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2015 December 29 - 10:01 pm

Haslam Seeks Autonomy for 6 Tenn. Universities

Governor Wants to Sharpen Focus on Community and Technical Colleges

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Republican Gov. Bill Haslam is proposing to grant more autonomy to six public universities and focus the Tennessee Board of Regents’ efforts on the state’s 40 community and technical colleges.

Haslam said he will introduce legislation to create local boards for Austin Peay in Clarksville; East Tennessee in Johnson City; Middle Tennessee in Murfreesboro; Tennessee Tech in Cookeville; Tennessee State in Nashville; and the University of Memphis. Those boards would control budgets, tuition and the selection of college presidents.

According to a news release from the governor’s office, the Board of Regents would continue to provide “key administrative support” for the six 4-year schools. But the boards main focus would shift to the 13 community colleges and 27 technical colleges that are central to Haslam’s “Drive to 55” campaign _ the initiative to raise the percentage of Tennesseans with a college degree or certificate to 55 percent by the year 2025.

Flanked by supportive legislative leaders at a news conference on the proposed changes, Haslam said the program is already seeing success, with first-time freshman enrollment at Tennessee’s community colleges up by 25 percent.

“That, to me, has said we really have to focus on those community colleges and (technical colleges) to make sure we’re providing the very best opportunity that we can there,” Haslam said.

Russ Deaton is interim executive director of the Tennessee Higher Education Commission, which is responsible for much long-term planning and coordination for both the University of Tennessee and Board of Regents systems. He said the idea of local boards has a lot of potential.

“Any time you can make a higher education system a little more effective and nimble, it’s a good thing,” he said. “There will be challenges, but they are challenges that can be met.”

Haslam’s plan would give the Higher Education Commission a greater role across the state in financial planning and crafting the schools’ missions, according to a news release from the administration.

Sidney A. McPhee is president of Middle Tennessee State University, the state school with the largest undergraduate population in Tennessee. He reacted positively to the announcement in an emailed statement, saying, “The proposal advanced today by the governor is truly bold and potentially transformational for MTSU and our sister institutions in the Tennessee Board of Regents system.”

The statement added: “We look forward to learning and exploring opportunities it could provide in support of our mission to ensure student success and provide more graduates for the state’s workforce.”

George Pernsteiner, president of the Colorado-based State Higher Education Executive Officers Association, said there is no form of college governance that’s generally accepted as best.

“Every state does it a little bit differently,” he said.

Whether the Tennessee proposal is successful will depend on how it is implemented, he said.

Tennessee Board of Regents Chancellor John Morgan issued a brief statement saying the panel “has done an excellent job of managing a diverse system.”

He praised the presidents of the four-year schools and said they will continue to do a great job, whether as part of the Board of Regents system or an alternative system.

“We can expect complex and extensive conversations as this process unfolds, but our primary objective is, and will remain, the success of our students, and I am committed to remain focused on that goal,” Morgan’s statement said.

The University of Tennessee is governed by the UT Board of Trustees. That would not change under Haslam’s proposal.

The upcoming legislative session begins in January, but it was unclear how soon Haslam’s proposal would be ready for consideration.

Also from TRAVIS LOLLER, Associated Press

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