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The Politician as Chancellor

August 12, 2010

If there was not an orchestrated plan to make John Morgan the next chancellor of the Tennessee Board of Regents, a remarkable set of coincidences resulted in the state’s deputy governor getting the job.

To wit:

  • In March 2009, a year into a search to replace then-Chancellor Charles Manning, the Tennessee Board of Regents suspended the process, citing the economic downturn and Gov. Phil Bredesen's then-embryonic plan to restructure the state's higher education system.
  • In January, Bredesen -- with the hands-on help of Morgan, his deputy governor and the state's longtime comptroller -- pushed through a special session of the legislature his "Complete College Tennessee Act of 2010," which reshaped the state's system for funding and governing higher education.
  • In May, the Tennessee Board of Regents, which governs four state universities, 13 community colleges, and technology centers, began a new search for a chancellor by rewriting the criteria for the position in ways that played to Morgan's strengths, focusing on candidates' ability to communicate with the governor and other political leaders and an understanding of and commitment to the new law. To the dismay of faculty leaders and some legislative critics, the search committee also downgraded the educational requirements for the job from a doctorate to “a postsecondary education degree earned from an accredited institution.” (Morgan has only a bachelor’s degree from Austin Peay State University, a Board of Regents institution.)
  • Less than six weeks later, after a search that attracted few qualified candidates and for which Morgan was the only candidate formally interviewed, the regents hired him in July.

"The job description was obviously written for somebody, and it sure looks like it was written for John Morgan," said State Sen. Dolores Gresham, a Republican who heads the Senate's education committee. Late in the process, Gresham asked the Board of Regents to extend the search to add candidates with stronger academic credentials. "I think the leader has to lead by example, and if you're going to lead an educational system, you have to be steeped in scholarship. He just doesn’t have credentials I think he ought to have."

Faculty leaders also criticized the process and the selection, noting that the search committee contained no professors and that Morgan has no scholarly or administrative experience within higher education.

"Even if the search was legitimate, it has the appearance that 'the fix was in,' and thus has the potential of becoming a public relations disaster," Larry Burriss, a journalism professor at Middle Tennessee State University who sits on the Board of Regents' faculty advisory council, said in an e-mail message to Inside Higher Ed.

Board of Regents officials dismiss as conspiracy theorizing the notion that the search process was constructed with Morgan in mind. But they and other supporters of Morgan are unapologetic about their view that the public college system needs a savvy leader who can help the institutions maneuver through a fast-changing political and policy environment -- and that Morgan, unfairly caricatured as a Bredesen crony with little background in higher education, is the right person for the job.

"It's true that he was the point person on Complete College Tennessee," said Aims McGuinness, a senior associate with the National Center for Higher Education Management Systems who has worked on governance and other issues in Tennessee and many other states. "But for more than a decade, long before the governor's initiative came about, John Morgan has been a major force in connecting higher education to larger policies in Tennessee. He's somebody who understands higher education in Tennessee, can work with both political parties, and can provide the kind of dynamic leadership that the system hasn't always had."

Process ...

The situation involving Morgan raises two separate (if perhaps related) issues. The first surrounds the process the regents used to select him, whether it was legitimate or flawed, and how it will affect his ability to manage the system. The second, and arguably more interesting and important, set of issues involves the extent to which public higher education should turn to politicians as leaders and how much alignment is appropriate, and desirable, between state government and higher education.

Critics point to an array of circumstances to argue that the process was imperfect, if not rigged. Among them: that the Board of Regents abandoned their longstanding practice of requiring chancellor candidates to have earned a doctorate, enabling Morgan's candidacy; that the job description focused so heavily on the ability to work with state leaders, and on familiarity with the new higher education law that Morgan helped enact; that the entire search process lasted all of six weeks; and that few candidates were considered and only one interviewed.

The search committee interviewed Morgan on July 30, 15 days after the deadline for applications closed, and interviewed no one else. A week later, the full board voted to hire him. "That's quite clearly a very short period of time, if board members are really interested in considering a wide range of candidates," said Donald E. Heller, a professor and director of the Center for the Study of Higher Education at Pennsylvania State University. "I can understand why people might look at the process and question it."

That's all the more true given a local television station's report this week on a bill introduced in January by a Democratic state legislator. The proposed law (never enacted) would have exempted from one prerequisite certain candidates for higher education chancellorships or presidencies. Specifically, anyone with "10 or more years of service" in state government positions such as "secretary of state ... treasurer, ... cabinet level staff ..." -- or comptroller of the treasury, Morgan's post from 1999 to 2009 -- would no longer be required to hold an advanced college degree in order to serve as chancellor or president.

Faculty leaders also object to the fact that the regents included no faculty representatives on the search committee, and say that reflects a troubling inclination on the part of the board to minimize the views of the professoriate. "I think the faculty are going to want to hear from Chancellor Morgan that he is going to consult with the faculty on major initiatives that affect higher education in this state," Barry Gidcomb, a historian at Columbia State Community College who cast the lone vote against Morgan on the Board of Regents, told The Tennessean after last week's vote. (Note: This article has been updated to correct an error.)

Agenia Clark, a regent who headed the search committee, said in an interview Wednesday that she was disappointed by the suggestions that the panel's search process was anything but aboveboard. She disputed several assertions by critics, but most took issue with the idea that the committee had focused on the Complete College law to help Morgan. How could the Tennessee regents focus on anything but the law, given how it will reshape the higher education picture in the state for the next several years? she suggested.

"The new legislation is going to be the constant [for the Board of Regents system] for the near future, and it gave us a complete and total different set of lenses to look at the system through," said Clark. "So in putting together the job description, I started with that obvious focus."

Clark also challenged the notion that the regents kept the applicant pool small to favor Morgan. She said she spoke privately to several strong candidates (including some more traditional ones) who were discouraged from applying because Tennessee's strong open records law would have revealed their identities early in the process, putting their current jobs at risk. The same thing happened during the 2008-9 search that the board scuttled, she said, well before Morgan appeared on the scene.

... and Politics

The immediate concerns about how the regents went about selecting Morgan reflect a larger discomfort -- within Tennessee and nationally -- about the intertwining of politics and public higher education. This is not a new concern; public colleges (and public higher education systems) have appointed politicians as leaders for a long time, and now as before, there are good ones and bad ones, just as there is great variation in the quality and skill of presidents and chancellors from all backgrounds. (There have been some high-profile flameouts in recent years by politicians who could not change their stripes to fit well in academe.)

Many faculty leaders and others still cling to the idea that public colleges should be led by people with experience as academic administrators, who "have a good working knowledge of faculty concerns, student issues and staff problems," Burriss, the Middle Tennessee professor, said in his e-mail about the selection. "I am thus concerned about how much Mr. Morgan really understands about higher education."

Burriss, reflecting concerns commonly held by faculty members and some higher education officials in Tennessee, also sees Morgan as part of a line of "state-level administrators in Tennessee [who] have tried to apply an assembly-line model to the educational system, assuming that students and graduates are nothing more than 'products' that can be cranked out like widgets.... I am afraid this appointment will merely continue the 'bean counting' mentality that is currently applied to higher education."

Paul Lingenfelter, president of the State Higher Education Executive Officers, said he understands the concerns of many faculty and staff members about universities' turning to politicians as leaders. "I think it's important to be sensitive to these issues, but not have a categorical, kneejerk response," he said. "It'd be a mistake for academics, in reflexive reaction, to say that anyone with political engagement is not good for the job. The important issue is, did a board make a decision, and did they decide this is the right person to meet the needs of an institution going forward?"

For some in Tennessee, the issue is less about a politician leading a university system than about the tight alignment between the state's political leaders and (now) the chancellor of the Board of Regents. In an era when more and more states are imposing (or at least considering) governor-led, statewide initiatives to reform higher education, it's widely understood that state chief executives will put close colleagues or others they trust into higher education cabinet posts or the equivalent.

But is it wise, or necessary, for institutional leaders to be linked to a governor, too? Especially a governor who, as Bredesen is, will be out of office by January, when he must leave because of term limits?

McGuinness of the National Center for Higher Education Management Systems said he believed that it shortchanges Morgan to emphasize his ties to Bredesen, rather than his deep knowledge of the state's financial and educational operations and his background as a "very low-key problem solver with an incredible reputation for integrity."

"This is just somebody who understands Tennessee, and what higher education there needs to be and do to help its future," he said.

David Gregory, vice chancellor for finance and administration at the Tennessee Board of Regents, offers a more practical reason why harmony with well-connected leaders in the state might be good for a public college system like his. "If you have alignment or connectivity, and general buy-in on where the system needs to be moving forward -- if they can see that we're moving to achieve state goals, by having more students complete college -- we stand a chance to increase our level of resources," he said.

But given how whimsical state policy directions are, and how quickly the winds of political change blow, counting on political savvy or connections may be risky, said Heller of Penn State. Which is why, ultimately, the question of whether Morgan was a good choice for the Tennessee regents will have little to do with what he did as deputy governor.

"There's a big difference between crafting a political solution and working it through the legislature, and being the leader of a large complex organization like [the Tennessee Board of Regents]," Heller said. "The question now is, can he be successful in that kind of position?"

 

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