The Tennessee General Assembly has officially adjourned for the year after considering the final legislative calendars and passing the State’s $33 billion spending plan for FY15-16. A number of higher education issues impacting UT were addressed this session. We’ve been keeping our UT Advocacy Network up-to-date through our weekly legislative report, The Weekly Watch. If you don’t already get that report, make sure you sign up here.
Thanks to the work of our state policymakers and UT advocates, the legislative session resulted in mostly favorable outcomes for the University of Tennessee. Some of those outcomes include:
Full Funding for State’s Higher Ed Outcomes-Based Formula: Funded
UT works hard to make sure its institutions are the state’s top performers. This year, the legislature fully funded the outcomes-based formula, resulting in a $9.7 million recurring operational increase for the UT campuses. While this funding does not address the projected $377 million budget gap over the next ten years, it does enable the University of Tennessee to mitigate the need for significant tuition increases this year.
Increased Funding for UT Institutions That Provide Services to All Tennesseans (Non-Formula Units): Funded
The increased recurring funding of $4.89 million will cover the Institute of Agriculture (UTIA), which has a presence in all 95 counties, Institute for Public Service (IPS) and Health Science Center (UTHSC). In 2013, UTIA, IPS and UTHSC provided outreach to more than six million people. Unlike our traditional campuses, these units have limited or no tuition mechanisms to offset previous declines in state revenue.
UT Knoxville Science Laboratory: Funded
The state authorized $99.5 million for a new UT Knoxville science laboratory building on Cumberland Avenue at 13th Street. The new science laboratory will provide cutting-edge facilities to educate students and produce groundbreaking research. The project was one of UT’s top budget priorities this year and was included in the Governor’s original FY15-16 budget proposal. It will help advance UT Knoxville’s ‘Top 25′ Initiative.
West Tennessee 4-H Camp and Conference Center: Funded
The state authorized approximately $16 million for UT’s new West Tennessee 4-H Camp and Conference Center, to be located in Hardeman County. The Center is turn-key ready and will fulfill a key part of the University’s outreach mission, providing youth in west Tennessee with an interactive environment to learn about STEM subjects, natural resources and agriculture. It will be self-supporting through revenues generated via the Conference Center. UT Extension’s three 4-H centers in Middle and East Tennessee currently serve 13,000 young people. West Tennessee was the State’s only grand division without a 4-H Center.
UT Space Institute Wind Tunnel Construction: Funded
The state authorized $1 million in capital outlay toward the construction of a new advanced wind tunnel at the UT Space Institute for the purpose of high speed flight and hypersonic research. The wind tunnel would be the second of its kind in North America and is believed to be only the third of its kind in the world. This funding will hopefully leverage additional future investment in this emerging research priority of the U.S. Department of Defense and the United States Air Force.
Maintenance Projects on All UT Campuses: Funded
The legislature appropriated funding that will go toward ensuring our campuses and institutes are providing safe learning and work environments for our faculty, staff and students. There are maintenance projects for all UT campuses included in the budget. Examples of these projects include ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) compliance upgrades, fire safety improvements, roof replacements, and security upgrades, among others.
UT Pediatric Research Initiative: Funded
Included in the budget is $3 million in matching funds for a joint pediatric research initiative of the UT Health Science Center, Le Bonheur Children’s Medical Center, and St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. The initiative, ‘UT Peds,’ has helped reduce childhood obesity and asthma as well as assisted in recruitment of world-class staff, researchers, and physicians to treat Tennessee’s children. This is year three of a five-year state funding commitment of $15 million.
UT-ORNL Advanced Manufacturing Initiatives: Funded
The budget includes $3 million in non-recurring funding to support UT-ORNL’s Advanced Manufacturing initiatives and supplement a $250 million federal grant in this area.
Pay-for-Play for Student Athletes: Not Passed
For the second year in a row, Rep. Antonio Parkinson (D-Memphis) and Sen. Reggie Tate (D-Memphis) filed legislation seeking to pay student athletes that graduate from a Tennessee public higher education institution.
Paying student athletes upon graduation is a direct violation of NCAA bylaws. Passage of the bill would have rendered every NCAA Division I athlete attending a public Tennessee university automatically ineligible to compete and, by extension, eliminate all Division I sports at Tennessee’s public postsecondary institutions. While the House sponsor of the legislation argued that the legislation would force the NCAA’s hand on the issue of pay for student athletes, current NCAA bylaws are clear on requirements to maintain amateur status.
The legislation required colleges and universities to deposit 1 percent of their gross athletic revenue from merchandise sales and broadcast licensing agreements into a state-administered trust fund, which would be invested and then doled out to graduating athletes in payments not to exceed $50,000 for Tier 1 athletes (football, track & field, basketball and baseball) and $25,000 for athletes in other sports. Ultimately, the bill was sent to “General Sub.” The “General Sub” status took the bill off notice for this year, but keeps it alive if the sponsors request to put it on next year’s legislative calendar.
Increased Lottery Scholarship Flexibility for ROTC Students: Not Passed
Unfortunately, a bill that sought to provide more flexibility for current and future ROTC student cadets to retain their HOPE Lottery Scholarships did not make it successfully through the legislative process this year. Currently, students must complete all their required ROTC courses and major and minor-related courses within an unlimited-hour eight-semester timeframe or an extended timeframe with a limit of 120-semester hours.
These limitations are particularly problematic for ROTC cadets majoring in STEM fields, which traditionally have little flexibility to accommodate the credit hours required for ROTC.
The legislation, sponsored by Rep. John Ragan (R-Oak Ridge) and Sen. Mark Green (R-Clarksville), would have removed the semester hours attempted in required ROTC courses from the semester hours attempted for Lottery Scholarship participation purposes. The bill was taken off notice in the last days of the legislative session. It had been flagged for fiscal concerns by the Administration as it required roughly $200,000 in lottery funds, which otherwise would be used for the Tennessee Promise.
Employee Performance Reviews No Longer Public Record: Passed
Governor Bill Haslam has signed into law a measure exempting public higher education employee performance evaluations from the public record, essentially correcting a public policy oversight in state law. Since the passage of the TEAM Act in 2012, state service employee performance evaluations have not been part of the public record. One of the initial rationales of removing these evaluations from the public record centered on sound management practices: Having performance evaluations as a public record simply discouraged managers from documenting needed areas of employee improvement. Without formal documentation of these matters, the State was left with no reliable evidence of employee performance.
This change will afford higher education employees the same level of privacy as most other state government employees. The University supported the measure as it addressed an important fairness issue.
Cost-of-Living Adjustment for Higher Education Employees: Partially Funded
The University has a $150 million market gap in employee pay which it is seeking to close over time. Due to limited state revenues, UT employees did not receive a cost-of-living adjustment in last year’s budget. This year’s cost-of-living raise will help UT remain a competitive employer in higher education and recognize UT employees as a critical component of the state’s workforce. The budget provides 55 percent of the funding necessary to provide a salary increase at UTC, UTK and UTM, essentially requiring these campuses to secure the additional funding needed to cover the unfunded portion of the salary increase. The budget fully funds salary increases for the University’s non-formula units (Institute for Public Service, UT Institute of Agriculture, UT Health Science Center).
ACADEMIC FREEDOM AND ACCREDITIATION
Legislation Threatening Accreditation of State-Based Psychology Training Programs: Not Passed
This legislation meddled with higher education degree program requirements and placed the accreditation of psychology programs at Tennessee public higher education institutions at risk. The bill would have allowed any counseling, social work, or psychology student trainee to refuse treatment to any client with whom they might claim to have a religious difference. Currently, student trainees are made fully aware of the ethical codes governing the training programs at the beginning of their coursework. Yet, proponents of the legislation argued that the ethical codes that require counselors, including student trainees, to treat the clinical needs of all patients should no longer be recognized as reasonable guides. Much like the professions of medicine and law, social work and psychology professionals have clearly defined scopes of practice and ethical guidelines adopted by national associations that govern their respective professions.
The implication from proponents of the legislation was that the accrediting associations such as the American Psychological Association, and by extension, the American Bar Association, or the American Medical Association, have no standing in Tennessee.
Because the bill placed accreditation of psychology programs at state universities at risk, sought to micromanage higher education curriculum, and modified degree program requirements, UT opposed the bill. The sponsors, Sen. Joey Hensley (R-Hohenwald) and Rep. John DeBerry (D-Memphis), ultimately deferred the legislation.
Bill Opening Door for Sole Use of Open-Source Textbooks for General Education Courses: Not Passed
Public higher education institutions reached an agreement with Rep. Mike Sparks (R-Smyrna) this session to defer legislation he sponsored to authorize a special legislative committee to review and recommend new policies regarding higher education textbook selection, the use of open-source materials for general education courses, and efforts to minimize the costs of textbooks.
Instead of legislation, a formal request will come from the Education Committee chairs asking that public higher education institutions coordinate a review process to look at current policies, what innovative steps are being explored, and what some other states are doing to minimize the cost of textbooks. A presentation before the House and Senate Education Committees will be expected in March 2016.
A More Efficient Approach to Distance Education: Passed
Lawmakers passed the “State Authorization Reciprocity Agreement Act,” which authorizes the Tennessee Higher Education Commission (THEC) and public and private higher education institutions in Tennessee to join the National Council for State Authorization Reciprocity Agreements (NC-SARA). This authorization will offer significant relief from the current administrative burden and cost associated with offering distance education/online programs in other states. UT was very supportive of the legislation as an efficiency and cost-saving measure. Rep. Harry Brooks (R-Knoxville) and Sen. Dolores Gresham (R-Somerville) served as the bill sponsors.
Public Higher Education Institutions Required to Commemorate, but Not Close, on Veterans Day: Passed
Lawmakers passed an amended version of a bill that requires Tennessee public universities to hold an official campus program or event commemorating Veterans Day, as well as allow students, faculty, and staff who are veterans to participate in campus observances without adverse action or absence. The University of Tennessee supported the amended version of the bill, which will ensure campus commemorations continue into the future and that students and employees that are veterans can easily participate.
The original bill required the public universities to close on Veteran’s Day, which would have dealt a devastating blow to the high-quality annual Veterans Day events that currently happen on each UT campus. We appreciate the sponsors of the legislation, Sen. Randy McNally (R-Oak Ridge) and Rep. Dennis Powers (R-Jacksboro), working towards an amended version of the bill that achieved positive outcomes for all involved parties.