The Tennessee General Assembly is considering a bill that would make certain state government officials eligible to become the head of any public institution or statewide system, even if they do not hold an advanced or terminal degree.
The bill, introduced by State Rep. Mark L. Maddox, a Democrat, states that any person who has served at least 10 years in one or more specific state government positions “shall be eligible to serve as president of any institution” in the Tennessee Board of Regents system (which has 6 universities and 13 community colleges) or “as chancellor of any institution” in the University of Tennessee System (which has five campuses), “provided that such person holds a baccalaureate degree from an accredited university.” The specific state government positions outlined in the bill are secretary of state, comptroller of the treasury, treasurer, member of the governor’s cabinet and cabinet level staff. The bill will be considered by the House Higher Education Subcommittee next week.
Though the bill does not explicitly mention the two systemwide leadership roles, Maddox said this was an error in the initial draft of the legislation and that the intent was to expand the scope of the bill to also include the chancellor of the Board of Regents system and the president of the UT system.
Maddox said he was introducing the bill on behalf of “a friend,” but he would not name the individual. He did, however, note that the individual who brought him the bill was not currently occupying any of the specific positions noted in the bill, was not from the governor’s office, and had no direct interest in any of the chancellorships or presidencies in the state.
“My whole purpose of bringing this bill forward is to start a discussion about the qualifications of our [college and university] presidents,” Maddox said. “I don’t think it’s necessary to have an advanced degree. Someone who’s had a number of years’ experience in government handling budgets is just as eligible to serve.”
Maddox said that the change would help the state to fill these executive positions more easily, and the move is not without some educational precedent; he noted that a similar qualification change was made in 1992, when it was clarified that the heads of K-12 systems in Tennessee did not need to hold education degrees.
State Sen. Doug Overbey, a Republican who is sponsoring an exact copy of the bill in his own chamber, echoed Maddox’s sentiments.
“I do think service in these positions for 10 years is, in some respects, equivalent to a doctorate,” Overbey said. “Some folks who have served in the state government who are talented people shouldn’t be excluded from consideration. I’m willing to get discussion generated about it.”
Overbey also noted that U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander was the president of the UT System after his two terms as Tennessee's governor and before becoming U.S. secretary of education for President George H.W. Bush. Alexander, however, holds a law degree from New York University in addition to a baccalaureate from Vanderbilt University, and would not have needed the proposed bill to earn the presidency.
Though both of the bill’s sponsors said they had yet to hear any criticism about it, faculty groups from across the state are already organizing opposition. John Nolt, president of the Tennessee University Faculty Senates – a coalition of faculty bodies from all of the state’s four-year institutions – said this is a matter in which the legislature does not need to meddle.
“If we’ll be required to start looking at candidates who we might not have otherwise looked at, then that’s the nose of the camel under the tent,” said Nolt, who is also a philosophy professor at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville and former president of its Faculty Senate. “If some of these people are otherwise qualified, then by all means consider them. But, we don’t need a special law extending the qualifications for certain people. I can’t see how this enhances the search process in any way. It just adds legislative control to a process that doesn’t need it.”
Nolt said he believed the bill was being brought forth to pressure the boards of the state's systems into considering certain candidates from state government. Maddox, however, countered that, if the bill passes, it would not preclude the boards from making and enforcing their own standards, but would simply give these other candidates the opportunity to be considered.
If the bill is expanded to qualify state government officials to ascend to the leadership of the two state systems – as Maddox intends – then it could influence the search to fill one of the state's most prominent open positions.
Today, the Board of Trustees of the University of Tennessee System is scheduled to formally authorize a search committee to fill the position of president. Since John D. Petersen stepped down last year, Jan Simek has served as the interim president of the system.
Hank Dye, the system’s vice president for public and government relations, said the board is not slated to talk about the potential impact of the bill on the presidential search, given its early stage in the legislative process. Though he could not offer comment for the board, he did express his own concerns about the bill.
“These types of things are better left to the trustees,” Dye said of determining the qualifications of executive candidates. “We’ve got a search process that we think is good. We would have concern if this bill passed."