VOL. 130 | NO. 240 | Thursday, December 10, 2015
View From the Hill
Autonomy Comes With Risk for State’s Universities
By Sam Stockard
Tennessee officials are lauding Gov. Bill Haslam’s plan to restructure higher education in an effort to meet his goals for the Drive to 55.
The FOCUS Act proposed recently by the Republican governor to make sure 55 percent of Tennesseans hold a degree or postsecondary certificate by 2025 promises to launch a new era for the state’s colleges and universities.
But as with most things, the devil will be in the details. And, in some situations, higher education leaders need to be careful what they ask for.
The Focus on College and University Success Act does four main things:
l Puts the Tennessee Board of Regents’ emphasis mainly on the state’s 13 community and 27 technical colleges, where students on the new Tennessee Promise program are going to school tuition-free.
l Enables creation of local boards for the University of Memphis, MTSU, Austin Peay, East Tennessee State, Tennessee State and Tennessee Tech, largely removing them from TBR oversight.
l Increases the Tennessee Higher Education Commission’s role statewide by allowing it to handle capital projects, approve institutional missions and set the strategy for higher education finance.
l Sets up a task force of higher education, business and community leaders to oversee the transition.
“Tennessee’s future in economic development will depend on us having a workforce that is ready for high-skill, high-wage jobs, and as part of that effort we have to make sure our colleges and universities are strategically aligned in supporting student success,” Haslam says. “The FOCUS Act will put us on that path.”
The governor points out since launching the Drive to 55, Tennessee is No. 1 nationally for federal student aid completion and boosted the size of the freshmen class by 10 percent in only a year.
In 2015-16, the first year for Tennessee Promise and Reconnect, the state saw a 24.7 percent increase in freshmen enrollment at community colleges and 20 percent more at colleges of applied technology.
Those numbers are not surprising, considering students can attend without high costs if they go through a mentoring program and do community service, though some of them are failing on the latter requirement.
Motlow State Community College President Anthony Kinkel believes the proposal has its pros and cons.
“I think he sees that the best deal for the taxpayer and the best investment by the student is to send as many students as possible to the community and technical colleges first, let them earn their way and then go to a state university,” Kinkel says.
“I really support that. I think that’s the right thing to do for taxpayers and for students because our costs at the two-year level are less per student than, of course, at the universities.”
Community colleges don’t pay for large athletic teams and facilities, and they don’t pay their faculties as much as larger universities either, Kinkel points out.
“Our costs are more economical,” he adds. “So I think the governor is recognizing that in order to afford, to have the resources to get to his Drive to 55, you kind of have to shift more resources to the two-year college, the technical college level.”
Kinkel’s main concern is the future of Tennessee Board of Regents’ Chancellor John Morgan. He says he hopes the state keeps “the tremendous public servant” because of the experience and knowledge he brings to higher education.
Morgan, who was appointed by a former Democratic administrations, says TBR has done “an excellent job of managing a diverse system” and using all of its resources to meet the state’s needs.
“The presidents of our four-year institutions have performed exceptionally. All campuses have their challenges, but each president has done a great job of meeting the goals the state has asked of them. I know they will continue to do so, whether as part of the TBR system or an alternative governance structure.
“We can expect complex and extensive conversations as this process unfolds, but our primary objective is, and will remain, the success of our students, and I am committed to remain focused on that goal.”
Considering the emphasis Haslam is putting on community and technical colleges to meet his Drive to 55 goal, it makes sense to set them apart from universities and medical and law schools in a governing structure.
It would make sense, too, for Morgan to remain in his position, considering the job he’s done on a larger scale.
But realistically, the Board of Regents, which has 18 members, 12 of whom are appointed by the governor, won’t hold as much prestige once it loses oversight of six major universities.
And, let’s face it, when it comes to lobbying for capital projects and other higher education facets, competition is fierce at the state level.
For years, the University of Memphis has sought independence from the Board of Regents and, under this structure, its dream would be realized.
“We are appreciative of Gov. Haslam and his support of this historic change to the governance structure for public universities in the state of Tennessee,” University of Memphis President M. David Rudd said in a statement.
“Should the legislation be approved, we will be able to establish an independent board of trustees, establish tuition rates and make decisions within our own footprint of leadership.
“The U of M is unique among public institutions across the state and this change would enable us to better serve our students and our community and compete more effectively on the national stage. We are excited about what independent governance means for the future of our university and city.”
The governing bodies of the six universities currently overseen by TBR will be appointed by the governor, begging one question: Will this be the Bill Haslam Patronage Act of 2016?
In other words, will trustees he appoints be loyal to Haslam or to the universities they serve? Will the lieutenant governor and House speaker be given a voice in recommending and approving appointments, and what will the Legislature’s role be?
In addition, how much power will the pending legislative give these bodies to hire and fire presidents, approve budgets, determine capital projects and set tuition and fees?
Another major question: Will the University of Memphis, on its own and without TBR, be able to compete with the state’s flagship institution, the University of Tennessee, which has a medical school and pharmacy school located in Memphis?
If Tennessee’s higher education structure weren’t split into these different systems, this wouldn’t be an issue.
But anyone involved in state politics over the last 100 years understands the struggle between universities such as Memphis and Middle Tennessee State University with the University of Tennessee system.
As such, MTSU was still trying to figure out what Haslam’s plan meant when he announced it.
“The proposal advanced (recently) by the governor is truly bold and potentially transformational for MTSU and our sister institutions in the Tennessee Board of Regents,” says Sidney McPhee, MTSU President.
“We look forward to learning and exploring opportunities it could provide in support of our mission to ensure student success and provide more graduates for the state’s workforce.”
State Sen. Bill Ketron, an MTSU graduate, says, “This proposal is going to be great for MTSU. It gives more governing authority to each university to have a governing board that is focused on that particular university … in this case MTSU.”
Meanwhile, it allows TBR to put its emphasis on community and technical colleges, he points out.
Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris, a Collierville Republican who represents the Memphis area, stood alongside Haslam when he introduced the idea. Norris played a major role in developing Tennessee’s Labor Education Alignment Program, which is part of the Drive to 55 and State Pathways to Prosperity initiative started last year.
“It’s all about the three E’s,” Norris says. “Employment, education and economic opportunity. The FOCUS Act will help keep higher education focused on these key components, which make Tennessee the place to be.”
For years, THEC has been a referee of sorts between the University of Tennessee system and the Tennessee Board of Regents. Under Haslam’s plan it would gain more authority.
For instance, it would have binding tuition authority, in contrast to the ability to recommend tuition rates, according to Russ Deaton, interim executive director of THEC.
The commission also would have to become “more assertive” in policy areas such as capital projects and program approval, he adds.
“We currently coordinate those now, but with eight governing boards, rather than two, it becomes a more complex challenge, to be sure,” Deaton says. “Overall, we are ready for the responsibility.”
Capital project management and recommendations from the six universities would go through THEC, which also would approve academic programs, align institutional missions based on funding formulas and set long-term strategies based on capital projects, state funding and tuition.
Says Evan Cope, a Murfreesboro attorney who chairs the Tennessee Higher Education Commission, “I appreciate Gov. Haslam’s confidence in the ability of THEC to meet the enhanced role it will play in the state’s higher education landscape. It is a really exciting time to chair the commission.
“Under Gov. Haslam’s leadership, Tennessee has been at the forefront of innovation in public higher education, and with the governor’s proposed realignment of our higher education system, we are taking yet another step on the path to increased economic and educational success in our state.”
Under this scenario, it appears the Tennessee Higher Education Commission will take the role of the Tennessee Board of Regents. But again, much of this will be hammered out in the 2016 legislative session.
If nothing else is certain, Haslam’s proposal certainly shakes things up. But it makes you wonder what will happen with the idea for privatizing some of the departments at Tennessee’s colleges and universities.
These new board members certainly won’t go for that – unless the governor makes it a requirement for having a seat on the board.
Sam Stockard can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.