ETSU president, former Tennessee House speaker to join TVA board

Senate votes to confirm two but other vacancies remain

Contributed photo / Brian Noland, president of East Tennessee State University

Former Tennessee Speaker of the House Beth Harwell and East Tennessee State University President Brian Noland are joining the TVA board after being confirmed by the U.S. Senate Sunday, filling the last two agency board seats previously appointed by former President Barack Obama.

Another Trump nominee for one of the two remaining vacancies on the board - telecommunications executive Charles "Bill" Cook Jr. of Oxford, Mississippi - will likely have to be renominated in the next Congress that convenes Jan. 3 if he is to be confirmed before President-elect Joe Biden takes office on Jan. 20 and begins appointing Tennessee Valley Authority board members.

The entire 7-member board that oversees America's biggest public utility will soon be Trump appointees, including chair John Ryder, a former Republican National Committee general counsel who was elevated to lead the board after Trump fired the previous two chairs.

As Congress wraps up its 116th session this week, the U.S. Senate voted 84-5 to confirm Noland and 59-25 to confirm Harwell to 5-year terms on the board. The only no votes to the TVA board confirmations came from Democratic senators, primarily from the Northeast and Midwest where investor-owned utilities provide most of the electricity and charge rates higher than in the Tennessee Valley.

Harwell and Noland fill the two board vacancies created when the terms of two former TVA directors nominated by President Obama - Democrats Virginia Lodge and Ron Walter - officially ended on Jan. 3.

In August, Trump took the unprecedented step of removing both the current and former chairs of the TVA board - Decatur, Alabama businessman James "Skip" Thompson and former Oxford Mississippi Mayor Richard Howorth - for not blocking a move to outsource information technology jobs to foreign-owned companies. Under pressure from the White House, TVA ultimately backed off of its plan to outsource data processing work and rehired many of the 62 employees who were going to lose their TVA jobs because of the previous outsourcing plan.

Trump has also vowed to fire other TVA directors if they don't cut the pay of TVA CEO Jeff Lyash, who was paid a total of $7.2 million in direct and deferred compensation in fiscal 2020. Lyash, a 58-year-old nuclear engineer who joined TVA in the spring of 2019, is the highest-paid federal employee in America and his salary alone is more than double what President Trump is paid, not even counting the performance and pension bonuses he receives. Trump wants the TVA board to cap Lyash's pay at $500,000 a year.

TVA is studying its executive compensation and will consider a study by the consulting firm Frederic W. Cook & Co., Inc., at its next board meeting.

The confirmations of Harwell and Noland came nearly 11 months after they were nominated by President Trump in January and nearly six months after they were both recommended for approval by the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee.

Both of the new board members earned doctoral degrees in Tennessee and have worked with TVA in their leadership roles in the state in Nashville and Johnson City.

Harwell, a 63-year-old Nashville Republican who served in the state Legislature for 20 years, is a former teacher and professor at both Lipscomb University and Middle Tennessee State University. She ran unsuccessfully for governor of Tennessee in 2018 in a crowded GOP field in a race ultimately won by Bill Lee.

Noland, a 53-year-old graduate of the University of Tennessee at Knoxville, has headed East Tennessee State University since 2012 after previously serving for six years as chancellor of the West Virginia Higher Education System. Noland briefly sought to become chancellor at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville before withdrawing his name from consideration last year. At ETSU, Noland has helped oversee what may be the largest capital improvement program in the university's history.

U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tennessee, who introduced both Harwell and Noland during their confirmation hearings in May and helped push through their approvals, praised the new board members.

"Brian is a respected leader in East Tennessee, and during his tenure as president, he has helped transform Tennessee's fourth-largest university," said Alexander, who has praised the TVA board and done more than any single member of the Senate to help shape it. "Beth is one of our state's most distinguished citizens. Throughout her time in the Tennessee House of Representatives, and as speaker of the House, Beth has worked with the TVA on several issues."

Carl Tobias, the Williams Chair in Law at the University of Richmond who follows judicial and executive confirmations in Congress, said getting the two TVA nominees from Tennessee through the confirmation process at the end of a long and tumultuous year in Congress likely reflects the support Alexander enjoys from his longtime Senate colleague, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.

"My sense with these appointments, as well as the two East Tennessee judicial confirmations (of federal judges in Knoxville and Chattanooga last week), is that these were sort of a last-minute thank you to Alexander as he prepares to leave the U.S. Senate," Tobias said.

With the addition of Noland, the TVA board will include six white men. Harwell, who is also white, will be the only woman on the board, although two vacancies are yet to be filled. There are currently no minorities on the TVA board, which is supposed to ultimately have nine members.

Trump also has nominated Cook, a longtime telecommunications executive, who is also white. The U.S. Senate Environment and Public Works subcommittee on Clean Air and Nuclear Safety held a confirmation hearing on Cook's nomination on Dec. 9, but the full Senate committee has not yet forwarded his nomination to the Senate floor for a confirmation vote.

To be considered in the next session, Cook would have to be renominated by Trump and the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee would have to recommend his approval in early January to allow for his confirmation before Biden takes office next month.

TVA directors are paid a stipend of $45,000 per year, and the chairman is paid $50,000 a year. The board, which has four public meetings a year, will next meet on Feb. 13-14.

Contact Dave Flessner at or 423-757-6340.