In what he characterizes as a game of “political football” with Republican legislators, Democratic Gov. Phil Bredesen says he is resigned to having his image tarnished in the waning days of his administration in exchange for keeping his plans for higher education on course.
“With all these agreements, if they want to give me a hard time, fine. I’m a big boy,” Bredesen told reporters Friday after another round in an evolving controversy.
The agreements grew out of a meeting, requested by the governor, with Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey and Republican senators who have led a push to hold hearings on his appointments to the state Board or Regents and the Board’s appointment of Deputy Governor John Morgan as CEO of the 45-campus, 190,000-student system.
At various times, legislators had raised the possibility of the hearings being used to unseat members of the board and perhaps overturn their unanimous decision to give Morgan the job. Doing so would require invoking two little-known and never-used provisions of state law.
One provision declares that the governor’s appointments to the Board of Regents and the University of Tennessee Board of Trustees are subject to legislative confirmation, though members can serve unless and until they are rejected by a legislative vote. Since the Board of Regents was created in 1972, no member has ever been put to a vote, Bredesen said.
In theory, however, the Legislature could vote when it begins the 2011 session in January to reject all members’ nomination and allow the new governor to appoint new members.
A second provision says, in effect, that at least three members of the Board of Regents must be Republicans. Bredesen said he did not know of that requirement until the controversy developed and acknowledges he thus ignored it, though now ready to rectify the situation.
Sens. Bill Ketron, R-Murfreesboro, and Jim Tracy, R-Shelbyville, who joined Ramsey in last week’s meeting with Bredesen, formally requested on Aug. 28 an opinion from Attorney General Bob Cooper – Bredesen’s former legal counsel – on whether board decisions, such as the appointment of Morgan, would be invalid because its makeup did not comply with the state law.
The senators say Cooper has told them the opinion will be issued before the two-day Senate Education Committee hearings begin on Sept. 28. Morgan is scheduled to take office on Sept. 30, succeeding retiring Regents Chancellor Charles Manning.
Bredesen said he is confident there is nothing in state law that would invalidate board decisions and “I’m not worried about that.” Further, Ramsey, Ketron and Tracy agreed during the meeting with Bredesen that blocking Morgan’s appointment is not an objective of the hearings, according to all the participants.
At the meeting, Bredesen promised to remedy the lack of Republicans on the Board of Regents, though he would not say how that would be accomplished. The Republicans said he told them that current members would be removed from the board for new appointees – Ramsey used the words “kick three people off” – to comply with the statute.
Bredesen subsequently professed annoyance with the Republicans making public what he considered a private conversation, saying that “underlines the political nature of what’s going on right now.”
Ramsey, Ketron and Tracy all said that politics is not a motive. At this point, they said, there is simply a desire to learn about the Regents’ decision-making process and whether any changes in state law should be recommended to the full Legislature.
A particular concern, said Ketron, is the Board’s decision to eliminate a previous requirement that a Regents chancellor have a doctorate degree. Morgan, a former state comptroller who has been heavily involved in writing higher education laws and overseeing the system’s finances, has only a bachelor’s degree.
That raises the question, said Ramsey, of “whether the fix was in” and that should be explored, even with the selection of Morgan accepted.
“At a time we’re trying to raise the bar in K-through-12 and get more graduates (in higher education), then why do we lower the bar for someone who’s going to lead one of the largest higher education systems in the country,” said Ketron.
The Regents board members, who serve four-year terms, cannot simply be thrown off the board. That apparently leaves Bredesen the task of asking some members to resign so that he may appoint Republican replacements, leaving him reluctant to talk about the matter before it is done.
The situation has also raised the question of who is considered a member of a given political party in a state that does not require partisan registration. Ketron said legislative staffers are checking the voting records of board members to determine whether they voted in Republican or Democratic primaries.
A check of state campaign finance records, meanwhile, indicates that at least one Regent board member – Pamela Fansler of Knoxville – has made fairly recent donations to Republicans, $1,000 to gubernatorial nominee Bill Haslam and $250 to Sen. Jamie Woodson, R-Knoxville.
Other board members include well-known Democrats, including Vice Chairman Bob Thomas, a former state Democratic chairman and longtime Bredesen friend, and Fran Marcum of Tullahoma, who once sought the Democratic nomination in the 4th Congressional District.
Bredesen and others say the UT Board of Trustees, where members serve six year terms, is in compliance with the law requiring at least three members each political party be members.
Officials of both the UT and Regents systems say partisanship has nothing to do with board operations and they never inquire about party loyalties.
“When the governor appoints them, we embrace them and bring them into the fold,” said Manning.
“At the University of Tennessee, there’s no red, no blue. It’s all orange,” quipped UT Vice President Hank Dye.
In separate recent interviews, Haslam and Democratic gubernatorial nominee Mike McWherter recently indicated they were comfortable with Morgan serving as Regents chancellor – McWherter more enthusiastically than Haslam.
Bredesen said there was nothing wrong with selecting a higher education leader who lacks a doctorate degree and knowledge of state government is a plus. He noted that UT has had “three failed presidents” with academic credentials after prior state-centered presidents who were successful – Andy Holt, Ed Boling and Joe Johnson.
Ramsey said he questioned the way the board dropped the doctorate requirement, though supporting the principle that academic credentials may be overrated. Many in the academic world, he said, “step off campus and they’re lost.”
“They like to get up in the morning, comb their beard, put on their wire-rim glasses, throw their little tweed vest on and go to school for three hours… and hate Republicans,” he said.