Second Round of Senate Higher Education Oversight Subcommittee Hearings Announced for December

The Senate Education Committee met yesterday in order to conduct several hearings related to K-12 curriculum and voucher issues.  At the end of those hearings, Sen. Joey Hensley (R-Hohenwald), Chairman of the Senate Higher Education Oversight Subcommittee, requested and received permission from Education Chair Sen. Dolores Gresham (R-Somerville) to hold another round of higher education hearings in December.

The hearings follow a set of Higher Education Oversight hearings conducted in mid-October, where governance was also an agenda item (although the primary focus was on diversity-related policies and spending on UT campuses).

Based on Sen. Hensley’s comments in yesterday’s Committee meeting, the December hearings are expected to focus on how the three major higher education entities (UT, the Board of Regents, and the Tennessee Higher Education Commission) interact, how board and commission members are selected, and duties of those board members.

Stay tuned for more information.

Senate Panel Zeros In on Diversity Funding at UT

The Senate Higher Education Oversight Subcommittee convened yesterday to discuss diversity at the University of Tennessee, overall higher education governance, and to receive an update on the Tennessee Promise.  The Subcommittee, chaired by Sen. Joey Hensely (R-Hohenwald), spent the majority of their time diving into diversity efforts and associated spending at University of Tennessee campuses.

Members of the Subcommittee also include Sen. Todd Gardenhire (R-Chattanooga) and Sen. Reginald Tate (D-Memphis).  Additional members, including Sen. Brian Kelsey (R-Memphis) and Representatives Martin Daniel (R-Knoxville) and John Ragan (R-Oak Ridge), joined the hearing to ask questions of University leadership.

A good recap of the hearing can be found here:

Lawmakers challenge UT’s diversity funding
by Adam Tamburin, The Tennessean

An archived video of the hearing should be available soon at

Hearings continue today, where the focus is expected to shift to topics such as campus safety and the higher education funding formula.

Legislators Pass State Budget, Includes UT’s Top Capital Priority

State lawmakers passed the State budget today, avoiding legislative attempts in the House to remove and/or reduce state funding for UT’s highest priority capital project, the West Tennessee 4-H Camp and Conference Center.

Rep. Tim Wirgau (R-Buchanan) introduced and then withdrew an amendment on the House floor seeking to strip state funding from the project.

Two weeks ago, UT Advocacy issued an “Advocacy Alert” on the new 4-H Center, asking advocates to urge their elected officials to support the project.  After an incredible grassroots response with over 7,300 communications to members of the General Assembly in support of the project, we are happy to report that the new 4-H Center passed with broad support.  To those advocates who took action:  We cannot thank you enough.  Your support made all the difference.

The State budget includes full funding of the State’s outcomes-based funding formula for public higher education, an increase in funding for non-formula units like the UT Institute of Agriculture, the UT Institute for Public Service and the UT Health Science Center.

The budget also includes:

  • Funding for a new science lab building at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville;
  • Capital maintenance funding for projects on all UT campuses;
  • $3 million in matching funds for the UT Pediatric Research Initiative;
  • $1 million in capital outlay to construct a new wind tunnel at the UT Space Institute;
  • $3 million in non-recurring funds to support UT-ORNL’s Advanced Manufacturing initiatives and supplement a $250 million federal grant in this area; and,
  • Authorization for a 1.5 percent merit pool salary increase for public higher education employees.

Lawmakers will return to the Hill next week to consider bills behind the budget before adjourning for the year.

Bill Exempting Higher Education Employee Performance Evaluations from the Public Record Signed Into Law By Governor

Governor Bill Haslam signed into law on Thursday a measure exempting public higher education employee performance evaluations from the public record, essentially correcting a public policy oversight in state law dealing with public employees.  Since the passage of the TEAM Act in 2012, state service employee performance evaluations have not been part of the public record.  The initial rationale of removing these evaluations from the public record centered on sound management practices:  Having performance evaluations as part of the public record simply discouraged public 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.

Under the new law, public higher education employees will have the same confidentiality standards as state service employees, military personnel, and federal civil service employees.  The University supported the measure as it addressed an important fairness issue and helped create an improved management tool.  To be clear, this bill only addresses performance evaluations.  Employee personnel files, email and phone records, and working documents remain part of the public record.  The law is effective immediately.

Governor’s Budget Amendment Released

On Tuesday, the Haslam Administration released its proposed budget amendment.  The Administration’s budget amendment provides an opportunity to alter the original budget proposal based on the State’s revenue trends.

Citing strong sales tax numbers and revenue increases from “a one-time event,” the Administration amendment increases funding for education and health and doubles the contribution to the State’s ‘Rainy Day’ fund.

The proposed budget amendment designates $29 million in recurring dollars to K-12 education, specifically to increase state funding of health insurance coverage for teachers.
“All of our additional recurring money is going to fund K-12 education in addition to the $144 million from our original budget proposal.  We are also making significant investments in higher education,” Governor Haslam stated.

There are nearly $300 million more than anticipated in non-recurring funds.  As a result, the budget amendment proposal includes a number of non-recurring investments, including $120 million to fund the state’s commitment to a new Tennessee State Museum and $36.5 million in additional funding for the ‘Rainy Day’ Fund.

For UT specifically, the budget amendment includes:

  • $4.52 million in non-recurring capital outlay, to be divided as follows:
    • $1 million in construction funding for a new wind tunnel at the UT Space Institute
    • $3.52 million for additional capital maintenance projects at UT Martin and the UT Space Institute
  • $3 million in non-recurring revenue to support UT-ORNL’s Advanced Manufacturing initiatives and supplement a $250 million federal grant in this area

These proposed additions to the FY 2015-2016 budget will be considered by the legislature in the coming weeks.