Tennessee Senate sends final version of UT system board overhaul to Gov. Haslam

Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam

NASHVILLE - Gov. Bill Haslam's controversial overhaul of the University of Tennessee system's board of trustees is now heading to his desk after winning final approval Wednesday in the state Senate.

Senators agreed with the House-passed revised version, voting 22-8 to send the bill to Haslam, who is expected to sign the measure he argues is necessary.

"This legislation will improve the effectiveness of the University of Tennessee Board of Trustees and positively impact the multiple campuses that comprise the UT system," said Haslam Press Secretary Jennifer Donnals in an email.

She said the governor "is appreciative of the General Assembly, especially the bill's sponsors, Sen. Mark Norris and Rep. David Hawk, for their partnership in passing this important legislation."

The bill scraped through the House last week by just two votes over the minimum required. House Democrats and even some of Haslam's fellow Republicans in the GOP-run chamber questioned why the governor was rushing the bill through in his final year.

One critic fretted that it might be an effort by the governor, a former Knoxville mayor, and his wealthy family to exert continued influence on the UT system and Knoxville campus.

Criticism was far more muted Wednesday in the Republican-controlled Senate. And none came from GOP members.

Senate Democratic Caucus Chairman Jeff Yarbro of Nashville told colleagues the narrow House vote margin and House changes to the bill "calls into question" moving so quickly on a divisive issue.

Yarbro criticized Haslam's effort to slash the current 27-member UT system board to just 12 members, including a now non-voting student member, arguing the existing appointment process was "structured so the entire state has support or can find ways to have support and influence into the university."

Because "we're divided, the fact that there's been this short of a process indicates to me that perhaps this is a measure that we would be better saving for a future year," Yarbro added.

Republican leaders didn't bother to respond and proceeded to a vote.

Known as the UT FOCUS Act, Haslam argued the change from a 27-member board of trustees to a 12-member structure, which includes a non-voting student trustee, will result in a more engaged and active board.

In cutting the size of the UT system board, the legislation removes the governor, two executive branch commissioners, as well as the executive director of the Tennessee Higher Education Commission.

It also eliminates slots for a voting student and faculty member. A student will remain on the board but no longer have a vote. A faculty member will serve as a voting member on the new board's Academic Affairs and Student Success Committee. Both will be named by the governor. Currently they're elected by students or faculty.

Also gone are trustees currently required to come from each of the state's nine congressional districts, as well as a requirement that each of the four counties with a UT university - UT-Chattanooga, UT-Knoxville, UT-Martin and the UT Health Science Center.

Instead, the bill says the governor must appoint at least five alumni to the board and "strive" to name trustees from the counties. It also eliminates the current requirement to name minorities and members of both political parties to the board.

All appointments would have to be confirmed by both House and Senate and lawmakers, and, if both chambers agree, they can also bounce trustees from the board.

The bill also creates four "advisory" boards for the institutions that will work with chancellors on budgets, fee and tuition increases and other issues. Each will have seven members named by Haslam.

Those recommendations would be forwarded to the newly fashioned "Big Board," the UT system trustee board. But they aren't required to follow recommendations from the advisory boards.

The governor has said his decision to push the change in his final year came after his success with the original Focus Act, which in 2016 split the Tennessee Board of Regents in half, spinning off its six non-UT universities into individual self-governing entities with their own boards.

It's worked well, the governor has said. Skeptics say it's too early to declare success for the independent universities and argue the UT system isn't comparable.

And critics have questioned Haslam's motivations in pushing the changes, and some in communities with UT institutions, like Chattanooga, have voiced concerns about adequate representation on the system board. Former UT system officials and past presidents of the UT system's national alumni association unsuccessfully fought the bill.

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