FOCUS Act prompts discussion among students and faculty of impact on campus

Students and faculty have voiced their concerns on Gov. Bill Haslam’s proposed Focus on College and University Success Act. President Philip Oldham remains positive about the changes, but faculty and students are skeptical.

“At Tech, we embrace the autonomy this change will bring and also recognize the increased responsibility our university faces. We look forward to the opportunities to be flexible and responsive in terms of the academic programs and services we offer as we continue to align our work to the university's Flight Plan,” said Oldham.

The act is being announced as the “next step in the ‘Drive to 55’ initiative,” according to Gov. Haslam. The initiative was launched to ensure that by 2025, at least 55 percent of Tennesseans have a postsecondary degree or certificate. In his address, the governor mentioned that as of 2014, only 33 percent meet these qualifications.

The FOCUS Act has three main parts. The first is to make the Tennessee Board of Regents more focused on community and technical colleges. The second is to establish individual local boards for the six universities under the TBR. The third portion is to strengthen the Tennessee Higher Education Commission.

The primary concerns students and faculty have voiced deal with the creation of the local governing board.

“As a commission member on THEC and a student, I support the intent of the FOCUS Act, but I disagree with the composition of the university board of trustees that are being established. Specifically, the nonvoting student members,” said Alex Martin.

The board will have 10 members, nine voting and one nonvoting, with eight of the members being appointed by the governor. Six of these members are required to be Tennessee residents and at least three members must be Tech alumni.

The remaining two members will represent faculty and student interests for the university. One active faculty member and one student will be selected by the board and serve a one-year term. The faculty member will be a voting member of the board, while the student will be a nonvoting member.

Of the board’s powers, there are three main points of impact. The first is the board will be able to select and employ the university president. The second point is the board will be able to set tuition, which must be approved by THEC. The third point is the board will be able to establish policies regarding the university and campus life.

Since the board will set university tuition, Tech students will be directly affected by this change.

“These boards will make tuition increase recommendations in the future, and I think it is very important for a student to have a vote on that issue,” said Martin.

The current student representatives for the TBR and THEC are voting members. Under the new plan, the student will be a nonvoting member, and the board will appoint a student to the position, instead the student body electing a representative.

“This is a real step back for student representation in the state. I strongly believe the student member of the board should either be chosen by his peers or by a partnership between his peers and campus administration,” said Nicholas Russell, TBR student regent.

President Oldham stance on the issue acknowledges the student voice, but he agrees with the governor’s proposed structure for the board.

“I do understand the students concerns regarding the voting issue, but assert to them that having even a non-voting student board member is a very powerful position. Student concerns and opinions will be well represented and carry considerable weight with the full board,” said Oldham.

Both Russell and Martin have been working with SGA presidents from other universities to change the voting status for the student board member. Martin recently met with Harry Brooks, chair of education administration and planning for the Tennessee House of Representatives, who agreed to an amendment, which has been filed with the operations committee.

In addition to student concerns, Tech faculty members have their own opinions about the coming changes. One of those concerns is that the faculty from the six universities will be removed from the TBR faculty sub-council. The sub-council provides an environment that fosters relationships between representatives from 2 and 4-year schools, according to Julia Gruber, president of the TTU chapter of the American Association of University Professors.

“Without such a statewide representative body, the faculty will lose much of its voice. This may be an intended or unintended consequence of the FOCUS Act, but it would reduce the influence of those people who actually deliver the goods in our Drive to 55,” said Gruber.

A second concern the faculty has voiced deals with the board’s influence over academic curricula. Under the FOCUS Act, the board will have the power to “[p]rescribe curricula and requirements for diplomas and degrees.” Some faculty members think that this would place the decision making power with people who don’t know enough about the specific academic programs, according to the AAUP website.

“The current TBR board has approval power over curricula and academic standards. However, just as now, the faculty will continue to have primary control and responsibility for curriculum and academic decisions,” said Oldham.

Russell supports the act, despite the various issues with the student member and representation, because the bill gives the Tech community the chance to improve itself.

“The impact on Tennessee Tech will be completely what we make of it. Any change in governance can be a net positive or a net loss, it all depends on the leadership's take on the change and the campus's ability to adapt,” said Russell. “President Oldham has seemed very optimistic about the changes in store, and I believe he is the kind of leader that will help Tech thrive in this changing environment. No one should be scared or think this will result in any massive changes in student life. Changes will be phased in slowly, and there are already task forces working to evaluate how to handle this change process smoothly.” 

The FOCUS Act has been submitted to the Tennessee Legislature and is in the process of being reviewed. Various amendments to the act have been proposed and are also under review. No date is set for when a decision will be made, but the transition period is slated to begin July 1, 2016.