Board of Trustees Chair John Compton’s Prepared Remarks for Dec. 18 Sunset Audit Hearing
Presented Dec. 18, 2019 at the Joint Government Operation Sunset Hearings, Education, Health, and General Welfare Subcommittee.
Good Afternoon Mister Chairman and members of the Joint Government Operations Subcommittee. I am John Compton, and I serve as Chairman of the University of Tennessee Board of Trustees. Interim President Boyd and I are happy to be here today and to have this opportunity to comment on the Comptroller’s Performance Audit Report.
In addition to myself, there are four other board members in attendance, and I would like to take a moment to introduce them:
- Brad Box, an accomplished attorney and partner in the law firm of Rainey Kizer Reviere and Bell in Jackson, Tennessee;
- Decosta Jenkins, who serves as the President and Chief Executive Officer of Nashville Electric Service;
- Amy Miles, the former Chief Executive Officer of Regal Entertainment Group; and
- Jamie Woodson, the former Chief Executive Officer of SCORE, the State Collaborative on Reforming Education.
On behalf of the board, I would like to thank the Office of the Comptroller for the time and effort invested in conducting and preparing the report. It is useful not only in its assessment of internal controls, but as a tool for our continuous self-improvement.
I would like to confirm that the report was distributed to [and read by] the full membership of the Board. Amy Miles, who serves as chair of the Audit and Compliance Committee, and I have each had discussions with members of the senior leadership team as to the findings contained and the responses submitted. The board members – individually and collectively – take the findings, observations, and recommendations presented in the report seriously.
As you know, in July 2018, the composition of the Board of Trustees was vacated and reconstituted in accordance with the University of Tennessee Focusing on Campus and University Success (FOCUS) Act. Recently, Mr. Box was appointed by Governor Bill Lee to fill the last open board seat, and we are hopeful that he will be confirmed by the General Assembly early in the New Year so that we will have a fully constituted board of trustees.
Since the board is entirely comprised of new members, we began our service by completing the orientation training provided by the Tennessee Higher Education Commission. Additionally, we have devoted considerable time and attention to understanding the UT System and its education, research and outreach mission.
In our first year, we have learned about:
- each of the four campuses, including the UT Health Science Center’s hospital affiliations;
- the UT Institute of Agriculture; and
- the Institute for Public Service.
The current board is committed to visiting campus and institute locations to gain first-hand knowledge of the operations of the UT System. This past March, the board held its winter board meeting at the UT Martin campus. In June, the board visited the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, and our upcoming February board meeting will be held at the UT Chattanooga campus.
In our short tenure, the board members have been actively engaged in meeting with and listening to members of the legislature, along with all other internal and external constituency groups. Trustees have been reaching out and meeting with students, faculty and staff. We are also engaging with our alumni, donors, research partners, and the community at large.
In my role as Chair, I meet with the University Faculty Council in connection with our board meetings. These meetings provide a forum for open and constructive discussions on items of particular interest to the campus faculties. In light of these conversations, one of the questions that arose for me was whether we were annually looking at the overall organizational health of the enterprise. At our June meeting of the Education, Research and Service Committee, the members requested that a review be conducted annually, beginning in 2020, so that we can develop a baseline on satisfaction levels, consider how we are performing against peers, and measure and assess turnover.
Through all of these interactions, we have gained an even deeper appreciation for the important role we serve as fiduciaries and stewards of the University – whose mission serves the entire State of Tennessee, our nation, and the world.
I would like to provide you with some highlights of the recent work of the board. Starting with our organizational meeting held in August 2018, there have been 8 meetings of the Board of Trustees, a total of 15 meetings of the Standing Committees, and 2 meetings of the Special Committee on UT Athletics Programs.
As noted in the report, the board acted on important matters required by law or otherwise essential for good institutional governance. Our primary focus this past year has been one of laying the foundational framework for future success. It has also been necessary for us to address urgent needs, including identifying strong leaders for both the UT System and the UT Knoxville campus.
From a governance perspective, we adopted documents crucial for guiding the board’s operations and instituted new processes:
- to appoint a student to serve as member of the Board of Trustees, and as a member of the Education, Research and Service Committee;
- to appoint a faculty member to serve as member of the Education, Research and Service Committee; and
- to provide for recommendations from the campus advisory boards to the President regarding proposed campus strategic plans and operating budgets, prior to such items being presented to the board for its consideration.
As mentioned, a Special Committee was created to assist the board in exercising proper oversight of the University’s intercollegiate athletics programs. Upon recommendations made by the Special Committee, the board adopted a Policy on Oversight of Intercollegiate Athletics, which requires annual reports to the board on finances, student-athlete academic progress and academic integrity, and compliance with NCAA rules.
In terms of leadership, the board appointed a number of new officers of the University, most notably Interim President Randy Boyd and Chancellor Donde Plowman. Interim President Boyd has done a remarkable job of improving teamwork and collaboration across the UT System, and Chancellor Plowman has hit the ground running since beginning her service this past July.
In full recognition of the University’s public and land-grant status, the board revised the standing rule pertaining to requests to address the board, which received a positive recommendation from the Joint Government Operations Committee on November 20, 2019. The revised rule expands the length of the public comment period and gives the Chair needed discretion to extend the time allotted or to make other accommodations to listen to constituency concerns. Similarly, to provide additional transparency, meeting agendas and other materials pertaining to regular board meetings are now available on the website at least seven days in advance.
In addition, the board approved:
- the 2019-2020 Operating Budget; and
- a refresh of the UT System Strategic Plan.
I am very pleased to report that, for the 2018-2019 year, the UT System generated its third-highest fundraising totals in University history, with more than $282 million in commitments. More importantly, we had the highest number of donors in our history.
From a mission perspective, the board has outlined three key priorities, which are:
- Improving Student Success, which includes increasing enrollment and
improving retention and graduation rates;
- Expanding Research opportunities; and
- Enhancing Outreach and Engagement.
These priorities are a central focus of each board meeting. Based on Fall 2019 data, total enrollment across all campuses is at an all-time high of 51,582 students. Important drivers of enrollment are the quality and affordability of our academic programs. The introduction of the UT Promise scholarship further expands the University’s commitment to affordability and access.
For 2019, the University of Tennessee surpassed the State Master Plan goal in baccalaureate degree production. However, we recognize that more must be done to continue to improve both retention and graduation rates.
The board has voiced its support of expanding our research efforts, including such things as building upon the strong relationship between the University of Tennessee and the Oak Ridge National Laboratory. Likewise, the reunification of the UT Institute of Agriculture with the UT Knoxville campus has been undertaken for the purpose of elevating and leveraging the impact and reputation of both the institute and campus.
We must continue to identify opportunities to enhance our outreach and engagement efforts through the University of Tennessee Institute of Agriculture and its state-wide extension program, and the Institute for Public Service and its six agencies that provide University expertise for the benefit of communities throughout Tennessee.
The audit report accurately notes that we have not completed all of our work nor have we covered all of the areas within the Board’s oversight responsibilities, but I believe that we are off to a very strong start and headed in the right direction. Nevertheless, the Comptroller’s review reveals areas where we can, and will, go deeper.
For our board response, I would like to address each of the key conclusions set forth in the Comptroller’s report.
The UT Board should advance the coordination among the UT campuses’ operations to increase the effectiveness and efficiency of the UT System.
With respect to advancing System Effectiveness and Efficiency, the board fully supports the Comptroller’s recommendation of working to increase communication, coordination and collaboration among the UT campuses, while respecting the characteristics that are unique to each. Over the past year, Interim President Boyd has taken measurable steps to increase collaboration and efficiency, most notably through the OneUT initiative and the Task Force for Effective Administration and Management (known as TEAM), which he will discuss in his remarks.
The UT Board should increase its oversight of various academic and nonacademic areas to ensure UT management achieves strategic and operational goals and to better serve its students and staff.
As to matters involving Institutional Oversight, we have highly engaged trustees, who are committed to advancing the state-wide system of the University of Tennessee. And, equally important for achieving this goal, we have an open and productive relationship with Interim President Boyd and the extended senior leadership team.
In the new year, consistent with the recommendation made by the Comptroller’s office, the incoming Board Secretary will be assisting myself and the committee chairs in working with the administration to develop plans to guide the work of the board and its committees to ensure that we are aligning the work of the board with the mission of the University and its strategic priorities, assessing student, faculty and staff satisfaction, considering constituent concerns, addressing the challenges facing institutions of higher education, and satisfying our statutory obligations.
The UT Board must increase its oversight of student safety and campus security and ensure the accurate and complete reporting of safety and crime.
The overall welfare of our students, faculty, and staff is of paramount importance to this board. We will be examining the findings contained in the audit, especially those pertaining to Campus Safety and Security, in more detail beginning with our next Audit and Compliance Committee meeting.
Back in January, the Audit and Compliance Committee of the board approved the 2019 Internal Audit Plan under which audit work to assess compliance with the Clery Act was contemplated. The initial scope of the review was limited to two campuses, but, based on the preliminary feedback from the Comptroller’s office, was expanded to cover all of the campuses. This work is underway, and the findings will be presented to the Audit and Compliance Committee.
Although individual topics, such as Title IX, have been discussed with the board, we recognize the need for ongoing and regular reporting to the board on matters of campus security and safety, including Clery Act reporting and Title IX. These topics will be addressed specifically in connection with the development of our work plans for the board and its standing committees.
Consistent with efforts being undertaken by the administration in other operating areas, the board expects the administration to examine best practices, to determine whether it is necessary and appropriate to standardize processes or allocate additional resources, and to continue its efforts to improve communications and coordination across the campuses.
The UT Board should ensure that the UT System monitors the mental health services each UT campus offers.
The Educational, Research and Service Committee of the board received an update on Mental Health and support services for students at its recent November meeting. As noted in our response to the report, I have directed Interim President Boyd to convene a system-wide working group to consider the recommendations provided by the Comptroller. Recently, the University hosted a state-wide mental health summit, which Interim President Boyd will discuss in his remarks.
Moving forward, the board will evaluate the recommendations of the working group and will require leadership to provide regular and periodic reporting on issues of mental health and what is being done by the campuses to serve the needs of our students.
Again, I would like to express our gratitude to the Comptroller’s office for its hard work. Most of the board members, like myself, have served on boards of public companies where annual independent audits and other external regulatory reviews are a way of life. These types of audits are helpful for making us better, and it is no different in academia. We thank you for this report, and we will continue to work hard to make even more progress in the areas highlighted in the report during the coming year.
If it pleases the Chairman, I would like for Interim President Boyd to share his thoughts and to further address the findings in the report.