Tennessee Gov. Haslam to follow 2012 law's intent in publicizing chancellor finalists

In this Tuesday, July 26, 2016, photo, Republican Gov. Bill Haslam speaks at a grant announcement in Camden, Tenn. Haslam said he has been happy to lend his support to state lawmakers facing tough primary challenges while making grant announcements around the state.

NASHVILLE - Gov. Bill Haslam and David Gregory, the interim chancellor of the Tennessee Board of Regents, both say they'll follow the intent of a 2012 law when it comes to making public the names of all finalists for the college system's new permanent chancellor.

Asked whether the governor, who is personally chairing the Regents' search for the new chancellor, will follow the process outlined in the law, Haslam press secretary Jennifer Donnals simply replied "yes" to a Times Free Press email on Tuesday.

In an interview last week, TBR interim chief Gregory, who noted the search committee's work continues, said officials will adhere to what they see as the law's requirements.

"They receive the applicants. They'll go through those and then they'll name finalists. There's a statute that kind of governs how this approach works. They'll name a minimum of three finalists."

At that point, finalists will "come to our central office where they'll get a chance to meet the community college presidents, the TCAT [technical colleges] directors, our staff and then ultimately there'll be a decision."

Asked whether it would be a transparent process, Gregory said it would.

"You can watch me now in terms of what we're doing in Jackson State," Gregory said. "We have a search underway. Again, it's governed by the statute."

Their intent to adhere to the 2012 statute, which requires higher education leader finalists be made public once determined, appears to contrast with University of Tennessee system officials, who initially refused to release names of all finalists for the UT-Knoxville chancellor position even as the first one visited the campus.

Instead, UT system officials trickled out the other two finalists over a period of several weeks, maintaining they were obeying the law.

Critics, including the Knoxville News Sentinel's editorial page, charged that UT officials played a game of "semantics" to avoid revealing the names of all finalists initially.

UT system spokeswoman Gina Stafford maintained in an email that "the University fully complied with the 2012 law concerning searches for chief executive officers of higher ed institutions.

"The University released the names of finalists for the UT Knoxville chancellor position after the search committee selected candidates as finalists," Stafford added.

Last week, Haslam and TBR officials went behind closed doors to begin sorting through the list of applicants brought to them by a search firm and review references and the like. More meetings are expected before they winnow the list down to at least five.

The TBR system is one of the nation's largest public higher education systems, but it's about to slim down under a bill pushed last session by Haslam which spins its six universities off from TBR to be governed by independent boards.

But TBR will retain the system of two-year community colleges, which include both Chattanooga State and Cleveland State, as well as the Tennessee colleges of applied technology, or TCATs for short.

It's part of Haslam's publicly stated effort to allow TBR to focus solely on the state colleges and TCATs, which the governor is relying on heavily in his "Drive to 55" initiative to boost the number of Tennesseans with post-high school degrees or certificates to 55 percent of adults by 2025.

Moving the universities out of TBR, however, also allowed Haslam to meet a promise the governor made to Memphis business leaders to make the University of Memphis an independent entity.

Contact Andy Sher at asher@timesfreepress.com or 615-255-0550. Follow him on Twitter @AndySher1.