TSU vs. Focus Act

William T. Robinson, Jr.

William T. Robinson, Jr.

On March 2, 2016 members of the TSU family (200 plus strong, students and faculty) met at the Legislative Plaza to voice their opposition against the governor’s proposal known as the ‘Focus Act.’ The Focus Act, if passed and enacted would allow the six major universities presently under the Tennessee Board of Regents (TBR) to have their own separate boards.

This act is being presented as a good thing offering these universities more autonomy in advocating and supporting their needs, especially in manners concerning state funding and internal operations.

However, many see the Focus Act as a deceptive and manipulative move to weaken the authority of the four-year universities except when it comes to the University of Tennessee. As it stands now, you have the University of Tennessee, which is composed of four universities falling under the same umbrella with its own governing board. TBR on the other hand, represents 13 community colleges, 27 colleges of applied technology and six major four-year universities. The universities include: Tennessee State University, Middle Tennessee State University, East Tennessee State University, Austin Peay State University, the University of Memphis, and Tennessee Tech University.

If the Focus Act is passed, there will be UT, TBR, and the six universities with their own separate governing boards vying separately for funds and personal interest initiatives. This will put the smaller universities at a disadvantage. TSU will have fewer resources and political power to help develop and shape criteria for new programs and meet the goals of the criteria.

The Focus Act does not have a funding formula in place at this time. The statewide appropriation is based on outcomes, which can be formulated to have an adverse effect on the survival of smaller universities like TSU. It is strongly recommended that historical differences and advantages be included when considering resources, especially concerning TSU and its role as a land grant HBCU as well as taking into consideration its mission statement.

The Tennessee Higher Education Commission (THEC)) that regulates the duplication of programs and approval of new physical locations to house programs needs to be policed to make sure they are compliant in recognizing the predetermined criteria concerning the needs and concerns of smaller universities. As it stands now, some of THEC’s actions are questionable, warranting stronger supervision of their practices and decisions.

If the Focus Act is passed, the only winner will be UT, with its advantage of four universities governed by its own board. It already enjoys unprecedented support and favor by the legislators. The UT system will have an unfair political advantage over the singly governed board universities competing for limited resources. In other words, UT will operate as a monopoly and the smaller universities (no longer under the guidance of TBR) will be on their own with the possibility of failing and eventually being absorbed. This is definitely a classic example of a divide and conquer model.

Now let’s be frank and honest, historically TBR has not always advocated in the best interests of TSU, but it was better than nothing. In fact, most of the gains made in the best interests of TSU have been made possible through legal intervention through the courts. It is no secret that TSU has historically operated from a deficit when it comes to equal distribution of financial resources, although it was established as a land grant college just like UT.

Let’s say you believe that each major university having a governing board is a plus and will work in that university’s best interests. The most insulting part is that the governor will literally pick the boards. This means he is inclined to stack the boards with people who he favors and who are indebted to him and his views and policies. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see this is not fair. Where is the autonomy that separate boards are supposed to create when they are controlled by the governor? Some would call these puppet boards. Wouldn’t you think that the universities should at least have the authority to appoint their own board members? In all honesty, there is no real advantage to universities having their own governor appointed boards, except as a control mechanism for the governor. The true benefactor will be the mega giant UT, continuously growing in influence and power with its entourage of legislative supporters.

The legal counsel of TSU eloquently expressed how the Focus Act would hurt TSU and other universities with the only benefit being for UT. Several legislators saw and questioned the flaws and the merits of the Focus Act proposal, but in the end the proposal was passed to go forward. TSU was the only university present advocating for the dismissal of the bill—while it is common knowledge, most of the other universities disagree (with the exception of the University Memphis). While TSU is against the bill, they were open to a five-year study of the bill or having some say in amending provisions in the bill.

Of course this was to no avail, so look for an uphill battle from TSU and the TSU community to fight the governor’s Focus Act. Loyal supporters of TSU are being solicited for action. We cannot sit back and watch, not advocating for what is in the best interest of our beloved TSU.