House backs Haslam’s higher ed restructuring, 71-19

By Eric Schelzig, Associated Press
NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Republican Gov. Bill Haslam’s proposal to remove four-year public universities from the Board of Regents system and give them their own boards won approval Thursday in the Tennessee House.

The governor has said it would give the Tennessee Board of Regents a single focus in guiding the state’s 40 two-year schools, as he continues trying to boost graduation rates in the state. But several members expressed misgivings about excluding a student vote on the new boards and concerns that the change could breed unhealthy competition for state funding among the schools.

The House ultimately voted 71-19 to pass the bill.

Haslam’s plan calls for creating local boards for Austin Peay in Clarksville; East Tennessee in Johnson City; Middle Tennessee in Murfreesboro; Tennessee Tech in Cookeville; Tennessee State in Nashville; and the University of Memphis. Those boards would control budgets, tuition and the selection of college presidents.

Board of Regents Chancellor John Morgan in January announced his resignation in protest of the Haslam plan. Morgan called it “unworkable” and contrary to efforts to enhance oversight and accountability in higher education.

Republican Rep. Bill Dunn of Knoxville said he supported removing the six universities from the Regents system because the current setup provides a “situation where we have a board that’s set up to try to run herd over institutions that have very little in common.”

The bill is scheduled for a vote in the Senate Finance Committee on Tuesday, its last hurdle before a full floor vote.

Several members chafed at a provision giving the governor power to appoint the board members at each of the universities, and worried that some of the higher-profile schools would fare better with their own boards than others. House Majority Leader Gerald McCormick, R-Chattanooga, said those concerns influenced his decision not to carry the measure on behalf of the Haslam administration.

But McCormick said he has been reassured by Haslam that he would consult with lawmakers to ensure strong boards would be appointed for each school and that he would work to avoid competing lobbying efforts by each institution for state dollars and construction projects. Those assurances will only last until Haslam leaves office in 2019, McCormick said.

“We don’t know who the next governor is, so we need to look into the future,” he said.

McCormick said he plans to propose legislation next year removing the governor’s power to appoint the executive director of the Tennessee Higher Education Commission, which would oversee the six independent four-year schools under the bill.

Democratic lawmakers said Haslam’s bill would give the governor the power to stack boards to favor his plan to privatize more services on campus, and worried that historically black Tennessee State would be at a disadvantage under the new system.

The chamber rejected a proposal by Rep. Jon Lundberg, R-Bristol to give voting power to the student member on each school’s board. Republican Rep. Ryan Williams, R-Cookeville and the bill’s main sponsor, turned back that proposed amendment, arguing against “giving voting privileges to an 18-year-old who has no professional development.”

Several members noted that the University of Tennessee system gives the student representative a vote.

“I think it’s fitting that someone that can fight and die for their country is mature enough to vote on the board,” said Rep. Art Swann, R-Maryville. “And we set the board up for the benefit of the students, not for the benefit of the other members of the board.”