NASHVILLE — Fresh off a confirmation vote Tuesday making her the new chancellor of the Tennessee Board of Regents, Dr. Flora Tydings is setting an ambitious goal to transform the higher education entity into the "nation's premiere technical and community college system."
Tydings, the current president of Chattanooga State Community College, also told Gov. Bill Haslam and Regents members that "we as a system are going to continue to move toward the direction of inspiring and changing lives — one student, one family and one community at a time — so I cannot thank you enough for this opportunity."
Tydings, who takes over formally as chancellor on Feb. 1 and will be paid $345,000 annually, thanked Haslam and the regents after their unanimous vote during a telephone conference call.
She called it a "privilege" and an honor to "serve the state of Tennessee as your next chancellor, moving us through the transition of the FOCUS Act and toward becoming the nation's premier technical and community college system."
While Tydings became Chattanooga State's head only in July 2015, she worked for 19 years in the public Technical College System of Georgia, including a dozen-year stint as president of Athens Technical College from 2003 to 2015.
Her new job begins Feb. 1, and she will be charged with carrying out Haslam's vision of a slimmer and more focused higher education system as the Board of Regents sheds the six universities it now oversees.
The idea, embodied in Haslam's FOCUS Act, is to concentrate on the board's 13 community colleges and 27 Tennessee colleges of applied technology, known as TCATs, in order to advance Haslam's Drive to 55 initiative.
Drive to 55 calls for boosting the percentage of adult Tennesseans with some type of post-high school degree — be it a four-year university degree, a two-year associate's degree or a one-year-or-less technical certificate — to 55 percent by 2025.facebook
Haslam told the regents that Tydings' selection came "after a very deliberate search, a lot of thought and much input from the search committee, the TBR system staff, presidents, directors and our campus communities."
"I'm really excited to have Chancellor Tydings leading our system," the governor added. "We are not backing up at all in our commitment to our community college network and our technical schools. I think the role these schools play in our state will grow exponentially."
Haslam also called it "a good thing when we have somebody we know and have seen their track record of performance take this position."
Regent Tom Griscom of Chattanooga, who served on the chancellor search committee as well as on the 2015 search that settled on Tydings as Chattanooga State's president, said he, fellow Regent Howard Roddy of Chattanooga and others locally have "had an opportunity to watch [Tydings] in Chattanooga really pull together a great team at Chattanooga State."
Chattanooga State is unique, Griscom said, noting it's the only institution where the technical college is on the same campus as the community college. The relationship has "benefited our entire region" by fostering a cooperative attitude between higher education and existing and new businesses that need more highly trained workers, Griscom added.
Outgoing interim TBR Chancellor David Gregory predicted Tydings will be "a tremendous leader for our state. She's going to make us all proud. I think Flora brings to the job leadership, a vision of what this new system can be. She's got that grit that's necessary to be in the role of chancellor and also a degree of elegance."
Tydings becomes the first female head of a state higher education system in a state that also has the University of Tennessee system and a coordinating agency, the Tennessee Higher Education Commission.
In an interview after her appointment, Tydings said she doesn't see community colleges and technical colleges as rivals.
"I just see it as everyone being proud of their part. We just need to make sure we're all working together and we all understand what the other is doing," she said. "This is not a competition among anyone. This is making sure we're providing the highest level" of education.
While Chattanooga State is considered unique in Tennessee because it combines a community and technical college on one campus, she said that mirrors her experience in Georgia, where she also served as interim head at two other colleges.
She said that going forward "retention and [college] completion rates have to be our No. 1 focus as we work on Drive to 55 and helping students, making sure they can be successful."
Tydings earned her bachelor of science degree in education, with an emphasis in behavioral science, at Georgia Southern University; her master of education degree at Mercer University, and her doctor of education degree in occupational studies at The University of Georgia.
She and her husband, Dr. Mel Palmer, a retired college president, have four adult children.
Contact Andy Sher at email@example.com or 615-255-0550. Follow on twitter at AndySher1.