Mar 28, 2024 - Politics

Lawmakers prepare to decide fate of TSU board

A sign for Tennessee State University

Photo: Courtesy of TSU

A turning point is looming for Tennessee State University as lawmakers prepare to vote on the historically Black institution's governing board.

Why it matters: Lawmakers have advanced a measure that would boot members of the board.

  • Republican lawmakers say a change is needed after a state report described poor leadership at TSU. An audit released this week identified continued financial issues.
  • But Democrats and school officials say overhauling the board now could interrupt progress and sideline critical institutional knowledge.

The intrigue: The fate of the board is being debated while members are conducting the search to replace retiring university president Glenda Glover. Finalists are visiting campus this week.

State of play: The Senate has already approved a bill that would vacate the full board. Gov. Bill Lee would appoint replacements.

  • The House version was amended to take a narrower approach, only removing three board members. A final vote on that is scheduled for Thursday morning.

Friction point: The two chambers must agree on one version of the bill before it can go to Lee's desk. It's possible the House might conform to the Senate version, for instance. Or negotiators from both chambers could hash out a compromise.

  • In comments last week, one side seemed more flexible than the other.

What they're saying: State Sen. Bo Watson (R-Hixson) said the Senate was "resolute in its position" that the entire board needed to go. He indicated senators were not willing to budge.

  • "The Senate believes this board has failed in its oversight responsibilities," he told reporters. "The only way to fix that is to replace the board."
  • House Speaker Cameron Sexton (R-Crossville) tells Axios his team has been working with Lee and the Senate.
  • "We are confident both chambers, along with Governor Lee, will be able to come together to find a solution," he said in a statement.

Between the lines: TSU boosters say chronic underfunding is the driving force behind the university's challenges rather than leadership. A federal review last fall identified a $2.1 billion shortfall in TSU's state funding over the last 30 years, while a separate state analysis found additional underfunding.

  • Rep. Harold Love Jr. (D-Nashville) tells Axios conversations about addressing historic funding gaps are ongoing.
  • "We're not losing sight of that because of what's going on right now."

Zoom in: TSU's board launched in 2017. Eight of its members are appointed by the governor. The board then selects faculty and student members.

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