UT Board of Trustees Bill Passes House Subcommittee

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The Tennessee State Capitol Building at sunset.


The Haslam Administration’s UT FOCUS Act, which would restructure the UT Board of Trustees in an effort to operate more efficiently, took center stage this week in the House Education Administration & Planning Subcommittee.  The legislation is supported by the University of Tennessee and ultimately passed the Subcommittee unanimously and unchanged.  Debate is expected to continue next week in the House Education Administration Committee along with potential amendatory efforts.            

Rep. Johnnie Turner (D-Memphis) voiced concerns on the proposed legislation after speaking with students who fear their voices will not be heard if there is not a student representative on the full UT Board. Rep. Eddie Smith (R-Knoxville) emphasized that while there is no student or faculty representative on the proposed Board of Trustees, the student and faculty voices would quadruple with the creation of campus advisory boards, each of which reserves a seat for a student and faculty member.

UT Knoxville student and immediate past governor of the Tennessee Intercollegiate State Legislature (TISL), Kara Gilliam, provided testimony on behalf of TISL, UT Knoxville Faculty Senate President Beauvais Lyons, and some students at UT Knoxville.

In her remarks, Gilliam highlighted multiple concerns Lyons and students have with the proposed legislation which primarily focus on the lack of faculty and student representation on the proposed Board. Gilliam testified that having an 11-member board is too small, considering the size of the multi-campus University of Tennessee System. Instead, her testimony recommended a 15-member Board with voting representation both by students and faculty. Gilliam voiced concern that including students and faculty only on campus advisory boards, rather than the full Board of Trustees, “waters down” student and faculty voices in the final decision-making process of the University.

Rep. David Hawk (R-Greeneville), the bill’s House sponsor, assured Gilliam that campus advisory boards would empower student and faculty voices and have the interest of their respective institutions at heart.

Rep. Harry Brooks (R-Knoxville), Chairman of the full House Education Administration and Planning Committee, said it is critical to listen to students and faculty members and the idea of adding advisory councils “adds a great deal of clout” to the campuses. Rep. Brooks also emphasized the need to reduce the size of the Board and the importance of stating the issue of student and faculty representation on the overall Board.

Former national UT Alumni Association President and UTK, UTM, and UTHSC alumnus Ron Kirkland also testified on the legislation before the Subcommittee. Kirkland implored the Committee to rethink the creation of campus advisory boards, a policy he sees as “unnecessary” because of various existing leadership bodies, such as Alumni boards, the Faculty Senate, and Student Government Association (SGA), that already fulfill those roles. While this issue was at the center of Kirkland’s testimony, he did express support for the general concept of downsizing the UT Board of Trustees.

The bill is scheduled for its next hearing on Tuesday, February 20, at 9:00 AM CT. Debate can be live-streamed here.  The University of Tennessee supports the legislation.

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