Tennessee State cites past underfunding as cause of problems
An enrollment surge at Tennessee State University combined with a lack of student housing led to a scathing comptroller’s report calling for a change in the historically Black university’s leadership.
But the university’s longtime president, Glenda Glover, alumni and other supporters of the Nashville institution have argued against a proposal that would place the institution under the oversight of the Tennessee Board of Regents, the governing board for 37 technical and community colleges in the state.
At stake is local control of an institution in a state that has admitted to years of inequitable funding for its only public historically Black college. The state’s comptroller, Jason Mumpower, has told lawmakers that change is needed because “right now, TSU is not a well-run organization.” His report cites a lack of planning for an expansion of the university’s scholarship program that exacerbated a housing crunch—leading to several hundred students being housed in hotels miles away from campus—as well as a lack of proper documentation to ensure that incoming students met grade point average or financial need requirements to receive the institutional awards, among other problems.
A joint House and Senate subcommittee in the state General Assembly recommended Monday that Tennessee State keep its Board of Trustees for at least one more year. A full committee on government operations has yet to make a decision.
“The school proposed a plan to self-correct. The collective wisdom was to give them a small extension to see if there is progress,” State Senator Adam Lowe, a Republican on the subcommittee, said in an email Tuesday. Lowe voted in favor of the one-year extension.
Mumpower told lawmakers that university leaders should have foreseen a housing crisis, given that it more than quadrupled its 2022–23 scholarship budget to $28.3 million, from $5.2 million the previous year.
“In the fall of 2021, management decided to conduct an extensive recruiting campaign to bring in more students, which by itself is not an issue. But unfortunately, these students were promised housing—housing the Tennessee State University management knew they did not have a sufficient supply of,” Mumpower said.
Glover, who spoke at the committee meeting and a meeting of an ad hoc committee a week earlier, said the comptroller’s calls for change were out of proportion in their severity compared to the alleged problems at the university. She told lawmakers the state regents’ board “has no structure whatsoever to support a four-year institution.”
Glover described the university as taking action in response to a 41 percent yield rate for admitted students, which is well over expectations based on rates in past years.
“It is over one-third more students wanting to come to TSU, so we adjusted our scholarship budget,” Glover said. “No, we didn’t just adjust the budget in advance to get more students.”
Glover attributed the increased enrollment to an “HBCU renaissance,” as more students opt for Black colleges and minority-serving institutions.
Along with Glover, who has led Tennessee State since 2013, the university’s current trustees also addressed lawmakers.
“The TSU board, President Glover and the TSU administration take the concerns raised in the comptroller’s report seriously and have taken measures and will take additional substantive measures to ensure these issues are addressed and corrected,” said Deborah Cole, a former bank president and the board chair.
The university became what’s considered a locally governed institution only in 2017, after a statewide reorganization following passage of a state law known as the Focus on College and University Success Act, or FOCUS. The law called for a reorganization that resulted in six four-year universities in Tennessee getting their own boards of trustees, rather than being overseen by the Tennessee Board of Regents.
The comptroller’s office described housing problems as likely to continue into the foreseeable future. According to the comptroller’s report, Tennessee State had a fall 2022 enrollment of 9,218 students, an increase of 1,141 students compared to the previous fall.
Glover emphasized that the university has “no housing crisis” this spring semester.
“We’re working to ensure housing is addressed for fall 2023 and long term,” Glover has said. The university enrolled 3,567 first-year students this past fall, and Glover told lawmakers last week that “we’re going to manage our enrollment to align with our housing capacity.” The university stated in response to a draft of the comptroller’s report that new student enrollment for fall 2023 semester would be limited to about 2,600.
Tennessee State has plans to build two new residence halls and to tear down three or four existing residence halls. The comptroller’s report noted that this could result in a net decrease of 500 beds on campus.
Glover, trustees and supporters have also pointed to the state’s underfunding of the university as contributing to its problems. A previous legislative report found between $150 and $544 million in unpaid land-grant funds should have gone to the university from fiscal years 1957 through 2007.
Governor Bill Lee last year championed a $250 million state “investment” to improve campus buildings and other physical infrastructure at Tennessee State. His proposal won approval in the General Assembly and the university in January announced its plans to renovate several academic and student services buildings. But that money cannot be used to build student housing, according to the comptroller’s report, as such buildings are considered auxiliary facilities that generate revenue.
Tennessee State supporters raised the issue of persistent underfunding during committee meetings about the comptroller’s report.
“The accomplishments of Tennessee State University are all the more impressive when one recalls that TSU has experienced decades of being underfunded,” said Charles Galbreath, president of the university’s national alumni association. “The issue of land-grant funding must be considered when assessing the university’s business affairs and overall management.”
Obie McKenzie, a finance executive and member of the university’s Board of Trustees, told lawmakers that if “we’d had the money that we were due, perhaps our buildings wouldn’t be falling down.”
“Perhaps we wouldn’t be putting our students in hotels if we’d just been treated a little more fairly and had the money that we were due,” McKenzie said.
Glover has told lawmakers that the university “is in a better position now than it’s ever been in our 111-year history,” including financially.
Artenzia Young-Seigler, chair of the university’s Faculty Senate, said in a phone interview she supports the president’s plan and the current Board of Trustees.
“We are excited about the increased enrollment. Having said that, we know that there will be additional faculty that will be needed,” said Young-Seigler, a biology professor and faculty member for more than two decades. Young-Seigler said her academic department hired temporary or adjunct faculty members to help with the recent enrollment increase, and she expects more permanent hires to be made.
Young-Seigler said the possibility of changes to the university’s leadership is concerning.
“I think everyone is concerned on campus about what’s happening, because it affects all of us.”
Some students have complaints about the university, however. The comptroller’s office received “several emails from students citing unfulfilled scholarships, housing assignment uncertainty, and a lack of timely or clear responses concerning scholarships and housing,” according to the report, which lists 18 inquiries from Aug. 1 through Oct. 13 of last year.
One first-year student told television station Fox 17 that hotel living “makes me feel like I made the wrong choice sometimes, if I’m being honest” and described it as “really very taxing.” The student said the hotel’s hot water did not always work.
Last August, the university requested state approval to spend $17 million for fall 2022 emergency housing, with the money coming from about $7.2 million in institutional plant fund reserves and the rest from student housing fees, according to the report. The requested amount—downsized from a request made in July—included $13 million for five hotels, which ended up housing 881 students, including 250 first-year students. The hotels are located 3.5 to 12.7 miles from the downtown campus.
Other emergency housing consisted of a property about a mile from campus that housed 167 students, including 161 freshmen, according to the comptroller’s report.
“The housing issue that we’ve illustrated today is only a symptom of a much larger management problem,” Mumpower said at the committee meeting, noting that his report also questioned the university’s lack of documentation of scholarship recipients’ grade point averages and financial need, among other issues.
Mumpower said, “The students who were recruited and received scholarships may actually not have qualified for these scholarships on the basis of their GPA requirements.”
The report stated that about 529 out of 1,722 freshman scholarship awards—nearly one out of three—didn’t meet minimum grade point average requirements. A majority of the scholarships were “full-cost” awards that included an offer of “guaranteed housing,” according to the report.
If students qualified based on financial need, there was “inadequate documentation that students qualified for scholarships based on a random sample of TSU student files reviewed,” the report stated.
Glover told lawmakers that the report “tried to portray that we had unqualified students receiving scholarships,” but that “no student received a scholarship” who didn’t meet GPA requirements or qualified “from a need-based standpoint.”
“That part of the report is absolutely, unequivocally untrue,” Glover said.
In response to questions from Inside Higher Ed about why the comptroller found inadequate documentation, a university spokeswoman referred to a press statement and the university’s written response to the comptroller’s report.
The university’s response stated, “The process includes verifying each scholarship recipient’s final high school transcript which contains the GPA, before finalizing the student’s financial aid and scholarship awards. Students whose final GPA did not meet scholarship requirements were awarded need-based grants.”
The university’s statement also noted that scholarship dollars came from “internal financial operations, without any request from the state of Tennessee for scholarship funds.”
The comptroller’s office attempted to match student transcript information about high school grade point average to university files on students. Out of a sample of 59, only 16 matched, meaning that the grade point average on the transcript was the same as recorded by the university in its scholarship records. In 20 cases, no comparison was possible because “the scholarship listing lacked the student’s GPA, the student’s transcript was missing, or the GPA on the transcript was not comparable to the GPA on the TSU scholarship listing (i.e., not the same GPA calculation methodology),” the report stated. In other cases, the transcript GPA did not match the university’s “scholarship listing.”
Glover told lawmakers the grade point average for incoming first-year students “has steadily increased” in recent years.
Mumpower and the comptroller’s office presented several options for leadership changes, including having the board replace Glover.
“We’ve developed a situation where the management runs the Board of Trustees instead of the Board of Trustees running the university,” he told lawmakers.
For her part, Glover has criticized the idea of the university being placed under the state Board of Regents and referred to a 2001 agreement known as the Geier Consent Decree, which put an end to litigation begun in 1968 alleging a dual system of higher education in Tennessee segregated by race.
The decree, which lasted for five years, required the state to provide more financial support for the university and included other measures to expand access to higher education for Black students.
In describing the possibility of Tennessee State being placed under the state Board of Regents, “That is discrimination,” Glover said.