Over the course of three days last week, Gov. Bill Haslam named 48 people who he will appoint to oversee six of Tennessee's public universities on new governing boards starting next year.
The list — which includes an astronaut, retired army generals, a prominent Nashville businessman and one of the state's most recognizable politicians — illustrates the governor's wide-ranging influence over higher education in the state. Interviews with Haslam's staff, university leaders, a state lawmaker and one of the new board members suggest he did not take the responsibility lightly.
It took months to find eight appointees each for new boards at each of the universities currently overseen by the Tennessee Board of Regents. Once those boards are approved by the General Assembly, they will have the power to set tuition, approve budgets and hire or fire presidents at their institutions.
Several people said Haslam took on a good deal of the work himself, calling each of the potential board members personally to conduct interviews and extend offers.
Mike Krause, executive director of the Tennessee Higher Education Commission, worked closely with Haslam during the selection and vetting of potential board members. He said Haslam "invested an enormous amount of energy” into the board selection. That was in keeping with the governor's involvement in other high-profile higher education initiatives, Krause said.
Haslam's approach to the creation of the six boards mirrored the construction of a seating chart at a wedding. He consulted with university presidents, alumni groups, legislators and other stakeholders across the state to find the right mix of personalities that would mesh with the mission of each of the six state universities.
“I was trying to get people with a wide range of experience but also people who had a great passion for that university," Haslam told reporters last week. "I really tried to focus on people who understood what the board’s role will be because they play such a critical role as the very first board.”
Bill Freeman, one of Haslam's appointees to the Tennessee State University board, has been a top donor to the university for many years, regularly writing checks to fund scholarships and other initiatives. Freeman also serves on the TSU Foundation board. He said his conversation with Haslam played off of that long-term dedication.
“It was all about my commitment to TSU, his commitment to TSU, how he wanted TSU to improve," Freeman said of the conversation.
Freeman, a Nashville businessman and former mayoral candidate, said his early exposure to the board and its members suggested they would function as “allies in terms of funding and whatever we can do in the legislature to help.
"We just want to be part of the solution and helping TSU succeed," Freeman said.
TSU President Glenda Glover praised Haslam's hands-on work during a news conference Friday.
“He was very invitational in recruiting talent to sit on the boards, and then he took his time and went through it,” she said. “What was so impressive is that he didn’t assign it to human resources or ask some consultant firm to do this. He did it personally, which means he has a personal stake in the outcome, to ensure that TSU had the best governing board possible."
Glover said she respected the governor's efforts "to the highest level," a glowing endorsement from one of the most vocal critics of Haslam's plan to create boards for the six universities in the Board of Regents system. While the governor's plan was working its way through the General Assembly earlier this year, Glover worried that the newly independent Board of Regents universities would be outmatched when competing against the intact University of Tennessee system.
At the Friday news conference, Glover acknowledged that concern, but she emphasized her confidence that her eight new board members — including four TSU alums and longtime supporters like Freeman — would be forceful advocates for the university. She also said Haslam had tweaked his plan to address her feedback.
Other university presidents echoed Glover's satisfaction with Haslam's approach.
Alisa White at Austin Peay State University praised her "impressive" board that included military veterans and business leaders as "a solid beginning that will represent our campus well and help us move the university in a forward-thinking direction." Sidney A. McPhee at Middle Tennessee State University said Haslam "really hit a home run.”
State Sen. Mark Norris, who carried Haslam's plan to create the boards through the legislature earlier this year, said he would move to secure approval of Haslam's appointees in January.
Norris, R-Collierville, who represents part of the Memphis area, once said the prospect of an independent board had leaders at the University of Memphis "dancing in the streets." He echoed that sentiment in an interview last week, and praised Haslam for his work to secure independence for the Board of Regents universities.
Norris said the new boards would help each of the universities — including the University of Memphis, TSU, MTSU, Austin Peay, East Tennessee State University and Tennessee Tech University — become "economic and education engines" for the state.
"The best is yet to come," Norris said.
Staff writer Joel Ebert contributed to this report.