Tennessee governor's plan to restructure UT Board of Trustees draws concerns

Bill Haslam wants to slash 27-member governing board to 11 members

Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam gives his annual State of the State address to a joint convention of the Tennessee General Assembly Monday, Jan. 29, 2018, in Nashville, Tenn. (AP Photo/Mark Zaleski)

NASHVILLE - Gov. Bill Haslam's plan to downsize the University of Tennessee system's governing board faces headwinds from some state lawmakers as well as the UT Alumni Association, student and faculty groups and communities unhappy over losing their dedicated appointments on the current board of trustees.

In his last year of office, the governor is asking the General Assembly to slash the 27-member board of trustees to 11 members.

The plan also calls for creating four advisory boards at the system's four campuses, including the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, a move apparently intended to soothe potential concerns in counties with campuses that will lose current statutorily mandated appointments to the board.

"I've been pretty open that I think the current board with 27 members is too large," Haslam said recently of the bill which would remove governors from their customary spot on the board as well. "My sense is that the bigger a board gets that nobody really feels ownership and accountability for it."

Haslam said one of the motivations behind the legislation is his own 2016 Focus Act, which split in half the Tennessee Board of Regents system, spinning off the system's six universities into their own self-governing orbits while keeping community and technical colleges under the board of regents.

"I've seen how those boards work," the Republican governor said. "You have a high degree of accountability and laser-like focus on key issues whether it be tuition or student fees or the long-term master plan for that campus. There's a whole different focus from those boards."

But critics and some lawmakers note there's a world of difference between what Haslam did regarding the board of regents versus what he wants to do regarding the UT system. While the six former board of regent universities are indeed self-governing, under Haslam's plan, UTC, UT-Knoxville, UT-Martin and the UT Health Science Center in Memphis won't be.

Instead, the campuses would have the proposed advisory boards whose duties would include helping prepare campus budgets. But trustees on the reconstituted "big board" - the proposed 11-member UT Board of Trustees - are under no legal obligation to follow those recommendations.

Sen. Todd Gardenhire, R-Chattanooga, said he likes the concept of reducing the trustee board, noting a "manageable size will solve a lot of the problems a lot of us in the Legislature have with governance of the UT system."

Asked if he is worried that Chattanooga could wind up having no one on the UT system board, Gardenhire said "that's a concern that a lot of us have across the state. You know, [UT-Martin] is concerned about it."

The current 27-member board was purposefully constructed to ensure statewide representation for all four universities as well as the UT system's major statewide missions. Those missions include technical assistance programs in areas like agriculture and providing technical assistance to city and county officials.

As a result, governors must appoint a trustee from each of Tennessee's nine congressional districts. And counties where there is a university, including Hamilton County, get a representative on the current board. UT-Knoxville and the UT Health Science Center in Memphis, home of the system's medical school, have two designees.

Hamilton County has two trustees on board, one because UTC is located there, while the 3rd Congressional District representative is also from Chattanooga. Current state law says that each of Tennessee's nine congressional districts must have a member on the board.

"We all know why that was done - to placate every state representative, every state senator everywhere," Gardenhire said. "But if you're talking about a board that can govern versus a board that's representative is two different things. I think a lot of us now want a board that can govern."

Socially conservative Republican lawmakers, including Gardenhire, have put the UT system on the hot seat in recent years, primarily over UT-Knoxville actions in areas ranging from the campus' "Sex Week," an event aimed at educating students over sexual issues, to a campus official's suggested use of "gender neutral" pronouns.

House Minority Leader Craig Fitzhugh, D-Ripley, said he likes the current statutory set up, saying it "now gives a good geographic representation" along with requirements that men and women as well as member of both political parties are represented on UT's board.

He questioned the need to change the current set-up.

Earlier this month, candidates running for governor were invited to address the alumni association with a number of them, including Fitzhugh, saying they think that students and faculty should continue to have representation on the trustee board.

Last week, Dr. Ron Kirkland, a former president of the national UT Alumni Association, told House Education Administration and Planning Subcommittee members as the bill appeared for the first time that alumni "have some significant issues" with the legislation.

"We have concerns about you losing dedicated seats from each campus on the board, the 'big board' as you call it," Kirkland said.

Kirkland said he and other former alumni association presidents hope to bring legislation as the bill moves to the full committee after subcommittee members approved it last week.

Also at the hearing was a former UT-Knoxville student government president advocating on behalf of students and faculty that lawmakers retain the current student and faculty member who have board voting privileges. Students pay tuition and fees as well as state sales taxes and deserve a voice, she said.

A number of Republicans, including Lt. Gov. Randy McNally of Oak Ridge, the Senate speaker, are supportive of the governor's bill.

One provision changes current law to allow the UT board to keep the names of applicants for campus chancellors secret with only the person appointed becoming public. Current state law requires the three finalists for such posts be revealed.

Meanwhile, the governor recently told reporters his proposal had "zero, zero, zero" to do with UT system chancellors collectively turning a thumb's down on his proposed statewide facilities-management outsourcing contract as well as UT-Knoxville's controversy over a head football coach and similar issues.

In addition to being up in the full House Education Administration and Planning Committee on Tuesday, the Senate companion bill is scheduled to be heard in the Government Operations Committee.

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