Governor’s FOCUS Act Clears House Education Committee

Governor Bill Haslam speaks with members of the press

HB 2578, known as the Focus on College and University Success (FOCUS) Act, was passed out of House Education Administration and Planning Committee on Tuesday. The bill, the next step in Governor Haslam’s Drive to 55 initiative and sponsored in the House by Rep. Gerald McCormick (R-Chattanooga), would call for the six four-year universities currently overseen by the Tennessee Board of Regents System (TBR) to receive their own governing boards and autonomy to appoint a campus president, manage their university budgets, set tuition, and oversee operational duties. Debate around the bill has focused on increased competition among universities under the new system. Former Board of Regents Chancellor and State Comptroller John Morgan, who was an outspoken opponent of the bill before his recent retirement, argued that the bill would create significantly increased competition for limited public funding from the state, potentially creating a hostile atmosphere amongst the schools. Former UTC Provost and current Tennessee Tech President Phil Oldham argued that the establishment of separate governing boards would better equip universities to handle their unique issues.

While the bill has a limited direct impact on the University of Tennessee System, it does present some significant changes.  The bill grants the Tennessee Higher Education Commission (THEC) the power to annually set binding tuition increase range.  This is a major shift from THEC’s current role of presenting public higher education systems with a tuition increase recommendation, and removes full tuition-setting autonomy from each System’s governing board.

The bill also creates a new trustee position on the UT Board of Trustees for a non-Tennessee resident. Currently, members of the Board must reside within the state and live within certain geographic areas to be eligible to serve.  The University of Tennessee views this change favorably, as many outstanding alumni and friends that could be considered as future Trustees reside out of state.

The bill still must clear several steps in the legislative process before making it to a final floor vote.  It will next be heard in the House Government Operations and Senate Education Committees.

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