Hamilton Herald Masthead


Front Page - Friday, April 6, 2018

View from the Hill: Lawmakers see conspiracy in UT Board alterations, approve anyway

It’s not that hard to light a fire under some state lawmakers, but the University of Tennessee FOCUS Act raised blood pressure considerably in the House of Representatives before barely passing with 51 votes.

Most of the ire was directed toward Gov. Bill Haslam, who has fewer than nine months left in his final term but would appoint the entire 12-member board by July before leaving office.

“I think the timing is all too clear and prescient,” says Rep. Andy Holt, a Dresden Republican, who says a governor’s representative told him all the appointments were lined up already.

“Whether the governor is planning on running for (UT) president or not, he has someone very close to him that will be trying to take that position. He’s engineered and manufactured this whole process to be a benefit to him and to his family.

Holt, who holds degrees from UT-Knoxville and UT-Martin, was among 23 Republicans to oppose the measure. It flew through the Republican-dominated Senate 28-3.

“To say that the Haslams are involved in the UT system is to really relegate their significance down quite a bit. What we see is their influence has caused positions to be filled by individuals that I would not personally have endorsed, and it has detracted, I think, from the athletics programs at times,” Holt adds.

“But I think this is a process that has been engineered to allow for a further consolidation of control and all while guised as this great, efficient, new process, and really the reason I believe that is because you saw it in here today: this huge push.”

Holt raises this question: Why could the next governor and the next General Assembly not appoint a new UT Board of Trustees? Why does the entire 27-member board need to be booted by July 1 and replaced?

Holt and a number of lawmakers say they believe Haslam wants to control the appointment of the next UT system president with Joe DiPietro’s contract running out at mid-year and push his plans to outsource jobs in University of Tennessee schools, from Knoxville to Chattanooga to Martin, none of which opted for a state contract adopted in 2017 for facilities management.

Others say they believe the Haslams are still peeved about the handling of the Vols football coach hiring and the ill-handled exit of former Athletics Director John Currie, who was suspended and recently bought out for $2.5 million.

Rep. Martin Daniel, a Knoxville Republican, couldn’t get any traction on amendments to postpone the Board of Trustees appointments until 2019 after Haslam leaves office and add more Knoxville campus representatives.

Daniel and Holt agree the board has allowed UT to go in the wrong direction, with everything from Sex Week at the Knoxville campus to an administrator in the Diversity Office encouraging professors to use gender-neutral pronouns when referring to students.

State Rep. John Ray Clemmons wasn’t torn up about those matters, but he was among those who blasted the bill before it escaped on the House floor.

Clemmons argues the University of Tennessee system doesn’t belong to the governor or the Haslam family, and he calls the governor’s effort to control the appointment of every member “offensive.”

The Nashville Democrat also contends the bill’s language would allow the Board of Trustees to sell property without giving proper notice, stop professors from conferring degrees and eliminate diversity on the board membership.

Clemmons throws in this zinger as well: “The last thing we want for UT is to become the Cleveland Browns.”

The reference applies to the governor’s brother Jim Haslam, who owns the NFL’s weakest franchise, the Browns, but maintains a strong interest in UT and the Vols football program. The late Big Jim Haslam played on Gen. Bob Neyland’s 1951 national championship team.

Rep. David Hawk, the Greeneville Republican who shepherded the bill through the House, rebuffed the criticism, saying this is an effort to make the board more efficient and to bring in “world-class” leaders. Hawk told lawmakers his daughter is set to enroll at UT-Knoxville this fall.

“There’s nothing I’m going to do as a legislator or father to jeopardize the UT system,” Hawk said, noting Gov. Haslam “is not going to be governing this board from a rocking chair.”

Hawk also claims he’s been a fervent opponent of outsourcing in the Legislature and said that has nothing to do with his support of the legislation.

Finding the votes

Without the support of Democratic Reps. Raumesh Akbari and John DeBerry, both of Memphis, the measure might not have gained enough votes to pass the House. They were the only two Democrats to vote in its favor.

Haslam spokeswoman Jennifer Donnals points out the governor has said publicly several times he is not interested in being the UT president and that the bill’s purpose is to make the board more effective in its leadership of the UT system.

Akbari says most of the calls she received in opposition came from the United Campus Workers, and as a result she wanted to make sure the bill wasn’t designed to lead to outsourcing of university jobs to a private vendor.

But the bigger sticking point for her, she acknowledges, was student membership on the board, even though the person selected for that post will no longer hold a vote.

“I was going to vote no initially when they removed the student member. Once they added the student member back I was OK with the legislation,” adds Akbari, who served as a non-voting Board of Trustees member when she was in college while earning her bachelor’s degree at Washington University in St. Louis.

Akbari received support from the Haslam administration this session as it reduced its supplemental budget by $144,000 to pay for the bill reducing the cost of expungement for non-violent felons who complete court diversion programs. She says that had nothing to do with her vote.

“No, that was already taken care of. And as a matter of fact, I think that really had more to do with my Senate sponsor than anything else. I never had that type of conversation with the governor or his administration, and wouldn’t,” she continues. The Senate sponsor of the bill was Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris, who carries legislation for the governor.

FOCUS Act part II

Haslam and supporters sold the measure this session as the second part of the initial FOCUS Act, which removed universities such as MTSU, TSU, University of Memphis and Tennessee Tech from Board of Regents control and placed them under their own boards of trust.

While the governor has said those boards are working out well after only one year, House Minority Leader Craig Fitzhugh isn’t so sure.

Fitzhugh, who holds undergraduate and law degrees from UT, says, “If you like the color orange you should vote against this bill.”

He argues those boards haven’t really worked out as well as some would think, and he points to the MTSU Board of Trustees decision to give President Sidney McPhee a 15 percent pay raise recently, upping him to $400,000 from nearly $348,000. MTSU trustees said the number put McPhee in the middle of president pay rates at comparable universities.

Fitzhugh also notes problems at Tennessee Tech where the president recently backed away from a study on gliders that house refurbished engines for freight trucks. It was to be used to make an argument for repealing federal emissions standards.

In typical House fashion, though, Rep. Gerald McCormick fired back, at least at Clemmons, saying, “It upsets me a little to hear close to personal attacks on the governor and his family.”

McCormick, a Chattanooga Republican and Realtor, says the governor assured him the UT FOCUS Act was not “some kind of plot to appoint people to give him a job.”

To be sure, the governor is probably worth more than the entire General Assembly combined and doesn’t need to work.

Nevertheless, McCormick says, “I told him if he studies hard and gets a real estate license, he can work for me.”

The analysis

Half of the appointed members to the new Board of Trustees will have to be UT graduates. But that still ensures only five of them will be UT alumni. The others could come from Vanderbilt for all we know – and that could hurt the Vols even worse, though the Commodores have beaten them soundly the last few years.

Voting student and faculty will be appointed to one of four standing committees set up under the full board. Additionally, students and faculty will be placed on advisory boards to be set up at each UT campus. But those positions won’t hold the sway of a full board members.

And between all of the separate committees and advisory councils one has to wonder where the UT will find efficiency. But the biggest question is the timing. Why the rush?

The General Assembly is hoping to adjourn before the end of April, so either Haslam has his appointments set, as Holt alluded to, or he’ll be doing so in record time.

Otherwise, Tennessee taxpayers will have to pay for all lawmakers to come back to Nashville for another session. And for a governor known for pinching pennies, that isn’t efficient.

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.