TN leg vacates board of HBCU

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‘Draconian’: The GOP-led Tennessee House slashed the board of the state’s only public HBCU

Tennessee House member Justin J. Pearson said board vacation was an 'authoritarian and draconian [effort].'


Tricia Crimmins


Posted on Apr 3, 2024   Updated on Apr 3, 2024, 11:34 am CDT

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The Bill: 

Tennessee House bill 1739 (also known as TN Senate bill 1596) was signed into law by Governor Bill Lee (R) last Thursday. The legislation vacated the board of Tennessee State University, the state’s only public historically Black college or university, after a financial audit of the University found that it increased its scholarships by 250% between 2019 and 2023. The audit did not find any fraud.

The bill also granted Governor Lee the power to appoint an entirely new Board, which he did over the weekend. All eight members of the revamped Board are graduates of TSU.

The Backlash: 

As the financial audit of TSU didn’t unearth any malfeasance, many said the GOP-led legislature’s sweeping overhaul of the University’s board was an overreach. In a statement from TSU itself, the University called the bill “unprecedented, unfortunate, and uncharted waters.”

“We believe this legislation will disrupt our students’ educational pursuits, harm the image of the University,” the Tennessean reported. “And remove a Board that had achieved success in its enhanced governance of TSU.”

Tennessee House member Justin J. Pearson (D) wrote on X the board vacation was an “authoritarian and draconian [effort]” from his GOP colleagues, and that Tennessee Democratic legislators must “resist and persist.” 

Pearson made headlines alongside his House colleague Justin Jones (D) for being expelled from the state legislature after protesting a vote for gun safety. Both won their seats back in special elections.

The Background: 

A 2006 National Center for Education Statistics report found TSU has been underfunded by $2.1 billion over the last 30 years. Governor Lee was made aware of the discrepancy in a 2023 letter to him from the Departments of Agriculture and Education. 

And the discrepancy angered TSU graduate Ramona Willis, who was disappointed by the board vacation.

“They hold back billions of dollars from the school, but yet they want to remove the board?” she told NBC. “Could some issues be because we just didn’t have enough money, money that is just sitting out there that should be ours?”

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*First Published: Apr 3, 2024, 6:00 am CDT