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Higher Education Leaders Discuss Costs, Job Market Demands

In a roomful of state education and business leaders that met at the Governor’s mansion this week, the discussion about higher education reform was nautical-themed.

Economists talked about Tennessee “treading water” while other states and countries zoom by with improving education. Gov. Bill Haslam referred to reforming higher education as an “everyone in the boat” process. One speaker said it would take “all hands on deck” to repair the gap between higher education and the workforce.

Tennessee’s higher education system, it would seem, is a sinking ship waiting to be saved.

According to the leaders gathered, the real question at hand is how to get post-secondary schools to crank out people ready for real-world jobs rather than the classroom. And also, how to get more people in those classrooms in the first place.

The problem is threefold, said Haslam. Jobs are scarce in Tennessee. Employers are increasingly demanding their employees be more skilled and better educated. And at the same time, the cost of post-secondary education is rising.

“The reality is that while costs continue to go up, we need more graduates—not less—in Tennessee, and those graduates need to be better prepared for the workforce than they are currently,” Haslam told reporters after hosting the higher education summit in Conservation Hall attached to the governor’s residence Tuesday.

This comes in the wake of hikes in tuition and fees at colleges across the state.

“We’re pricing a lot of middle class people, whose parents may be unemployed right now, out of the chance of going to college,” House Democratic Caucus Leader Mike Turner, D-Old Hickory, told reporters last week.

The risk, according to Haslam, is “that Tennessee doesn’t prepare the graduates that we need for the workforce and that all these businesses that we’re recruiting go somewhere else. It’s really that simple.”

On the flip side, he said, “If we give them the graduates and the workforce they need, I think they’re going to come here or stay here.”

Proposed solutions included better career advising, devising methods of measuring the outcome of higher education, and developing metrics for testing the quality of education that students get along the way.

The summit was inconclusive, introducing ideas about what to do but eliciting “no promises” from the governor, who will be holding roundtables with business leaders and college officials over the next six weeks to discuss what they want out of a trained workforce.

The governor invited members of the Tennessee Higher Education Commission, the Tennessee Independent Colleges and Universities Association, and officers of the Tennessee Business Roundtable and Tennessee Chamber of Commerce.

Also included on the invite were the speakers of the state House and Senate and the chairmen of the House and Senate finance and Education committees, positions all held by Republicans in the GOP-controlled Legislature.

Representative Craig Fitzhugh, D-Ripley, who was not present, said the governor’s selection process left Democrats out: “While I commend Governor Bill Haslam on beginning a review of higher education, I am disappointed that he has chosen to do so in a partisan manner. … House Democrats stand ready to have a serious discussion about higher education.”

Haslam defended his choice, saying “there’ll be plenty of time for legislative input. This wasn’t about that. This was about calling the three boards together.”

The governor said he doesn’t know if he’ll approach the General Assembly with a higher education package next spring or if his first wave of changes can be made administratively.

“My sense is that a lot more of this will be internal to the schools and the systems than it will be legislative. I wouldn’t be surprised, though, if we ended up with one or two structural issues that we bring to the (legislature),” he said.

As for reforming how the universities are governed, Tennessee isn’t ready for a complete overhaul, he said.

“I don’t think we’re ready to go there yet. I think governance is part of it, but I want to emphasize I don’t think that’s the root of the issue. The root of the issue is more around cost and access and quality, and governance structure is a piece of that,” Haslam said.

 

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UCDD Mansion Gets Dubious Honor in Beacon’s Pork Report

Last year, Wendy Askins was living the dream on taxpayer dollars. Now the former development agency official is winning prizes for it, too.

Askins used funds intended for the needy to support her own life of luxury, winning her the “Pork of the Year” title in an annual report by the Beacon Center.

The Mediterranean-style mansion that Askins purchased in rural Putnam County with money from the Upper Cumberland Development District was supposed to house poor senior citizens. But the agency’s former executive director moved in as well, outfitting the place with a sauna, chandelier and computer-controlled showers, as Nashville’s NewsChannel 5 reported.

Under the not-so-watchful eyes of elected officials charged with overseeing the agency, Askins reportedly put no fewer than five relatives on the district payroll, with a final cost to the public of $1.5 million, the report says.

The Nashville-based Beacon Center released its annual “Tennessee Pork Report” Tuesday, unveiling what the nonprofit think tank determined to be the most wasteful uses of state and local government money. The report’s authors pegged the district’s largesse as the “most egregious example of waste across the state,” prompting them to create a new title in its honor, the Pork of the Year.

Chris Thompson, mayor of Byrdstown and a member of the UCDD board, wasn’t surprised to find out that Askins’ fiasco had won.

“It’s kind of like government gone wild. If they’re going to misuse taxpayer money, they ought to be held accountable for it,” he said in a phone interview. Thompson has said he was not aware of the misspending until after certain meeting minutes showing the board OK’ing the spending were found to be bogus.

Askins and the UCDD are now reportedly under investigation by both state and federal authorities. Her lawyer told NewsChannel 5 in April there is no evidence she committed any crime, despite colleagues’ accusations of nepotism, checks that Askins wrote to herself after moving her own furniture into the mansion, and receipts showing she even paid for dog chow on the project’s account.

“There should be no way that an executive director can write a check to themselves,” said Jim Shulman, executive director of the Tennessee Commission on Aging and Disability, which held its own investigation of the Living the Dream project.

The case sparked resignations and hostility among members of the UCDD, and prompted doubts about how the state’s other development districts manage their funds.

“This isn’t an isolated incident. You have to be naïve to think that this is the only agency that this kind of thing is going on in, though maybe not as much as Living the Dream,” said Thompson.

Beacon Center executive director Justin Owen agreed, saying any of the state’s eight other development districts could be in line to win the porcine prize next year.

The Beacon Center, formerly known as the Tennessee Center for Policy Research, has published the Pork Report annually since 2004, basing its findings on government budgets, media reports, appropriations bills, state audits, and research by Beacon Center staff.