The Tennessee Comptrollers Office released a report questioning the effectiveness of the leadership at Tennessee State University (TSU).

The report focuses primarily on the university’s recent housing controversy and its need to explore alternative options due to overcrowding. However, the report also covers TSU’s policies around awarding scholarships, the governing board’s competency, and the university’s financial management.

Like many universities nationwide, TSU has seen enrollment growth during the post-pandemic years. Coupled with an increasing interest in traditional Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) from students planning to enroll in college, TCU has seen its enrollment from fall 2021 to fall 2022 increase by 1,141 students. Simultaneously, the university’s scholarship budget grew from $6.4 million to $28.3 million.

Per the comptroller report, “Over $1 billion in donations from philanthropists in recent years as well as $2.7 billion in increased federal funding since 2017 and over $2 billion in pandemic funding have allowed HBCUs to improve facilities, fund more scholarships, and increase program offerings, especially in scientific and technological fields.”

Due to this increase in enrollment, TSU faces a housing crisis. Something that the comptroller feels should have been expected and planned for in a timely fashion. The report said, “TSU has consistently operated its housing facilities in a state of overcapacity since at least 2017.”

The report also added, “Based on a review of board meeting materials for March 17, 2022, we determined that burgeoning enrollment growth was apparent as early as March 9, 2022.”

While acknowledging that several colleges and universities in Tennessee have faced similar challenges, TSU’s situation was a cause for concern in the comptroller’s office because of the university’s history of systemic deficiencies in accounting and fiscal management identified by previous audits, along with the nature of the complaints the comptroller’s office has received from students and parents regarding enrollment, scholarships, and housing.

The comptroller’s report examined the university’s practice of awarding scholarships, finding that approximately one-third of students (529 of 1,722) did not meet the minimum GPA requirement. Still, students may have qualified based on financial need. However, there was inadequate documentation that students qualified for scholarships based on a random sample of TSU student files reviewed.

TSU estimates a $12 million (43 percent) reduction for returning student scholarship dollars, predicting that many students will either fail to qualify for future awards or leave the
university. Typically, TSU retains 60 percent or more of its full-time students. This year they plan to only offer $5 million in returning student scholarships.

The comptroller’s office criticized TSU’s leadership but does offer that in 2021, the Tennessee Office of Legislative Budget Analysis reported that Tennessee may not have provided TSU with the proper amount of land-grant funding. In response, Governor Bill Lee included $250 million in his budget request to improve TSU’s physical infrastructure. However, these funds are limited to addressing life-safety issues, deferred maintenance, and investing in academic buildings. Therefore, they cannot be used to build or improve dormitories and other student housing.

Throughout the report are littered instances where TSU failed to offer adequate documentation or offered conflicting information. In response, the comptroller raised the option of returning TCU to the authority of the Tennessee Board of Regents.

The report noted, “Since 2017, a 10-member local governing board of trustees has been responsible for overseeing the university’s management and governance, including budgeting and other important areas of operations. The board has not exercised effective oversight over TSU management regarding the university’s ongoing housing problem and fiscal practices.”

In a rebuttal, TSU disputed the comptroller’s report:

What the report failed to state is Tennessee State University – at the time the report was undertaken – is in the best condition today than ever in the University’s 111-year history. Under the president’s leadership, the future of TSU promises to be even brighter and its foundation stronger, with an administration and Board even more committed to ensuring our students are provided with a quality educational experience. Prior to the commencement of the Comptroller’s review, the Comptroller stated that his interest in conducting the review would be “to assist the State of Tennessee in providing TSU the necessary resources to support the University’s growth.” Nothing could be further from the truth in reading the report’s assertions and policy considerations, which include a complete dismantling of the University. The report’s policy considerations are based on problems that have since been corrected and assumptions that are not supported by facts.”

Tennessee State University expects its housing issues to continue for at least the next two years.

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TC Weber is a reporter at The Tennessee Star and The Star News Network. He also writes the blog Dad Gone Wild. Follow TC on Twitter. Email tips to [email protected]. He’s the proud parent of two public school children and the spouse of a public school teacher.
Photo “Tennessee State University Sign” by Tennessee State University.