Board of Regents Brew Strong Drink for the Tennessee TEA Party

The hiring of John Morgan as Chancellor of the Board of Regents is a perfect example of the kind of thing that is driving the TEA Party movement across America—political insiders bending the rules to help their buddies at the expense of taxpayers.

This Wednesday TEA for the November TEA Party will start simmering when the Tennessee Senate Education Committee holds a hearing regarding recent actions taken by the Board of Regents with respect to the hiring of its new Chancellor, John Morgan. The Board of Regents is the state agency that oversees the largest number of institutions of higher education and students in Tennessee (the University of Tennessee system is smaller in comparison). But recent revelations will make the brew even stronger.

To begin with, the hiring of Mr. Morgan is a perfect example of the kind of thing that is driving the TEA Party movement across America—political insiders bending the rules to help their buddies at the expense of taxpayers. It is not that John Morgan is a bad person. It’s not even an issue of whether he’s capable of heading the largest higher education system in Tennessee and sixth largest in the nation. That is not the issue.

The issue arises out of the fact that John Morgan, for all intents and purposes, has been a very well paid career state employee who recently found himself in need of a job. After being removed from his politically appointed position as Comptroller of the State when Republicans took control of the legislature in 2010, he was hired by the Governor to work in his administration. Fair enough. Working for the Governor is again a purely political appointment. But with the Governor term limited and leaving office next January, Mr. Morgan again found himself without a job.

There is no doubt that, with his experience, he could have found a job in the private sector doing something. If nothing else, he could have taught governmental accounting at some university in Tennessee. How many people know that subject better from the inside out than Mr. Morgan? Of course, that job might not result in a salary comparable to what he was used to making. But, in this economy, it would be job, which is more than 10 percent of Tennesseans can say about themselves.

So, in what appears to be a clear effort to help out Mr. Morgan, the Democratic-controlled Board of Regents rewrites the qualifications for being Chancellor of the Board of Regents in a way that just so happens to match the resume of Mr. Morgan, a Democrat. (Hear me: Had the Republicans done the same thing, it would be just as much cronyism!) The changes were not technical, but substantially substantive.

Then the Board made a very limited effort to seek applications for the job (about 6 or 7 people even applied), didn’t look outside the state, and interviewed only one candidate—Mr. Morgan. Then they hired him.

Of course, in a very tight economy, with cuts in higher education, and a potential employee who really needs a job, it only makes sense that along with lowering the qualifications for the job, the Board of Regents would increase the compensation for the position by $80,000, from $305,000 to $385,000! Imagine what we taxpayers will have to pay if, in future days, someone comes along that meets the older, higher requirements that Mr. Morgan couldn’t meet. Surely they will want even more.

But Wait—There’s More

This is ridiculous and the height of political insider dealing to protect a political buddy, and to do so at increased expense to the taxpayer only makes it worse. But the Board of Regents just put another “bag” in the pot of “TEA” brewing in Tennessee. Recent revelations have only made the brew stronger and are sure to increase the thirst of those coming to the TEA Party in November.

It has now come to light that the rules governing employment within the Board of Regents were also bent when it came to hiring another career political appointee who found himself needing a job. Dale Sims was the state Treasurer until 2010 when, like Morgan, he was replaced by Republicans after the 2010 election. Political appointees understand that political changes lead to employment changes—sort of the political parallel to “he who lives by the sword dies by the sword.”

So, Mr. Sims found himself needing a really good paying job. And no doubt, as a former Treasurer for the state, he could have found a good job at some investment firm or bank or university.

But no. The outgoing Chancellor for the Board of Regents wanted to hire him as Chief of Finance for the Board of Regents. But the Chancellor didn’t want to have to go through the normal Board of Regents’ requirement for advertising the job for at least 30 days or the requirement that minority candidates be considered (Mr. Sims is not a minority).

So, the lawyer for the Board of Regents told the Chancellor there was a provision in the rules that allowed hiring procedures to be modified “as circumstances warrant.” The lawyer then explained that because “it is unlikely that a search would produce a more qualified candidate” and because a national search would be “very expensive,” Mr. Sims could be hired. And so he was without the Chancellor advertising the job opening, posting the job internally, or interviewing anyone else.

Somehow I don’t find comfort in having a rule to prevent backroom dealing if it can be circumvented because there might not be a person more qualified than the person you want to hire. And how expensive is it to put a notice out among even existing faculty and staff that there is an opening? Email or posting something on the college websites isn’t that expensive if you haven’t had to cut the funding for Internet service.

I, for one, am tired of these kinds of things by people in politics at the expense of my pocketbook. I work too hard for my money for the Board of Regents to play fast and loose with it. And I hope students understand that this kind of stuff drives their college tuition up, too.

I hope the strong brew the Board of Regents has served up for TEA Party crowd in our state will be enough to send a message to Democrats and Republicans alike—stop the cronyism, backroom insider deals, and disregard for our hard-earned money. The rule in politics should be, “Avoid even the appearance of impropriety.” After all, there is no reservoir of public trust for politicians and political appointees to draw on when they do these kinds of things.