Photo illustration by Justin Morrison/Inside Higher Ed | Tennessee General Assembly | Wikimedia Commons
Six years after Tennessee restructured oversight of most of its public universities by ending a statewide governing board, its Legislature is on the verge of dissolving Tennessee State University’s Board of Trustees amid dissatisfaction over how the historically Black land-grant institution is being overseen.
The state Senate committee on government operations approved a bill Wednesday that would terminate the current Tennessee State board and replace it with entirely new members.
The vote comes nearly a year after state lawmakers first threatened to dissolve the university’s board, following a harsh audit from the state’s comptroller that criticized leadership, financial decisions and housing at the university.
Lawmakers opted not to dismantle the board last year, instead giving the governing body a year to fix the problems cited in the report. That extension led to a second, more in-depth audit and Wednesday’s hearing.
The hearing was originally intended to focus on SB 1596, which if passed would have extended operations of the current board for another year, starting on June 30. If it failed, the board would have been terminated entirely because prior legislation had it scheduled to sunset. Eliminating the board entirely would have put Tennessee State under the authority of the Tennessee Higher Education Commission, a coordinating body that does not govern other institutions.
But an amendment to the bill, filed by two Republican state senators, Jon Lundberg and Bo Watson, called for vacating the board and then immediately reconstituting and extending its authority. This would allow Governor Bill Lee, also a Republican, to appoint new members. Nothing bars existing members from being reappointed, but lawmakers have voiced frustration with the current board.
To become law, the measure would require approval from a House committee and then both full chambers.
Although the bill would let Tennessee State remain independently governed, university supporters oppose it and call for an extension of the existing board. They say the current members haven’t been given enough time to respond to last year’s audit and that the historically Black institution has been persistently underfunded.
Pamela Brooks Martin, vice chair of Tennessee State’s Board of Trustees, spoke in a quivering voice during her statement to the Senate committee.
“If I sound a little shaky this morning, it’s because this is a hard pill,” Martin said. She noted that the board has worked tirelessly to address the issues highlighted in the first hearing last February and urged lawmakers to extend the current board in order to allow continued progress.
“The board heard you, and we listened when we received the report. We’ve done everything the General Assembly has asked us to do,” she said. “I say all this to say we hear you. We’re working to make these changes, and we’d appreciate you hearing us and allowing us more time.”
State Senator Charlane Oliver, a Democrat whose district includes the Tennessee State campus, wore a blazer in the university’s royal blue to show her allegiance. In her statement at the hearing, she said the decision was “too important” to be “swept under the rug as if we’re just vacating the board.”
She said the university and its students have persisted despite decades of problematic relations between the university and the Legislature and underfunding by the state. The case in Tennessee reflects a larger trend of underfunding for historically Black land-grant institutions across the country, to which the Biden administration issued its own call to action in September.
“I’ll be the first to say that students, faculty and alumni have a right to feel slighted and frustrated,” Oliver said. “The Legislature, the very body that has been responsible for underfunding Tennessee State, is making allegations, harsh ones, about the way TSU is running its business.”
But she also acknowledged the shortcomings of the university, saying the consequences of limited dollars are “felt all over campus.”
“Don’t get me wrong. There are real issues at TSU. I think we all agree with that,” Oliver said. “But in my opinion, the best way for the university and Legislature to get there is by working together … In a real partnership, both sides share success and recognize the shortcomings.”
The legislative wrangling comes as the university is looking for a new president. Glenda Glover, Tennessee State’s president since 2013, is scheduled to vacate her post at the end of the academic year. Final interviews and the announcement of a new president are currently scheduled for April, according to the university website. But that could change if the bill were to pass quickly and become a law, leading to the introduction of an entirely new board.
State Senator Sara Kyle, a Democrat, noted that the proposed reconstitution of the board would “give more control over who becomes the next president of TSU” to the governor via his new appointees. That “feels like harsh punishment for the university,” Kyle said.
Sean Wimberly Jr., a senior agricultural science major at Tennessee State and the board’s student trustee, said the amendment would be “hurtful and destructive,” not only to the institution itself but to its students.
“We will lose that institutional knowledge that this board possesses,” Wimberly said. “The policies and the projects that have been initiated to better serve our students will all come to a halt.”
Tennessee State was one of numerous four-year universities that were granted their own governing boards in 2016 after state officials stripped the Tennessee Board of Regents of oversight in response to demands from supporters of the University of Memphis and other institutions.