Gov. Bill Haslam Tuesday began a round of talks about higher education that, he said, may eventually lead to an infusion of more state funding and some restructuring of operations at the University of Tennessee and the Board of Regents systems.
But the governor told academic and business officials at the initial gathering that he sees a need for “measuring the quality of output by higher education,” especially as it applies producing graduates for available jobs, and for making the system more cost-efficient.
Haslam said he next plans seven regional “roundtable” discussions and will then decide whether to propose a package of legislation to the General Assembly in 2013. It may well be, he said, that most changes can be accomplished through administrative actions and the process will continue for “two or three years.”
The first focus, he said, is asking business, “What are you not getting from us that you need?” and collecting answers with the goal of making colleges better able to prepare graduates for jobs. That could include stepped-up counseling of students, he and others said.
Haslam, who majored in history at Emory University in his college, said “there is still a role for liberal arts” in universities. ,But he said officials should question “whether we need x-number of psychology majors” when there may not be that number of psychology jobs availble.
The assembly of UT and Regents officials, joined at the governor’s residence Tuesday by businessmen and some Republican state legislators, heard lectures from higher education researchers who were generally complimentary of recent Tennessee moves to improve higher education operations. Haslam then moderated discussions after each speaker.
Some comments from during and after the gathering:
-Haslam said he sees a need for “being ruthless about costs in higher education so we’re looking at things like a business does…. We need people thinking about cost in a very owner-driven way.”
-At the same time, the governor noted that the state financial support of higher education has has been “dwindling” over recent years and he will “make sure that trend ends.” When efficiency and quality are increased, Haslam and other speakers said the public may be more open to increased funding.
-UT Trustee Doug Horne asked about restructuring higher education, suggesting North Carolina is a “model we should look at.” In that state, there is one governing board for all higher education but each campus has its own separate board reporting to it. Tennessee has three higher education board – UT, the Board of Regents and the Tennessee Higher Education Commission.
Haslam said restructuring is “a political hot potato” and would be explored, but “it’s not the bottom line issuen.” At the end of the session, he told reporters that a North Carolina-type stem would be “a pretty drastic step,” adding “I don’t think we’re ready to go there.”
–UT President Joe DiPietro hailed the new “rewards-based system” wherein universities get greater funding it they graduate more students, a change from past practice of basing funding simply on the number enrolled. He cautioned that financial resources to provide the rewards must be maintained or “the wheel comes off” the system.
Haslam agreed, but added “you also have to have political courage” to reduce funding for schools that don’t meet criteria. Legislators, he noted, may say “you can’t have my school in my district get penalized.”
The initial conference had some critics. United Campus Workers questioned the omission of anyone representing faculty, staff and students while House Minority Leader Craig Fitzhugh, D-Ripley, issued a statement saying Haslam was conducting the first meeting in a “partisan manner” by not inviting any Democrats. At least four Republican lawmakers were on hand.
“When it comes to higher education, we need a diversity of opinions – not the party line,” said Fitzhugh.
Haslam told reporters that, as the review progresses, all viewpoints will be welcome. As for Tuesday’s gathering, he said, “I’ll bet there were more Democrats than Republicans in the room.”
That appeared at least possible despite the absence of Democratic legislators. Most current UT trustees and Regents board members were appointed by former Democratic Gov. Phil Bredesen. Horne, for example, is a former state Democratic chairman.
Here’s the governor’s press release on the meeting:
NASHVILLE – Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam today called together post-secondary education leaders from across the state along with statewide business organizations to discuss the importance of a comprehensive and coordinated focus on the issues of affordability, the quality of our Tennessee colleges, universities and technology centers, and how to do a better job of matching the skills state institutions are teaching with the needs of employers.
The meeting included members of the Tennessee Higher Education Commission (THEC), Tennessee Board of Regents (TBR), University of Tennessee Board of Trustees and Tennessee Student Assistance Corporation (TSAC) along with leaders from the Tennessee Independent Colleges and Universities Association (TICUA), Tennessee Business Roundtable, Tennessee Chamber of Commerce and Industry and legislative leadership from the House and Senate.
“Tennessee is leading the way in K-12 education reform on a national level, and we are committed to continuing that momentum,” Haslam said. “We’ve also made significant progress with post-secondary education, and the time is right to take that work to the next level.
“The status quo is not good enough for our students. We need to examine the financial structure, the quality of the programs at our state institutions, and whether we are keeping up with the dynamic training needs of employers who want to put Tennesseans to work. It is going to take all of us working together to tackle these issues, and with the good work already happening in post-secondary education, we have a solid foundation to build on.”
The meeting included perspectives on the importance of post-secondary education, meeting the intellectual capital needs of the Tennessee economy and financing higher education. Presenters included:
· Bill Tucker, deputy director of policy development with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation;
· Nicole Smith, research professor and senior economist at the Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce;
· and Bill Zumeta, co-author of Financing Higher Education in the Era of Globalization.
Later this month, the governor will begin a series of candid conversations across the state with businesses and post-secondary institutions to learn about collaborations that are working in communities and areas where we need to improve matching the skills our students are learning with the needs of employers.
As chairman of the Southern Growth Policies Board, Haslam held a regional meeting in Chattanooga in late June to focus on workforce preparation issues that highlighted Tennessee companies from across the state.
“If we are going to be a state that attracts companies to locate and grow here; a state that keeps its best and brightest graduates here with good-paying, high-quality jobs, there is nothing more important we can do than to focus on education,” Haslam said. “There is a lot of consensus around K-12 education reform efforts, and I think we have the opportunity to become a national model in approaching post-secondary education as well.”
The governor serves as chairman of the board of directors for the TBR and UT systems.