A ‘To Be Continued’ Open Letter to TTU’s Administrators

A ‘To Be Continued’ Open Letter to TTU’s Administrators

Deep concerns have arisen among TTU faculty and staff regarding the style and substance that mark the manner by which TTU’s top administrators govern the university.  Relative to the past, the governing style of the current administration is that of a top-down, authoritarian nature that diminishes the morale of faculty and staff.  At the same time, the substance of the current administration’s policies is likely to threaten the quality of education.  TTU, a public university, is increasingly governed as if it were a private, for-profit corporation.  The problems with administrative ‘style and substance’ recently came to a head over Governor Haslam’s proposal known as the Focus on College and University Success (FOCUS) Act which would separate the six non-UT public universities from the Tennessee Board of Regents and, instead, create new governing boards for each of those institutions.

The secrecy to which the TBR university presidents pledged themselves in prior discussions of the FOCUS Act and the suddenness of its announcement—as a kind of fait accompli—highlighted the generalized, unilateral governing style that was already apparent at TTU.  Of particular concern for faculty is the fact that the Oldham administration has shown that it is prepared to run roughshod over the traditional practice of ‘shared governance’ whereby administration and faculty have jointly consulted and collaborated on matters related to the university’s educational and fiscal affairs.  Examples of this non-collaborative, unilateral, and even self-enriching administrative behavior at TTU proliferate.

Criminal Justice/Sociology & Political Science

In the Fall of 2015, a member of the Department of Sociology and Political Science faculty heard only by chance that upper level administrators were developing a new online Criminal Justice (CJ) degree that would be offered by the School of Professional Studies.   A conversation subsequently ensued between the department chairperson and the School of Professional Studies.  The Sociology and Political Science faculty not only learned there were plans for an online CJ program, but that the curriculum had already been developed; that the adjunct faculty had already been selected (even though there are Tech faculty who then currently taught CJ courses in Sociology); and that the program had been readied to launch in the Spring of 2016 under a now rebranded ‘Public Safety’ program.  When questioned why the department had not been involved in this process, the administration provided no acceptable answer.  Earlier and at a meeting of the TTU chapter of the AAUP, President Oldham had explained that the administration needed to act quickly and flexibly to take advantage of what he perceived as a kind of business opportunity to acquire a new student clientele.

The faculty of the Department of Sociology and Political Science attempted in various meeting and forums to involve themselves in this process and thereby deter the administration’s efforts to launch the program unilaterally. Unfortunately, this program was recently passed by (as one voting member described it) an “unenthusiastic” GSEC and Academic Council despite a significant concern raised that the university was not prepared to launch the courses in such an accelerated manner.  Adjunct teachers—with backgrounds in fire safety and counseling, not CJ—have been hired to teach the courses in the recast ‘Public Safety’ program.  This process of program development established a dangerous precedent whereby upper level administration can take unilateral action to create a low-cost curriculum of questionable quality despite clear and loud objections from the faculty.


TTU’s Water Center [now the renamed Center for Management, Utilization, and Protection of Water Resources]

In the case of the Water Center, a hiring decision to replace the retiring Director was made without following the usual process of establishing a search committee that would involve faculty and Water Center staff.  The person who was ultimately hired came from the auto industry and has no academic background in water-related issues.  By way of explanation—and again in a meeting of the TTU Chapter of the AAUP–President Oldham stated that the administration needed to move quickly and that it was an ‘interim’ hire.  The President offered no timeline regarding the establishment of a search committee to fill the position on a permanent basis.

Confusing the matter is the fact that the position held by this person is listed not as Interim Director but as Managing Director and Associate Vice-President for Workforce Outreach.  In fact, the Interim Director for the Water Center is listed as the person who also is the Vice-President for Research and Economic Development.


Center for Healthcare Informatics

Another instance of unilateral hiring also highlighted the move toward a private sector business model at a public university. TTU’s recently established Center for Healthcare Informatics (CHI) advertises that it is a ‘business incubator’ that ‘analyzes data to find ways to improve the quality of healthcare while reducing healthcare costs.’  Again, and with no search committee, a psychologist, who has been described as a ‘serial entrepreneur,’ was hired as CHI’s Director.   The CHI ‘targets’ solutions and ‘partners’ with organizations to ‘implement’ the solutions, all presumably for a fee.  One of the Center’s corporate ‘partners’ is Cumberland Health Associates and its Executive Vice President is the self-same director of the CHI.  Apart from questions about why a public university should be involved in such a business venture, the inter-locking nature of this relationship raises serious conflict of interest questions as well.  In none of these instances of educational and corporate program development and hiring were faculty consulted.

As of April 2016, the CHI was summarily shut down, its director dismissed, and all with no explanation from the administration.


The Campus Parking Expansion Project

Led by TTU’s Vice President of Finance and Planning, the administration has decided with no prior consultation of faculty, staff, or students to greatly expand the number of parking spaces on campus.  The plan foresees 1,600 new parking slots.  In Phase One, a perimeter lot of approximately 1,000 spaces will be constructed and in Phase Two a parking garage with around 600 spaces; and all this to replace only 650 parking slots that will disappear due to another building project. Moreover, this effort is being undertaken in spite of falling enrollment which is likely to persist given the Tennessee Promise program that funds two years of community college education and that diverts freshman and sophomore students from four year schools.  Of great concern for TTU faculty and students is the fact that parking fees will rise considerably and in some cases by many orders of magnitude for those who would choose—or be required—to park in the proposed parking garage.  A system of shuttle buses that will ferry riders from the perimeter parking to the university will represent considerable time lost in the commute.

The higher fees would be used initially to pay for the parking expansion which comes with an overall [Phases One and Two] estimated cost of almost $26 million.  With the administration suggesting an estimated cost of $4,000 per parking slot in the perimeter lot, it should be possible to more than replace the lost parking at a cost of around $4 million.  Apart from the lack of consultation with the university community, projects such as this come with the prospect of considerable fiscal irresponsibility and will impose a large burden on students, in particular.


Administrative Positions and Administrative Salaries.

In an era of otherwise tight fiscal budgets and diminished public support for public universities, university administrations have greatly increased the costs of administering universities by expanding the numbers of administrators, doling out new job titles, and granting themselves lavish raises in salary.  Not only is TTU not an exception to this pattern, but TTU’s administrators and managers now earn an average salary of $139,105; a value that is 37% higher than the U.S. national average of $101,500 for this category.

President Oldham currently earns over $280,000, after having received cumulative raises of around $27,000 since 2013.  TTU’s Provost currently earns over $227,000 and has received no significant raises.  The Vice President for Research and Economic Development is TTU’s highest paid administrator, earning over $305,000 annually. The Vice-President for Planning and Finance—the same person responsible for the costly new parking project noted above—currently earns around $200,000; a figure that represents a 55% increase over that individual’s 2013 salary of about $127,000.  The Director of the Center for Healthcare Informatics—discussed above—earns over $151,000 with his TTU salary plus whatever he presumably earns as Executive Vice-President of Cumberland Health Associates, a client of the Center he directs.  The once Director, now Associate Vice-President of University Development earns $122,000, up from $56,000 in 2013.  The Managing Director and Associate Vice-President for Workforce Outreach—the individual who supposedly heads what was the Water Center (see above) earns $160,000 up from $125,000 in one year.  The Assistant to the President for Strategic Projects earns almost $175,000, up from $160,000 in two years.

The point to be emphasized, again, is not simply that these are large salaries or that administrators frequently give themselves lavish raises, rather the point is that at TTU administrative incomes now significantly exceed the U.S. average for such positions.  The relative standing of TTU administrative pay levels raises eyebrows and invites skepticism for an administration that is ostensibly concerned with its ‘bottom line’.


The Focus Act

The Focus Act, noted at the outset of this letter, exemplifies the further  abandonment of ‘shared governance’ and will likely speed the drift toward the effective privatization of public universities that operate increasingly on a ‘pay-their-way’ and even ‘for profit’ basis.   President Oldham has positioned himself as one of the main boosters of the Focus Act.  In this capacity, he has spoken in unconditionally glowing terms of what the Focus Act will mean for TTU: it will offer the ‘autonomy to move freely and respond quickly to the changing dynamics and demands now placed on higher education…we need speed and agility… The ability to become the best university possible is ultimately what the FOCUS Act promises.’  If recent past experience serves as a guide to the future, the new ‘speed and agility’ celebrated by President Oldham promises to open the door to even more unilateral decision-making.

Under the Focus Act and following amendments, the Boards that will govern the respective universities will be composed of ten voting members, many of whom will likely come from the business sector as they do in other universities that have followed this model.  There will be one voting student and one non-voting student permitted on the Board.  Of the ten voting members, eight will be individuals chosen by the state’s governor and will serve six year terms.  The sole, voting faculty member will serve a two year term. The autonomous Board format contrasts notably from the current TBR structure which has a faculty sub-council that offers a substantially broader voice to faculty.

Given the new governance structure, the traditional practice of shared governance all but becomes a dead letter by design.  And the abandonment of shared governance is all the more assured given the broad powers that are granted to the board.  The new Boards are given the right to:

“confirm the appointment of administrative personnel, teachers, and other employees of each state institution and to fix their salaries and terms of office” (Section 21, (a), 1.A)

“prescribe curricula and requirements for diplomas and degrees.” (Section 21, (a), 1.B)

“approve the operating budgets and set the fiscal policies for the schools and programs under its control.” (Section 21, (a) 1.C)

The new structure grants apparently sweeping powers to the Board that will now make hiring—and firing—determinations affecting faculty and staff; tenure determinations affecting faculty; and even curriculum determinations.

The issue of the working relationship between the respective administrations and their Board emerges as very opaque.  Boards will be dependent on their administrations for much data and even policy recommendations as would affect courses, curriculum, hiring, and budgets.  In all likelihood, that relationship will be a cozy one that provides the university administrations with a kind of ‘firewall’ of protection against unpopular policies and decisions which the administrations propose yet are formally determined by the Boards.  It remains unclear just how transparent communications between the university administrations, their Boards, and the wider university communities will be.  So much remains unclear about the process that extreme skepticism, rather than a banal booster-ism, is warranted.

At the limit, the Focus Act is part of the larger trajectory and project that would transform Tennessee’s formally public universities into what are effectively private, for profit corporations.  In an editorial in The Tennessean from February, 25, 2016, President Oldham noted that state funding for the TBR universities had dropped from 70% or 80% of total costs in the early 1970s to no more than 20% or 30% today.  The difference is accounted for largely by higher tuitions, adjunct hiring, and outsourcing of university services.  Far from lamenting or resisting the decline in state funding–or making a case as to why more public funding is needed if Tennessee is to supply the optimal amount of quality, higher education–President Oldham uses those numbers to facilitate a course of action that will maintain the status quo: historically low–or even lower–state funding for higher education.  President Oldham’s position all but guarantees both higher tuition costs for Tennessee’s students and more low-cost programs of questionable quality.  His actions present us, finally, with a self-fulfilling prophecy and throw into question his suitability to lead a public university.

We of the Tennessee Technological University Chapter of the AAUP along with many other faculty on this campus, find the issues outlined above to be deeply disturbing and of a nature that threaten the principles of academic freedom and shared governance that AAUP was formed to defend.  We resist the move toward making higher education conform to a business model rather than being funded and administered as the public good that it is.  Therefore we, the Tennessee Tech chapter of AAUP, have voted to release and distribute an open letter documenting our concerns. [See attached].  Moreover, we see the current document as a more detailed account of the problems and plan to update it over time.



As issues arise and as more information becomes available, we hope to update this ‘to be continued’ open letter.

We encourage your comments, and any additional concerns you wish to express.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *