published Friday, February 27th, 2009

Tennessee: Lawmakers look to reshape higher ed structure

NASHVILLE — Talk about reforming Tennessee higher education has turned into legislation with two Democrats introducing a bill to abolish the University of Tennessee board of trustees, the state Board of Regents and the Tennessee Higher Education Commission.

The bill is intended to push higher education officials into making recommendations on how best to reform, streamline and possibly even consolidate the state’s competing systems of higher education, said Senate Minority Leader Jim Kyle, D-Memphis, and House Finance Committee Chairman Craig Fitzhugh, D-Ripley.

“This is the time,” Sen. Kyle said, citing the UT board’s suspension of a search for a new president while the state Board of Regents has likewise halted its search for a new chancellor.

Meanwhile, Sen. Andy Berke, D-Chattanooga, and Rep. Mark Maddox, D-Dresden, have a more subtle approach to the issue with legislation (Senate Bill 2025) creating an 11-member “Forward Thinking for Higher Education Task Force.” It would study higher education structure, needs, overall mission and funding.

It would make recommendations to the governor and legislature by Feb. 1, 2010.

“There is opportunity in crisis and we are certainly at a crisis point in higher education,” Sen. Berke said. “We don’t have leaders for either the Board of Regents or UT system and we are in intense discussions about the cost and expense structure of colleges.”

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Both systems face recession-driven funding cuts although a federal stimulus package is expected to provide temporary relief. Moreover, lawmakers for years have questioned the wisdom of having two separate higher education systems with competing bureaucracies and programs.

Gov. Phil Bredesen recently told the Chattanooga Times Free Press “this is a time to look at revisions.”

Under the Kyle/Fitzhugh legislation (Senate Bill 2122) the UT and SBR boards as well as the Tennessee Higher Education Commission, which coordinates the two, would cease to exist July 1, 2010. Higher education officials’ recommendations would be due Jan. 25, 2010. The plan would allow for both systems to recommend separate entities.

“We’re saying to the higher education community in our state, you bring us a model ... if they don’t do it, we’ll do it for them,” Sen. Kyle said.

about Andy Sher...

Andy Sher is a Nashville-based staff writer covering Tennessee state government and politics for the Times Free Press. A Washington correspondent from 1999-2005 for the Times Free Press, Andy previously headed up state Capitol coverage for The Chattanooga Times, worked as a state Capitol reporter for The Nashville Banner and was a contributor to The Tennessee Journal, among other publications. Andy worked for 17 years at The Chattanooga Times covering police, health care, county government, ...

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