NASHVILLE - Three Democrats on the Tennessee Board of Regents resigned Wednesday, clearing the way for Gov. Phil Bredesen to comply with state law and replace them with Republicans.
Among those named by Bredesen was former Chattanooga Times Free Press Publisher and Executive Editor Tom Griscom. He once worked as a director of communications for Republican President Ronald Reagan and also served as press secretary for former U.S. Sen. Howard Baker, R-Tenn.
Also designated were Tennessee Valley Authority Senior Vice President Emily J. Reynolds, a one-time chief of staff to former U.S. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn.; and Danni Varlan, president of a group that works to bring competitive air service to Knoxville's airport. Her husband, U.S. District Judge Tom Varlan, is a Republican appointee to the federal bench.
ABOUT THE REGENTS
The 18-member Board of Regents governs six state universities, 13 community colleges and 26 technology centers, with total enrollment of more than 200,000 students.
Three Democrats resigned voluntarily from the Regents:
* Judy Gooch, Oak Ridge
* J. Stanley Rogers, Manchester
* Pamela Fansler, Knoxville
Gov. Phil Bredesen named three Republicans to the panel:
* Tom Griscom, Chattanooga
* Danni Varlan, Knoxville
* Emily J. Reynolds, Nashville
"These individuals will help the board oversee the TBR system and direct our efforts to achieve the goals of the Complete College Tennessee Act," said Bredesen, a Democrat.
Griscom, who resigned from the Times Free Press this summer after 11 years, said the call from the governor was "totally unexpected" but noted Bredesen knew of his interest in higher education. He has taught at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga and has served on the University of Chattanooga Foundation board and on several University of Tennessee boards.
The governor, Griscom said, "thought I could bring something to the Board of Regents and help figure out, with the new chancellor coming in, the direction and focus we want to go."
The three Democrats resigned amid complaints by Senate Republicans that the current Regents, all Democrats, chose Bredesen deputy John Morgan, the former state comptroller, as the higher education system's new chancellor.
Among other things, Republicans revealed Bredesen had violated a 1972 state law by not having at least three Republicans on the 18-member board. The governor said it was an oversight and vowed to correct it.
Just hours before Bredesen's action Wednesday, the Republican-controlled Senate Education Committee ended two days of hearings in which they grilled Regents members over Morgan's appointment.
Republicans have criticized the board for eliminating a requirement that the chancellor have a doctoral or a law degree. Morgan has only a bachelor's degree.
He was also the only one of six applicants to be interviewed by the board.
Regent John Farris acknowledged the board could have better shielded itself from criticism with more interviews.
"Perhaps maybe we should have interviewed the other candidates," he said.
He said that with Morgan's knowledge of state issues and his involvement in the recently passed Complete College Tennessee Act, "I don't know if it would have changed the results. But for appearance, it might have looked better."
Regent Howard Roddy of Chattanooga agreed. He told Senate Education Committee Chairman Dolores Gresham, R-Somerville, that interviewing the other applicants "would have helped the process."
However, he said Morgan "appeared by far to be the most qualified applicant" given his familiarity with state government and the new higher education law. The Complete College Tennessee Act aims to reward institutions that do a better job of graduating students.
Roddy also defended eliminating the requirement for a "terminal degree" such as a doctorate or law degree. He said a number of systems, including the University of North Carolina system, don't have such requirements.
Republicans said they hearings aimed to ensure accountability and transparency on the board. Gresham described Morgan's appointment as a "catalytic event that brought questions about the process."
Contact Andy Sher at email@example.com or 615-255-0550.