In his resignation letter to Gov. Bill Haslam, Board of Regents Chancellor John Morgan said that during his 40-year state government career, “I have observed that ambiguity is the ally of ineffectiveness and inefficiency.”
Characteristically for his career, the former state comptroller and former deputy governor practiced what he preached in the letter. There’s no ambiguity there.
Morgan is resigning a year ahead of his previously-planned retirement because he believes Haslam’s proposal for overhauling the Regents system is “unworkable” and, as a matter of personal principle, he will not act as a two-faced government bureaucrat and collect another year’s paycheck — basically $327,000 plus benefits — by nodding politely, keeping his views to himself and going along with the game plan as others have often done in state governmental circles.
Morgan’s unambiguous move might be called integrity, perhaps just characteristic candor. It’s probably both, the two often going hand in glove.
Further, Morgan followed up his resignation, effective at the end of this month, with a final gesture of respectful defiance.
Since Haslam has declared higher education institutions will be able to opt out of the governor’s ambiguous plan for privatization of all state property management services, Morgan said he was opting out the 13 community colleges and 27 technical institutes that would remain under Regents’ authority under the Haslam plan for decentralizing higher education.
This move was deemed “premature” by Haslam administration folk, notably including Finance Commissioner Larry Martin.
You see, Terry Cowles, the administration’s privatization guru officially known as director of “Customer-Focused Government,” told a legislative committee last week that further clarification, known as “business justification,” of the governor’s ambiguous outsourcing plan will be coming in mid-February. While saying it’s premature to be more specific, Cowles told lawmakers it’s fair to say that the administration will be able to show the program — whatever it is — will be justified by great savings to taxpayers.
Morgan said nothing whatsoever about the governor’s ambiguous plan for doing something or other to shore up a shortfall in state revenue for building and maintaining roads. Not his bailiwick, though it might have been in the Democrat’s days as deputy governor or state comptroller.
Be that as it may, the big question now is whether Morgan’s unambiguous farewell gestures in his area of expertise will be turn out to be ineffective and inefficient. The guess here is yes, they will be ineffective, but, no, they were certainly not inefficient.
Morgan has stirred a conversation on the Regents realignment that was, as a matter of practical politics, widely considered a done deal in Legislatorland.
This proposal as outlined is, of course, going in the exact opposite direction of the governor’s repeated mantra for streamlining government. It would create six new state university boards of trustees, each acting independently to pick its own president (one of the more entertaining bits of speculation making the rounds last week concerned Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey becoming president of East Tennessee State University) and compete with one another for the shrinking state dollars available to higher education. And for private donations from wealthy citizens — a contest that some institutions, say the University of Memphis, are much better prepared to engage than others, say Morgan’s alma mater, Austin Peay State University.
But it still will probably pass. Morgan more or less assumed this in declining to try “opting out” the six soon-to-be-independent state universities, instead doing so only for the soon-to-be-remnants of Regents direct oversight. And he’s a pretty astute observer of the state political scene.
As for the ambiguous outsourcing plan, the jury is still out. Unlike the creation of new boards, where legislators see patronage opportunities, lawmakers are nervous about making their local folks unhappy by jettisoning constituent jobs in the name of ambiguous claims of government efficiency.
As Morgan said, ambiguity is the ally of ineffectiveness and inefficiency. At the least, he’s on the side of seeking some clarity.