(TNS) — NASHVILLE, Tenn. — The state House on Thursday approved Gov. Bill Haslam's plan for removing the University of Memphis and five other universities from the Tennessee Board of Regents and creating new governing boards for all six.
The bill, approved on a 71-19 vote, is set for review in the Senate Finance Committee Tuesday. Senate passage is likely.
House Bill 2578 would leave the Board of Regents in charge of the state's 13 community colleges and 27 colleges of applied technology — all of which are a focus of the governor's efforts to increase the percentage of Tennessee adults with a post-high-school degree or credential from the current 32 percent to 55 percent by 2025.
Haslam also has argued that separate boards for the U of M, Austin Peay State, East Tennessee State, Middle Tennessee State, Tennessee State and Tennessee Tech universities will focus the boards' work on their individual institutions, leaving TBR to focus on the two-year schools and the governor's efforts to align them more with "workforce development" needs. The new boards will hire and fire their school's presidents and set their budgets.
But all the institutions, including the separate University of Tennessee System, will remain under the umbrella of the Tennessee Higher Education Commission, whose coordinating and funding authority will be strengthened under the bill.
The House voted down, 58-32, an amendment by Rep. Jon Lundberg, R-Bristol, to give the one student on each of the new university boards the same authority to vote on items and issues they consider as the nine other members. Currently, student members of TBR and the UT Board have voting rights; the bill deprives students on the new boards a vote.
"This is a slap in the face to students," said House Minority Leader Craig Fitzhugh of Ripley.
Rep. Ryan Williams, R-Cookeville, the bill's sponsor, moved to table the amendment, saying it gives "voting privileges to an 18-year-old who has had no professional development as it relates to operating on a board."
Rep. Art Swann, R-Maryville, moved for the House to reconsider tabling of Lundberg's amendment but fell short of the two-thirds vote needed. "I want to apologize to every student across this state. I think it's fitting that someone that can fight and die for their country is mature enough to vote on the board of trustees. We set the boards up for the benefit of the students, not for the benefit of the others on the boards.
"When I was in school, it was the first year that the student was on the board of the University of Tennessee. We fought hard to get that done and I think if it exists for them it ought to exist for the other schools too," Swann said. He said he will file a bill next year to give student board members authority to vote.
Rep. Martin Daniel, R-Knoxville, a frequent critic of UT, said he's concerned that the governor gets to appoint all board members. Daniel said he would prefer the House and Senate speakers have some appointees, "or the legislature themselves selecting some of the board members."
©2016 The Commercial Appeal (Memphis, Tenn.), distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.