Tennessean article: John Morgan testifies against Haslam’s college plan

Gov. Bill Haslam’s plan to overhaul Tennessee’s public college system easily cleared another legislative hurdle Tuesday, despite strong words from one of its harshest critics.
The bill won the support of the House Education Administration & Planning Committee on Tuesday after more than an hour of debate spurred on by the testimony of John Morgan, the former chancellor of the Tennessee Board of Regents college system.
Morgan has been outspoken in his critiques of Haslam’s plan, which would create independent governing boards for six universities overseen by the Board of Regents. Morgan resigned in January because he thought the plan was “unworkable,” and on Tuesday he elaborated on his problems with the bill.
Morgan called the move a “mistake” that would amp up competition between colleges that had been partners under the Board of Regents system. He said that competition would ultimately weaken colleges such as Tennessee State and Tennessee Tech universities.
“I don’t think this is a particularly good way of changing our higher education system in Tennessee,” Morgan told the lawmakers. He later added, “A generation from now, I think we’ll see a less effective higher education system than we have.”
The plan has broad support from Republican leadership in the General Assembly and several university presidents, but Rep. Craig Fitzhugh, D-Ripley, asked that the committee hear from Morgan before signing off on the bill. It appeared that Fitzhugh and Rep. Kevin Dunlap, D-Rock Island, were the only members of the 13-member House panel to vote against it on a voice vote.
Morgan might not have changed any minds, but his testimony did generate conversation between lawmakers and state officials, mostly concerning the likelihood that Haslam’s plan would generate corrosive competition between universities.
He has said that if those six universities, which include Middle Tennessee State, Tennessee State and Austin Peay State, had their own boards, they’d be more likely to fight statewide initiatives that might threaten their individual enrollment or other goals.
But Tennessee Tech President Philip Oldham told lawmakers he disagreed with Morgan, his former boss. Oldham said that although “competition exists now, and it’s fierce,” the desire to collaborate between institutions is “somewhat in our DNA,” a fact he said would not change under the new structure Haslam has proposed.
Haslam’s plan, included as part of the Focus on College and University Success Act, known as FOCUS, easily cleared votes in other committees earlier in the session. It will go to the House Government Operations and Senate Education committees next.
 After the vote, Morgan said he had hoped to slow the bill’s progress so that lawmakers would have time to consider its scope. But he doubted his criticism would blunt the bill’s progress.
“I think the bill passes pretty much the way the governor wants it,” Morgan said.
Under the plan, the local university boards would be allowed to set tuition, hire presidents and decide their own priorities. The Board of Regents would continue to manage the state’s network of 13 community colleges and 27 technical colleges.
Reach Adam Tamburin at 615-726-5986 and on Twitter @tamburintweets.

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