Legislators question, may oppose UT’s number one capital project priority

Could set a very damaging precedent for the future prioritization of higher ed projects

Lone Oaks Aerial

In recent days, it has become increasingly apparent that a growing number of legislators (mostly from within the House) are raising questions and concerns about UT’s top capital project, the West Tennessee 4-H Center known as Lone Oaks Farm.

This is of great concern.  The Board of Trustees in their June 2014 meeting approved the project and it was submitted by the Governor as the State’s second highest overall capital project for higher education.

UT Advocates should be concerned that UT’s top capital project is being put at risk.  What should concern all other advocates for higher education is the very dangerous precedent of removing or reprioritizing—essentially politicizing—a need-based priority system established over 25 years ago for higher education capital projects.

The West Tennessee 4-H Center will serve as a critical part of UT’s outreach mission.  4-H remains one of America’s most successful youth educational programs, reaching over 168,000 students in Tennessee each year.  In addition to hands-on STEM education in biology, agriculture, and other sciences, the program also arms youth with critical soft skills needed to stand out in today’s workforce.

The West Tennessee region has been without a 4-H Center since 2009, when the previous facility was closed and sold due to budget cuts and inadequate capital maintenance over a period of many years.

The offer of Lone Oaks Farm as a proposed replacement for the West Tennessee 4-H Center was recommended through an exhaustive selection process last year.  The more than $30 million dollar, 1,200-acre property is being made available to the University for approximately $16 million.  It is expected to be self-supporting through the revenue it generates from programs and educational meetings, events, and workshops that will take place at the site.  Lone Oaks Farm comes turn-key ready—as opposed to the 19 other sites reviewed throughout West Tennessee for the same purpose.

But funding for the project could be in peril.   Advocates can help support UT and the future of all higher education projects by asking their legislators to support Governor Haslam’s proposal for UT’s highest capital priority, the new 4-H Center.

Click here to take action.

Lawmakers Unanimously Advance UT Budget

UT budget hearing

UT President Joe DiPietro testifies during Senate Education Committee Budget Hearing

The University of Tennessee had one of its busiest weeks on the Hill so far this session, as lawmakers in three legislative committees heard the proposed UT budget and questioned higher education leadership on a variety of topics.

President Joe DiPietro outlined for lawmakers the urgent situation faced by the UT System:  A $377M forecasted budget gap over the next decade if no corrective action is taken.  Without significantly increased state support, the University must find its own way of fixing its business model—by generating more revenue, finding efficiencies, and doing more with less—all while remaining of excellent quality and striving for improvements.

Some revenue-generating tools outlined by DiPietro raised questions amongst lawmakers.  Representative Ryan Haynes (R-Knoxville) asked DiPietro to explain the need for increasing out-of-state enrollments.  ”I want to make sure our universities stay open to our [Tennessee] students,” he stated.

“We’re talking about modestly increasing our out-of state enrollments while maintaining our in-state enrollments,” DiPietro stated.  Out-of-state students generally pay more in tuition, providing a needed source of revenue for UT schools in an era of struggling state appropriations for higher education.

At UT Knoxville, for example, an out-of-state student pays roughly $18,000 more than an in-state student.  DiPietro has given the campuses discretion to increase their percentage of out-of-state students up to a boundary of 25 percent of total enrollments.  The current average level for UT campuses is between 12 and 13 percent.  National studies confirm that about half of out-of-state students end up staying in the state where they attend college and joining its workforce.

Overall, House lawmakers seemed pleased with DiPietro’s approach to re-evaluating UT’s business model.  House Finance Committee Chairman Charles Sargent (R-Franklin) called it “a wake up call to all of us on the Committee,”  adding, “if we don’t fund UT and the other schools, this is what happens.  These are choices we’re going to have to make.”

The Governor told the press this week that he understands why UT is pursuing these options, citing the sharp decline in funding for public higher education over the years.  “The state’s share of higher education’s funding has dropped from nearly 70 percent 20 years ago to about 30 percent [today].  And as the state’s share has declined, tuition and fees have sharply increased…I think they’re saying, ‘we have to make the economics work for us,’ he stated.

Senate lawmakers also seemed to approve of DiPietro’s approach.  Senator Jim Tracy (R-Shelbyville) told DiPietro, “You kind of stole my thunder… I think we’re going to have to change the paradigm of higher education and you and your Board have started doing that…We’ve got to think outside the box… I think you’ve hit on something.”

The UT budget unanimously passed out of the Senate Education Committee and will next head to the Senate Finance Committee.  So far, it appears there is a solid base of legislative support for the proposal.

The Governor’s FY16 budget proposal is certainly a strong one for higher education, but DiPietro has articulated that the strong proposal is no reason to hold off on being proactive in addressing UT’s “unsustainable” business model.  ”We are not back where we were before the recession,” he said, further noting that there is no guarantee the proposed funding levels will continue in the future.  ”We have to be ready,” he said.

Governor Haslam Names UT Alumnus Dwight Tarwater As General Counsel

Gov. Bill Haslam has announced that Dwight E. Tarwater will join his senior team as general counsel.  Tarwater replaces Herbert Slatery who left the administration in October to become the state’s attorney general.

Tarwater, 59, currently practices law in Knoxville in the law firm he helped begin in 1987, Paine, Tarwater and Bickers, LLP.  He has vast courtroom experience, having tried cases locally, across the state of Tennessee, and in several other states.  On appeal, he has represented clients before the Tennessee Court of Appeals, the Tennessee Supreme Court and in the U.S. Courts of Appeals for the 4th, 6th, 10th, and 11th Circuits.

“I am very grateful to Dwight for his willingness to leave behind a highly successful career and the firm he has built from the ground up to join our staff,” Haslam said.  “His legal acumen, courtroom experience and steady demeanor will be assets to our senior team.”

A Knoxville native, Tarwater is listed in four separate categories in this year’s edition of the Best Lawyers in America, which is compiled through an exhaustive peer review survey of thousands of top lawyers across the country.   He was first listed in 2002 and has since been named Lawyer of the Year for the Knoxville area five times.

“I am honored to serve Gov. Haslam and his administration as he continues to lead our state forward to even greater success, and I am humbled by his confidence in me,” Tarwater said.

He received his undergraduate degree from the University of Tennessee, where he was elected a Torchbearer, the university’s highest honor. He received his law degree from the University of Tennessee College Of Law.  He served as law clerk to the Honorable Houston M. Goddard of the Tennessee Court of Appeals.

Tarwater has been a member of the Knoxville, Tennessee and American Bar Associations since his licensure in 1980.  He served as president of the Knoxville Barristers (Young Lawyers Division) in 1987 and on its Board of Governors from 1986 until 1988.  He served for nine years on the board of governors of the Knoxville Bar Association, as the bar’s secretary in 1988, president-elect in 1999 and as president in 2000. He served as East Tennessee governor of the Tennessee Bar Association in 1991-92 and on the board of the Tennessee Young Lawyers Conference in 1986-87.

He is a member of the Tennessee Association for Justice, the Defense Research Institute, the International Association of Defense Counsel, Litigation Counsel of America and the Trial Attorneys of America. In 2006, he became a fellow in the American College of Trial Lawyers.

He and his firm have made pro bono representation a priority. He has served on the board of directors of the Knoxville Legal Aid Society, Volunteer Legal Assistance Program, and Pro Bono Project. His firm has been honored with the Pro Bono Law Firm of the Year Award presented by Legal Aid of East Tennessee in 2010, 2012 and 2013.

He was a member of the 2002 Class of Leadership Knoxville and is a current board member of the East Tennessee Foundation.

Tarwater was married to the late Mary Flowers Tarwater for 34 years and has three children: Davis, a 2012 Olympic gold medalist; Katherine Freeman, a fourth grade teacher in Knox County; and Dwight, a basketball player at the University of California, Berkeley.

His first day in the governor’s office will be Monday, December 8.

Early Voting Begins October 15

  Early voting for the State and Federal General Election begins this Wednesday, October 15 and continues until Thursday, October 30.  Utilized by many for its convenience, early voting allows eligible voters to vote at any precinct operated by their local election commission office (you are not bound to the precinct listed on your voter registration card as you are on Election Day).

All voters must present an ID containing the voter’s name and photograph when voting at the polls, whether voting early or on Election Day. More information on voter identification requirements can be found here.

General Election Day is Tuesday, November 4.  A roundup of election results will be posted to this website shortly after they become available.