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Tennessee Republicans replace trustees at Tennessee State University

Republican lawmakers in Tennessee this week replaced the board of trustees at the state’s only public historically Black college, saying leaders had mismanaged money at the school despite being underfunded for years.

Gov. Bill Lee (R) signed into law Thursday a bill to vacate the 10-member board at Tennessee State University shortly after the measure was approved in a 66-25 vote by the GOP-controlled state House. The measure took effect immediately, and Lee also named new trustees for the board of the HBCU in Nashville.

Some lawmakers expressed concerns that state leaders, who are predominantly White, are unfairly singling out Tennessee State.

“I’ve seen many audits of many universities that look horrendous,” state Rep. Bo Mitchell (D-Nashville) said after the House vote. “Have we ever, ever vacated an entire board of a university before? Have we ever done that?”

In a statement, Tennessee State officials said, “We believe this legislation will disrupt our students’ educational pursuits, harm the image of the University, and remove a Board that had achieved success in its enhanced governance of TSU.” The statement also said the school never mismanaged funds.

Several audits conducted over the years, including two released this week, revealed that TSU has face challenges in maintaining financial stability, which led lawmakers to pursue dissolving the board of trustees. But a recent forensic audit revealed no evidence of “fraud or malfeasance” at the university.

But a recent report from the state comptroller’s office indicated that the school is not meeting federal guidelines for various programs, including the Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund during the pandemic, Pell Grants, and said the school granted Title IV funds to ineligible students.

Tennessee State officials stated that proper funding could have changed their situation. The state’s legislature previously determined that — at $544 million — the university was underfunded. A federal report last fall on land-grant universities like Tennessee State stated the university has been underfunded by the state by $2.1 billion between 1987 to 2022. Just two schools in the state have the land-grant designation: TSU and the University of Tennessee.

In the 1860s, Congress approved a program to improve access to colleges across the country. Under the program, land-grant schools receive federal funding that must be matched by state governments.

States should fix underfunding of land-grant HBCUs, Biden administration says

State Rep. Justin Pearson (D-Memphis) told Nashville’s local NPR station, WPLN, “The University of Tennessee — a predominantly white institution and the state’s other land grant university — did, in fact, get its full state funding each year.”

“Some years, the University of Tennessee even got more than its required funding levels,” Pearson said. “But Tennessee State University was denied those resources, and because they were denied the resources, there were problems that occurred.”

State Republicans said Tennessee State has not used money appropriated to the school well and granted too many scholarships that left students without housing which left them in hotel rooms. In 2022, the university said it had moved about 900 students into off-campus hotels after it enrolled a record number of first-year students that fall semester.

“Tennessee State University is a remarkable institution and my administration, in partnership with the General Assembly, is committed to ensuring students are being served,” Lee said.

Tennessee State is also searching for its next president. The current president, Glenda Glover, is stepping down in June.

Danielle Douglas-Gabriel contributed to this report

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