Alisa White, president of Austin Peay State University, is quite happy with the existing structure that governs Tennessee's regional public universities and community colleges.
John Morgan, chancellor of the Tennessee Board of Regents system, is an advocate for her university; the 18-member Board of Regents is knowledgeable on issues of higher education; and the system itself, she says, is full of creative thinkers who have helped Tennessee push the envelope when it comes to education policy.
Yet White and many of the presidents at the five other four-year universities within the system think, despite all of the board's accomplishments, its governance structure would be improved if Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam’s plan to create individual governing boards for the system's universities -- allowing the board to focus solely on the 27 technical colleges and 13 community colleges in the system -- goes forward.
The plan, announced in early December, is still being developed and drafted into legislation (which will be called the Focus on College and University Success Act), but the pending legislation appears to have the support of many of the state’s lawmakers and education advocates. It would not affect the University of Tennessee System, which already has a governing structure separate from the TBR system.
But Morgan, one of the state’s most respected higher education officials, is skeptical of Haslam’s plan, so much so that he is retiring a year early because he says he cannot support the proposed governance change. Separating the universities from the system “is unworkable and will seriously impair the critical alignment of the state’s needs, the TBR’s oversight responsibility and each institution’s accountability,” he wrote in a sharply worded resignation letter to the governor last week.
An overhaul might encourage institutions to put their own interests ahead of the state, “drive competition” among institutions and “shift priorities away from the state’s goals.” He will resign at the end of January.
Tennessee is widely considered to be a leader in higher education policy. Its Drive to 55 initiative, which aims to get 55 percent of Tennesseans equipped with a college degree or certificate by the year 2025, is on a successful path. In five years credentials awarded by the board's institutions have risen 18 percent. The system in 2015 began the Tennessee Promise program, which offers the state’s high school graduates two free years of community or technical college.
And in 2010 Haslam and Morgan helped gain support for the Complete College Tennessee Act, which encourages public higher education to focus on meeting the state’s economic development needs. As part of the act, Tennessee was one of the first states to completely tie state higher education funding to student outcomes and other performance metrics (such as graduation rates, degree completions and research funding).
These accomplishments, Morgan wrote, “are possible because of a governing structure that reinforces responsibility and accountability among the various types of institutions” within the TBR system. The governor’s proposed reconfiguration, his letter indicated, spreads accountability too thinly. Morgan declined to comment for this article, as did the board's vice chair, Emily Reynolds, though she did issue a statement saying the board is following the developing legislation with “great interest.”
Yet advocates of the change say the extra onus programs like the Tennessee Promise put on the state’s two-year colleges necessitate more oversight and coordination of those institutions -- something a board focused solely on the 40 two-year institutions would be able to provide better than the existing board, which must also give much of its attention to six distinct universities.
“His goal is to put a lot more emphasis on community and technical schools, because we know that’s a real wave of the future and we want to beef them up,” Tennessee House of Representatives Speaker Beth Harwell said of the governor’s plan. “He would like to see some more coordination there.”
And advocates say boards tasked with just the governance of one university will be better acquainted with the individual details and opportunities at that institution, and therefore be better equipped to advocate for it with donors and with the Legislature.
“Not only are the missions of universities, community colleges and technical colleges very different, but the six universities and TBR are very different,” said White, adding that while the system's board is supportive of the Austin Peay, “it’s challenging to have a laser focus on each individual institution when you have so many institutions.”
White recalled her time working for an institution in Texas that had its own governing board.
“It was great to get a very deep level of advocacy because they knew how good we were with the budget, they knew how far we stretched the budget, they knew how thorough the process was,” she said. “So many of them helped us raise money because they could speak to the state of the education we offered and knew the intimate details.”
Philip Oldham, president of Tennessee Technological University, expects that universities will gain more speed and agility in their decision making if they are able to have their own governing boards. Echoing White, he added that TBR “is a very big system, which has made it a little bit unwieldy.”
“Right now there’s only one person at Tennessee Tech that wakes up every morning or in the middle of the night thinking about what’s best for Tennessee Tech, and that’s me,” Oldham continued. “With this structure there’s going to be eight to 10 additional people who wake up in the middle of the night with me.”
Each board would likely have eight to 10 members appointed by the governor, and faculty and student representatives would likely be among the mix. The boards would approve budgets, academic programs and major capital expenditures; hire and fire presidents; and set tuition. Officials expect the restructuring to take a year to 18 months to plan and begin executing.
Thomas Harnisch, director of state relations at the American Association of State Colleges and Universities, an organization that represents many of the four-year universities affected by Haslam’s proposal, said there’s a growing trend of universities, and in particular public research universities, seeking to break from their systems and get their own governing board.
The University of Wisconsin at Madison, that state system’s flagship, has in recent years tried and failed to get its own governing board. And after much campaigning, legislation in 2013 and 2015 established individual governing boards for the University of Oregon, Portland State University and Oregon State University, a move that abolished the University of Oregon System. And the University of Memphis, the only research university within the TBR system, has been pushing for years to get its own board and increase its autonomy. That university’s president declined an interview request for this article.
Like the presidents interviewed for this article, Harnisch agreed that 46 universities and colleges is a large enterprise for one board to govern. Yet the key to receiving a positive outcome for individual institutions is in appointing quality board members, he said.
And when there are several boards in one state, picking a set of qualified, dedicated and knowledgeable board members can be a challenge, says Aims McGuinness, a senior associate with the National Center for Higher Education Management Systems.
McGuinness fears that, under a restructuring, institutional boards would put their universities’ goals above the state’s. “There no evidence that a governing board for a single institution will pay any attention to statewide goals,” he said. “The governing board for a single institution will focus on the institution.”
Critics also point out that while coordination among two-year colleges may be improved, the opposite could happen for universities under a restructuring. Without a central governing board, oversight that the Tennessee board provided could give way to inefficiency and duplication among universities. And as Morgan noted in his scathing letter to the governor, accountability will be more dispersed under a reorganized system. A reorganization, he wrote, could “weaken the effective collaboration” the system has spent years building.
“Collaboration could eventually be replaced by competition,” Harnisch said.
“There's going to be a lot more players,” he continued. ”There’s definitely a fear that the institutions will pursue their own ambitions and their own interests at the expense of the needs of the state.”
Added Tom Layzell, a consultant with the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges, “There are differences between state interests and institutional interests. There’s a lot of overlap, of course, but the key thing in reorganization like this is to make sure you come up with a balanced approach that maintains a strong state policy [focus].”
That, he added, is easier said than done. Layzell is the former chancellor of the Illinois Board of Governors of State Colleges and Universities and former commissioner of higher education for the Mississippi Institutions of Higher Learning. During his tenure in Illinois in the mid-1990s, the state switched from a systemwide governing board to individual governing boards for institutions. Layzell said in the process of changing the governance structure, the Legislature did not strengthen, but instead weakened, the Illinois Board of Higher Education, and so the state was left with little central authority over public universities.
Layzell said governance changes in Illinois created “a lot more turf wars and a lot more competitive pressures” but left the state without a body “that can pull people together to make statewide recommendations” and ensure that institutional goals and state goals remain aligned. In Tennessee, where key initiatives like Drive to 55 have been built on a strong history of coordination, maintaining high levels of collaboration and accountability is key, he added.
“If I were going to urge anything on those who are considering this restructuring, it’s to make sure you end up with a balanced approach and that you have a strong coordinating board,” he offered.
Brian Noland, president of East Tennessee State University, said that given all the progress made on Tennessee’s higher education initiatives, working on state priorities and coordinating with fellow institutions is ingrained in his institution.
And Haslam’s initial restructuring plans includes a goal to “enhance” the role of the Tennessee Higher Education Commission so that it can “provide greater coordination across the state,” including with capital projects and financial strategy among institutions, according to a release from the governor’s office. The governor declined to comment for this article, as did a representative of the commission.
“That solid rock, that anchor, will still guide some of the activities across the system,” Noland said of the higher ed commission. “I do not see the reform proposals undermining the strong [foundation] that already exists.”
White said, given the state’s adoption of formula funding, universities will continue to have incentives to comply with state goals, regardless of their governance structure.
“One hundred percent of the funding is formula based, and the Tennessee Higher Education Commission sets the formula,” she said. “So our funding is very much dependent on student success.”
McGuinness warned that Haslam’s proposed changes could be more costly and time-consuming than advocates anticipate, and could prove to be a distraction to system employees, both from day-to-day work and from the other big initiatives already underway.
“Major change like this is much more costly than people estimate and has a real danger of diverting a state from progress on substantive issues,” he said.
Yet for many in Tennessee, a change in governing structures is a natural evolution of the state’s ambitious higher education policy.
“As we have progressed and done some pretty significant things in Tennessee in the last few years, we realize that sometimes the structures that got you here are not necessarily the best structures to get you to the next level,” Oldham said. “That’s what this is all about. Yes, things are going real well. We’re doing some great things. But we see how the current system, the current structure, can be somewhat self-limiting.”
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