Tennessee lawmakers grill Haslam's appointees to new UT board

Current vice chairman withdraws nomination to serve on re-configured board

University of Tennessee UT Knoxville tile
University of Tennessee UT Knoxville tile

NASHVILLE - The University of Tennessee system's current Board of Trustees vice chairman on Wednesday withdrew his nomination to serve on UT's freshly re-configured board.

Raja Jubran's decision came after it became clear the Knoxville businessman and friend of Gov. Bill Haslam faced significant hurdles in winning legislative confirmation.

Some majority Republicans in the General Assembly felt Jubran had not cracked down sufficiently on UT-Knoxville campus controversies, which have roiled social conservatives, as well as other issues.

The move came before Haslam's other nine nominees went before House and Senate education committees Wednesday for confirmation hearings on the appointments to the new board approved only last week by lawmakers at Haslam's urging.

Lawmakers grilled them for hours.

Concerns include ire over the UT-Knoxville campus' annual student-run "Sex Week," which often deploys provocative methods to educate students about safe sex, as well as sexual harassment and assault.

Other controversies have erupted over what conservatives consider excessive political correctness at the campus. And last year's UT-Knoxville athletic department fiasco was a concern.

At the same time, a number of lawmakers on both sides of the aisle feared there would be a new push by Jubran and the new board to get campuses at UT-Knoxville, UT-Chattanooga, UT-Martin and the UT Health Sciences Center in Memphis to reconsider their rejections of facilities management outsourcing, a pet project of the governor, who leaves office in January.

Under the current board system, Tennessee's governor is officially the UT board chairman. But with governors rarely attending board meetings, the heavy lifting often falls to whoever is vice chairman. Jubran often handled the heavy lifting.

Under Haslam's UT Focus Act, which takes effect in July, the board shrinks from 27 members to just 12. The governor no longer is on the board. The state agriculture commissioner remains, as does a now-non-voting student.

Jubran's difficulties in winning confirmation stunned some who believe he was being unfairly blamed.

Without citing the cause, Haslam Press Secretary Jennifer Donnals confirmed in an email that "Mr. Jubran removed his nomination from consideration. The Governor thanks him for his outstanding service to the University of Tennessee and the significant contributions he has made to higher education in this state."

Calling Jubran "an exceptional individual and leader," Donnals noted he "will continue to support the UT system and community."

Haslam later told the Tennessean that lawmakers "have a concern around sex week over at UT Knoxville. I understand that concern. I don't like it. I feel like the legislature wanted to send a message regarding that. I think with that, Raja said, 'You know, maybe the smartest thing for me to do is to not go forward.'"

Other appointees went before legislative panels. The list included John Compton, a former Pepsico president who served briefly as CEO of the Haslam family-owned Pilot Flying J, which operates interstate travel centers across the U.S.

Asked in the House Education Administration and Planning Committee about the federally investigated fraud scandal involving the company's fuel rebate program for trucking firms, Compton, who left before problems erupted, said he had known nothing of them.

"And I had absolutely zero knowledge of what then came about 'rebates.' I had never heard the term, didn't know the term. Nothing."

In the Senate Education Committee, lawmakers drilled down into what they considered UT- Knoxville's exorbitantly high salaries for coaches and athletic directors, zeroing in particularly on the $2.5 million separation agreement with former athletic director John Currie.

Attorney and lobbyist Brad Lampley, a one-time UT Vols football player and current trustee nominated for the new board, said salaries and separation agreements for high-profile coaches and ADs represent the "costs of being here" in the Southeastern Conference "to get top people."

None of the payments came from taxes or tuition from donor funds or SEC Network money, he emphasized. "We have so many positive things going on right now," Lampley said, quickly adding, "I don't take that amount of money lightly at all."

Sen. Steve Dickerson, R-Nashville, was unimpressed, saying sports programs should be an "offshoot" of the university and not its "driving force."

As for hiring a new UT system chief to replace current President Joe DiPietro, who plans to retire next year, Lampley said it's an opportunity to take the system "to the next level."

But Lampley noted DiPietro's replacement will have to be someone who understands Tennessee, as well as its legislature. He noted some past searches have resulted in the "national flavor of the month" and "been viewed as a bad fit here." DiPietro, who spent years in the UT system before becoming president, has "done a great job" and been a "strong leader," Lampley said.

The House education panel quickly took Jubran's confirmation resolution off notice, as did the Senate panel. House committee members also approved the appointments of Compton, Lampley, Kim White of Chattanooga, Bill Evans, Kara Lawson, Donnie Smith, Sharon Pryse, Bill Rhodes and Melvin Malone. All are now expected to go to the House floor for final confirmation.

But Senate Education Committee members deferred action on the Haslam nominations until later.

Contact Andy Sher at asher@timesfreepress.com or follow him on Twitter @AndySher1.

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