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VOL. 42 | NO. 7 | Friday, February 16, 2018

Details slow plan to shrink UT’s Board of Trustees

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Gov. Bill Haslam’s plan to restructure the University of Tennessee Board of Trustees appears to be a work in progress.

Timing is critical, too, with the 2018 session of the General Assembly moving at a snail’s pace and UT President Joe DiPietro’s contract set to run out in mid-2019.

The UT FOCUS Act calls for establishing a new board of trustees and four campus advisory boards by June 1. But an open question is whether the Legislature and governor can agree on the legislation and make all of the appointments this year before DiPietro leaves the system.

DiPietro says he and the Board of Trustees agreed he would stay “plus or minus six months” from the end of June 2019, which means he could be out by early 2019 or late next year.

“So, it just depends. I’m working full time, and I’ve got a lot of things I want to get done,” DiPietro adds, remaining non-committal.

Then again, a new board of trustees could kiss DiPietro good-bye earlier.

Nuts and bolts

In his last year on the job, Haslam wants to cut the board from 27 to 11 members, modernize some of its statutory responsibilities and set up seven-member advisory boards at the UT system’s four universities.

The idea is to mirror what the Legislature did with the FOCUS Act at four-year state universities over the last couple of years with what is being called the UT FOCUS Act to, you guessed it, “operate more efficiently and effectively.”

As of June 1, 2018, the existing membership of UT Board of Trustees would be “vacated and reconstituted.”

Also gone would be the requirement for trustees from each of Tennessee’s nine congressional districts and extra members from the locale of each campus. Others disappearing would be student representatives who have voting powers on the board.

As proposed, the board would include the commissioner of agriculture and at least two representatives from each of Tennessee’s three grand divisions and five UT alumni, all of whom would be appointed by the governor and confirmed by the Legislature. Seven of them also must live in Tennessee. Initial terms would be three, four and six years, and they would be limited to two terms.

An executive committee would oversee other standing committees, the university’s planning process, the president’s performance and university objectives. The full board would set a budget, tuition and fees and hold the power to remove the president.

It also would set policy governing student conduct, evaluate student financial aid, monitor non-academic programs and oversee intercollegiate athletics programs – which based on recent incidents probably need more control – and take action affecting “long-term impact on the operations, reputation and standing of the intercollegiate athletics programs of the university.”

Advisory boards would be established at UT-Knoxville, UT-Martin, UT-Chattanooga and UT Health Science Center in Memphis made up of five members appointed by the governor, one faculty member and one student.

Those boards would recommend budgets, tuition and fees, institution strategic plans and advise chancellors and board members on operations and budgets, master plans, campus life, academic programs and policies.

Will it pass?

DiPietro, Haslam and Republican legislative leaders agree the current board is unwieldy with 26 members.

Aside from student and faculty representatives, several positions such as the commissioner of education would be eliminated, and even the governor’s position as chairman would be nixed, a change catching the attention of Tennessee’s gubernatorial candidates.

“I think as far as decreasing the size of the board, I think that will fly. But I think the problem that we’ll have is how you do it and what type of representation you put on that board,” says Lt. Gov. Randy McNally, a graduate of UT College of Pharmacy.

McNally says he doesn’t believe Haslam wants to rework the board because he can’t get the members to work with him.

“It’s the structure and the mechanism of the board,” McNally adds, noting the governor says he believes members can take greater responsibility for decisions on a smaller board.

House Majority Leader Glen Casada also calls the board’s proposed makeup “a concern” and hopes it will be worked out in the Legislature’s committee system.

“We may come out with something that’s a compromise. That might be a good path. I’m not willing to say what’s good or bad, but you’re going to see the committee properly vet it and come up with something that’s good for UT and the state of Tennessee,” says Casada, a Franklin Republican.

Legislative leaders don’t see advisory committees at each campus as another level of bureaucracy.

“You’ve got some folks out there involved and engaged in alumni associations and athletic associations and will serve on that and be the eyes and the ears and report back to the board,” Sen. Bill Ketron notes.

He considers these groups to be similar to local bank boards that report to a controlling board.

The advisory boards were mentioned early on but didn’t come into play until later.

In fact, House Majority Caucus Chairman Ryan Williams points out Haslam’s initial proposal did not include the campus advisory boards.

“I think he was just talking about narrowing (the Board of Trustees). In the discussions with him over the last month or two, he realized that those advisory boards are really there to help communicate the specific and unique missions of each of those individual institutions that are not UT-K,” Williams adds.

Those campus boards won’t be window dressing, either, Casada and Williams say.

“Trust me, these will be prominent citizens across the state. They will be more than advising, they’ll carry weight, and it will be very important, what they have to say, what they think and why they think it,” Casada says.

The fact the governor put the advisory boards in his legislation, even if they don’t have voting power, displays the ability of outside groups to influence the direction legislation will take, Williams points out.

The con

Less than two years into the Board of Regents restructuring, the Legislature’s Democrats want to know: What’s the rush?

“Why change UT right now?” asks House Minority Caucus Chairman Mike Stewart, a Nashville Democrat who earned his law degree at UT College of Law.

He points out legislators haven’t seen the clear effect of the FOCUS Act on universities such as Middle Tennessee State, Tennessee State, East Tennessee State, Tennessee Tech, Austin Peay and the University of Memphis, which is considered the impetus for a stronger local governing body.

Sen. Jeff Yarbro, another Nashville Democrat, points out legislators haven’t gotten a handle on how those boards might function with members appointed by different governors or during difficult economic times.

“We’re really early in the process of putting the entire governance of our university system into play with very little dialogue and debate inside the Legislature with an urgent plan” and lacking a “compelling need,” Yarbro says.

With Democrats holding a small minority, only 25 in the House and five in the Senate, another question is whether the proposal will receive much debate.

Much more likely to draw some robust discussion will be another plan enabling the UT Board of Trustees to put only one candidate’s name up for public vetting when it selects chancellors and presidents.

DiPietro and Haslam apparently agree on the need to have only one candidate’s name offered for public consumption, rather than the three required under today’s guidelines.

“We’ll have to take a good look at it and see what other states are doing and see whether the weight of the governor’s arguments outweighs the weight of the need for the public to know,” McNally acknowledges.

The Legislature also is mulling more than 500 exceptions to the state’s Open Records Act, so while they might talk a good game about increasing transparency, it remains to be seen whether they give higher education executives more cover when they’re trying to get a job in Tennessee.

In addition, the legislation calls for the governor to “strive” to ensure the board is “diverse in gender, race, perspective and experience,” a tall order with only 11 members on the board.

Nevertheless, look for the UT FOCUS Act to speed through the General Assembly, allowing the governor to add boards and more people to higher education government while making it seem as if he’s streamlining and cutting bureaucracy.

Sam Stockard is a Nashville-based reporter covering the Legislature for the Nashville Ledger, Memphis Daily News, Knoxville Ledger and Hamilton County Herald. He can be reached at sstockard44@gmail.com.

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