Entry gate at Tennessee State University in Nashville. (Photo: John Partipilo)
Call it a historic attack on a historically Black institution — or at least its management.
Tennessee State University officials hoped for a sympathetic ear and help in expediting the use of state funds to provide new housing for overflow enrollment when they went before a Senate committee this week.
Instead, they received a shellacking the likes of which haven’t been seen in the Cordell Hull Building since the Legislature started working there five years ago.
Thus, any plans to speed $250 million the Legislature approved this year toward new housing for TSU were put on hold.
TSU President Glenda Glover spent more time defending the university’s decision to take on about 2,000 extra students this fall than she did trying to seek aid from the Republican senators.
In fact, some of the lawmakers seemed as if they were ready to fire Glover and the entire board of trustees because of lingering accounting problems found in a state audit, along with students’ claims they weren’t receiving all of the scholarship money they thought they were due and the use of five hotels and a church for housing to deal with the burgeoning enrollment.
Glover explained to the senators that TSU and other historically black colleges and universities are seeing a “renaissance” following the pandemic as students are “coming home.”
But to little avail.
After receiving complaints from students that they had to live in hotels instead of campus dorms, which are full, or didn’t get the scholarship money they thought they were supposed to receive, senators put the hammer down.
Senate Finance, Ways and Means Committee Chairman Bo Watson demanded numerous financial documents at a meeting to be held in January and left the impression that people’s jobs are on the line if senators aren’t satisfied.
Watson did tell Glover afterward, “Shame on us and shame on Government Operations for not drilling down deeper five or six years ago and helping you solve it, so there’s accountability on both sides.”
But he also left open the possibility that TSU’s leadership could be dismissed.
“The buck stops with the president, and when the CFO testifies and he says this predates me, that’s true. But it doesn’t predate this board, and it doesn’t predate this president,” he said.
Watson noted that the board is subject to renewal by the Government Operations Committee, and the board hires the president.
He added that some delay in receiving data from the university was caused by TSU’s failure to provide it.
The Senate hearing room was filled with numerous Black legislators who sat through the public thrashing, and they weren’t too happy with the proceedings.
“It’s very clear that the goal from all of this is to try to figure out how to get rid of Dr. Glover, and so they’re just trying to build a case around that, to say in the spring we think that management needs to change or that we need a new board,” said state Rep. Torrey Harris, a Memphis Democrat.
Regardless of what TSU’s report says next year, Harris expects a move to be made to get rid of Glover.
Despite massaging their words and saying they want TSU to succeed, the senators also noted the responsibility lies with the head of the university.
And in spite of assurances from the university’s accountant, Vice President Doug Allen, that findings made by the Comptroller’s Office have been reconciled, senators harped on them until – until the harp’s strings broke.
Granted, TSU has been saying for the last five years that it solved the accounting problem, which was caused by commingling funds between the university and its foundation. But did we need every senator on the panel to make that point?
“It’s very clear that the goal from all of this is to try to figure out how to get rid of (TSU President) Dr. Glover, and so they’re just trying to build a case around that.
– Rep. Torrey Harris, D-Memphis
Lt. Gov. Randy McNally requested the meeting and granted the ad hoc committee “broad latitude to examine any aspect of TSU’s operations it deems necessary and appropriate” after the release of an audit by Comptroller Jason Mumpower showing the same bookkeeping errors for five years.
Mumpower said his office started receiving complaints in July alleging TSU was failing to live up to scholarship pledges and provide adequate student housing. He’s still picking through the university’s finances to see whether it shorted students and to find out how much TSU spent on hotels.
He’s also reviewing whether TSU promised too much in scholarship money, which amounted to $28 million this year, and whether it will have the money to match that next year.
Mumpower said the October audit contained the most repeated findings of fiscal mismanagement of any public university in the state.
“The issues cited are some of the most base level, fundamental financial operations,” he said.
Armed with that report, senators couldn’t figure out why TSU allowed so many incoming freshmen to enroll this year, more than 3,500 compared to the typical 1,500. That unprecedented enrollment led to a campus housing crisis because TSU has only 3,680 beds but needed spots for 5,000, according to Glover. To serve the overflow, TSU requested the state allow it to house students in five leased hotels and a Church of God.
Glover also explained that numerous juniors and seniors wanted to live on campus because most of the affordable housing around campus disappeared in North Nashville, further exacerbating the situation.
The president pointed out that the university had little choice but to accommodate them out of fear that if they went home for a semester they wouldn’t return to finish their degrees.
TSU’s biggest sin appears to be a strong marketing program and an inability to say no.
But it did find a way to house and teach students, hiring adjunct faculty to ensure students had all the classes they needed.
The Republican senators, however, took turns challenging the university’s assertions.
Education Committee Chairman Jon Lundberg pointed out that a Navy ship captain can be fired even if he isn’t the sailor steering the ship.
Mumpower also said the housing issue is a “symptom” of a “larger managerial issue.”
Watson said afterward the Legislature’s Government Operations Committee has the authority to fire the university’s president and board of directors.
It’s hard not to characterize those comments as a threat.
This three-hour bashing never would have happened with the University of Tennessee, mainly because the state’s main land grant university wouldn’t have been underfunded by hundreds of millions of dollars over the last 75 years, forcing it to scrape up money anywhere it could find it.
But even if it were found guilty of misappropriating money – which TSU isn’t – lawmakers wouldn’t put Randy Boyd through such misery.
The bigger question is where does TSU stand? The university is likely to have the same number of students next year, maybe more if they reach the goal of 10,000. They aren’t going to turn down students.
Instead of putting the board and president on the chopping block, lawmakers should be figuring out a way to house students. After all, the goal is to educate young people. I seem to recall former Gov. Bill Haslam had a goal called the Drive to 55. If Gov. Bill Lee is truly an education governor, he should step in.
Still in the saddle
The Senate Republican Caucus, which controls most of the activity in the Legislature, renominated Senate Speaker Randy McNally for two years in the leadership post again this week.
McNally is respected across party lines for his even temper and honesty, having worn a wire for the feds in the 1980s Rocky Top bingo investigation and playing a role in the 2005 Tennessee Waltz bribery sting.
Just re-elected, the 78-year-old McNally says he’s ready to go for another four-year term – or until his number is called up yonder. The full Senate, which is made up of 27 Republicans and six Democrats, will vote in January on the speakership.
The GOP caucus also selected Sen. Jack Johnson of Franklin as its leader again, Sen. Ken Yager of Kingston as chairman, Sen. Ferrell Haile of Gallatin as treasurer, Sen. Dawn White of Murfreesboro as secretary (for her handwriting skills) and Sen. Bill Powers of Clarksville for the dubious honor of vice treasurer (in case Haile loses his math skills).
The caucus has a balance of $724,237 and growing, which means it has plenty of money to throw behind flagging campaigns in two years.
On the offensive
New Tennessee Attorney General Jonathan Skrmetti told the Senate Republican Caucus this week he plans to request 10 new attorneys in the coming budget year – and likely more – to tackle constitutional questions.
Skrmetti has a lot of irons in the fire.
The AG’s office announced a $3 billion national settlement with Wal-Mart pharmacies over the handling of opioids this week. Tennessee and local governments could receive about $70 million, which will be split among all of those entities.
Tennessee and 39 other AGs also reached a $391.5 million settlement with Google over location tracking practices. The state will land $14.5 million of the settlement amount.
“That case wasn’t really about the money from my perspective,” Skrmetti told senators when asked how much Tennessee receives.
Google uses personal and behavioral data to build profiles of people and target them with advertisements, something that angers a lot of people who feel like they’re being watched constantly. And they are. Big Brother can be government or tech companies. Think about it: Is there ever really a time when we’re not on camera or under surveillance by somebody?
Skrmetti said his office will continue to go after Big Tech, and he mentioned plans to start gearing up for consumer protection involving ESG (Environmental, Social and Governance), in which investors apply those non-financial factors to risks and growth opportunities.
If you figure that out, let me know.
In addition, after receiving several complaints this week, the AG is looking into the sales of Taylor Swift Concert series tickets to determine whether Ticketmaster and Live Nation violated antitrust laws.
Well, we certainly don’t want Taylor Swift fans to be mistreated.
Not so proud
Senate Majority Leader Johnson led a recent rally at the State Capitol against the purported mutilation of minors. The Proud Boys, a group of neo-fascist, white nationalists, proudly waved their flag at the event, which was also attended by a group of counter-protesters.
It all came after the revelation by a right-wing political commentator that Vanderbilt hospital is believed to be doing transgender therapy and surgical procedures. The hospital says it hasn’t broken state law, which prohibits pre-pubescent therapy and surgeries.
Johnson’s bill wouldn’t stop hormone drugs from being used, but it would prohibit all surgical procedures on minors, even setting up criminal offenses against doctors and legal action against parents who allow their children to have them.
But getting back to the Proud Boys. Why the hell do they care about transgender kids? Shouldn’t they just stick with being straight-up racists? I guess everyone can be a target these days.
Asked if he’s comfortable speaking to a group in which the Proud Boys are leading the charge, Johnson says, “I didn’t even know they were there. I just got up and made my remarks. I didn’t really pay that much attention to who was there or not. There was a lot of yelling and screaming and bull horns and sirens and everything else going on.”
In Johnson’s defense, I’m told the Proud Boys moved toward the back of the crowd once the speechifying started, but that they also continued to wave their flags.
Considering Johnson could be seeking the Senate Speaker’s post when McNally retires, maybe he ought to think twice before getting up in front of rabid right-wing nutjobs to talk about legislation that goes after some of the state’s most fragile residents.
Or maybe this is what we can come to expect.
Still rolling in
Amid constant talk about inflation and recession, Tennessee continues to build up its coffers.
Finance and Administration Commissioner Jim Bryson announced this week that October revenues hit $1.5 billion, some $125.4 million more than last year’s figure and $178 million more than budgeted.
The growth rate was 8.93%, which oddly enough, is about the same as the rate of inflation. Year-to-date revenues for the first three months are $585.8 million higher than the budget projected.
We need an economic expert to tell us whether the state’s rosy revenue picture is tied directly to the inflation rate. Some folks would say it stems directly from Tennessee’s conservative budgeting and pro-business atmosphere.
Either way, the governor will have plenty of money to play with in his next budget.
Leaving the bench
Tennessee Supreme Court Justice Sharon Lee announced this week she will retire at the end of August 2023 after 15 years on the state’s top court and four years on the Court of Appeals.
She was appointed in 2008 by former Gov. Phil Bredesen and retained by voters in 2010, 2014 and 2022. Lee is the longest-serving member of the Supreme Court and the only member from East Tennessee.
During two years as chief justice from 2014 to 2016, she promoted access to the court system, including establishing the Business Court pilot project, electronic filing, review of indigent representation and an initiative to clean up the state’s dockets.
Lee is the only Democrat on the court, and Gov. Lee will fill her seat with a Republican, giving it a full GOP tilt.
Ready to cop
Outgoing state Sen. Brian Kelsey is set to plead guilty Tuesday in federal court to federal campaign finance violations.
He’s charged with funneling more than $90,000 from his state account through two political action committees to the American Conservative Union, which bought independent radio/digital ads supporting his failed 2016 congressional bid.
Kelsey is changing his plea Tuesday after co-defendant Josh Smith made a plea agreement with the feds in October and appeared ready to testify against his buddy in exchange for having several charges dropped.
Readers might remember Kelsey’s statement on the Senate floor early this year when he blamed the Biden Administration for taking up a “witch hunt” against him. He also targeted his former friend, ex-state Rep. Jeremy Duham, for talking to federal prosecutors in exchange for immunity.
We wonder if the Germantown Republican – who helped pass the governor’s private school voucher bill, fought Medicaid expansion and sponsored the constitutional amendments banning a state income tax and embedding the “Right to Work” law in our founding document – will make one more soliloquy in federal court.
“One last shot ’fore we quit it/ One more for the road.”
Happy Thanksgiving everybody. Carving tools will be used on turkey next week, not the Stump.
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