The Graying of a University

Retirements are only one pressure UT faces in the next five years

The 200th birthday candles have been blown out, and the University of Tennessee has put away its celebratory duds for another century.

Lamar Alexander--the governor-turned-UT-president who left the university for a turn as U.S. secretary of education--has turned up on the '96 presidential campaign trail, much to the relief of a campus that is just now beginning to forget the turmoil that came with him to Knoxville.

After a decade or so, UT footballers have ended the long drought, giving the Vol faithful a chance to quench their thirst in the Crimson Tide. Ever hopeful, the devout are predicting a decade of wins against the University of Alabama.

The 21st Century Campaign is raising tens of millions of dollars from enthusiastic alums who are investing in the school's future.

UT's on its Hill, all's right with the world. Everybody can kick back and enjoy one long tailgate party into the next century, right?

Maybe, but don't bet your season tickets on it.

The University of Tennessee--both the Knoxville campus and the statewide system--is on the cusp of changes the like of which it hasn't experienced since the heady growth of the 1960s.

Before the new millennium dawns on Jan. 1, 2001, a generation of aging UT administrators and faculty members--hundreds of names and faces familiar in Knoxville and across the state--will have retired or at least be eligible to do so.

Without an heir apparent to President Joe Johnson, UT's leadership is poised to come out from under a four-decade domination by a succession of administrators who got their start under the late governor Buford Ellington.

Meanwhile, the university system will bend more or less (depending on who's telling it) to other forces, including legally mandated gender engineering that will reconstitute the UT board of trustees and a proposal that would merge the UT system with the four-year universities governed by the state Board of Regents.

No one can yet say what this mix of forces will mean, but the potential for broad change is undeniable.

On the Road to Valhalla

The graying of UT's administration and faculty is the biggest foreseeable change on the school's horizon. The list of administrators who are nearing retirement age is impressive both in number and in the prestige of their positions:

· President Joe Johnson will be 63 in July.

· Bill Snyder, chancellor of the system's Knoxville campus, will be 65 in October.

· Athletic Director Doug Dickey will be 64 in June.

· Beauchamp Brogan, the system's general counsel, is already 66.

· Charles Brakebill, vice president for development, is 71.

Another key group is closing in on 65: executive vice president Emerson Fly (61), VP for agriculture D. M. Gossett (64), associate VP for government relations Walter Lambert (60), and the chancellor at UT Chattanooga, Frederick Obear (60).

Even the youngsters on the staff--Homer Fisher, senior VP; Sammie Lynn Puett, VP for public service, continuing education and community relations; Margaret Perry, the chancellor at UT Martin; and Bill Rice, who heads the UT Medical School in Memphis--will be in their sixties by 2000.

Only the babies of the bunch--treasurer Charles Peccolo, Space Institute VP Dwayne McCay and Johnson's executive assistant, Billy Stair--are in their forties and have the possibility of building significant years of service in the new century.

Likewise, retirement is sneaking up on an unusually large number of the faculty. In fall 1994, UT number crunchers calculated that 32.7 percent of the university's 1,275 faculty were between 50 and 59; another 14 percent were between 60 and 65. Thus almost 47 percent of the current faculty will either be retired or seriously contemplating the prospect by 2001.

"Most universities are in similar situations across the country," says John Clark, executive director of UT's news center. Clark says that the postwar baby boom forced UT and other schools into drastic expansion in the '60s. The pending retirements are the result of that extraordinary hiring surge.

The unprecedented turnover means that a generation of leadership will more or less evaporate from the halls and classrooms of UT.

The Case of the Missing Understudy

Of course, the retirement that matters most in the overall scheme of things is that of the president of the UT system.

Joe Johnson, an Alabama native who got his start working in finance for Ellington and Ed Boling, is hired by and serves at the pleasure of the UT board of trustees, which is appointed by the governor. Subject to the approval of the trustees, Johnson himself hires the chancellors and other officers.

Though he has no current plans to retire, the president says of himself, "I'll be 63 on July 9, and I can tell you that Joe Johnson will not be here when he's 70."

"I've got 40 and a half years in the retirement system," Johnson says. "One day it will come.

"The board and I will make the decision mutually. I'm not going to give them two weeks notice and leave. It will happen in a graceful, planned, sensible sort of way, so that the board has time to find a successor."

What is exciting to UT watchers is the growing awareness that, for the first time at least since the '50s, there is no heir apparent, no understudy who has been carefully groomed to take over when Johnson steps down.

When the sainted Andy Holt became president in 1959, he presided over a decade of unparalleled growth at the university. As he played front man and glad-handed a whole state into sending its kids and its money to UT, Ed Boling was the inside man, managing the school's finances and engineering the geographical expansion of the campus via federal urban-renewal laws.

At Holt's retirement in 1970, Boling had but a short step into the responsibilities of the top job. Johnson took on the understudy role and most likely would have followed Boling into the presidency had fate--in the person of an out-of-work governor--not intervened.

Having served his two-term maximum as Tennessee governor, Republican Lamar Alexander seized upon the presidency of UT as a highly visible spot in which to await his next political post. Administration insiders admit that Alexander even managed to engineer Boling's early retirement. In the process, he interrupted the line of succession, which would have pitted Johnson against another UT insider, Charles Smith, now the chancellor of the state Board of Regents.

When President George Bush needed a new secretary of education a scant two years later, Alexander got the call. Smith had gone on to head the state Department of Education, and Johnson finally acceded to the throne with no real competition.

The lack of his own organizational heir doesn't trouble Johnson.

"I don't feel that it's my job to pick my successor," he says. "It's my job to have people within the fabric of the institution who can step in and handle the job." In that context, he mentions Rice, Perry, Gossett and John Peters, the vice chancellor for academic affairs at UTK.

"If Joe Johnson dropped dead tomorrow," he says, "the university has people that could step up to handle that job until the board picks people to run the university.

"If I've just got a bunch of stumblebums around, I've failed."

Others in the university aren't so sanguine about the process by which UT's leadership is chosen. Some faculty members fear that the internal politics evident in the choice of Alexander and Johnson will discourage outsiders from applying in the national search that will be mounted when the time comes.

Trustee and former board vice chairman Jim Haslam scoffs at that idea. "It's a good job," Haslam says. "The university has such tremendous potential and is in such good shape that it would be very attractive to people across the country.

"There will have to be a national search. There will probably be in-house candidates. There will be more from outside."

Many faculty members are skeptical. Burned by the role state politics played in the hiring of Alexander and Johnson, many faculty want an honest search that plays by academic rules and is free of political considerations. The most cynical suggest that the UT system and its top layer of administration should be eliminated and each campus should fend for itself.

The current president of the UT Faculty Senate questions the wisdom of not having an understudy or two in waiting. Dhyana Ziegler, who also serves as associate director of diversity resources and educational services, believes Johnson should have a process that would allow interested professors to explore a move into administration.

"I have no visible signs of anybody being in the pipeline to take President Johnson's place," Ziegler says. "We need to be growing our own in-house; Joe and Bill Snyder were grown in-house. It makes sense to have some insiders in the pipeline."

One of the most prominent African Americans on the Knoxville campus, Ziegler also faults the administration for a failure to bring diversity to the president's staff. "The issue of diversity is a bone of contention with me," she says. "There is no advocate for diversity on the president's staff."

She praises Snyder for increasing the awareness of diversity issues on the Knoxville campus but says, "Across the whole UT system, we need some person of color in the president's office in a position of power."

And the winner is...

Johnson will not hazard a prediction as to who his replacement might be, and UT insiders are also mum, apparently because there really isn't a clear front-runner at this time.

It's easier to predict who it won't be. Most of Johnson's administrative colleagues are too close to his own age to be effective candidates for the post. Snyder, who enjoys a broad popularity on the Knoxville campus, is older than Johnson and is focused on the work he's undertaken as UTK chancellor. He said he has no immediate retirement plans because "I have several things I want to accomplish in this job. They'll take several years to come to fruition."

One of Snyder's chief efforts has been to set up a process for linking the school's goals and priorities with planning and budgeting, so that the money goes where UT's strengths are.

"Expecting no growth in the level of funding, we will have to pay more attention to re-allocating the resources we have, emphasizing our top priorities and putting our resources there," he says. He hopes to get that principle firmly established before retiring.

The next president is also not likely to be Smith of the Board of Regents. When asked, he answers with one unqualified word: no.

"I intend to stay where I am till I retire," Smith says. "I committed myself not to use this position as a stepping stone to anything else, and I intend to fulfill that commitment."

That news will come as a relief to many on the UTK campus, where Smith is widely seen as a little too visibly ambitious for the comfort of his fellow academics.

Possibly the most significant retirement besides the president's will be that of athletic director Doug Dickey, who is almost a year older than Johnson. When that time comes, the choice of a new AD will belong to the president.

"Athletics play a key role in the life of a university," Haslam says. "Any university CEO will want a very capable person in that position."

"I would expect that Joe and Doug might leave almost simultaneously," he says. "The next president ... the athletic director will be his or her call. It will obviously be a key hire for the new individual."

Haslam speculates that the top spot in UT athletics may not go to a coach next time.

"The old days of a football coach retiring and taking over the athletic department are over," he explains. "These days, an AD must identify head coaches, retain them and make sure the program is always in compliance with the NCAA."

"The next AD will be a marketer and a fund-raiser, and will have tremendous managerial skills."

Guys and Dolls

High-level retirements won't be the only pressure the UT system comes under in the next five years. Some longtime UT watchers expect that legislatively mandated changes in the makeup of the board of trustees will have a significant effect on the system's future.

When former governor Ned McWherter refused to appoint women in appropriate numbers to the UT board and other state bodies, angry lawmakers responded with legislation which mandates that every other trustee appointed to the board be a woman.

Gov. Don Sundquist is expected to abide by the statute, so of the six trustees he will appoint before June, three will be women.

Some among the faculty and staff predict that as the board approaches equity between men and women, the panel's approach to governance will change. Both Johnson and Haslam disagree.

"I don't think more women on the board will change the nature of the university or the administration," Haslam says. "Excellent women have served and have made decisions not because of gender but based on what's best for the university."

Johnson echoes the sentiment: "If governors continue to appoint strong, thoughtful people to the board, male or female, I wouldn't anticipate the approach to the university, its governance or the setting of goals would change."

Smith of the Board of Regents agrees, but he has one caveat. He notes that the male trustees have been predominantly bankers and lawyers; women coming onto the board will likely come from other professions, possibly bringing different approaches to their responsibilities.

"When the boards get to be 50-50, the women may bring a broader perspective," he says.

Practicality a nonstarter

The suggestion that looms smallest in the university's future is a proposal in the governor's Commission on Practical Government to merge the UT system with the four-year schools now governed by the state Board of Regents.

The report, released last month, recommends that all four-year state institutions be put under the same governing board and chief executive and that a separate board and CEO be created for the community colleges, technical schools and technology centers. A bipartisan panel under the chairmanship of Ronald Terry, former head of First Tennessee National Corp., compiled the study at Gov. Sundquist's request.

"The existing governance system of Tennessee higher education is so fragmented that it does not provide the focus or accountability necessary to respond to the state's vision, to be the primary engine of the state's economic growth, to control program proliferation and redundancy or to be cost effective," the report states.

"The $133 million in systems and campus overhead is excessive, and reducing this while achieving other important goals can only be done through rational, unified and accountable governance."

The problems the commission identified include costs that are rising two percent faster than inflation, inadequacies in undergraduate teaching, the proliferation of unneeded or redundant programs and curricula, and an overall increase in state monies going to administration instead of instruction.

The commission's recommendation has been greeted with the enthusiasm UT usually reserves for a number-one-ranked University of Alabama football team.

"Most of these recommendations you can agree with," says Joe Johnson, president of the UT system. "Yea, rah," he adds, his voice going flat.

The merger has been "proposed before in different legislative sessions," Johnson points out. "It's not new or revolutionary."

The report strategically does not suggest whether the UT system would be swallowed up by the Board of Regents or whether UT would oversee the state schools in places like Johnson City and Murfreesboro, but it does recommend that each school have its own board of trustees in addition to the overall board.

While Johnson admits that there are valid reasons to be concerned about duplication of programs and curricula and the quality of governance in some state schools, the president questions how a commission intent on practical government could propose an increase in the number of boards.

"We have plenty to do. We don't need seven more institutions, or six or 10. We wouldn't do as good a job," Johnson says.

Neither current UTK Chancellor Bill Snyder nor a predecessor, Jack Reese, has a higher opinion of the merger proposal.

"I personally favor the UT system as it is," says Snyder, who gets high marks on the UTK campus as a competent, progressive administrator. "It's a good, solid system that is working well." He denies that combining the two systems would generate savings in money or personnel.

"It doesn't make any sense," says Reese, who presided over a reduction in enrollment that has let UT set higher standards for its undergraduate student body. "The people favoring it are assuming greater efficiency. But historically, practically, that's not true."

"UT is a good size. It's large enough to be efficient," says Reese, but still small enough to make the campuses in the system accessible to the system administration.

Others in state government evidently share UT's dislike for the commission's idea.

"Dead in the water," reports Ziegler after her return last week from meetings with the state legislature's Black Caucus.

And the official many UT folk thought would support the recommendation is also not impressed. Smith, the chancellor of the state Board of Regents, opposes any talk of merger, pointing out that problems within the Board of Regents system are being addressed.

"What we have today is the result of thoughtful and deliberative decision-making based on detailed review of well-documented studies," Smith recently told a legislative oversight committee. "Evolution rather than revolution has produced the system in place today.

"In my judgment both UT and TBR boards have about as much on our plates as either can realistically and effectively manage."

Ron Terry, the Memphis banker who chaired the commission, disputes both the "dead on arrival" judgments and the criticisms of the merger recommendation.

He describes the current dual-governance setup as a 20-year-old political decision "to set up two competing systems of higher education with a referee in between [the Tennessee Higher Education Commission] that had no teeth."

"It was basically done to avoid the political opposition of the leadership of the University of Tennessee," Smith says. He notes that the current arrangement was meant to limit lobbying of the Legislature by individual campuses, to control the redundancy of educational programs and to rein in the escalating costs of higher education.

"Then we had two campuses offering doctorates. Now we have six. Now every campus has its lobbyist, and the cost of higher education is rising two percent higher than inflation.

"Last week, members of our commission visited with the joint Senate and House education committee. And if there was an outpouring of dissatisfaction with the recommendation of the report, we failed to hear it," Terry says.

"The question is bigger than the University of Tennessee," says Terry, who served a nine-year term on UT's board. "The issue is where and how we control programs and costs most effectively, with the idea that most Tennesseans want to ensure that there is no difference in education of students at UTK or Middle Tennessee State."

Former UT trustee R. B. "Pete" Hailey applauds the recommendations of Terry's commission. "I endorse the findings of that committee wholeheartedly," says the Sevierville lawyer, whose outspokenness on the board cost him reappointment a couple of years ago. "The entire educational system should be carefully looked at. Many of the things in the report are good."

Whither UT?

For the men at the top of the UT structure, the future of the school looks rosy.

"I'm very comfortable with the university, where it is and where it's going," says Haslam, one of UT's most influential trustees, who has served since 1980. "I think the University of Tennessee is functioning very well."

For Haslam and Johnson, the university has achieved a stable organization and is making commendable progress. They have no doubts about UT's future, even when they are no longer in control.

But the pressures of retirement, the legislative mandate and the merger recommendation--coupled with the likelihood that the university's level of state funding will not see significant growth in the future--leaves the university more open to sweeping change than it has been in 40 years.

Terry seems to have the clearest vision of that possibility when he talks of the changes in national politics that have taken place in the last year. He also points to the final recommendation in the educational section of the report, the suggestion that Knoxville's UT Medical Center be cut loose financially from the UT system.

"When I was a trustee, one question was what are we doing with responsibility for a great big hospital in Knoxville," he says. UT officials justified it on the basis of the revenue it raised and the needs of graduate medical education. Now UT itself has signed off on the need to distance itself from the center.

To those who predict that the Practical Government report will never fly, he offers a simple warning that could sum up UT's future:

"Things change."

© 1996 MetroPulse. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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