This story was updated March 26, 2018, at 10:49 p.m.
NASHVILLE — The Tennessee Senate Monday evening voted overwhelmingly for Gov. Bill Haslam's legislation that restructures the University of Tennessee governing board of trustees, slashes its size from 27 to 11 members and creates "advisory" boards for each of the system's four campuses.
The 27-3 vote came after spirited debate from critics over Haslam's purposes, whether individual campuses such as UT-Chattanooga will have representation in the system and the impact his UT FOCUS Act will have in years to come.
"I just feel like this is such a major change and the University of Tennessee had a perfect audit," said Sen. Janice Bowling, R-Tullahoma, who went on to allude to actions primarily at UT-Koxville that have inflamed the socially conservative GOP-controlled General Assembly in recent years. "I know we've disagreed with some of the decisions coming out of UT recently."
Haslam, a Republican who leaves office next year, says the current board, most if not all of whose members he's personally appointed, is too unwieldly with varying degrees of participation.
The bill slashes the number of trustees from 27 to 11, removing the governor and two of his commissioners, and it eliminates language from current law that specially designates appointments by congressional district and counties where there is a UT campus.
Now, a governor will "strive" to appoint someone from the local area or a graduate of a university campus. Haslam's bill also removes the voting student and faculty member from the UT system board.
The governor argues they will get representation on the seven-member "advisory boards" he is creating for each campus. The advisory panels will work with individual chancellors in areas such as annual budgets and student tuition and fee increases.
The campus boards are strictly advisory and their recommendations don't have to be followed by the UT system board.facebook
A number of former UT officials, student leaders and one-time heads of the UT Alumni Association fought the legislation. They said while they didn't object to reducing the UT system board, they thought it was necessary to ensure local representation, and some fretted that the campus advisory boards could eventually lead to a breakup of the UT system itself.
"We're about to make a pretty gigantic change to the governance of this organization," said Senate Democratic Caucus Chairman Jeff Yarbro of Nashville, who went on to question the "urgency" of acting now and asked "is there a crisis?"
Haslam has said his rationale for the legislation is his so-far successful breakup of the Tennessee Board of Regents. Lawmakers in 2016 approved his legislation splitting the system's five universities from the system, which now just oversees community and technical colleges, and giving each university its own board.
The University of Memphis and business leaders there, several of them close friends with the governor, had lobbied for years to give Memphis stand-alone status.
Sen. Frank Niceley, R-Strawberry Plain, a UT critic, likened the bill to "washing a worn-out pickup truck" in terms of "making it better" and voiced doubts that it will work.
"I hope this helps because they need help," Niceley said of the UT board. "It's something all the time over there but I doubt it will change a thing."
The bill, which will be considered by the House on Thursday, continues to give the governor appointment powers over the main UT system board. But the appointments would have to be approved by affirmative votes by the House as well as the Senate.
It calls for the governor to make staggered appointments of two, four and six years for the reconstituted system board. That's to give the next governor the ability to appoint some members during his or her first term.
Yarbro noted that it could allow the new board to name Haslam as the university system's new chancellor. Haslam, a billionaire, has laughed off such questions in the past, saying he has no interest.
The bill is being rushed through in order to give Haslam the ability to make the appointments before legislators conclude their annual session next month.