Main gates at Tennessee State University in Nashville. (Photo: John Partipilo)
State lawmakers blasted Tennessee State University for last-minute moves to house student overflow during the past year, but the University of Tennessee-Knoxville also put students in hotel rooms and needed approval Monday for a bigger apartment lease.
The State Building Commission’s Executive Committee approved a $6.78 million lease deal for more than 500 apartments at Lakemoor Station about seven miles from the UT-Knoxville campus to meet growth at the state’s flagship university. Enrollment is up to 33,000 total with 27,000 undergraduates.
UT-Knoxville has been paying $3 million a year for 368 beds at a Holiday Inn a similar distance from campus, according to a university official who pointed out the new arrangement in new housing would be “significantly better.” This arrangement eliminates the contract with Holiday Inn.
While UT-Knoxville’s lodging problems ran under the radar, Tennessee State University’s situation led to a highly critical report and a looming $2 million audit by an independent firm.
The committee approved a plan for Tennessee State University to lease up to 269 hotel rooms with 439 beds at Best Western and Red Roof Inn – Music City in Nashville for August through early May 2024 with a cost of $7.2 million, about $5.5 million of which would be offset by revenue from students, who are not expected to pay more to stay in one of the Nashville hotels than they would on campus.
“I’m glad we’re discussing this in May and not in August,” Secretary of State Tre Hargett, a committee member, told TSU officials.
The state’s only public historically Black university met the ire of Tennessee lawmakers and officials in 2022 when it needed extra living space for an influx of students, some of whom filed complaints about the living arrangements not expecting to be living off campus.
Even though the executive committee approved TSU’s request, it drew a closer look than the one presented by UT-Knoxville even though it had a much shorter time frame, state Sen. Charlane Oliver, D-Nashville, pointed out Monday.
“The level of scrutiny is definitely not the same. But the level of partnership that each public university should have with the state should be equal,” Oliver said. “That’s just not being displayed and hasn’t been displayed throughout the entire session this year. And so the double standard continues, unfortunately.”
TSU’s enrollment jumped to 9,200 last year from 7,600 just two years earlier, many of them first-generation Black college students, as the university increased scholarship awards to $28.3 million from $6.4. A comptroller’s report pointed out the school didn’t have enough on-campus housing for those students and questioned whether some students should have received scholarship money.
The comptroller also released a special report recommending lawmakers vacate and restructure the university’s board of trustees and hire a new administration.
Oliver noted TSU’s enrollment and ability to provide housing was affected by growth in Nashville and lack of affordable housing. In addition, enrollment boomed at historically-black colleges when students returned to campus following the COVID-19 pandemic, she said.
“If you’re doing too well and you have something to brag about in Tennessee, the state is going to come in and take over,” Oliver said, calling the Legislature’s dealings with TSU comparable to its moves to control Metro Nashville government.
Comptroller Jason Mumpower blamed TSU’s crisis on a “series of decisions” made by management and said its leaders should have seen the problems coming.
TSU President Glenda Glover defended the administration’s efforts this year, calling the comptroller’s report misleading and saying the university didn’t give scholarships to students who didn’t qualify.
The level of scrutiny is definitely not the same. But the level of partnership that each public university should have with the state should be equal. That’s just not being displayed and hasn’t been displayed throughout the entire session this year. And so the double standard continues, unfortunately.
– Sen. Charlane Oliver, D-Nashville, on a disparity of treatment between the University of Tennessee-Knoxville and Tennessee State University
The comptroller’s report also recommended numerous restrictions on university scholarships and enrollment and called for placing it under control of the Tennessee Board of Regents. TSU and other state universities such as MTSU and the University of Memphis began to emerge from the Board of Regents’ authority in 2016 and appointed their own oversight boards.
Ultimately, lawmakers enacted no penalties on the university but extended the TSU board for only a year. They also approved a $2 million audit of the university.
TSU received $250 million from the Legislature in 2022 after a study found the state shorted the historically-black university for decades, even though it is one of two land grant universities in the state. The university is not allowed to use that money for on-campus housing but for other projects.
State Treasurer David Lillard asked about TSU’s long-term building plan and urged a university official to have a separate emphasis on housing, calling it a “key and pivotal issue.”
TSU Vice President Doug Allen told the committee Monday the university is hoping to have plans approved this fall for two more campus housing buildings with 2,200 beds that could open by 2026.
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