By Richard Locker of The Commercial Appeal
NASHVILLE — Gov. Bill Haslam told members of the Tennessee Board of Regents on Thursday that his plan to carve out TBR’s six universities and create new governing boards for each of them was prompted by need to focus attention separately on the state’s community colleges and the universities.
The board currently oversees the state’s 13 community colleges, 27 colleges of applied technology (TCATs) and the six universities outside of the University of Tennessee System. The six universities will move out, although TBR may remain some administrative functions.
The governor said freshmen enrollment is up about 25 percent in the TCATs and community colleges, largely as a result of the Tennessee Promise program — two tuition-free years at community colleges and the TCATs starting with this year’s high school graduates and funded with state lottery proceeds.
“That kind of unprecedented demand I think calls for a new focus on our community colleges and TCATs. I think with a board that’s more focused on them, I think we can help take advantage of distinctiveness of programs at both of those institutions. So it wasn’t motivated by current issues or failing in any way because I think the system is strong.
“I also think there is a benefit to bringing a focus to our current six TBR universities of board members who have the luxury of focusing only on those schools in a way that this board doesn’t. When you come on this board — even though you may love MTSU or Tennessee State or Memphis or Motlow State, its not your job on this board to focus on one institution,” he told the regents’ quarterly meeting.
“We didn’t do it because I thought this board was not being effective for some reason. The very last thing that I thought was that. We did not do it because of any issue with the staff or leadership of TBR as it exists now.”
The TBR universities are the University of Memphis, Middle Tennessee State, East Tennessee State, Tennessee State, Austin Peay and Tennessee Tech universities. The governor has set up a transition committee and a steering committee to work out details, with a goal of having the new boards in place in 2017. He provided no new details to the regents than the broad outline unveiled last week.
Regents who asked the governor questions were generally positive.
Regent Greg Duckett, a Memphis hospital executive, said he applauds the governor for taking the initiative on a plan long discussed, on a smaller scale, in Memphis. “With any changes we make we must focus on what’s in the best interest of students. If we proceed with the six new boards, what incentives will we have in place to ensure make that those independent institutions have a degree of cooperation between them?”
Faculty Regent Tricia Farwell, an MTSU professor, asked whether faculty and students will have input with the two new committees. “Yes,” the governor said, “all the meetings will be open and they can definitely have input.”
But he said he doubts the change in governance will have an immediate impact on faculty, staff and students. “I don’t know that students or faculty will notice a lot of change. The board’s role is always more about the long-term strategy for that institution. So if this gets approved and goes into effect in 2017, I don’t think students in the fall of 2017 will see much change. I hope the students in the fall of 2027 will notice a difference — in that the fundraising capacity of that school has changed with a board able to focus just on that school.”
About Richard Locker
Richard Locker is the Nashville reporter for The Commercial Appeal. He covers state government and politics, and other news from Middle Tennessee.