Controversial UT board of trustees overhaul plan clears Tennessee House

Governor Bill Haslam speaks during a press conference to unveil plans to build the new five-seat Atlas in Chattanooga at the Volkswagen Conference Center on Monday, March 19, 2018 in Chattanooga, Tenn.
Governor Bill Haslam speaks during a press conference to unveil plans to build the new five-seat Atlas in Chattanooga at the Volkswagen Conference Center on Monday, March 19, 2018 in Chattanooga, Tenn.

NASHVILLE - The state House on Thursday approved Gov. Bill Haslam's controversial plan to dismantle the existing University of Tennessee system's board of trustees, reduce its size and appoint new members.

The bill, known as the UT FOCUS Act, narrowly passed on a 51-41 vote, with 50 votes needed. It now goes back to the Senate because it was amended.

Proponents 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. The student and a faculty member will have a vote on the student affairs committee.

But critics questioned Haslam's true motivations in pushing the changes, and communities with UT institutions, like Chattanooga, voiced concerns about adequate representation.

Assistant Majority Leader David Hawk, Greeneville, who carried the bill, told the House that "we are going to create a world-class board of trustees to continue to take [the UT system] to its next heights," later trying to answer critics by noting his daughter will be attending UT-Knoxville.

"There's nothing I'm going to do as a legislator or a father to harm this university," Hawk said.

Earlier, Rep. John Ray Clemmons, D-Nashville, unsuccessfully sought to amend the bill, criticizing a number of bill provisions and questioning the actual purpose of Haslam, whose family has long been involved in UT affairs and whose father, James Haslam II, is a former UT trustee.

"Let's remember, at the end of the day, once again, this is our university," Clemmons told the chamber. "This is the people of Tennessee's university. This is not one governor's university, and it's not one family's university."

Hawk agreed that "this is our university," but he repeated the governor's mantra that government and, in this case, the UT system, should be "effective and efficient."

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 a faculty member as a trustee. A student will remain on the board but will no longer have a vote.

Also gone are trustees specifically required to come from each of the state's nine congressional districts and also from 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.

The bill also creates four "advisory" boards for the institutions that will work with chancellors on budgets, fee and tuition increases and other issues.

Those would be forward to the newly fashioned "Big Board," but these UT system trustees aren't required to follow the recommendations from the small advisory boards.

Haslam's effort came after individual campuses rejected his statewide outsourcing contract for facilities management. While Haslam acknowledged he wasn't happy with that decision, he said it was up to the campuses and not the reason why he brought the legislation.

The United Campus Workers union, which fought Haslam over outsourcing, said in a statement that House members "have handed the keys to the castle to the governor on his way out of office, without any substantial questions about outsourcing having been answered."

"The UT FOCUS Act gives Haslam extraordinary power to handpick an entire board that can opt-in to the JLL contract on its first day. It has fewer members with more power to move a privatization, corporate agenda. It shuts out student and faculty voices."

Noting one lawmaker's comments during debate that a Haslam official told him the governor's already decided on his appointment, the union said "neither the public nor the General Assembly know who those people are and what interests they represent."

The governor's appointments must be confirmed in votes by the House and Senate.

Rep. Gerald McCormick, R-Chattanooga, said he was skeptical of the bill when Haslam first proposed it, noting that Hamilton County would no longer be guaranteed to have a trustee on the board.

He said the governor told him, "No. 1, a governor would have to be crazy" not to have someone from Chattanooga on the system board. But McCormick said he also told him "he also felt like it would be better to have someone from Chattanooga who wouldn't be interested in just Chattanooga, he'd be looking out for the state."

The bill has come under fire from a number of former UT officials and one-time heads of the UT Alumni Association, as well as students and faculty leaders.

One concern voiced by some former alumni leaders is that the individual universities' advisory boards could eventually spur efforts to separate from the UT system and form their own self-governing universities.

Haslam has said much of his impetus in pushing for changes at UT were inspired by his own 2016 FOCUS Act. It broke up the Tennessee Board of Regents system, which spun off five universities while keeping community colleges and technical schools under TBR.

Haslam said he's seen a level of engagement among board members of newly self-governing universities like Middle Tennessee State University that he doesn't see at UT.

Critics say it's not really analogous because several of the former TBR universities, such as the University of Memphis, long sought to be self governing and the universities have nowhere the broad reach of the University of Tennessee which is a land grant university. UT operates agricultural extension services in each of the state's 95 counties and also advisory services for county and municipal governments.

Contact staff writer Andy Sher at or 615-255-0550.

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