The Legislative Session In Review

Category: State Issues

The first session of the 108th General Assembly proved to be one of the more challenging sessions for the University of Tennessee and higher education in recent history.  Despite significant budgetary support from the Haslam Administration, some legislators seemed to wage war against higher education on issues such as campus safety, curriculum, admissions, recruitment, and hiring policies—to name a few.  These battles were hard-fought by the University and its advocates.  Many of the issues will be ongoing for a number of years, unless the sponsors elect to become more receptive to the concerns and needs of higher education and its supporters.  Holding elected officials accountable for their legislation and their votes is of critical importance in advancing the University of Tennessee and the State of Tennessee.

Campus Safety
Perhaps the fastest-moving and first piece of major legislation that impacted higher education was the guns-in-parking-lots bill.  Plans were set in motion prior to the start of session to pass something quickly regarding this issue.  Ultimately, concern voiced by higher education and the business community was discounted if not entirely ignored.  The legislature passed a bill that impacts all public and private employers alike—an enormous scope that reaches virtually every area in the State not expressly deemed “off limits” by federal law.

Further adding to the frustration, the legislative intent of the bill remains in conflict.  As expressed on the House floor prior to passage, the intent of the House sponsor, Rep. Jeremy Faison (R-Cosby), is that employers can still set policies regarding firearms on campus for students and employees, regardless of handgun carry permit status. Based on this interpretation, these policies could be enforced up to termination or expulsion. Employers simply could not pursue criminal charges if the person in question is a valid handgun carry permit holder. Rep. Mike Stewart (D-Nashville) even asked Rep. Faison specifically if the bill would impact current campus safety policies for students and employees at the University of Tennessee.   The answer put forth by Rep. Faison was a clear and resounding “No.”

The Senate’s legislative intent is remarkably different.  The Senate sponsor, Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey (R-Blountville), expressed the intent that employers cannot have a policy regarding firearms in trunks of personal vehicles for valid handgun carry permit holders.  It is yet to be seen which interpretation will prevail, although the House interpretation is certainly friendlier to higher education institutions and private businesses that have safety concerns regarding the bill.

Higher education worked diligently to secure an amendment exempting all educational institutions—including K-12 schools—from the bill.  While a number of legislators were willing to work with higher education on the issue, many remained wholly unwilling to compromise on amendatory language.

Several other issues advanced by special interests required significant energy to stall and/or defeat.  A counseling bill driven by the Family Action Council of Tennessee (FACT) serves as a prime example.

Legislating Counseling Curriculum
The bill (SB514/HB1185) sought to prohibit public colleges and universities from disciplining, expelling, providing remediation to, discriminating, or taking any other adverse action against a student in a counseling, social work, or psychology program because the student refuses to counsel or serve a client as to goals, outcomes, or behaviors that conflict with a sincerely held religious belief of the student.  The bill would have required the student to make a referral for the client to a counselor who will provide the counseling or services.

On the surface, the bill sounds reasonable.  However, in reality, the impact of the bill would place accreditation at risk for UT’s counseling programs.  The highest quality education in this field requires students and trainees to learn to serve people of all backgrounds and belief systems.  Students agree to do so through a “Statement of Training Values” upon enrolling in counseling programs.

Counseling, psychology, and social work professionals traveled from across the state to testify on the legislation over a series of weeks.  They illustrated to legislators the problems the bill would create for practitioners.  For example, conflicts based on sincerely held religious beliefs often do not occur until after a relationship already has been established between patient and counselor.  Referrals, even if they are prompt, can be extremely stressful to patients and can cause significant harm. This undermines the professional code of counseling.

Professors of these disciplines testified that students enjoy great religious and free speech liberties in the classroom, but that as practitioners-in-training, they are not and should not be permitted to decide which patients they will or will not serve.  The point was clear: Current practices provide students with the best and broadest education possible in preparation for the modern global workforce.  Professional counselors do not discriminate based on age, gender, gender identity, race, ethnicity, culture, national origin, religion, sexual orientation, disability, socioeconomic status, or any basis prescribed by law.

The legislation was sponsored in the Senate by Sen. Joey Hensley (R-Hohenwald) and Rep. John DeBerry (D-Memphis) in the House.  It moved rapidly through the Senate and fortunately was stalled in the House thanks to the work by the University of Tennessee, the Board of Regents, and numerous professional counseling, psychology, and social work associations.  Senate Education Committee members voted along party lines to advance the bill after testimony by FACT’s chief lobbyist David Fowler, who hinged his argument on similar legislation that passed in Arizona.  Mr. Fowler pointed out that no program has lost accreditation as a result of the legislation.  The Committee did not question Mr. Fowler, a former state senator, on this statement.

The Arizona law referred to by Fowler, however, contains significant differences from the proposed Tennessee law.  The Arizona law clearly makes the needs of the client a priority and explicitly states that students will work with supervising instructors to identify a course of action that avoids harm to the client.  The proposed Hensley/DeBerry legislation did not have similar patient protection provisions aimed at avoiding harm.  The bill passed easily on the Senate floor, despite the thousands of calls and emails sent to legislators by UT’s advocates.

Ultimately, House Education Subcommittee members agreed that a summer study was needed on the issue.   There is still the potential for similar legislation (or the exact same bill) to advance next year.  The issue is expected to be heavily lobbied by Fowler and the FACT organization.  Should this particular bill begin to advance next year, it would merely need to pass in the House and receive the Governor’s approval to become law.  Higher education leaders will continue to voice their concerns to elected officials and have urged their supporters to do the same.

Public higher education also found itself as the target of a legislative package aimed at ending programs to improve diversity among students and employees. The sponsor, Sen. Jim Summerville (R-Dickson), attempted to prohibit universities from employing diversity officers and from offering recruitment and outreach programs to underrepresented groups. Ultimately, the entire package failed. Sen. Summerville is on the record with his intention to pursue the issues again next year.  He has been unwilling to support the needed changes to make the bills more palatable for higher education institutions.

A major concern for higher education is that the legislation could open the floodgates for a host of legal challenges to virtually every admission, employment, and contracting decision.  There are also constitutionality concerns.  Two bills contained in the package impacting “the granting of preference” led Sen. Summerville to openly applaud the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals for upholding a similar piece of legislation in California.  What Summerville neglected to point out is that the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals—not the 9th Circuit— holds jurisdiction over Tennessee. The 6th Circuit Court of Appeals found similar language to be unconstitutional as recently as November 2012.

Higher education argues that these proposals are unnecessary and are already addressed by federal law.  If passed, higher education leaders believe that a highly litigious environment would be unnecessarily created.

Non-Regionally Accredited Proprietary Schools
A major ongoing debate also occurred with non-regionally accredited proprietary schools this session.  These for-profit schools sought legislation that would have undermined the value of degrees held by alumni of regionally accredited institutions like The University of Tennessee, Vanderbilt University, and others.

UT Advocates expressed serious concerns to legislators on this issue—and as a result, votes began to favor higher education.  When this became apparent to the Senate sponsor, Sen. Stacey Campfield (R-Knoxville), he requested that the issue be sent to summer study.  The House followed suit.  Sen. Campfield aggressively sought this legislation and ensured that it stayed alive for next session.  The situation has every indicator of being a long and involved issue for the University of Tennessee, the Board of Regents, and the state’s regionally accredited nonprofit colleges and universities.

Sen. Campfield is on the record stating that the degrees awarded by non-regionally accredited for-profit schools and degrees awarded by regionally accredited schools are the same.  This is not accurate.  Accreditation standards exist to provide significant consumer protection to prospective students and ensure that programs meet academic rigor requirements.

Any higher education institution can apply for regional accreditation, although many do not due to the cost involved of hiring qualified faculty and investing in adequate student learning resources.

The applied degrees awarded by these institutions and the academic degrees awarded by regionally accredited schools like UT are markedly different products.  The University of Tennessee, the Board of Regents, and the state’s regionally accredited nonprofit colleges and universities all believe that no confusion or attempt to blur the lines between the two types of degrees should be advanced by our state elected officials.  Doing so fails to provide any level of consumer protection to students and furthermore undermines the value of degrees awarded by institutions such as UT.

The House sponsor, Rep. Roger Kane (R-Knoxville), was more willing to work with higher education stakeholders on this issue.  In stark contrast, the Senate sponsor, Sen. Campfield, went so far as to request that the Senate Summer Study only include representatives from the for-profit school industry and the Tennessee Higher Education Commission.  This was a clear attempt to exclude representatives from the University of Tennessee, the Board of Regents, and the Tennessee Independent Colleges and Universities Association (the institutions that are most negatively affected by this legislation).

The University of Tennessee also opposed a budget amendment seeking a reduction in state funding for the University.  Sen. Jim Summerville (R-Dickson) sought to advance an amendment cutting 1.5 percent of UT’s budget.  This amendment was specifically aimed at reducing UT’s ability to provide a 1.5 percent salary increase to its employees this year.

To read more about the state budget, click here.

It was clearly a uniquely different type of legislative session than the University and higher education have had in the last decade.   This begs the question, “Why?”

Part of the cause is believed to be the State’s rapid shift in elected representation.  Currently, almost half of Tennessee’s General Assembly members are new (they were elected within the last four years).  As a result, higher education does not enjoy the same type of institutional knowledge, long-established relationships, and deep understanding of the statewide impact of higher education that it did in past decades.

Further, it is increasingly difficult for leadership to control legislative outcomes.  Both the Speakers and the Governor must choose their issues, or battles, with a great deal of consideration and thought.  This slowly unraveling control makes it more difficult for higher education—a concerted effort must be made to reach every member on the issues.

Thus, why your advocacy is so important.

It was a year of very positive legislative outcomes for UT, but these legislative “wins” can sometimes be misleading.  All in all, it was a legislative session loaded with many hard-fought battles.  Many were victories, but they are only temporary in nature.  We will face many of them again next year.  Some of them will take different, more aggressive forms.

That is where the work of our advocacy network begins—laying the groundwork for the continued prosperity of the State and its land-grant University.

Start now.  Let your elected officials know that you need them to support the University of Tennessee and higher education.

Thank them when they do. Hold them accountable when they don’t.

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