East Tennessee State University students will be witnessing significant changes to the governmental landscape of the university in the 2016-2017 school year.
Among these changes is the implementation of Governor Haslam’s FOCUS Act, which will give greater independence to ETSU and the state’s other public four-year universities. With FOCUS, portions of ETSU’s governance will transition from the Tennessee Board of Regents to the local shared governance of a board of trustees.
“I think the primary thing for students to be cognizant of as we transition into the 2016-17 year is that they are going to be part of history,” said ETSU President Brian Noland. “They will be a part of the first class of students who have the opportunity to be a part of shared governance at an institution in a very different way than that’s occurred in the past, because there will be a member of the student body on the board of trustees.”
Noland said that during the fall 2016 semester, the campus will learn of the Governor’s appointments to this board of trustees. He added that the members of the board will be oriented to ETSU’s campus, program, operations and services during the same semester and will be confirmed sometime in February or March of 2017.
“By this time next year, the formal actions of the institution—from new academic programs to tuition and fee increases to capital construction to all the aspects of the governance and administration of the institution—will then fall under the auspices of that board,” Noland said.
The board of trustees will consist of a student, a faculty member and eight lay board appointees.
Noland said that the FOCUS act will not have much of an influence on students’ daily lives, but rather the big-picture future of the university.
“In terms of impact in the classroom, I doubt students will see an impact in the things that occur on a daily basis in their lives,” Noland said. “If we do the transition of responsibility from Nashville to Johnson City properly, which I intend to do, it’s not going to have a disruptive effect on students’ daily lives. But where it will have an impact is on those big things that relate to the future of the institution, like tuition and fees.”
Noland used an illustration from the spring 2016 semester to drive home the impact of the FOCUS Act on students’ voice in campus governance.
“This year, for example, the student body through SGA approved a fee that would allow for 24 hours of operation in the library, enhanced services in the library and some capital improvements,” Noland said. “We ran that through our campus process. That was then submitted to Nashville and the Board of Regents—without ever meeting with any of our students, without ever holding a hearing—denied the fee. Next year, the student body would have an opportunity to meet with the board of governors, to make their positions heard, to talk about why it’s important to have 24/7 operations within the library. So the decision-making process on campus will be much more deliberate.”
Noland said that faculty and staff will play a much more enhanced role in shared governance. Noland said that the upcoming months will involve much transition work.
“From an administrative perspective, we will spend all summer into the fall transitioning policies, procedures and guidelines from central governance to local governance,” Noland said. “There’s going to be a lot of behind-the- scenes work that’s occurring this summer as we transition the ‘rules of engagement’ from Nashville to Johnson City.”
One other significant change is coming to ETSU’s campus as well. Early this month, Governor Haslam allowed a controversial guns-on- campus bill to become law.
“What the legislation allows is for faculty and staff who have concealed carry permits to bring those weapons onto our campus,” Noland explained.
The almost immediate nature of the law poses challenges for ETSU administration as preparations are made for the drastic changes it will bring in the coming year.
“The challenge with the bill is the implementation time frame. The bill became law on May 2,” Noland said. “This becomes effective July 1, so for all intents and purposes, that is an extremely compressed time frame.”
But ETSU administration is already preparing for the arrival of firearms on campus.
We have a committee that’s been meeting for about a month, which is chaired by Dr. Jeff Howard, Dean of Students,” Noland said. “They’re going to draft our rules that will implement the provisions of that legislation…through this committee, we’re trying to bring all of the elements of this together in a coherent manner.”
Noland said that there will still be legal restrictions regarding areas of campus on which guns are allowed.
“There will be some challenges for ETSU in our implementation of that bill because of our unique educational mission,” Noland said. “Part of our mission grows out of our tradition as a normal school; we train teachers at University School. We have to work through federal restrictions that relate to the presence of guns on K-12 facilities, healthcare facilities and childcare facilities. So we’re going through our legal due diligence to ensure that if an employee brings a weapon onto campus, that they’re aware of where they can take that weapon and where they cannot take that weapon. When you look at the campus from an acreage perspective, there’s about a third of the campus that, right out of the gate, is excluded from this.”
Noland commented that while the intent of this bill is to make campuses safer by enabling faculty and staff members to defend against mass shooters, it still poses serious risks.
“The danger of this is that if there’s a shooting that’s reported and the police come into this building and they see someone with a gun, they don’t know if you’re the mass shooter or if you’re the staff member,” Noland said. “They will not discriminate if they see individuals with weapons, and that’s what they’re trained to do. Our campus safety officers are trained to handle situations and circumstances like this; the average person with a concealed carry permit doesn’t go through monthly crisis training. But that’s the world we live in. This is a polarizing issue in America in 2016, and we’re not trying to polarize our campus around the issue. We’re going to implement the laws to the best of our abilities and hope that situations never arise that would cause our public safety officers or a faculty or staff member to use a firearm.”
Noland said that there will be firearm training made available for faculty and staff members who wish to avail themselves to it.
Both the guns-on- campus law and FOCUS means that the 2016-17 year will be one full of change.
“It’s going to be an exciting time; 2016-17 will be historic in that it’ll be a year of firsts.”