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By Richard Locker June 2, 2012

Taking aim at higher ed plan

Some influential supporters of the University of Memphis have long advocated a more independent governing board for the city's major public university – if not complete separation from the Tennessee Board of Regents, at least more autonomy within the Regents system.

In his 2010 campaign for governor, then-Knoxville mayor Bill Haslam spent considerable time in Memphis and at the University of Memphis in particular, where he met with key university supporters and administrators on several occasions. In those meetings and in his campaign"s five-themed "Memphis Plan” released that year, Haslam agreed to work for greater autonomy for the school's Board of Visitors, which is comprised of business leaders and U of M backers but whose power is largely advisory and honorary.

Now with 16½ months and two legislative sessions behind him as governor, Haslam told The Commercial Appeal's editorial board May 23 that he's still trying to figure out how to grant the Memphis board more authority. And he went further, saying he"s "probably going to focus on higher education more than anything else from now until the end of the year” – and that has significant ramifications not only for the U of M"s aspirations but also for Tennessee public higher education in general, including the University of Tennessee system.

Several aspects of the state's higher education system – including taxpayer funding, student tuition, access, quality, duplication and governance – have been discussed and debated for years, with some major action in some of those areas, incremental changes in others and inaction in others, particularly on governance.

It"s important to note that while both Haslam and his Democratic opponent in 2010, Jackson businessman Mike McWherter, generally agreed on greater U of M autonomy, both also made it clear they were not in favor of its full separation from the Board of Regents system. The 16-member Board of Regents and its Nashville-based staff govern the U of M, Austin Peay State University, East Tennessee State University, Middle Tennessee State University, Tennessee State University, Tennessee Technological University, 13 community colleges and 27 state technology centers.  The University of Tennessee Board of Trustees oversees its campuses, and the Tennessee Higher Education Commission serves a coordinating role for both.

Like his predecessors, Haslam has struggled with details of what "greater autonomy” for the University of Memphis means. Former governor Phil Bredesen eventually acknowledged that his pledge for an independent board for the school was made in what he called a "moment of weakness” during his 2002 campaign, and never pushed the concept through. But at the U of M's request, he did create the Memphis Research Consortium as part of his "Complete College Tennessee Act” that he pushed through a special session of the state legislature in his last year in office. The consortium is a joint enterprise of the U of M, the UT Health Science Center, Memphis hospitals and other major Memphis industries.

Haslam's May 2010 campaign manifesto for Memphis, his five-part "Memphis Plan,” promised "to aid the University of Memphis in achieving greater autonomy.” (OCT 11, 2010 editorial). Later that year, he said that did not mean complete separation from the Regents. (OCT 20)  Since his election, he's elaborated on the matter publicly on at least three occasions:

  • In a Jan. 21, 2011, interview with The Commercial Appeal, the newly inaugurated governor said he thinks "the University of Memphis needs more autonomy. I think the board of the University of Memphis should be able to hire and fire their own president, they should be able to set their own tuition, they should be able to form partnerships like several they've done. I don't think we're ready for a situation where you have an autonomous University of Memphis up here lobbying for funds and where we kind of have this free-for-all of all our higher education institutions.” At that time, U of M supporters called the governor's remarks "great news” and said his remarks seemed to outline a "board within a board” concept that he had discussed in 2010 with university officials.
  • In a Jan. 12, 2012, visit with The Commercial Appeal"s editorial board, he said he was still trying to figure out how to grant the board more autonomy while being fair to other universities. "The University of Memphis has a board of advisers that is really strong and brings a lot to the table…. What I have to figure out is how to do that in context with the rest of the Tennessee Board of Regents.” And then he repeated what he thought a Memphis board"s powers should be, which were identical to those expressed a year earlier.
  • And finally on May 23, 2012, in another visit with The CA's editorial board, he said the U of M matter hasn't gone away and that he's going to focus the rest of the year on higher education issues.

He said, "No, it hasn't gone away. I continue to have conversations. I think the reason to do it is, there's no question in my mind that if the University of Memphis had its own board of people who are solely committed and loyal to the University of Memphis, they would help the university. They would raise money. They would be invested in every way and I think that would be a good thing.

"The issue I'm trying to figure out is, the University of Memphis doesn"t exist in a vacuum – and Middle Tennessee (State) and Tennessee Tech, et cetera, et cetera. I'm probably going to focus on higher education more than anything else from now until the end of the year. We certainly won't answer all the questions between now and then but one of those is, is our current form of (higher education) governance the right one.”

The governor's discussion about the U of M came in the context of the larger review of higher education, which he said is needed after spending considerable time on K-12 education so far in his tenure. And that will impact the entire state.

"I think the challenge is really to begin to take the next step and talk about higher education. I'd include everything from our technology centers to community colleges to our four-year schools. I think the challenge is in three areas,” he said:

  • "The first is around access. We"ve got to discuss affordability as well as geographic access, for a lot a lot of students of limited means, the farther away they are from being physically able to attend somewhere, the bigger issue it gets.
  • "Second is about quality: there has been a real push to measure achievement. What are you really earning for that four years of college that's costing so much.
  • "The third thing is to make certain we're preparing the workforce that's needed. People say, when you talk that way, are you going to do away with the liberal arts? No. In Middle Tennessee right now, it's estimated there are about 20,000 healthcare IT (information technology) jobs that are open and vacant or have gone somewhere else for lack of trained folks here in Tennessee.”

Haslam stopped short of saying he'll present a legislative package on higher education in 2013.

But C. Warren Neel, executive director of the Center for Corporate Governance at the University of Tennessee Knoxville, said he hopes the governor will focus on higher education governance and suggested he appoint a high quality committee to examine issues.

"We need to appoint a committee of very talented individuals to do a study of the model of governance in Tennessee to see if it is the most effective and efficient model for the future generations of students who trust their economic lives to a campus,” Neel, former dean of the UT College of Business, said in an interview with the Commercial Appeal June 1. Neel has served on nine corporate boards and said they have undergone "sea changes,” some of which  need to be considered for higher education.

"We need to look at the basis of talent selection in corporate boards over the last 10 years and see what of it would improve quality of education…. What kinds of skills do that have? Do we need skills in financial administration? Of understanding the delivery system in higher education and how technology is affecting that?

"Should you look at corporate governance and see what would fit because I think a lot of it should seriously be considered -- as opposed to let's look at what party you belong to and let's appoint you because you are a Democrat and you are a Republican. What we need to do is say, What is the relationship of that individual to making sure we enhance the future of students who entrust their futures to the institution.”

As a result of all this, we say the governor's promise of greater autonomy for the U of M is In The Works.


Our Sources

The Commercial Appeal: Oct. 11, 2010: Editorial: "Experience tips the scales”

The Commercial Appeal: Oct. 20, 2010: "McWherter trolls for Memphis urban vote”

The Commercial Appeal: Jan. 22, 2011: "Haslam supports freer rein at University of Memphis”

The Commercial Appeal: Jan. 12, 2012: "Tennessee Gov. Haslam says separate governing board for University of Memphis 'makes sense' "

Interview with the Commercial Appeal editorial board, May 23, 2012

Interview with C. Warren Neel, June 1, 2012

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