NASHVILLE — Gov. Bill Haslam says he is personally leading the search for a new head of the state's largest college system because the right leader must be found to direct the agency during an era of dramatic change.
"As the Tennessee Board of Regents transitions to having a different look, this new chancellor position is critical," Haslam emphasized last week as a 16-member search committee got underway.
Haslam was alluding to his major overhaul of the TBR system that now includes six universities, 13 community colleges, including those in Chattanooga and Cleveland, and 27 colleges of applied technology.
As a result of Haslam's FOCUS Act, approved by lawmakers earlier this year, the Tennessee Board of Regents in 2017 will shed its six universities, which will operate independently with self-governing boards.
The regents will focus on a new core mission for community colleges and technical schools, one that's central to Haslam's Drive to 55 initiative that calls for 55 percent of Tennesseans to have college degrees or technical certificates by 2025.
All this comes as Tennessee basks in national attention over its Tennessee Promise program that offers free, last-dollar lottery-funded scholarships at TBR schools to state high school graduates.
The chancellor is the TBR's chief executive officer, managing the system and providing strategic leadership in accordance with the board's direction and policies.
"Whoever the next chancellor is is going to be key in that whole effort," Haslam said. "So for the first time ever I am actually chairing a search committee because I think the position is so important."
The other members include five regents, faculty, student, alumni, business and community leaders Nashville.
"We need your input so we can get this right," he said at the Nashville launch. "We're changing the engine on the train while it's moving and TBR is at full speed right now, realizing that it is getting ready to change soon."
He hopes the nominee can be approved by the full Board of Regents in December and start work in January.
Betty Turner Asher and Julie Holley of Greenwood/Asher & Associates, the executive search and consulting firm hired to conduct a national candidate search, told committee members several candidates already have emerged.
Finalists could include persons from outside higher education such as business or the military, officials said.
Asher said she hopes to have a "wide selection of great choices" for the search committee's Oct. 18 meeting.
Asher said the state is generating national buzz in higher education circles.
"Everyone is talking about Tennessee," she said. "You're kind of ranked No. 1 or 2" with regard to what's happening in the nation's community colleges, she added.
Asher emphasized that the search committee, not the consultants, will make the choice.
Only the three finalists' names will be made public. The public isn't entitled to know who else applies, thanks to a secrecy exemption in the state's Open Records Act.
Committee members will be be given special access to applicants' files on a computer. And, Asher urged them, please don't use anyone's name in emails. It might get out somehow, she warned.
Regent Greg Duckett, senior vice president and corporate counsel with Baptist Memorial Health Care System and a former chief administrative officer for Memphis city government, said the secrecy is appropriate.
Duckett argued making the names public could deter good candidates by putting them "at risk" in their current jobs if not hired for the new one.
Asked by reporters later about the need for all the secrecy, Haslam said, "I don't know if it's secrecy."
He agreed that some potential applicants with existing jobs "are not certain they want to give themselves up as looking for something else, which you do in a public search."
"In the meantime, we think we can get a better pool of candidates," Haslam said. "And until they're finalists, that will be kept private."
As to whether the panel will recommend a new TBR chief without any academic credentials, the Republican governor said, "I honestly don't know.
"We're not starting with any preordained thought about who that would be. I think we want to find the very best person for the system so I think that we brought that up just as a 'don't preclude anybody who might be a great leader from the system,'" he said.
The new chancellor will succeed David Gregory, who was named to the interim role this year after Chancellor John Morgan retired early to protest Haslam's plan to remove the six universities from the TBR system.
Contact staff writer Andy Sher at email@example.com or 615-255-0550. Follow on Twitter @AndySher1.