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VOL. 42 | NO. 15 | Friday, April 13, 2018

Senate committee nixes 4 UT Board appointees

By Sam Stockard

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One of Gov. Bill Haslam’s main legislative pushes has run afoul of a Legislature angry about everything from Sex Week at the University of Tennessee to the handling of the football coach hiring at the Knoxville campus.

Five of the governor’s 10 appointees to a revamped University of Tennessee Board of Trustees failed to make the cut Thursday before the Senate Education Committee, with one, current member Raja Jubran, bowing out before hearings started this week.

Those who failed to garner enough votes to be appointed to the board included:

-- Current board member Brad Lampley, a former UT football player and lobbyist from Nashville law firm Adams and Reese

-- Melvin Malone, a lobbyist from Butler Snow LLP and former special Tennessee Supreme Court Justice

-- Current board member Sharon Pryse, CEO and founder of The Trust Company

-- Bill Evans, former director and CEO of St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis.

Lt. Gov. Randy McNally said those nominees didn’t receive approval, mainly because the Senate Education Committee wanted to remove lobbyists and appoint a completely new board.

“It dealt mainly with a desire to start a new, fresh board that didn’t have some of the problems that the previous boards have had,” McNally said, noting he agreed with Senate Education Committee Chairman Dolores Gresham on that direction.

The Senate passed the measure on a 24-7 vote, and the House with the bare minimum of 51 votes required for passage. It reduces the size of the board from 27 to 12 members, including the commissioner of agriculture and one non-voting student.

Gov. Haslam and UT President Joe DiPietro both said they felt a change was needed to make the board more efficient and effective. It removes the entire current board by July 1 and allows the governor to appoint all replacements this year, with confirmation by the Legislature required.

The governor is “disappointed by these circumstances but remains very optimistic about the outcome that will result from the UT Focus Act,” Haslam spokeswoman Jennifer Donnals said.

Haslam congratulated those who received approval and added he hopes they receive final House and Senate confirmation soon, in addition thanking nominees who served on the Board of Trustees.

With this session of the General Assembly about to wrap up, Senate and House leadership didn’t have enough time to vet the governor’s nominees, McNally said, or it might have been able to avoid this snafu.

The UT Board of Trustees’ failure to respond to legislative concerns about Sex Week at the Knoxville campus, problems with hiring the football coach and the suspension and $2.5 million buyout of former athletic director John Currie, as well as allowing neo-Nazis to speak on campus all caused problems, the lieutenant governor said.

Senate Education Committee members grilled the nominees during hearings Wednesday about Sex Week, an annual spring event in which touchy subjects ranging from gender identity, homosexuality and sexual harassment are discussed during campus events. The Legislature removed funding for the event several years ago, but student fees are being used to pay for it, enabling it to continue.

The Senate doesn’t want to “micromanage” the university, McNally said, but considering it provides a good deal of funding for UT, the Legislature wants to make sure the university’s goals “align” with Tennessee residents.

The lieutenant governor doesn’t think this type of upheaval will hurt the university’s chances of trying to make the top 25 national rankings, either. He noted the facilities, research equipment and relationship with Oak Ridge National Laboratory aren’t problems.

“It’s just more some little things that are not really aligned with the people of the state,” McNally said.

Asked if it’s OK for legislators to hold the Board of Trustees and university to one standard regarding Sex Week when several state lawmakers have been caught in sex scandals, McNally said the programs involved in Sex Week seem “to border on extreme.”

And he added, “I think that our goals are to be better in that area, and that should be both with the university as well as the Legislature.”

House Majority Leader Glen Casada, a Franklin Republican, disagreed with McNally’s overarching argument, saying he was disappointed with the Senate’s decision to nix those board nominees. He contended they have institutional knowledge and provide lawmakers with quick access, since they are lobbyists.

Casada also said Sex Week should not be a factor in the appointments.

“I would submit that the individuals they want to hold off have nothing to do with it. It’s student fees, it’s the students’ money and we just don’t control that,” Casada said. “And so they’re angry, and I think that’s fair, but they’re angry at the wrong people.”

In contrast, Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris, who carried the legislation setting up the new board, said the Senate wanted new members, “not retreads,” and it didn’t want lobbyists, either. The Legislature started removing lobbyists from boards and commissions several years ago, he said.

“It was not intended to be a rebuke of the governor,” Norris said.

But even though the Board of Trustees has limits on what it can do in regard to Sex Week and other free-speech situations, the board could have done more to take a public stand on controversial subjects.

“We sort of get caught in the cross-hairs on things like that, and if they’re aloof or sort of remote and not particularly responsive to us, they need to be,” Norris said.

Besides Sex Week, questions were raised about the hiring of the football coach and other matters, Norris added, backing up McNally’s assertion.

Following the firing of Butch Jones last year, the university appeared set to hire Greg Schiano from Ohio State University. But a social media campaign killed Schiano’s chances at the coaching job because of connections to Penn State and allegations he saw former assistant coach 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.

Some lawmakers said this year Gov. Haslam and his brother, Jim Haslam, who owns the Cleveland Browns and considered hiring Schiano there, were taking retribution against the board by pulling a power play.

Gov. Haslam has said he doesn’t believe the governor should get involved in selecting the UT football coach.

Those who made the cut for the new UT Board of Trustees were:

-- John Compton, former president of PepsiCo and current partner with Clayton, Dubilier & Rice. He also ran Pilot Flying J, the Haslams’ company, before Jim Haslam decided to resume control.

-- Kara Lawson, former Lady Vol and current basketball television analyst for ESPN and the Washington Wizards

-- Donnie Smith, former president and chief executive officer of Tyson Foods

-- Kim White, president and chief executive officer of River City Company

-- Bill Rhodes, chairman, president and chief executive officer of AutoZone

The Legislature could confirm appointees during the next week and a half it is expected to be in session for the year, if the governor offers more nominees. Otherwise, Haslam could appoint five more people, and they could be confirmed when the 111th General Assembly convenes in January 2019, according to McNally.

By that time, though, Haslam will be out of office. The governor’s office did not respond to questions about the nominations.

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

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