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Front Page - Friday, October 5, 2018

View from the Hill: Boyd’s campaign haunts UT presidency debate

Randy Boyd probably knows the age-old sermon about reaping what you sow. But after a highly successful business career in which he made millions selling electric fences – enough money to throw away millions in a failed gubernatorial bid – he must have forgotten that timeless teaching from the Bible.

Otherwise, the vote to elect him as interim president of the University of Tennessee system would have gone a lot smoother. No teachers opposing, no students disrupting the selection, no police dragging them out of the room and certainly no dropping F-bombs.

In other words, it would have been boring.

But thanks to Boyd’s campaign in the Republican primary, when he positioned himself with President Donald Trump and tried to move to the right of Congressman Diane Black, who had the worst negative polling numbers in the race, not only did he lose a shot at the governor’s office, he set himself up for an interesting personal pounding before the UT Board of Trustees.

Boyd didn’t exactly campaign as a homophobic xenophobe. When he entered the gubernatorial race, he was positioned as a Bill Haslam clone, a pro-business moderate who dreamed up the state’s Drive to 55 initiative as commissioner of the Economic and Community Development Department.

Somewhere along the line, though, his handlers persuaded him to shift gears and go after Black with a hardcore approach that presented him as an intolerant bigot. It ran counter to his personality, but that’s how he came across to the students who opposed his selection as their interim leader.

UT Faculty Senate President Misty Anderson didn’t castigate Boyd. She thanked him for “standing up for have-nots” in the state and supporting local decisions on outsourcing university jobs, as well as the Drive to 55.

She directed most of her ire at the state Legislature for nit-picking UT over its Office of Diversity and Inclusion, slamming professor tenure and failing to pass a resolution to condemn neo-Nazis after the group held a rally on the UT campus.

Yet she got at Boyd in a roundabout way, addressing UT-Knoxville’s recent ranking as the third worst campus in the country for friendliness to the LGBTQ community, even as the university raises record amounts for research.

“Words and deeds must show that Vols means all y’all,” Anderson said.

UT-Knoxville research associate Tina Richey was a little more pointed, saying Boyd holds no experience or understanding of how to obtain research grants or work with the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, and called that a vital part of the president’s job.

Richey also took a jab at Boyd’s support of Trump during the campaign as well as his “anti-immigration rhetoric,” linking that with lack of support for “diversity and inclusion,” saying, “A healthy research environment is a diverse setting.” She also found no support for Boyd among her co-workers.

“We need a president who will be an advocate for all Vols, not just a few,” Richey said.

Student Alayna Cameron took things even further when she told the board UT doesn’t need a politician running the university.

“Randy Boyd has no experience in academia or education,” she said.

Cameron might have missed the mark when she said he was favored by a big UT donor and needs a job after losing the gubernatorial race.

UT Board of Trustees Chairman John Compton assured her Boyd doesn’t need the work.

Compton, however, didn’t try to cover up the fact he nominated Boyd, a personal friend, for the position, which he will take for up to 24 months without pay.

Still, the state will pay for his health insurance, which raises the question: Why can the state cover insurance premiums for temporary employees when it won’t do anything for regular folks caught between Medicaid and the Affordable Care Act? But that’s another story.

Board reaction

Amid police intervention and cussing, UT trustees maintained some civility, even if it seemed their minds were made up before the public comment period.

“We hear those comments and we respect those comments, and diversity and tolerance is an important characteristic of the university,” said Lang Wiseman, a former Vols basketball player.

Wiseman pointed out, nevertheless, all of the social media comments taken before the public comment period favored Boyd’s appointment.

Only Trustee Kara Lawson, a former Lady Vols basketball player, said she “shared some of the reservations” of students and faculty but followed the others in a unanimous vote.

Compton, meanwhile, said he served on a board with Boyd when UT-K formed the Office of Diversity and Inclusion and defended his friend’s lifelong work.

Outgoing UT President Joe DiPietro backed Boyd, too, saying, “Nobody comes into this job fully supported across all constituencies.” He pointed out the board voted 11-10 to hire him eight years ago.

Boyd, meanwhile, appeared miffed at the opposition, saying he hadn’t done anything during the campaign to draw such a reaction. (Maybe he was absent when they filmed his political commercials, or maybe he’s in denial about botching the race and opening the door for Republican candidate Bill Lee to become the next governor.)

Though his education credentials are a tad dubious, Boyd points out he has lots of higher education experience, from chairing the Higher Education Commission to serving as Haslam’s higher ed adviser and holding positions on numerous higher ed boards over the years. There’s no denying he loves the University of Tennessee, where he earned his degree after growing up in the “shadow of Neyland Stadium.”

Further responding to the complaints about his lack of higher-education work, Boyd notes he can’t hit a curveball yet still owns successful minor league baseball teams. His inability to hit a curveball is shared by many big leaguers, as well as minor leaguers too.

The analysis

Enough of the piling on.

At least one student supported Boyd during the public comments, and we’ll give the Knoxville businessman some decent marks for preparedness. After all, he had put together a six-point plan to bolster the system, which, incidentally, includes UT-Martin, UT-Chattanooga and the UT Health Science Center in Memphis, all of which tend to take a backseat to Rocky Top. Think about it: When is the last time somebody got fired there over the handling of the football coaching hire.

Boyd’s plan calls for:

-- Helping select a “dynamic leader” to replace Beverly Davenport, fired by DiPietro this year as UT-K’s chancellor, as well as someone to replace him within two years (Do you think Bill Haslam is on the list?)

-- Build the UT brand

-- Fixing the relationship between campuses and the system

-- Increasing the enrollment at UT-Martin and building graduation rates systemwide

-- Enhancing research

-- Putting together a strategic plan for the system

Answering reporters’ questions after his appointment, Boyd pointed out his businesses are diverse, inclusive and built on collaboration among employees. He only committed himself to 12 to 24 months as president but left the door open to take the job permanently.

In that first year, he needs to add a seventh piece to his plan: Rebuild his own image.

After all, Boyd didn’t enter the gubernatorial race as a xenophobe. He earned that label only after his strategists put in overtime trying to figure out how he could lose the race.

It’s a reputation unfitting the president of UT, even if it is only an interim job, and it’s one he needs to repair as soon as possible.

No doubt, he reaped what he sowed on the campaign trail, but he can put that old adage to work again if he takes a strong message to UT students welcoming them all to campus.

Sam Stockard is a Nashville-based writer with more than 30 years of experience as a reporter, editor and columnist covering the state Legislature and Tennessee politics for The Daily Memphian.