Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam answers questions during an interview Thursday, Feb. 11, 2016, in Nashville.

NASHVILLE — A House panel on Tuesday approved Gov. Bill Haslam's plan to break up the Tennessee Board of Regents system despite criticism by former TBR Chancellor John Morgan who warned it threatens the balance between TBR and the University of Tennessee systems.

Haslam has proposed splitting off the six TBR universities from the Regents and providing them with self-governing boards and oversight by the Tennessee Higher Education Commission.

The TBR would retain the community colleges and technical schools it currently oversees and Haslam has touted his plan as benefiting the two-year institutions and aiding in his Drive to 55 program to raise the number of Tennesseans with post-high school degrees to 55 percent by 2025.

Morgan quit his chancellor's post on Jan. 31 in protest over the plan, accelerating by a year his intent to retire in 2017.

He told House Education Administration and Planning Committee members that Haslam's plan create a system that is "less accountable, less efficient and less effective."

"Drive to 55 is important but I think it would be a significant mistake if we underestimate the importance of the state universities to the state's economic future," Morgan said.

He said "meeting the needs of the economy we have is important, but I would submit that it's more important to create the economy we want — and that's what universities do."

But the head of Haslam's Drive to 55 initiative, Mike Krause, said the program is shaking up old higher education conceptions.

Morgan said splitting off the six universities into their own self-governing orbits would create a an "eight-sided see saw." Currently, he noted, TBR and UT systems compete with the Tennessee Higher Education Commission as referee. Now, there would be the six universities, TBR and UT.

The bill next goes to the Government Operations Committee.


In other legislative developments on Tuesday, House Health Subcommittee members listened to nearly 2 1/2 hours of testimony on a bill that would allow counselors and therapists to reject lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender clients if it violates their "sincerely held religious belief."

But in the end, there was no vote as Rep. Dan Howell, R-Georgetown, agreed to consider language a colleague said would help the bill. Howell's bill, which has already passed the full Senate, was officially taken "off notice."

Howell, however, later told a reporter "I'll be back" after he looks at language suggested by Rep. Matthew Hill, R-Jonesborough.

Earlier, Howell told colleagues "the freedom of belief is a fundamental human liberty. This bill is an effort to recognize the religious liberty concerns of licensed counselors and therapists."

The bill wades into a controversy over a 2014 code of ethics adopted by the American Counseling Association. It says counselors and marital therapists can no longer refer patients or would-be clients to another professional solely because of their religious beliefs.

"We counselors are not robots, we're human," said Ken Graham, a therapist and substance abuse counselor from Brentwood who objects to the ACA's new standard. He called it an "old concept" that therapists can put their personal views aside.

Moreover, he argued, "our most sacred beliefs cannot and should not be cast aside . to support a client's goal."

Experts, however, testified against the bill and said counselors are supposed to be trained to put aside their personal beliefs in order to help their patients.

"Our prime directive is first do no harm," said Susan Hammonds-White, who is president of the Tennessee Board for Professional Counselors, Marriage and Family Therapists and Licensed Pastoral Therapists. "This prevents us from taking care of that prime directive and puts our clients at risk."

Dr. Shawn Spurgeon, a University of Tennessee professor and expert, warned that "if you allow this legislation to pass, in essence it allows the counselor to do harm to a client by referring someone who deeply needs help."

The bill would require the objecting therapist to refer the client to another counselor. The Senate version would require therapists with suicidal impulses to continue to see the patient.

Contact Andy Sher at, 615-255-0550 or follow via twitter at AndySher1.