TSU, board

Tennessee Republicans Replace Tennessee State University Board Amid Protests

Republican leaders say that the move is about helping to make TSU successful, but Black Democrats, like Tennessee Rep. Justin Jones and Rep. Bo Mitchell remain skeptical.

Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee, a Republican, signed a bill on March 28 removing the entire Board of Trustees at Tennessee State University, the state’s only public HBCU. The bill passed swiftly through Tennessee’s GOP-controlled House and Senate as Lee praised the university and declared he had already picked the replacement board.

As the Associated Press reports, Republican leaders say the move is about helping to make TSU successful, but Black Democrats, like Tennessee Rep. Justin Jones and Rep. Bo Mitchell, remain skeptical. Though the new board comprises Black business leaders, the move did not sit well with the university.

Tennessee State University issued a statement to The Tennessean, indicating its displeasure with the dissolution of its board. “This is unprecedented, unfortunate, and uncharted waters for any public university in the state,” the statement read. “We believe this legislation will disrupt our students’ educational pursuits, harm the image of the University, and remove a Board that had achieved success in its enhanced governance of TSU.”

The move also angered alums, as Ramona Willis, a retired school teacher and graduate of TSU in the 1970s, told NBC News. “It’s all disheartening,” Willis said. “They hold back billions of dollars from the school, but yet they want to remove the board? Could some issues be because we just didn’t have enough money, money that is just sitting out there that should be ours? It’s hard to accept that they can know this and yet ignore it and put our school in disarray.”

Jones pointed to state governments’ lack of investment in HBCUs in a statement critical of the move. “Instead of us rectifying the problems that we created through racist policies by underfunding Tennessee State University, we’re now advocating to vacate their board.”

Mitchell, likewise, questioned the precedent for such a move, saying, “I’ve seen many audits of many universities that look horrendous. Have we ever, ever vacated an entire board of a university before? Have we ever done that?”

To Jones’ point, a 2022 report from Brookings Metro called attention to the cycle that chronic underfunding from state governments creates for HBCUs. As one participant in their conversation told them: “The very traditional underwriting processes that banks follow makes it hard to break the chicken-egg syndrome of success begets success…If you got a good balance sheet, you get financed. If you don’t have the balance sheet of a Johns Hopkins, then it’s going to be very difficult to get very big financing opportunities.”

As WSMV reported, in February, SB1596 was introduced alongside another bill that gave Lee the authority to transfer the governance of any state university board to the Tennessee Higher Education Commission if that state university board ceased to exist. 

At that time, the university stated to the outlet, “TSU is working with legislators to address potential issues and challenges associated with this bill, addressing any legislation that would have detrimental effects on our students and the university, and avoid the potential existence of a substantially different governance structure than created under the FOCUS Act.”

TSU is also in the middle of searching for its new president after the current president, Dr. Glenda Glover, informed the university that she would be retiring at the end of the year. In March, three finalists were named: Dr. Charles Gibbs, Dr. William Hudson, and Dr. Michael Torrence.

As WSMV reports, the new Board of Trustees is expected to be appointed in April, while the presidential candidates met the TSU community in a series of open forums from March 27 to March 30 to gauge their fit with the university’s culture and vision. 

RELATED CONTENT: FAMU Vice President Named Finalist For Tennessee State University Presidency