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Higher education under the microscope, APSU officials comment

December 9, 2003


With all of the publicity over crimson carpets, its easy to forget that the General Assembly called for more accountability from the states three higher education boards long before former UT President John Shumakers questionable expenditures and ethics ever made the news.

The UT board, the Tennessee Board of Regents and Tennessee Higher Education Commission (THEC) were given until Dec. 31 to adopt new codes of ethics. THEC adopted one earlier this year. TBR adopted a new Code of Ethics Dec. 4.
December 9, 2003


With all of the publicity over crimson carpets, it's easy to forget that the General Assembly called for more accountability from the state's three higher education boards long before former UT President John Shumaker's questionable expenditures and ethics ever made the news.

The UT board, the Tennessee Board of Regents and Tennessee Higher Education Commission (THEC) were given until Dec. 31 to adopt new codes of ethics. THEC adopted one earlier this year. TBR adopted a new Code of Ethics Dec. 4.

The new code outlines specific rules regarding conflicts of interest, improper gifts and financial disclosure. It also gives TBR members the power to oust a colleague for ethics violations after an administrative hearing and a two-thirds vote.

While members of the three boards are supporting the new ethics codes, some are backing even more stringent policies. For example, Clayton McWhorter, vice chair of the UT board, is calling for background checks of future trustees.

However, accountability not only is being discussed in the General Assembly. It has become a buzzword in the media as higher education has met increasing public scrutiny—especially in the three weeks since Sen. Jerry Cooper (D-Morrison) told TBR Chancellor Charles Manning to find out if there was “anything else out there” that could garner bad publicity and report any findings to the state Fiscal Review Committee.

Manning returned for a closed meeting with the committee Dec. 2. According to Tennessean reporter Michael Cass, Manning told officials about the sexual harassment complaint filed in October against Middle Tennessee State University President Sidney McPhee, Chattanooga State Technical Community College's now-defunct magazine and “personnel problems that have resulted in a resignation, a firing, a probation, a grievance and an equal-opportunity complaint at the Tennessee Small Business Development Center in the system's central office in Nashville.”

In the next day's newspaper, Cass wrote an article scrutinizing the cost of the TBR's quarterly meeting at MTSU. The total cost of an average meeting in 2002-03 was $69,000, with taxpayers paying about $58,000. Last week's meeting cost MTSU $34,000, including $11,400 in tax dollars.

On Dec. 4, the regents found themselves defending the relationship between TBR's public colleges and universities and their private foundations. Regent Frank Barnett (Knoxville) pointed out that increased involvement by the schools could cause these fundraising operations to lose their federal tax exemption.

The next day, their meeting made the “Local” section of The Tennessean, but higher education was on the front page with news that Tennessee State University President James Hefner is being investigated for receiving Super Bowl tickets from someone at Aramark Corp., a state contracted food vendor, and that McPhee will be suspended for two to four weeks.

In commenting on the Hefner investigation, Bredesen said he was “troubled that the public trust in the state's colleges might be eroded by poor judgment of school presidents,” including Shumaker and McPhee, according to Cass.

Dr. Sherry Hoppe says, “Even before the Shumaker debacle, the tight fiscal condition in Tennessee had led to ongoing questions about the potential waste in higher education. With widespread publicity about exorbitant expenditures by the UT president, all of higher education is under the microscope.

“Just last week, two TBR presidents were headlined in The Tennessean following investigations into alleged improprieties. Unfortunately, the fallout from the situations surrounding these leaders and others is affecting all of us. Governor Bredesen's comment summed his expectations up quite well. We must be not only ‘within the letter of the law, but well inside the letter of the law.'

“No one is perfect, and the best any of us can do will not prevent mistakes being made. However, if we know of irregularities in adherence to policies, we have an absolute obligation to get them corrected. It is not acceptable to simply say that the policy is illogical or needs to be changed. As long as the policy exists, we must do our best to follow the policy. And, it is much better for the institution to identify any potential policy issues and correct them rather than wait for some type of external review to detect them.

“The potential for reading about the detection of problems or policy violations in the media can be significantly reduced if all of us are diligent in following policies.

“The level of scrutiny higher education is under is not enjoyable, but it is a reality with which we must deal. It creates significant research and paperwork and consumes an inordinate amount of time. The environment we are in demands a higher level of public accountability, and we must ensure that APSU is in the best position possible to address any questions that come to us.”

Mitch Robinson, vice president for finance and administration, adds, “The expectation has and will always be that employees follow established policies and procedures of the state, TBR and APSU.”
—Rebecca Mackey