Senate Committee Begins Hearing Into Tennessee Board of Regents Hiring and Political Makeup

Tennessee Board of Regents members defended the hiring of Chancellor-elect John Morgan in a legislative hearing Tuesday. The TBR has been under fire for not seriously considering other candidates. The man who has served as both State Comptroller and Deputy Governor was the only candidate brought in for an interview.

Gregory Duckett began his testimony before the Senate Education Committee by admitting the hiring process could have been better. But the TBR Vice-Chair stood behind the decision to give Morgan the job. Duckett told senators he didn’t think any other finalists were qualified enough to merit an interview, and that if they hadn’t hired Morgan the TBR likely would have solicited more applications rather than continuing to consider the candidates they already had.

Several senators commented on the fact that John Morgan does not have a doctoral degree, unlike all but one of the TBR’s past chancellors. Duckett said the job listing originally said candidates must have a PhD or equivalent, but that the search committee backed off from making any one requirement do-or-die.

He says the legislature’s increased focus on higher education makes it all the more important that a chancellor have experience beyond academia.

“I felt that there was a stronger need for an individual with an understanding of state government and particularly, if I may use the word, for the nuances of Tennessee government.”

Lawmakers also used the hearing to question how it could be that every member of the Board of Regents is a Democrat.

The Regents are appointed by the governor. They have jurisdiction over many of the state’s universities and all of its community colleges and technical centers. The law sets out a number of requirements for the board’s makeup, including a rule that both major political parties have at least three members, but the TBR’s last GOP member was replaced in 2008. Since then, four Democrats have been reappointed to new terms.

The man who prepares slates of candidates for the governor testified that keeping all the right balances on the board was like solving a jigsaw puzzle. But Bill Mason emphasized that both he and Governor Phil Bredesen were careful to follow the law.

Senator Bill Ketron challenged how that could be true, given that the political requirement wasn’t met.

Ketron: “Since he takes it very seriously and you make the recommendations and follow the guidelines, where was the disconnect?”
Mason: “Well the disconnect in 2008 was, I’ll be honest with you, I didn’t consider the re- I did not address that.”

Mason went on to say he didn’t know how to determine a candidate’s political affiliation, since Tennessee voters don’t register with a party. Several lawmakers suggested the political requirement should be reconsidered. Senator Ketron maintained that party affiliation is clear if the candidates have made political donations in the past.

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