It’s been a tumultuous year at Tennessee State, a university without a permanent president, a faculty at odds with the interim chief and barely a sign of a search for the replacement.
In July 2010, Dr. Melvin Johnson announced he would resign as TSU president effective Jan. 1, 2011. Fifteen months later a search for his replacement has not yet begun, while factions within the TSU community have become more polarized.
On Dec. 7, less than a month before Johnson’s scheduled exit, the university issued a release stating that while it would maintain its accreditation by the Southern Association of College and Schools, it had been given a warning, and final reaffirmation of its accreditation for another 10 years was put on hold for 12 months.
In mid-December, the Tennessee Board of Regents announced the appointment of Dr. Portia Shields as the interim president of TSU. That job came with a mandate from the TBR to include addressing issues regarding the SACS affirmation, improving security, enhancing campus friendliness and improving administrative procedures, according to Shields.
Shields assumed the lead role at TSU Jan. 2, promising change was coming. Meanwhile, some are questioning the implementation of that change at the university and wondering why, 15 months after Johnson announced his retirement, a search for his permanent replacement still has not begun.
A Save TSU Community Coalition of students, faculty and community leaders formed earlier this year amid announced changes from a reorganization plan to cut some degree programs and realign others. Among the programs that would be cut are undergraduate majors in physics and Africana studies and master’s programs in English, math and music education.
The goals of STCC include pushing the TBR to reject or suspend that proposed plan and asking for “fair treatment of TSU by the TBR and a policy of shared governance by the TSU Administration.” The group has also sought a detailed, independent explanation of how the current reorganization plan actually saves the university money while pushing to begin an external search for a permanent university president.
In April, Shields announced that eight academic programs deemed “not productive or mission-essential” to the university would be cut and other “mission-essential” programs would be reorganized or consolidated into other more productive programs.
She stated that the reorganization came after “several months of extensive deliberations, consultations and input from various stakeholders at the university” and were meant to “right-size” the university.
Shields said those decisions were made in part based on recommendations made by a task force of faculty and staff prior to her arrival on TSU soil.
“I met with faculty and the whole university family once every four to six weeks when I came here, talking about the Complete College Tennessee Act and what it did not and did require,” Shields said. “It was an unfunded mandate that requires us, in order to get some money from the state, to graduate students within a six-year time frame. Our graduation rate is not within that time frame.”
Shields claims the changes were made to keep the university viable in a tough economy where students are looking for degree programs that will yield them jobs. She added that other Tennessee universities had to implement similar changes.
“I think the faculty understood [the reorganization plan],” Shields said. “But there are a few who did not want us to do anything and as a matter of fact just told me to just wait.”
But the announced changes and the process surrounding them have some in the TSU community at odds with the interim president.
In the spring, the TSU Faculty Senate drafted and delivered two resolutions to Shields expressing its concern that it wasn’t included in the input process regarding the academic reorganization.
A May 3 email from Faculty Senate Chair Elaine Busey to Shields stated, “Senators voiced their concern that administrative decisions, which directly impact the Tennessee State University faculty, were made without Faculty Senate participation and additionally that Faculty Senate was not given time to respond to the decisions prior to the announcement.”
“There were a few people … not all the faculty, maybe four or five, who wanted me to do nothing period but sit here behind the desk,” Shields said. “Well, I wasn’t hired to do that.”
Dr. Raymond Richardson, a TSU professor and a member of STCC, said changes pushed by Shields and the process through which they were made contradict how universities operate.
“That’s unheard of in a modern university — that you would make these dramatic changes in the structure of the university and the faculty is totally out of it,” Richardson said. “The president can’t match senior faculty in terms of knowledge of what these things do and what the traditions in the university are. She’s been at the university [only] since January.”
TBR spokeswoman Monica Greppin told The City Paper that Chancellor John Morgan is on vacation until mid-October and would not be available to comment before then. Vice chancellors were also unavailable for comment for this story.
Greppin said that while an official search to replace Johnson had not yet begun, the board members in September approved the criteria for presidents at TSU, Tennessee Technological University and for Volunteer State Community College.
“We don’t have a timeline, a definitive timeline yet, but our goal is to have a president in place sometime next year,” Greppin said.
“That doesn’t happen to any other institution,” Richardson said. “If an institution in the TBR system — if a president leaves, they start a search the minute they know that person is leaving.”
In contrast, two months ago the TBR formed a presidential search advisory committee to identify three to five candidates as possible replacements for Eastern Tennessee State University President Paul Stanton Jr., who announced this spring he will retire effective Jan. 14, 2012.
Last month, Shields took another heavy step toward change when she announced that she wanted to bring a once-proud tradition of football back to the campus of TSU by renovating Hale Stadium, also known as “The Hole.” Shields said students “worried her to death” asking when the TSU Tigers were going to go back to The Hole.
Last week Shields announced a campaign to determine the future of football at Hale Stadium. Shields wants to spend $1 million on the stadium in the short term to allow the TSU Tigers to play three games at Hale Stadium in 2012, the year of the university’s centennial celebration.
Those who wish to weigh in on the proposed long-term renovation of the stadium can pay $10 to TSU’s scholarship fund to get a vote — “Hale yes” or “Hale no.” “Whatever they decide we’ll announce it on Homecoming Day,” Shields said. If it’s “no” then the school will only spend around $1 million to improve the look and safety of the stadium. If “yes”, she’ll pursue long-term renovations which could cost about $27 million.
Shields said on Thursday, “We want to bring football back. I thought that we could do this simply, but nothing at this university is simple.”