Interim TSU president faces faculty resistance over changes as she looks to aid Tiger football

Sunday, October 9, 2011 at 10:05pm
Photo courtesy of TSU 

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.”   

10 Comments on this post:

By: Trumpet on 10/10/11 at 3:21

Joe/The Collection:.........."Right On ! !"........I am a case-in-point, in support of the truthfulness of one quote in this article..."but nothing at this university is simple". Please refer to the Proposal to collaborate between TSU at-large and The Joseph H. Davis Master Video & Film Collection.
...Keep the Faith...

By: lxhua on 10/10/11 at 3:26

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By: treehugger7 on 10/10/11 at 6:56

They would rather play in the old hole instead of LP Field? The money needs to be spent on education, not football. Grow up! Take money from athletics to improve education! Isn't that more important than where a game is played. Grow up!

By: govskeptic on 10/10/11 at 7:12

The University traditions that many want to keep are exactly why this
Historic School is in so much trouble. Traditions like poor financial
budgeting, poor security and maintenance standards, and use of
Scholarships going to family and friends versus most deserving do
nothing but create distrust among those in charge of Oversight.

Prudent academic programs and administration in several areas
can get the University back on track. Keeping things the way a few
"Old and long time professors, alumni, and supporters" want
it to be run will only bring more grief to students and any attempts
at fundraising!

By: howardjonesjuve... on 10/10/11 at 8:30

Howard Jones
Bringing football back to Jerfferson Street is an educational economics lesson that we have learned. Invest in this community and bring Tiger football back to Jerfferson St. That will bring dollars back that departed the Jefferson area when football went to the Titans Stadium.
Second, stop this dual higher education system in Tennessee and save more money from the top down. This is simple math.
Third, if teachers on this level can't teach retire or fire them. If students are not going to class kick them out...
All of this can be completed with dignity and respect. BE NICE AND DO WHAT IS RIGHT!
Something to think about...

By: Siobhanne on 10/10/11 at 9:50

Dr. Shields is not there to maintain status quo. We already know that wasn't working. She is there to make changes so that the school will be fiscally responsible and academically sound. If the old guard's feathers are ruffled in the process.. oh well. She isn't there to make friends. She is a much needed fresh set of eyes. Students who graduate from TSU should not have to navigate throught an administrative minefield to have simple tasks done. My daughter sent 5 sets of transcripts over the course of a year and admissions still screwed it up. She finally gave up out of frustration and attended ETSU. Smooth as glass there. I am not a huge fan of athletics but being able to hold football games at Hale Stadium would be a huge morale booster both for the students, the alumni and the community. If the long term effect would result in more money then it would be worth considering.

By: san r on 10/10/11 at 4:22

focus on the long lines and the hateful attitudes of staff. that is what i remember most. college prone students have internet access so let them register from their computers. we need to treat each other with utmost respect instead of taking our failings out on one another. we have fallen very short, me included, but one major thing that i have learned is that if we do not PULL TOGETHER, all is lost.

By: BigPapa on 10/11/11 at 7:17

"but nothing at this university is simple.” I hope she can stay around long enough to out last many of those hold over at TSU. However, I think that place is such a cesspool that it will eventually suck her down and sap her energy. As with many in that culture, there are LOTS of problems, but little if any real desire to correct those problems.

By: PillowTalk4 on 10/11/11 at 10:24

I visisted the TSU campus during labor weekend and was simply impressed with the level of friendliness, customer service and support I witnessed on campus. Students, adminstrators and others all seemed very welcoming. That unto itself is a major change. Sometimes it takes small changes to boost major changes. As an alumnus of TSU, I'm aware that my beloved university has its issues. I'm also aware that people in general typically don't like change. Especially when that change impacts them. So many alumni and supporters of TSU are complaining about the changes based on hearsay and opinions of a small fraction. I encourage everyone who shares a stake in the future of TSU to know the facts, open your eyes and your minds to the possibilities of what TSU can be and should be, while preserving the real traditions. Poor service to students, poorly functioning adminstrators, tenured professors who are there just to earn a check, those are not real TSU traditions, but they've become part of the landscape and perceptions that hurt TSU. It's time to clean up the yard, replace some trees, bushes and plants. It's time to spruce up the pathways to ensure that the journey for current and future TSU students is brighter, smoother, more productive. Afterall, todays students become tomorrows alum. We want them to be proud, willful supporters of TSU. Not the ones who say I'm just glad to be done and move on.

I can't say if the actions Dr. Shields has implemented are going to work. I bet 99% of the people reading this article and even those on the STCC can't either. And, I'm not suggesting that we all sit back and just let her have reign over everything without proper protocol. However, I do believe that we should give change a chance. Enrollment is up at TSU this semester, yet no one is talking about that major improvement after several years of seeing the enrollment decline. As for the stadium issue, I find it mazing that so many TSU supporters have argued for years since being off campus that they would love to see TSU football return to campus. Now we have a President who has taken action to make that happen and there's this outcry. I for one would love to stop paying rent to play at LP Field and return real traditions of TSU football on campus where it belongs. Yes, it will cost money to do it. But, is everyone going to simply overlook that by bringing football back on campus it may spark more interest among current students to attend games, even the OVC games? It may spark those who were against us moving off campus to return. It my ignite the community in and around TSU again. I for one would actually prefer to eventually see us play the JMC and homecoming on campus in a beautiful and comfortable 25K-30K seat stadium. What a beautiful site that would be. What a boost that would be to the campus spirit, the area around the campus on game day, the businesses that will benefit from such activity. Businesses that will grow and hire more TSU students. I'd rather spend my parking money on campus than at LP Field. I'd rather see people pay to tailgate on campus than LP Field. I'd rather see and hear the Aristocrat of Bands march from the music building to the stadium as a tradition than to see them get off a bus and walk into LP Field. TSU Football was football at its best not just because we won more often than not. It was football at its best because of the traditions that made playing football on campus something the community took pride and joy in attending. That will never be felt at LP Field.

It is time for change at TSU and it is time for alum, students and supporters to stop fighting and find ways to bridge our ideas and resources for the betterment of TSU. If we collectively start working together, think of what that energy could create. If we understand that no one person or group holds the key to TSU's success, then we will realize that we all share in that responsibility. There is too much at stake for us to keep fighting like politicians (from both parties) in Washington, who get nothing done because of there petty loyalties. It's time TSU supporters to get off our soap boxes, step from behind our computers and stop moaning, groaning and complaining about everything, but doing nothing. That unto itself makes us part of the problem, not the solution.

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