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Politics

Higher Ed Official Says State not Living Up to Funding Promises

MURFREESBORO, Tenn. (WMOT)  --  One of the state's top higher education officials says Governor Haslam and state legislators are failing to honor the “strong moral commitment“ they made to fully support Tennessee’s new higher education funding formula.

Tennessee Board of Regents Chancellor John Morgan appeared February 26, 2014, before the state Senate Education Committee. He had some harsh words for the Haslam Administration’s higher education budget being considered that day by the committee.

“It’s kind of like creating a sales force and saying we want you to go sell and we’re going to pay you on commission, and then you go sell and you come back and, ‘Well, we don’t have the money for the commission.’”

Morgan stressed that he fully supports the Complete Education Act, the 2010 legislation that fundamentally changed the way the State of Tennessee supports higher education. The Act was written to reward schools for student retention and graduation, not - as in previous years - for student recruitment.

Morgan says Tennessee higher education reacted enthusiastically to the Act’s passage, making rapid and impressive strides toward graduating more students. He says, however, that the progress seen to date will be threatened if educators don’t receive some reward for their efforts.

“I’m fearful, Madam Chair, that unless we can figure out a way to fund the outcomes, that it will have a significant negative effect on our institutions, on the willingness, the energy that people have spent really trying to figure out how to do it better.”

Morgan says recent gains in student retention and graduation required unprecedented levels of cooperation between institutions. He fears if educators aren’t rewarded for that cooperation, they may return to battling for every inch of budgetary turf.

“What’s happened is, people are doing better and some are getting less. And those who are doing even better are not getting near what they should have under the formula calculation.”

WMOT sought comment on this story from the governor’s office and from senators from both sides of the political aisle. None responded. Senators had plenty to say in committee, but not what Chancellor Morgan hoped to hear.

Here’s an exchange Morgan had with Senator Brian Kelsey of Collierville.

“You keep saying that we’re not fully funding the outcomes based policy, yet at the same time, is this showing that we’re increasing funding for TBR universities at $2.4 million dollars in the far right column at the top? Yeah! Yes. Yes. Only in government can you call a $2.4 million increase a cut.”

Morgan had a similar exchange with Senator Joey Hensley of Hohenwald.

(Morgan) "The improvement in funding at one school came at the expense of another school, and that’s pretty serious.” (Hensley) But that’s what we thought was going to happen didn’t we?” (Morgan) “No.”

Morgan went on to explain to senators that when the entire TBR system of 47 schools is considered, and a 1 percent cost of living pay increase for faculty and staff is factored in, the governor’s proposed budget will actually leave his institutions millions in the hole when they were expecting a $15 million dollar increase.

To add insult to injury, Morgan pointed out in a recent phone interview that if the higher education formula isn’t fully funded as promised, TBR will actually lose some resources to Tennessee’s other system of higher education, the University of Tennessee affiliated schools.

“It just so happens that this budget would shift about $5.7 million away from TBR institutions to the UT institutions, but that is a function of the UT Universities improving their outcomes at a pretty considerable rate.”

At the conclusion of the hearing, the Senate Education Committee voted overwhelmingly to pass the higher education budget on to the Senate Finance Committee without changes.

If the higher education budget passes the General Assembly as presently written, Chancellor Morgan and his schools will likely have to make up the unfunded portion of the formula by raising student tuition again this coming fall.

That decision will be made this summer.

Would you like to watch the February 26, 2014, Senate Education Committee meeting at which Chancellor Morgan testified?

Editor's Note: WMOT Radio is owned and operated by Middle Tennessee State University, a Tennessee Board of Regents affiliated school.