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Majority-White Tennessee Legislature Under Fire for Overhauling HBCU Board

Kevin Wurm/Reuters
Kevin Wurm/Reuters

Tennessee’s majority-white legislature removed, in one fell swoop, all 10 board members at the state’s only publicly funded historically Black university on Thursday, a move Democrats slammed.

Republican Gov. Bill Lee, who is white, signed legislation approved by the GOP-controlled House on Thursday vacating Tennessee State University’s board and appointed eight new members, mostly from the business sector, to replace them.

“I’m pleased to appoint these highly qualified individuals who will work alongside administrators and students to further secure TSU’s place as a leading institution,” Lee said. The nominees now await confirmation by the legislature.

Tennessee GOP Learns No Lessons After Fiery Racism Debate

The overhaul came after years of Republican complaints that TSU leaders had mismanaged funds, and after a critical state audit. A more recent external audit found no evidence of fraud or malfeasance but noted some “questionable spending” and “significant procedural deficiencies,” according to The Tennessean.

Democrats have said the school’s financial problems stem from years of state failure to adequately fund the university. Over the last three decades, TSU was underfunded by an estimated $2.1 billion, a 2023 assessment by the federal government found.

“Instead of us rectifying the problems that we created through racist policies by underfunding Tennessee State University, we’re now advocating to vacate their board,” Rep. Justin Pearson said on the floor. Pearson was one of two Black Tennessee reps expelled by the GOP majority last year for protesting gun violence on the House floor—a punishment not shared by their white colleague who joined in the protest.

The “optics” of wiping out the board at an HBCU were “horrendous,” one Democrat reportedly pointed out.

“You’re driving off the cliff right now,” Rep. Bo Mitchell (D-Nashville) said, according to The Tennessean. “I worked in Gov Ops many years as a staffer. I’ve seen many audits of many universities that look horrendous. Have we ever, ever vacated an entire board of a university before? Have we ever done that? But an HBCU that we owe $2 billion to? Oh yeah, we’re going to take their board.”

TSU students who attended the legislative session seemed to agree with their Democratic reps. Many of them cheered when Democrats criticized their colleagues and booed when Republicans passed the bill. Before its passage, Democrats lodged efforts to reduce the number of seats the board would vacate or delay the vote altogether. At every turn, they were shot down by the Republican supermajority.

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