New THEC Executive Director Talks About Tennessee Higher Ed Changes

Gov. Bill Haslam recently tapped one of his senior advisers, Mike Krause, to lead the Tennessee Higher Education Commission as it takes on new authority this fall.

Krause, who previously oversaw the Tennessee Promise scholarship program, will head the agency as it begins to serve as a referee between a growing number of governing bodies. The state’s new higher education landscape — sketched out in Gov. Bill Haslam’s  Focus on College and University Success, or FOCUS, act — soon will include eight college governing boards: the University of Tennessee board, the Tennessee Board of Regents and six newly created boards for universities in the Board of Regents system.

Krause talked with higher education reporter Adam Tamburin about the challenges ahead for the commission, which is also known as THEC. Here are excerpts from that conversation, edited for space and clarity.

Members of the the commission have wondered aloud how the agency will workas new college boards are created under the FOCUS act. How will you clarify the commission’s new role?

“We’ll be doing a lot of internal learning and that includes our commission. We’ll go line by line through the bill and that I think will enable us to frame a lot of the questions that we need to ask moving forward. I also think THEC has a duty to the larger higher education sector to help them understand the ramifications of the FOCUS act: what is in the act, what maybe isn’t in the act that people believe is inside of it.”

Moving forward, the commission will be able to set binding limits for annual tuition hikes, will manage and prioritize every college’s capital project requests, and will call joint meetings of all of the college boards.

“We’ll be issuing very clear guidance in the next 90 days to every campus regarding how THEC intends to implement the FOCUS act. And that is a big 90-day goal, obviously. It requires us here at THEC to think through all of the various scenarios inherent in implementing focus from academic programs to capital projects to government relations.”

How can you describe the commission’s place in the increasingly crowded higher education landscape?

The commission “works best when we are working in intersections: Between systems, between campuses,” Krause said. “THEC is really going to have to play an air traffic control role.”

What is your early priority as you take the reins of the higher education commission?

Moving forward, Krause said, senior leadership at the commission will be “relentlessly focused on increasing the number of Tennesseans with a college degree.” He started his tenure on Aug. 1 by posing three questions during a town hall with the staff.

“I’ve asked them to think through what are the things that they’re doing now that they must continue doing? What are the things they’re doing now that they should stop doing, because it will give them more bandwidth to support increasing the number of Tennesseans with a college degree? And what are the things that they should start doing that will enable us to increase the number of Tennesseans with a college degree?”

How will you ensure students stay at the forefront of your agency’s work?

Krause said he is requiring every staff member to work a shift at a financial aid desk in the next three months. He will take a shift at Motlow State Community College.

“We’re all going to do that because I think it gives us an opportunity to really understand what students and campuses are facing on a daily basis.”

Reach Adam Tamburin at 615-726-5986 and on Twitter @tamburintweets.

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