NASHVILLE — Likening Gov. Bill Haslam's plan to overhaul the University of Tennessee's governing board to an "old, tough piece of bear meat," the head of a Senate panel publicly saidWednesday he's getting worried about the legislation's prospects for passage.
"Members, I'm sure your email has been filling up as my email has been filling up for the last few days ... from citizens around the state who oppose the governor's plan for a number of different reasons," Senate Government Operations Committee Chairman Mike Bell, R-Riceville, told colleagues as a hearing on the bill was delayed.
Bell noted that at least two committee members are working on amendments already and he said he believes Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris, R-Collierville, who is carrying the governor's bill, may have one as well.
Using an analogy, the chairman said that "when we get a piece of legislation, we like to take that piece of legislation and chew on it and break it down into something digestible.
"Well," Bell continued, "I would compare this bill to an old, tough piece of bear meat. The more I chew on it, the bigger it gets. And I'm somewhat concerned about the future of this bill."
Bell urged members to continue studying the measure and be ready to offer their amemdments next week.
The governor's "University of Tennessee Focus Act" would shrink the university system's Board of Trustees from 27 members to just 11. The Republican says the current board is just too large and he's proposing removing himself, several commissioners, student and faculty representatives and allotted slots.
The current system has trustees from one of each of the state's nine congressional districts, as well as additional members in counties where the system has a university campus: Chattanooga, Knoxville, Martin and Memphis.
Those requirements disappear in the bill, prompting concerns from some, including a former president of the national UT Alumni Association. Moreover, students and faculty, which each get one voting trustee on the current board, are upset over the loss of their respective single vote.
At the same time, Haslam's bill creates four "advisory boards" for UT-Chattanooga, UT-Knoxville, UT-Martin and the Health Science Center in Memphis, home to the university's medical and dental schools.
The proposed seven-member boards would include student and faculty representatives and advise university chancellors on budgets and other issues. But the advisory boards have no real power, with the revamped "big board" of trustees calling the final shots.
The administration and House supporters offered changes in committee on Tuesday to require appointments of a graduate from each of the four universities. But Haslam's entire idea of creating individual campus advisory boards is raising alarms in some quarters.
Haslam says the bill emulates to some extent his 2016 legislation, the original FOCUS Act, which broke up the Tennessee Board of Regents system and spun off its six universities into self-governing entities with their own fully functioning boards.
The TBR system kept its community and technical colleges. Haslam says it's a great success, although some lawmakers and observers say it remains a work in progress.
Dr. Ron Kirkland, a former president of the national UT Alumni Association, told House members this week that while some of the Tennessee Board of Regents' universities wanted independence, UT system universities don't, according to alumni and others he's spoken to.
While emphasizing he doesn't officially represent the alumni group now, Kirkland said he has spoken to a number of alumni and others who've voiced concerns the advisory groups could ultimately spark efforts to secede from the UT system.
He said they like "being part of a system that works for the betterment of education in our fine state, and it's done a really good job. and I for one don't see why you'd want to change that system so dramatically by setting up these advisory boards to splinter the system."
"As one who is a little bit paranoid about things like this ... that go below the surface in legislation, one wonders if the comparison with the former Regency schools is not a prelude to splitting up the university system," he added.
"It's a system," Kirkland said of UT. "It functions like a system. This bill will weaken that system."