Bill Offered to Create Higher Ed Inspector

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by Lucas L. Johnson II, Associated Press

NASHVILLE — Republican state lawmakers are proposing legislation to create an inspector who would examine operations within Tennessee’s higher education systems.

The legislation scheduled in the House State Government Subcommittee on Wednesday would create the Office of Higher Education Ombudsman within the office of the state Comptroller of the Treasury. It also would establish the position of Higher Education Inspector General within the ombudsman’s office, which is estimated to cost $504,300, according to a legislative summary of the bill.

The salary and benefits alone for the inspector general’s position is expected to cost $123,000.

The person’s job would be to “examine financial and policy compliance” within the University of Tennessee and state Board of Regents systems and annually report to the chairs of the education committees in the House and Senate.

The ombudsman could function as the inspector general, “unless the comptroller finds that responsibilities would be handled more efficiently by two separate individuals,” according to the summary.

State Republicans, who hold supermajorities in both chambers, have stressed streamlining government to save money. They passed legislation to eliminate nearly a dozen oversight committees and shift their responsibilities to standing committees in the House and Senate.

In this case, sponsors of the ombudsman legislation say such a position is needed because of recent things that have happened within higher education, even though they declined to specify.

“There were probably a number of incidents that took place that led me to believe that we needed some other mechanism to help in oversight of higher ed,” said Senate sponsor Delores Gresham of Somerville, who is also chairwoman of the Senate Education Committee.

Added House sponsor Barrett Rich of Somerville: “We need an ombudsman, or someone who is an independent source, where faculty, where staff, can go to give a description of events … and have their voices heard.”

Rich said an amendment is expected to be proposed to reduce the bill’s fiscal note, although he didn’t say exactly how much.

Last year, lawmakers and higher education officials were thrust into a firestorm between faculty at Tennessee State University and the school’s interim president at the time.

The Senate Higher Education Subcommittee held a hearing to consider allegations that TSU officials changed incomplete grades into letter grades for more than 100 students in two introductory level courses without instructors’ permission.

School officials said that they received approval from the state Board of Regents to change the grades and that instructors were informed.

It was later determined that there was no wrongdoing.

David Gregory, vice chancellor of the Board of Regents, said the state’s higher education systems are capable of handling situations like the one that arose at TSU.

“We in higher education try to be transparent, and we try to engage as much as we can with information with our faculty and staff,” he said. “The inspector portion, at least in my mind, sort of conjures up an audit function similar to that which is already available.”

The Board of Regents oversees six universities, 13 community colleges and 27 technology centers.

The university system has campuses in Knoxville, Chattanooga and Martin; the Health Science Center in Memphis; state Institutes of Agriculture and Public Service; and the Space Institute in Tullahoma.

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