Tennessee politicians strip historically Black university of its board

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Trustees of Tennessee’s only publicly funded historically Black university were removed Thursday under legislation signed into law by Republican Gov. Bill Lee. Black lawmakers and community leaders said state leaders, a majority of whom are white, are unfairly targeting Tennessee State University

The legislation cleared the state GOP-controlled House on Thursday in a 66-25 vote, and Lee signed off a few hours later without commenting on the controversial decision to vacate the board. He instead praised TSU as a “remarkable institution” as he unveiled that he already had selected 10 new replacements.

“I’m pleased to appoint these highly qualified individuals who will work alongside administrators and students to further secure TSU’s place as a leading institution,” Lee said.

The new appointees, largely from the business community, are now subject to confirmation by the Legislature. Their selection will be critical as TSU is already seeking a new leader because President Glenda Glover plans to retire at the end of this school year. 

“All we’re talking about is the board … It’s vacating some personalities and bringing others in,” House Majority Leader William Lamberth told reporters. “The goal is to make TSU successful.”

Republican leaders have long grumbled about TSU’s leadership as multiple state audits have found student housing shortages, unsustainable scholarship increases and lingering financial discrepancies. Audits released Thursday morning ahead of the House vote found 56 “significant procedural deficiencies” ranging from the school failing to follow its own procedures, to not properly documenting transactions or identifying improvements to its budgeting procedures. 

However, one review stated that it “did not identify evidence indicative of fraud or malfeasance by executive leadership.”

Democrats and others say Republicans are focusing on the wrong issues, pointing out that TSU’s problems are primarily due to its being underfunded by an estimated $2.1 billion over the last three decades. They also allege that the majority-white Legislature distrusts a Black-controlled university’s ability to manage itself.

Rep. Bo Mitchell, a Democrat whose district includes TSU, also questioned removing the board of a historically Black college that the state has failed to adequately fund. “I’ve seen many audits of many universities that look horrendous,” Mitchell said. “Have we ever, ever vacated an entire board of a university before? Have we ever done that?”

Multiple Democrats filed last minute motions and amendments that would have delayed the vote or cut the number of board seats to be vacated to five rather than 10. Ultimately, the GOP supermajority voted down each of the proposals.

“Instead of us rectifying the problems that we created through racist policies by underfunding Tennessee State University, we’re now advocating to vacate their board,” said Rep. Justin Pearson, a Democrat from Memphis, raising his voice as he criticized his Republican colleagues.

Last year, the Tennessee Legislature provided TSU with a lump sum of $250 million for infrastructure projects to help fix a portion of the shortfall. 

Republican Rep. Ryan Williams said that money was “completely blown through” after officials gave too many student scholarships, so many that students were placed in hotels because there wasn’t enough housing. Other universities, including University of Tennessee in Knoxville, have also been required to house some students temporarily in hotels without the same criticism from state lawmakers.

“The challenges are dire,” Williams said. “But we have to have assurances that future investment, or that remedy to this problem, is going to be well taken care of.”

TSU supporters and students watched from the galleries Thursday and cheered at times when Democrats criticized the bill. Some booed Republicans once the legislation cleared, while others lamented at the Legislature’s punishing response to the university’s challenges.

“We have people who realize it takes a bridge sometimes to get where you’re trying to go,” Barry Barlow, a pastor and TSU grad said during a news conference after the vote. “But we have people in the Tennessee General Assembly who will take your bridge of promise and stick dynamite to it.”


Associated Press writer Jonathan Mattise contributed to this report.

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