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TBR Hearings To Be Continued?

Senate Education Committee Chairwoman Dolores Gresham isn’t entirely pleased with the way this week’s public examination of the operations, make-up and public relations savvy of the Tennessee Board of Regents’ came off.

For one thing, Gresham, R-Somerville, told TNReport Thursday afternoon that she was “perhaps irritated” Regent Agenia Clark didn’t show up during the two days of education committee hearings into the TBR’s controversies of late.

Clark, who chaired the regents’ “search committee” that recommended Deputy Gov. John Morgan as the best candidate to serve as chancellor to the board, was said by TBR vice chairman Greg Duckett to have a scheduling conflict.

Gresham, however, said Clark communicated nothing in the way of an excuse or reason for her absence with the committee ahead of time.

“I was very disappointed that Regent Clark did not make herself available,” Gresham said. “She was, after all, the chair of the search committee, and in that position could give us insights that no one else could.”

Gresham said she’ll talk with committee members and the Senate leadership “to see what our options may be.”

The committee spent Tuesday and Wednesday investigating Morgan’s selection to head the state’s higher education system, after criticism that the process unfairly favored him. Morgan was the only candidate interviewed for the job, and previous educational requirements for the job – which Morgan would not have met – were lowered.

Inside Higher Ed, an online journal of news, opinion and job listings covering colleges and universities in America, published an article titled “The Politician as Chancellor” back in August that outlined “a remarkable set of coincidences resulted in the state’s deputy governor getting the job.”

The article also quoted Clark, who reportedly “challenged the notion that the regents kept the applicant pool small to favor Morgan.” Wrote Doug Lederman, editor of Inside Higher Ed and author of the article:

(Clark) said she spoke privately to several strong candidates (including some more traditional ones) who were discouraged from applying because Tennessee’s strong open records law would have revealed their identities early in the process, putting their current jobs at risk. The same thing happened during the 2008-9 search that the board scuttled, she said, well before Morgan appeared on the scene.

Sen. Bill Ketron, R-Murfreesboro, made a formal request toward the end of the second day of hearings Wednesday to once again call Clark before the Senate Education Committee.

“She’s been the one that’s not here, and the one that carried out the most processes, if you will,” said Ketron, a vocal critic of the TBR’s activities of late. “The process is what we’re trying to get to: how we establish it and make it better from this point forward.”

But Duckett, the acting vice chairman for TBR, suggested that a committee interview of Clark — a no-show not just at the Senate hearings, but TBR functions in general “since the Morgan appointment backlash,” the Tennessean reported on Wednesday — would do little to reform the board’s practices and better its performance henceforth.

“If we are going to improve the system prospectively, then we need to look at procedures that will help us not be in this position in the future,” said Duckett.

Sens. Andy Berke, D-Chattanooga, and Jamie Woodson, R-Knoxville, sided with Duckett.

“It seems to me that why we are here is we have to figure out what we have to do going forward,” said Berke, who himself wasn’t in attendance during the committee’s Tuesday hearing. “And bringing in Ms. Clark, or having another day of hearings, or anything else, is not going to push us in that direction.”

“I do not see how trying to have more discussions and more days up here about the selection process that had a candidate that Lt. Gov. Ramsey called ‘highly qualified,’ that many of the people up here praise, is going to do us any good,” Berke said.

Ditto, said Woodson.

Gresham, growing perceptibly miffed as she spoke, responded that “criticism of these hearings as being a distraction from the real education issues” is wrongheaded.

Gresham expressed “grave concerns” about the judgment and transparency exhibited lately by the TBR — which she noted is responsible for “a $2 billion budget, $7.4 billion in capital assets and provides education opportunities for 200,000-plus students.”

“I kind of question the logic of saying we don’t need to go forward or have more hearings because nothing’s going to change,” said Gresham. “That is the same kind of logic that we heard: ‘Well there is no sense in having any other interviews because we know it is going to be this one guy.’ So, I don’t agree with that at all.”

Doug Lederman