By Richard Locker of the Commercial Appeal
The state Senate began the process today of removing three members of the Tennessee Board of Regents who did not attend a two-day Senate committee hearing last summer which examined the board’s selection of a new chancellor.
Sen. Dolores Gresham, R-Somerville, filed Senate Resolution 29 this week that would remove Regents Jonas Kisber of Jackson and Agenia Clark and Robert P. Thomas of Nashville. The Senate approved the resolution on the first of three required readings today, although first and second readings of bills occur routinely and only the third vote is decisive.
If it occurs, it will be the first time since the Board of Regents was created by the legislature in 1972 that a member has been removed by the legislature. Members of the regents who are not state officials serve without pay and are appointed by the governor for six-year terms.
The resolution is the latest flare-up in a political battle that erupted last August when the Board of Regents selected former state Comptroller John Morgan as chancellor of the state university and community college system that the board oversees. The system includes the University of Memphis and Southwest Tennessee Community College in Memphis and all state higher education institutions outside of the University of Tennessee system.
Morgan is a Democrat who became a top aide to former governor Phil Bredesen in early 2009 after the new Republican majority in the legislature declined to re-appoint him as state comptroller.
Gresham, a retired Marine and Fayette County farmer, is chairman of the Senate Education Committee. The committee held 4½ hours of hearings last Sept. 28-29 in which it called in Board of Regents members and asked them about the chancellor search process, the selection of Morgan and even Bredesen’s appointment of each of them to the Board of Regents. Nine regents attended and testified.
Clark, Kisber and Thomas did not and, according to Gresham, did not inform her why.
When the Sept. 29 hearing concluded, Gresham said she wanted to schedule another hearing to demand their presence but never did. Two other committee members, including Sen. Jamie Woodson, R-Knoxville, told Gresham as the Sept. 29 session was concluding that they did not believe more hearings were needed.
The matter sat dormant, at least publicly, for the next 6½ months until Gresham surprised the board and some fellow senators this week with the resolution to “reject the appointments” of the three regents. Under state law, the governor’s appointments to the board are in effect unless the Senate specifically rejects them.
Hoping to head off the new controversy, Thomas delivered to Gresham this afternoon a joint letter signed by all three apologizing to the committee, saying they meant no disrespect and that they believed that word of their “inability to appear had reached you before the committee convened.
“In retrospect, we wish we had done a better job of communicating with you directly about the various circumstances that prohibited our availability during the hearings.” The members said they respect the work of the committee and Gresham as its chair and “we honor the process of oversight.”
Thomas said he was unable to attend for medical reasons. Clark, the chief executive officer of the Girl Scouts of Middle Tennessee, did not return a reporter’s calls and Kisber, a retired Jackson businessman, could not be reached.
Earlier today before the letter arrived, Gresham said “has no reason not to” press ahead with the removal.
“First off, they engineered a process for the selection of TBR’s new chancellor in such a flawed – it was so flawed that their behavior reverberated throughout the higher education community as well as the general public. So then of course what happened was there was a hue and cry, and two of the senators on the Senate Education Committee asked us to hold hearings, which we did and invited the regents involved in the process to appear,” Gresham said.
“And these three refused to appear and did not send any formal message, no explanation, nothing. So to my mind I think they held not only the Tennessee General Assembly and the state legislature but the Senate of the state of Tennessee in utter contempt. Maybe regents have not been deconfirmed before but nobody has treated the institution of the Senate of the state of Tennessee in such a manner,” she said.
Gresham said during last fall’s hearing that she would deliver a report on its findings to the full Senate, but she said today that has not occurred – but will by before the legislature adjourns, possibly next month.
Asked whether Thomas’s out-of-state medical care at the time of the hearings should mitigate, Gresham said today, “If I was going to be hospitalized I would tell my staff to be so kind as to tell the Senate Education Committee that I can’t be there because — and have at least a formal letter saying ‘sorry I can’t be there.’ Nothing like that happened from any of them. So, you know, our actions have consequences.”
Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey, R-Blountville, said today he backs the removal. “We have the right by statute to deconfirm these if we want to and so that’s something we’re looking into. Is it something I enjoy? No. But at the same time, if you’re summoned to a committee to answer questions, you just don’t thumb your nose at the committee system.”
Senate Democratic Minority Leader Jim Kyle of Memphis said the resolution is “over the top. To file something like that without talking to the various and sundry legislative leaders I just think it’s over the top and really doesn’t make us look very good.”