House approves, 51-41, Haslam’s overhaul of UT board of trustees

The state House on Thursday approved Gov. Bill Haslam’s controversial plan to dismantle the existing University of Tennessee system’s board of trustees, reduce its size and appoint new members, reports the Times Free Press. The Senate approved the measure earlier but in a different form and the bill now returns to the Senate for approval of the House amendments.

The bill, known as the UT FOCUS Act (SB2260), narrowly passed on a 51-41 vote. (It passed the Senate 27-3 on Monday)

Proponents argued the change from a 27-member board of trustees to a 12-member structure, which includes a non-voting student trustee, will result in a more engaged and active board. The student and a faculty member will have a vote on the student affairs committee.

But critics questioned Haslam’s true motivations in pushing the changes, and communities with UT institutions, like Chattanooga, voiced concerns about adequate representation.

Assistant Majority Leader David Hawk, Greeneville, who carried the bill, told the House that “we are going to create a world-class board of trustees to continue to take [the UT system] to its next heights,” later trying to answer critics by noting his daughter will be attending UT-Knoxville.

“There’s nothing I’m going to do as a legislator or a father to harm this university,” Hawk said.

Earlier, Rep. John Ray Clemmons, D-Nashville, unsuccessfully sought to amend the bill, criticizing a number of bill provisions and questioning the actual purpose of Haslam, whose family has long been involved in UT affairs and whose father, James Haslam II, is a former UT trustee.

“Let’s remember, at the end of the day, once again, this is our university,” Clemmons told the chamber. “This is the people of Tennessee’s university. This is not one governor’s university, and it’s not one family’s university.”

Hawk agreed that “this is our university,” but he repeated the governor’s mantra that government and, in this case, the UT system, should be “effective and efficient.”

Note: The Tennessean posts a copy of the House roll call vote with its report (also posted a day later on the legislative website, HERE). It shows 23 Republicans voted against the governor’s bill; 49 voted for it (including gubernatorial candidate and House Speaker Beth Harwell). The bill would have fallen short of the required 50 votes had not two Democrats (Reps. Raumesh Akbari and John DeBerry, both of Memphis) voted for it. Eighteen Democrats voted no (including gubernatorial candidate and House Minority Leader Craig Fitzhugh of Ripley). Only one Republican voted no in the Senate (Sen. Janice Bowling of Tullahoma).

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