NASHVILLE — Gov. Bill Haslam's proposed plan to reduce the size of the University of Tennessee Board of Trustees came under renewed criticism Tuesday in a legislative hearing as some lawmakers, as well as student and faculty representatives and a past chairman of the national UT Alumni Association, questioned aspects of the bill.
"I've said if it ain't broke, don't fix it," House Minority Leader Craig Fitzhugh, D-Ripley, told Assistant Majority Leader David Hawk, R-Greeneville, who is carrying the Republican governor's bill. "I'm trying to figure out what exactly is broke with the University of Tennessee trustees."
Hawk replied "There are folks who would say maybe the system is broken," prompting Fitzhugh to retort, "I just don't want it to be those hiccups why we're doing this."
By hiccups, Fitzhugh said he meant the years-long uproar among socially conservative Republicans over the UT-Knoxville campus' office of diversity, which led to the program's defunding in 2016, as well as "some of the problem the governor possibly had with the Board of Trustees and the [UT] chancellor."
"I think you answered your own question," Hawk said. "Those are the concerns, yes sir, I believe those are concerns."
In addition to the office of diversity kerfuffle, Fitzhugh also alluded to the UT campus chancellors rejecting Haslam's proposed contract for outsourcing facilities management services. Haslam has said that's not a reason for his bringing the bill in his final year in office.
The governor's "University of Tennessee Focus Act" would shrink the university system's governing board from 27 members to just 11.
The current system has trustees from one of each of the state's nine congressional districts, as well as additional members in counties where the system has a university campus: Chattanooga, Knoxville, Martin and Memphis.
At the same time, Haslam's bill creates four "advisory boards" for UT-Chattanooga, UT-Knoxville, UT-Martin and the Health Science Center in Memphis, home to the university's medical and dental schools. The seven-member boards would include student and faculty representatives and advise university chancellors on budgets and other issues. But they have no real power.
The governor says the plan is based on his 2016 FOCUS Act, which split in half the Tennessee Board of Regents that oversaw non-UT universities as well as community colleges, spinning the universities into their own self-governing orbits while the Board of Regents kept the two-year institutions.
But for a second straight week, critics voiced issues when it comes to UT, a federal land grant university with statewide missions ranging from agricultural extension services to providing technical advice to city and county governments in all 95 counties.
In hopes of muting some of last week's concerns voiced in the House Education Administration and Planning Subcommittee, the governor's team returned to the full committee Tuesday with several revisions based on suggestions made last week by full Committee Chairman Harry Brooks, R-Knoxville, and Dr. Ron Kirkland, a former president of the national UT Alumni Association.
Those revisions keep the proposed 11-member UT system board but would allow student and faculty representatives to serve on a committee dealing with student and faculty issues.
Per a suggestion from Kirkland, they also would require that a graduate from each of the four universities have a representative on the full board, although the amendment doesn't require them to actually live in the community.
Currently, Hamilton County has two trustees.
Committee members ran out their allotted time without action on either of the administration amendments, let alone the bill itself. It was rolled until next week.
Before that, various critics weighed in. Last week, Kara Gilliam, a Knoxville student and past governor of the Tennessee Tennessee Intercollegiate State Legislature, raised concerns about the loss of student voting representation on what lawmakers are calling the new "big board."
On Tuesday, she read a letter from UT system's actual voting student member, UTC student Rachel Smith. In it, Smith said some 50,000 students across all campuses come to UT "to spend their money, spend their time and better their future. Adding one voting student member to the board to represent those 50,000 does not seem like an outrageous request."
Smith said in the letter that cutting the size of the 27-member board — Haslam is proposing to eliminate his own position as well as that of several of his commissioners from the board, among other reductions — is "reasonable. However, cutting out the voice of the students of the University of Tennessee is not."
Contact Andy Sher at firstname.lastname@example.org or 615-255-0550. Follow him on Twitter @AndySher1.