Entry gate at Tennessee State University in Nashville. (Photo: John Partipilo)
The state comptroller released its special report on Tennessee State University, recommending lawmakers vacate and restructure the school’s board of trustees and hire new administrators.
“The comptroller’s audit revealed some valid concerns that must be addressed, but the historical precedent and context that brought us to this point matters,” Sen. Charlane Oliver, D-Nashville, said in a statement. “The audit omitted the critical responsibility of the legislature to adequately fund the institution, which is a direct result of the situation that lends itself in today.”
The report, presented to a state Senate Ad Hoc committee Thursday, received strong pushback from TSU’s leadership and high interest from students, parents and alums. Over 200 people attended the committee meeting.
Lawmakers tasked the comptroller’s office with examining a spike in enrollment at the historically Black university in Nashville and subsequent problems related to a lack of on-campus housing and the processing of scholarships. Several students and parents filed complaints with the state, triggering the examination.
Tennessee Comptroller Jason Munpower said the school was unprepared in every aspect to handle the sudden increase in students.
“TSU management, in particular, made a series of decisions that ultimately put them in this crisis,” Munpower told the committee. “A crisis that was clear that they should and could have seen coming.”
TSU President Glenda Glover defended her university’s enrollment approach, claiming the comptroller’s report was misleading. She added the school never gave out scholarships to students who didn’t qualify, contrary to the report’s findings.
“The comptroller tried to portray that we had unqualified students receive scholarships,” Glover said to the committee. “No student received a scholarship who didn’t meet the scholarship requirements. That part of the report is unequivocally untrue.”
The report also included 12 policy recommendations for lawmakers, all likely to give the state more control over the school. This includes recommending lawmakers appoint a new board, hire new university management, institute numerous restrictions on scholarships and enrollment and add the university back to the Tennessee Board of Regents for oversight.
The move runs counter to a 2016 plan proposed by former Gov. Bill Haslam to remove all four-year Tennessee colleges from the Tennessee Board of Regents umbrella.
Adding the school back now would make it the only four-year college overseen by the board regents, which oversees community and two-year schools.
TSU can’t use $250M in state funding to build dorms
TSU’s problems stem from a sudden increase in its student body from around 7,600 in 2020 to over 9,200 in 2022. The comptroller’s report stated that the school lacked sufficient on-campus housing to support the higher enrollment. At the same time, TSU increased its yearly scholarship awards from $6.4 million to $28.3 million, likely contributing to more students choosing the school.
Historically Black colleges and universities nationwide have experienced significant jumps in enrollment and donations over the last few years. At Jackson State University in Mississippi — also an HBCU — enrollment jumped from around 7,000 in 2020 to over 9,600 in 2022.
The comptroller tried to portray that we had unqualified students receive scholarships. No student received a scholarship who didn't meet the scholarship requirements. That part of the report is unequivocally untrue.
– Glenda Glover, president, Tennessee State University
TSU administrators were forced to contract with local hotels to accommodate hundreds of new students and the housing problem is likely to continue, Mumpower said.
But university officials said they’re working on a plan to address the problem, which includes discussions with Nashville developer Tony Giarratana to build new housing.
The university will also receive nearly $250 million from the state in coming years after a report by the Office of Legislative Budget Analysis found lawmakers from both parties had underfunded the college for decades. But, complicating the matter is the school can’t use the new money to build dorms because of a restriction on the funds.
Gov. Bill Lee, who proposed the funding increase last year, said Thursday he supports the restriction.
“That money should be spent on maintaining the existing TSU infrastructure,” Lee said.
The committee has made no decisions on the comptroller’s report and will meet at another date to issue its recommendations.
“We are in data collection mode, and we’ll do what’s best for students of TSU,” said Sen. Jon Lundberg, R-Bristol, the ad hoc committee chairman.
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