winfrey, Wilma Rudolph, and I feel like if they take away from us the community could be affected.”

Joshua says losing its HBCU status would affect not only students in Nashville but also other schools nationwide holding the designation for serving black students before 1964.

Haslam’s office declined to respond directly to the fears raised by these TSU students, saying only it wanted to know where in the bill TSU’s name or status would be affected.

The question, then, is: How did TSU students reach the conclusion the governor’s higher education restructuring plan would ultimately merge the university with UT and cause it to lose its connection to the past?

Haslam’s plan calls for setting up local boards to run six state universities under the Tennessee Board of Regents’ jurisdiction: TSU, MTSU, University of Memphis, Austin Peay, Tennessee Tech and East Tennessee State.

The Board of Regents would retain some administrative roles with them, but its main responsibility would become overseeing community colleges and technical schools.

State universities would be operated by their own local boards and report to the Tennessee Higher Education Commission. The University of Tennessee system would be left to operate under its Board of Trustees.

TSU President Glenda Glover says her students are concerned about possible funding cuts to the university as a result of the legislation and came to her asking for a trip to the Legislative Plaza to be heard.

Students don’t think the governor’s legislation includes making them a part of the UT system or taking away TSU’s status as a historically black institution, Glover says.

“But they’re looking at the past actions,” she notes.

TSU students apparently believe in strength in numbers and think TBR gives them stronger support in providing “balance and fairness.” Their greatest fear may be the uncertainty of Haslam’s proposal.

Students also are aware UT “has made it known” it wants to set up a master’s of business administration program in Nashville in “direct competition” with TSU’s MBA degree, Glover says.

“At the end of their logic, they see it as UT, the encroachment on TSU and ending up with TSU being under UT. Now that’s what they think. I didn’t tell them that,” she adds.

“It would never happen while I’m president. That absolutely would not happen.”

Glover says her main point of contention – in fact, she says TSU should be allowed the option of remaining under TBR – is funding equality. No funding mechanism has been set up for the new system, she points out.

“I’m talking about there will be four schools in the UT system. There will be six schools independently competing for resources. There won’t be a TBR to try to ensure there’s balance among funding,” she says.

TSU is in line to receive funds for a health sciences building in the governor’s budget plan, a development led largely by the Tennessee Board of Regents, Glover explains.

And while TSU has confidence in THEC, she wants more information about how the system will run. Likewise, she is working with the governor’s office on the legislation but says, “We just happen to disagree on this legislation. He hired me to represent TSU in the best possible manner, and that’s what I have to do.”

Glover is the second education leader to sound off on the FOCUS Act. Former TBR Chancellor John Morgan resigned earlier this year in protest, calling the plan “unworkable.”

In committee

The measure is speeding through the legislative process with little opposition from lawmakers. The House Government Operations Committee approved it in spite of the room packed full of students and sent it to the Finance, Ways & Means Subcommittee.

Meanwhile, the Senate Education Committee is to start looking at it.

State Sen. Mark Norris, Senate Majority leader, is sponsoring the measure in the upper chamber and says he would “counsel” anyone against the notion this plan would give UT the upper hand. The University of Memphis is considered a prime supporter because it wants its own board of directors.

House sponsor Rep. Ryan Williams, a Cookeville Republican whose district includes Tennessee Tech, whose president supports the bill, tried to allay students’ fears.

“This allows you to control your identity in your own community, where you are,” Williams says, adding it would enable “more autonomy” and the opportunity to go to the Higher Education Commission for more funding.

State Rep. Mike Stewart, a Nashville Democrat, tried to amend Williams’ bill to make the terms of individual board member four years instead of six. But Williams pointed out Board of Regents terms are already six years.

Stewart, who chairs the Democrat Caucus, isn’t completely opposed to some restructuring, but he is concerned about giving local boards hiring and firing authority over university presidents.

“I think if you have these individual boards empowered to appoint the presidents of these colleges you’re ending up with creating a whole bunch of competing institutions because the presidents will be working for those independent boards. And I just don’t know why we would do that,” Stewart says.

On the other hand, Stewart doesn’t believe the state is trying to get rid of a “storied institution” such as TSU.

But he contends UT will remain as a “very dominant entity” against six independent state universities without the Board of Regents to serve as a “counter-weight.”

“I went to UT Law, so I’m a big UT fan. But I don’t think we want Austin Peay to be out there on its own trying to operate without some central, guiding representation at the Board of Regents,” he says.

The bill may be “well-intended,” but it needs to be hammered out, he adds.

Fiscal impact

Higher education takes a huge chunk of the governor’s proposed $34.8 billion spending plan, and the FOCUS Act would add about $416,000 for two academic officers and a capital outlay director within the Tennessee Higher Education Commission, according to the budget plan.

While some people had the understanding Haslam said the FOCUS Act wouldn’t increase costs, the governor’s office says he stated creation of local boards wouldn’t add expenses.

“That’s kind of sleight of hand,” says state Sen. Bill Ketron, a Murfreesboro Republican who co-chairs the Fiscal Review Committee.

Thus, the fiscal impact is likely to raise concerns in the Senate’s Finance, Ways & Means Committee, Ketron says, adding, “It almost seems like you’re setting up another layer of bureaucracy. Somebody’s got to justify that to me. Why are we adding three more? What are their duties going to be?”

The fiscal statement also projects “unknown impacts” to the state university and community college system involving tuition and fee funding levels, shifts in existing funding and changes with the Board of Regents central office and individual universities.

“These changes will occur at the discretion of each newly-appointed university board of trustees. As a result, any such impacts cannot be reasonablely quantified,” the fiscal note states.

In fiscal 2017-18, once the restructuring takes place, state universities will see increases in tuition revenue and expenditures for more personnel, contracts and new financial liabilities as the result of board decisions, along with travel costs for board members, none of which can be quantified yet but will depend on guidelines THEC sets, the fiscal note states.

The fiscal note does point out the Board of Regents central office staff could be reduced, based on the level of services provided after Nov. 30, 2017, but that impact can’t be determined yet.

The analysis

Considering the legislation contains numerous variables, many of them unknown or unexplained yet, legislators have some heavy lifting to do before they pass this into law.

On one hand, it makes sense to give state universities local boards to create excitement among boosters and alumni and to allow people to feel like they’re a bigger part of the process.

But too many people are asking whether such a giant step needs to be taken to reshape the higher education landscape in Tennessee.

Considering TSU students think this plan could have such a dramatic effect on their university, the Legislature needs to a better job of selling – or refashioning it.

Otherwise, we won’t see many more young people such as Anthony Joshua moving to Nashville from Madison, Wis., to earn a college diploma.

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

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