A handful of GOP lawmakers said they accept the appointment of a top aide to Gov. Phil Bredesen to lead the board that oversees the state’s higher education system, but they still plan to probe the selection process.
Three high-ranking Republican senators made the announcement after meeting with Bredesen Thursday about the makeup of the state Board of Regents, the body that chose Deputy Gov. John Morgan for the powerful position.
“It has to be so important that the chancellor does hit the ground running, and right now that’s going to be John Morgan,” said Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, R-Blountville.
Last month, the 18-member board voted to hire Morgan to manage the $2.2 billion higher education system, which includes six universities, 13 two-year colleges and 26 technology centers.
The appointment process triggered a political firestorm as the public realized that the requirements for the job had been altered, which gave Morgan an edge, and that he was the only applicant the regents interviewed for the position.
That raised Republican concerns that the job opening was meant specifically for him. Bredesen, a lame-duck Democrat, has denied that was the case.
The Board of Regents rewrote its application in a way that made some requirements, such as educational attainment, less stringent. Candidates for chancellor now only need an undergraduate degree in education, and Morgan’s highest degree is a bachelor’s in education.
The specifications also called for a candidate with intimate knowledge of how to implement the “Complete College Act of 2010,” a law Morgan played an instrumental role in passing which ties funding to factors like graduation rates. The job posting added that applicants should have a thorough understanding of the state political system and an ability to work with the legislature and governor’s office.
Senate Republicans announced earlier this week they’re planning to conduct confirmation hearings on 12 appointed regents, a rare process that could result in some regents being kicked out of office.
State Sens. Bill Ketron, R-Murfreesboro, and Jim Tracy, R-Shelbyville, requested the hearings, pointing out that the board was lacking GOP representation as required by state law. They located a state statute that says the board must include at least three Republicans and three Democrats.
Bredesen, who appoints members to the Board of Regents, admitted Thursday he didn’t know he was supposed to consider their political affiliation when selecting who should sit on that board but said he would fix the problem.
Ramsey told reporters in a press conference that the governor said he would remove some members of the board and appoint GOP replacements. Bredesen wouldn’t confirm those details, saying he was “not ready to talk about the mechanics of it, yet.”
“I told them that I would take care of the issue,” Bredesen said Friday after a press conference at the Capitol. “As has happened in various times during the time I’ve been governor, something comes up, and we didn’t get it done quite right. And I think I’ve pretty reliably gone back and said, ‘OK, I’m going to fix that.’ I’m willing to do that in this case.”
Attorney General Bob Cooper is reviewing whether decisions made by the board without the required Republican representation — such as Morgan’s appointment — are not valid.
Cooper’s spokeswoman declined to comment on the pending legal opinion, but Ketron said the findings could result in an undoing of actions the board has taken over several years.
Ketron said the attorney general’s office has assured him that it will release a legal opinion before the Sept. 28 hearing.