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Haslam signs FOCUS Act at ETSU

Nathan Baker • Jun 13, 2016 at 5:35 PM

Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey predicted Monday that future Tennesseans reflecting on the state’s history would mark the Drive to 55 education initiative as a landmark set of policies.

“I think we may look back one day and say that’s where we started turning the corner in education, especially higher education improvement,” Ramsey said during a ceremonial signing of the Focus on College and University Success, or FOCUS, Act at East Tennessee State University’s Reece Museum.

Ramsey was joined by Gov. Bill Haslam, who did the actual signing of the law, and other state dignitaries in celebrating the passage of the law that sets up local boards of control for the six four-year universities currently under the oversight of the Tennessee Board of Regents.

Haslam proposed the new law in December as a high priority and the next step in the statewide Drive to 55 initiative, which sets the goal of having 55 percent of state residents holding post-secondary degrees or certificates by 2025.

In his case to the Legislature for the law, Haslam said the Drive to 55, which in-part provides two tuition free years of education at a state community college to qualified students, brought thousands of new students to community colleges and technical colleges and put strain on the Board of Regents’ ability to manage the two higher education tracks. By giving the universities more autonomy, though some functions, including final budget approval will still be performed by the TBR, Haslam believes the regents can focus more on the schools that need it the most.

“That’s a wide variety of needs,” the governor said Monday of the 46 institutions currently under TBR control. “From a medical school up here in Johnson City to a TCAT in the middle part of Tennessee, there are a lot of institutions with very different needs, and we had a board that had a fiduciary responsibility not to look out for the school in their home district, but to look out for the whole system.”

Starting in July when the FOCUS Act takes effect, the six universities will begin transitioning control to a local governing board.

Each 10-member board will consist of nine voting members, eight of whom will be appointed by the governor and six of whom are required to be state residents. Three of the governor’s appointees must be alumni of the university they’re tasked with governing. The ninth voting member will be an active faculty member selected by the board, a spot that will be reaffirmed yearly. The non-voting seat is reserved for a student appointed by the university board to act as a student representative.

Ramsey, an alumnus of ETSU, has been floated by some as a potential appointee to the board.

He said previously he would be honored by the opportunity to serve on the governing board, but Haslam said his appointees to those bodies have not been fully decided.

“We would like to get those appointed by this fall, the middle of October,” the governor said. “But we want to make sure they aren’t just there because they’re somebody’s friend, we want to make sure they have an interest in these universities.”

Haslam also said the state is still searching for an independent consultant to analyze the potential for savings behind a plan to outsource facilities management at colleges, prisons and other state-owned properties.

The governor’s administration released an internal review in March that claimed an estimated $36 million in savings per year, though campus workers and students across the state have spoken out against the recommendations.

Haslam said the state received responses to its request for proposals seeking a firm to calculate the fiscal impact of such a move, and he expects to announce the selected consultants in a couple of weeks.

Email Nathan Baker at nbaker@johnsoncitypress.com. Follow him on Twitter at @jcpressbaker or on Facebook at facebook.com/jcpressbaker.

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