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Board of Regents Under Scrutiny

by Andrea Zelinski on September 8, 2010

Some Senate Republican lawmakers say the Tennessee Board of Regents, which controls a $2.2 billion budget and has oversight of the state’s higher education institutions, has lacked GOP membership as required by state law for the last six years.

That could raise the possibility that any of the regents’ formal decisions since then may be subject to legal challenge — including the controversial appointment of Deputy Gov. John Morgan as chancellor.

Sen. Bill Ketron said Tuesday that Gov. Phil Bredesen may not have appointed the required number of Republicans to the board, and that none were ever confirmed by the Senate.

Both could be violations of state statute, suggested the Murfreesboro Republican — meaning the 18-member board has been operating “out of compliance” with the law since Bredesen, a Democrat, last appointed members in 2004, Ketron said.

The senator said he discovered a statute shortly after Morgan’s appointment last month that indicates the board is required to consist of a bipartisan makeup.

“Each of the two (2) leading political parties shall be represented by at least three (3) appointive members” on the board, according to Title 49, Chapter 8 of the Tennessee Code.

Robert Thomas, the board’s current vice-chairman, told a Nashville television station last month that he believes all the Board of Regents’ members are Democrats. However, the board does not keep track of each member’s party affiliation, said David Gregory, TBR’s vice chancellor for administration.

Ketron said he has communicated the issue in writing to Attorney General Robert Cooper and has asked him whether decisions made by the board are binding if the body failed to follow state law. Ketron said he has yet to receive a response from Cooper, who served as Bredesen’s legal counsel from 2003 to 2006, according to his online bio.

State Sen. Dolores Gresham, who chairs the education committee, has agreed to conduct two hearings later this month to review the makeup of the Board of Regents and suggest any changes it hopes lawmakers will take up once they are sworn in next January.

Gresham, R-Somerville, said her committee will discuss whether the board is in compliance with state law.

Morgan was the only candidate interviewed for the chancellor’s position, raising concerns among some as to why more people weren’t considered for such an important post.

The board had also changed its selection criteria in a way that carved out a position only Morgan could be qualified to fill, Gresham said. One change reduced the necessary education level from a doctorate to an undergraduate degree, matching Morgan’s bachelor’s in education.

Gresham said she asked the Board of Regents to interview more candidates, but the members refused and stuck with Morgan.

The Senate Education Committee, which will meet Sept. 28 and 29, will also conduct confirmation hearings on all the TBR members, Gresham said. The Senate was supposed to OK all the board’s appointees, according to state code, but the body never reviewed the members.

When asked about the makeup of the board during a press availability Wednesday, Bredesen said he has specifically tried in the past to ignore party affiliation as much as possible when considering nominees. The governor added that he’s  “got someone looking at…what went wrong, if anything went wrong” with the TBR selection process.

Bredesen indicated he’s frustrated the discussion over the board “has gotten so political.”

“No one had any concern about any of these things for the past seven and three-quarters years,” Bredesen told reporters outside a Tennessee Valley Authority conference in downtown Nashville. “Suddenly now there are a couple of Republican state senators who are pushing the issue.”

Bredesen said whatever happens, he hopes the probing of TBR personnel selections and decision-making processes doesn’t undermine the boards top priority at this point, which he says is implementing a higher education overhaul package — called the “Complete College Act of 2010” — designed to increase university graduation rates.

“It bothers me when people inject politics into it at quite this level,” Bredesen continued. “If someone has a problem with either the confirmation process or the makeup of the board, I don’t know why they couldn’t sit down and talk with me. I would be happy to address the issues without having to have some hearings, but I guess there probably wouldn’t be any reporters or TV cameras probably in that meeting, which I think probably is what it is all about.”

The Tennessee Board of Regents oversees the sixth-largest public higher education system in the country, including six state universities, 13 community colleges and 26 technology centers. Its duties include reviewing and approving budgets, establishing graduation requirements along with setting campus policies and regulations.

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