(Photo: Tennessee State University Facebook)
On the heels of a report showing the state shorted Tennessee State University by tens of millions in land grant funds over 100 years, the governor’s budget plan calls for spending a total of $318 million at the state’s historically Black college next fiscal year.
Lawmakers will have to approve the funds, and an endorsement might not come without some heartburn.
Gov. Bill Lee is budgeting $250 million for campus capital projects, $60 million for an engineering building and $8 million for maintenance. Those are part of $2.7 billion worth of capital projects the governor placed in his 2022-23 budget plan, which must be approved by the Legislature.
State Rep. Harold Love Jr., a Nashville Democrat whose father, also a member of the state House, focused on bolstering TSU, is the driving force behind the effort to put the Nashville university on par with institutions across the state.
Love served on the legislative panel that dug into questions about TSU’s poor building conditions and reported last summer that the Legislature shorted the university by $150 million to $544 million since it opened a century ago, depending on which formula was used to determine the shortfall.
“I think this $250 million goes a tremendously long way toward rectifying all of that,” Love says.
The disrepair of many TSU buildings makes it more difficult to recruit students and professors, even though the university ran into a housing crunch this semester and had to put some students into the House of God Apartments nearby.
Those shortcomings also make it harder for TSU to expand academic programs, Love contends.
He calls the proposed capital projects program the most important building plan at the university since it opened in 1912. Repairs could start on buildings as soon as July 1, if the General Assembly approves the funding for the fiscal 2022-23 budget. New buildings could take a couple of years to be completed.
TSU President Glenda Glover is “pleased” the governor made the university “a priority” in his budget plan.
“Gov. Lee has taken a crucial step in highlighting the state’s commitment to our infrastructure needs, but more importantly to our students. His budget recommendation will enhance TSU, directly benefiting our faculty, staff, students, and all Tennesseans. This is a historic moment for TSU and our legacy. I am hopeful that lawmakers will help us build upon that legacy and be a part of it,” Glover said in a statement.
The study of land-grant funding withheld from TSU revealed that it requires more than $420 million in deferred maintenance that would need to be dealt with in the next decade, including $337 million in projects considered “critical” over the next five years.
Tennessee’s Higher Education Commission executive director revealed those numbers in a report last April to the Joint Land Grant Institution Funding Ad Hoc Committee of the Legislature.
According to the report, TSU’s campus needs immediate mechanical, electrical and utility system upgrades, along with a new agriculture complex, engineering building, which the governor targeted, a student center and a library. Four residence halls need to be demolished and replaced as well, according to the report.
Love believes he’ll be able to garner enough support in the House to fund the TSU projects. But he’s likely to hit hurdles from lawmakers such as Republican Rep. Chris Todd of Jackson, who served on the Joint Land Grant Institution Funding Ad Hoc Committee and challenged the report last spring.
“I certainly have some questions about where the money is targeted to be spent,” Todd said. “One of the things out of the committee that was most prominent to me was the assertion up front that there was some law in place that dictated certain percentages that were supposed to carry forward year after year (for land-grant funds).”
Todd disputes “the proof was there” that TSU was “shorted” of any money, mainly because the university has a lower number of students in its agriculture program than UT. He wants details on TSU’s funding needs before backing the capital plan.
I certainly have some questions about where the money is targeted to be spent.
– Rep. Chris Todd, R-Halls. Todd serves on the Joint Land Grant Institution Funding Ad Hoc Committee and has challenged reports of TSU's shortfall.
The committee’s research showed there was a point when TSU was supposed to receive a certain ratio of land grant funds, but then that figure changed.
Under the current funding formula for higher education, TSU received $150 million less than it should have, dating back to 1956, according to the report presented last April. Using a previous 3-to-1 formula, the state shorted TSU about $544 million.
The federal government makes a grant to the state for TSU and the University of Tennessee, and the Legislature is responsible for matching that money for each institution. The state now provides land grant funds at a rate of 11% for TSU and 89% for UT.
Yet the report shows TSU received no land grant funding in many years. Love said last spring nothing was in the budget books for TSU from 1956 to 2006.
During the time frame studied, TSU’s agriculture program received no state appropriations, nort did the university receive its full federal allotment each year.
Senate Finance, Ways and Means Committee Chairman Bo Watson said this week there is “no question” state reviews show TSU’s plant has “significant problems.”
“Whether that’s underfunding on our part or mismanagement in the past, that needs to be fixed,” Watson said.
Nevertheless, he asked the Tennessee Higher Education Commission to report back to the committee on TSU’s master plan, including a report on projects the university will need after the state completes the work proposed for the next budget.
Watson, a Hixson Republican, points out that those who’ve been “critical” of Republicans for not putting enough money into TSU are missing the mark. For recent legislatures, he says, “that’s just not true,” while adding he can’t address what happened 30 to 40 years ago.
The state borrowed $79 million for new student housing in 2014, but TSU has to repay that money, according to Love. The state provided $42 million for an allied health building at TSU, based on a rotating schedule for higher education projects statewide. Another $20 million was approved for electrical upgrades at the university.
Love notes, however, “No one’s saying the state has never done anything for TSU.” His main goal is to find “balance,” enabling the university to compete with the rest of the universities in the state.
He is playing from a major deficit, though.
In fact, Love’s late father, former Rep. Harold Love Sr., started researching funding shortcomings at TSU in 1970. The younger Love used that as the foundation for research he conducted in recent years to determine how much TSU was shorted since 1910.
Besides the problems that have stacked up over the decades, TSU has been hit by natural disaster, including the 2020 tornado that caused more than $20 million in structural damage and livestock loss at its agricultural facilities, a 2019 lightning strike that knocked out power to large portions of the campus for days, the 2010 flood that destroyed most of its goat herds, which were used for research and agriculture extension work.
Love contends bringing TSU up to par with the rest of the state is a crucial part of reaching former Gov. Bill Haslam’s Drive for 55 Act, an effort to put certificates and degrees in the hands of 55% of the state’s residents by 2025, as well as the Complete College Tennessee Act, which funds higher education in part on success and student outcomes.
In another measure that will help TSU and state universities, Lee is proposing $90 million to fully fund an outcomes-based funding formula that will help the state’s four-year universities. Glover also notes the Lee administration plans to increase the Hope Scholarship to $5,100 per year for all four years at Tennessee universities, boosting it from $3,500 in the first and second years and $4,500 in the third and fourth years of a student’s college career.
Correction: A previous version of this story inadvertently misidentified Rep. Chris Todd. We apologize for the error.
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