Haslam’s board picks lauded by schools

Friday, October 28, 2016, Vol. 40, No. 44
By Sam Stockard

Tennessee leaders are touting a transition in the state’s higher education system as a “landmark moment” amid the appointment of six boards designed to increase autonomy at universities statewide.

Gov. Bill Haslam’s recent selections for boards of trustees at six state universities even softened the stance Tennessee State University President Glenda Glover held in opposition to the Focus on College and University Success (FOCUS) Act.

Across Tennessee, university leaders say they were impressed with Haslam’s diligence in choosing people for the 10-member boards which will have the authority to hire and fire college presidents, set university mission statements and approve tuition rates and budgets.

The act gives the governor eight appointments for East Tennessee State, Tennessee Tech, Middle Tennessee State University, Tennessee State, Austin Peay and the University of Memphis, all of which will shift from primary oversight by the Tennessee Board of Regents and report to the Tennessee Higher Education Commission. Each university’s faculty senate will appoint a student and faculty member to round out the boards.

Tennessee Tech’s board includes astronaut Capt. Barry Wilmore and Dr. Barbara Fleming, a senior healthy policy analyst and former Walter Reed Army Medical Center physician.

Tennessee State University drew Nashville Bishop Joseph Walker III and property management mogul Bill Freeman, a longtime supporter of the Nashville university and a Democrat.

“I was surprised and thrilled that Gov. Haslam asked me to serve on that board, and I think it spoke highly of him to reach across the aisle and ask me to do that,” Freeman says. “I very much appreciated it, and I’m able to continue my long record of helping TSU.”

Freeman says his appointment by the Republican governor shows the success of TSU is more important than partisan politics. He also says Haslam’s move to create the boards is the right move, giving community members who are “passionate about the universities” an opportunity to bolster these institutions.

“We are pleased with the men and women the governor has selected and look to the leadership of the full General Assembly to approve them,” Glover says.

Glover’s mood marks a major shift from the concerns she expressed earlier this year that the FOCUS Act would put TSU on shaky ground as one of six schools independently competing with the University of Tennessee system for funding and even capital projects.

“There won’t be a TBR to try to ensure there’s balance among funding,” she said this winter. Glover’s statements came shortly after former TBR Chancellor John Morgan resigned in protest, calling the FOCUS Act “unworkable.”

Their statements gained little traction, though, and the FOCUS Act, sponsored in the Senate by Republican Majority Leader Mark Norris sped to approval, even as TSU students in one House committee meeting told legislators they feared it could undercut the historically black university and turn it into “UT-Nashville.”

Shortly after Haslam announced board appointments for TSU and other universities, Glover outlined several other new initiatives designed to complement the FOCUS transition, including higher admission standards – a 2.5 GPA and 19 ACT score – as well as creation of an Executive MBA Program in the College of business and TSU centers for Social Justice and Equality; Economic Policy Institute; Law Enforcement Education; Center of Excellence for Ethics and Emergency Management Institute.

Those coincide with construction of a Health Sciences building, new residence halls, an on-campus football stadium and a planned 80-acre development project called Cumberland City to be built along the Cumberland River, mixing education, technology, health, commercial and residential developments.

In contrast to Glover, other university leaders embraced the FOCUS Act from the beginning, hailing it as a method for each college to control its own destiny, instead of depending on the Board of Regents for direction. TBR will retain some administrative roles with the universities but will concentrate mainly on community colleges and technology schools.

“This is a landmark moment in the history of East Tennessee State University as we transition to the governance of an institutional board of trustees for the first time in our 105-year history,” says Brian Noland, ETSU president.

He points out the Haslam appointees, who must be approved by the Legislature when it convenes in January, have “deep connections” to East Tennessee and “deeper connections” to ETSU.

“Many of them are alumni and have served ETSU in a variety of capacities, including membership on advisory boards, the Committee for 125, presidential searches and fundraising campaigns. I look forward to working with our board of trustees and to strengthening our mission commitment to serving the needs of the people of our region,” Noland adds.

Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, who is not seeking re-election and will leave the high-ranking post in January, was among those appointed to the ETSU Board of Trustees.

“I am tremendously grateful to be on the new ETSU governing board. ETSU, my alma mater, holds a special place in my heart. I am committed to helping make it an even greater place to live and learn,” Ramsey says.

“The FOCUS Act is an outstanding legislative achievement. I believe strongly that one day we will look back at the passage of the FOCUS Act as the moment Tennessee turned the corner in higher education reform and improvement.”

Some legislators have noted the FOCUS Act gives the governor too much control over higher education and the universities, enabling him to make appointments to important boards just two years before he leaves office. Others said they would like for the Legislature to make some of its own appointments to the 10-member boards of the Tennessee Higher Education Commission, which will have more operational control the six state universities.

Still others believe it will have unintended consequences.

Kent Syler, an MTSU political science professor, says the FOCUS Act will give universities “more say” in shaping their future.

“There’s certainly opportunity, but there is going to pressure on the board and the universities themselves to perform at a high level,” Syler says

How they were chosen

The governor says the nominees went through a vetting process of sorts, even though little is spelled out in the act for how members are to be selected.

“I was trying to get people with a wide range of experience but also people who had a great passion for that university and also understood what the board’s role versus an operating role,” Haslam says.

“When you have a board for the first time, you want to make certain the people in those roles actually understand, OK, it’s not our job to pick the football coach and we don’t select a vendor for the cafeteria. We provide the long-term direction of the school, so I really tried to focus on people who understood what the board’s role would be, because it played such a critical role as the very first board.”

Austin Peay President Alisa White says she had several conversations with Haslam’s office over the past several months and provided names for consideration to the board of trustees. State legislators also offered the names of potential board members.

“This was a much larger list than what was selected for the initial term because balance and long-term transitions are critical to the structure of the board since there is a term limit for serving on the board. Additionally, I believe other community members gave the governor’s office input,” White explains.

She points out the initial Austin Peay board is made up of “impressive” business and community leaders, including two former U.S. Army generals, Gary Luck and Robin Mealer and a member of the health profession, dentist Valencia May, along with other Clarksville business leaders. Fort Campbell, home of the 101st Airborne, plays a key role in the Clarksville community economy.

“This is a solid beginning that will represent our campus well and help us move the university in a forward-thinking direction as reflected in our strategic plan and its implementation,” White says.

The University of Memphis is considered a driving force behind the FOCUS Act, and President David Rudd also calls the selection of board members a “landmark day,” not just for the university but for the city of Memphis and West Tennessee.

“The appointment of our new board of trustees and related change in our governance structure will better position the U of M to grow and compete at the national level, with an unparalleled commitment to innovation, efficiency and effectiveness,” Rudd says.

Different goals

Rudd points out the University of Memphis aspires to join the upper echelon of research universities nationally.

“We are grateful for Gov. Haslam’s vision for the future of higher education in Tennessee and the support of our state legislators. Without their commitment to excellence in higher education, this remarkable opportunity would not be possible,” Rudd says.

The U of M Board of Trustees includes business leaders such as Alan Graf, executive vice president and chief financial officer of FedEx Corp., Cato Johnson, senior vice president of public policy and regulatory affairs for Methodist Healthcare and Carol Roberts, senior vice president and CFO for International Paper Co.

Board of Trustees appointments are expected to take effect Jan. 16, and once confirmed by the Legislature, board members will undergo orientation and professional development with the Tennessee Higher Education Commission before assuming responsibilities on the first meeting called by Haslam.

State Sen. Bill Ketron, one of the few legislators to voice concern about a system that could pit one university against another, each trying to outdo the other and lobbying the Legislature for its own needs, says it has merit.

Graduates and community members with a “vested” interest in each university will have a vision for their school alone instead of being required to weigh the interests of each university within a system, Ketron says.

For example, a collaborative agreement MTSU signed with a Chinese university to exchange plants and extract cells required the creation of a separate foundation to market the new drug, he says. Obtaining approval from the Board of Regents took a lengthy process because some members complained that other universities didn’t have such a program, Ketron says.

Under the new arrangement, approval of such programs could be expedited, he points out.

“I think it will help the university move much faster as technology brings new things to us,” he adds.

Bringing in dollars will be another job for these new trustees, especially if the Legislature starts to lean on them for building projects.

“I think providing direction for the university and helping raise money for scholarships, buildings and programs, that’s an important part of a successful university, and I’m sure these board members will be leaned on for all of those things,” Syler says.