Haslam Considering Changes to UT Board of Trustees

By Sam Stockard

Gov. Bill Haslam is considering reducing the number University of Tennessee Board of Trustees members and trimming the number of finalists presented for top leadership positions in the UT system, Lt. Gov. Randy McNally has confirmed.

Haslam spokeswoman Jennifer Donnals declined to address specifics Friday, Dec. 22, but said “the governor is having conversations about ways to help the UT Board of Trustees operate more efficiently and effectively.”

Gov. Bill Haslam

McNally said part of the governor’s proposals would involve reducing the size of the UT Board of Trustees and changing the search process for UT chancellors or system presidents.

The governor is set to announce his legislative and policy initiatives in January.

The board has 26 members, including the governor, who serves as chairman and a voting member. Seventeen members selected from Tennessee’s congressional districts serve on the board as well, along with two student members, two faculty members and three department commissioners who can cast votes.

The governor might believe the board is “a little bit unmanageable at that size, so they’re gonna try to reduce it down,” McNally says. “How they do it, I haven’t heard. But that’s one of his initiatives.”

State Sen. Becky Duncan Massey, a UT-Knoxville graduate, also confirmed the governor is considering proposing changes in the board’s structure, possibly by reducing the number of members or even instituting advisory boards at UT’s five campuses.

Massey, a Knoxville Republican, attended a lunch meeting Friday with the governor and McNally where the matter was discussed. She said the proposal stems, in part, from the FOCUS Act in which boards of trustees were set up this year at Tennessee’s state colleges such as Middle Tennessee and Tennessee State.

“Having a small board is more efficient, because there’s been … a number of times that because that (UT) board’s so big I don’t think they’re really doing as well as some of us would maybe hope they would at times,” Massey says. “You don’t want them to micromanage, but sometimes you’d like them to be a little more active.”

Massey was active in reviving the Lady Vols moniker for women’s sports at UT-Knoxville and says the board wasn’t as responsive enough during that process.

Haslam is doing “due diligence” and talking with board members and staff to put together ideas as well as the process for making changes, Massey said.

But he’ll have to move quickly because the Legislature is set to convene Jan. 9, and he’ll make his State of the State address Jan. 22.

In regard to the search for UT chancellors or presidents, McNally says the governor is considering proposing the board announce one person for a hearing instead of three candidates for the post.

“I think that’s gonna have a very difficult time in the Legislature, particularly in an election year,” says the lieutenant governor, who graduated from the University of Tennessee College of Pharmacy in 1969.

The General Assembly’s 99 House members will be up for re-election in 2018, as will a portion of the 33-member Senate.

State Rep. Craig Fitzhugh, a Democratic gubernatorial candidate who earned his bachelor’s and law degrees at the University of Tennessee, says both moves would be bad, adding he is “quite surprised” by the potential for reducing the size of the UT Board of Trustees.

“It’s a land-grant university,” Fitzhugh says. “Right now, we have a situation where the membership is spread out through the congressional districts in the state, ensuring that we have broad representation.

“It’s also by political parties, which I think is very important. No matter who’s in power, so to speak, it gives a good balance.”

Fitzhugh, a banker and attorney from rural Ripley in West Tennessee, was a candidate for the UT presidency when the board selected Joe DiPietro for the leadership post in 2011. DiPietro also serves on the board as an ex-officio, voting member.

“I thought it was an outstanding process to go through to find a president,” Fitzhugh says. “I think it is a state university that uses public funds, that uses funds from students and their parents, and I think it’s very important that we need to be clear and transparent and as fully open as we can.”

The university’s reputation is such that candidates ought to take pride in applying for the job, Fitzhugh says, noting he opposed previous legislation making the search more private and limiting the final public nominations to only three people.

“I think it’s another good ol’ boy-type network that we don’t need to bring back,” he says.

UT’s recent football coaching search, which brought negative national publicity to the school, is the most recent example of why searches should be as open as possible, Fitzhugh says, adding football coaches’ salaries are considerable higher than a university president’s pay.

“We had a situation where that was kept secret, and once it got out it just blew up,” he says.

Former UT Athletics Director John Currie was prepared to hire Ohio State defensive coordinator Greg Schiano for the coaching position when students, fans and legislators took to social media to protest the apparent hire, in part because of Schiano’s connection to the Penn State program and court testimony allegations that he saw disgraced former coach Jerry Sandusky have inappropriate contact with a boy in the locker room years ago. Schiano has denied the accusations.

Several head coaches with name recognition nationwide rejected UT in the following days before UT Chancellor Beverly Davenport fired Currie and replaced him with former football coach Phil Fulmer. Within days, Fulmer hired Jeremy Pruitt, the defensive coordinator at Alabama.

Gov. Haslam has said several times he didn’t want to get involved in the coaching search, but was glad to see the university settle on Pruitt and put the matter behind it.

The governor’s brother, Jimmy Haslam, owner of the Cleveland Browns, said after the search he had nothing to do with the process. The Haslams’ father played football for the Vols in the 1950s. Jimmy Haslam acknowledged being a “huge” supporter of the university, along with his entire family, but had no connection to the search.

Schiano had been a candidate for the Browns coaching job in 2014.

The UT Board of Trustees also includes Mike Krause, ex officio and non-voting member as executive director of the Tennessee Higher Education Commission, Education Commissioner Candice McQueen and Agriculture Commissioner Jai Templeton.

The UT system has an enrollment of more than 49,000 students at UT-Knoxville, UT-Martin, UT-Chattanooga, the UT Health Science Center in Memphis and the UT Space Institute near Tullahoma.

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