Stage is set for big UT changes

Frank CagleFrank Talk

Imagine for a moment it’s a few years down the road.

– Will the University of Tennessee School of Agriculture be located at UT-Martin, out west where the farmers are?

– Will officials finally ask if the UT Extension Service is still a thing? It once helped family farms, which have dwindled over the years. Its corollary purpose was to provide legendary UT President Andy Holt a lobbyist in every legislative district. Do the corporate factory farms of today like ConAgra or Perdue or Tyson need the extension service?

– Are there graduate programs offered on some campuses for political reasons that cannot be justified by a small number of students? Will we see some graduate programs combined on one campus for more efficiency?

– Will the periodic boomlet to make UT-Chattanooga a freestanding university, with its own board, resurface?

It appears that significant changes may be coming to UT. To be clear, this is speculation on the kinds of issues that might be raised, based on ideas that have been floated over the years but never acted upon. I’m sure there are others to be considered.

When Randy Boyd was named interim president of the university it was speculated that he would have as a goal shaking up the system. One school of thought said that should ensure that Boyd would be named permanent president. Others saw him as the guy who could put improvements in place, take the flak, then turn UT over to a new president free of controversy.

Again, speculation. But a couple of things that happened last week are not getting the attention they deserve.

In an email to the “UT Family,” Boyd said new Knoxville Chancellor Donde Plowman and former Ag school chancellor Tim Cross would be holding meetings this summer on a listening tour and would lead town-hall sessions with “stakeholders” about ways to improve the university. The suggestions will be evaluated by Boyd, Cross and Plowman. Will the result of this listening tour consist of some of the ideas listed above, or some changes even more radical? Will it generate substantive change or will it be window dressing?

Cross will now be reporting to the president of the UT system, to be in charge of agriculture. There are some on the Ag campus who believe UTK has lusted after the premium space taken up by Ag along Neyland Drive. UTK is like downtown Knoxville – space is at a premium. The university needs space to grow. Move Ag to UT-Martin and you have it.

As for window dressing: The Ag campus merger combines all the grants UT gets with all the grants the Ag school gets, which moves UT up in the rankings of research universities. No more grants than usual, but one list instead of two makes it look like progress.

There has been a resurgence in small farms of late spurred by sustainable agriculture, organic vegetables, hemp farms and the farm-to-table movement. If the UT extension service has a future, it needs to jump into this farm-to-table movement and the hemp industry and provide help for small farmers. It justifies the existence of a superstructure that is of little use to factory farms.

It may be that the end result of Boyd’s initiative to put UT in the position of global leadership will come to naught. Inertia has prevented much change since the days of Andy Holt and his heirs.

But one cannot help but feel that Boyd didn’t go over there to maintain the status quo.

Failed coup: Chris Cox used to be a staffer for Rep. John Tanner, a Blue Dog Democrat who saw Tennessee trending red and retired. Cox went to work for the National Rifle Association as a lobbyist, starting in Nashville, then moving on to Washington. He has been second in command to NRA chief Wayne LaPierre, heading up the group’s lobbying effort. The New York Times reports that Cox joined Oliver North in a coup attempt to oust LaPierre, which failed. Cox has been suspended from the organization.

When Cox moved from Nashville to Washington, legislators were not sad to see him go. His arrogance led him to threaten legislators if they didn’t follow instructions on gun bills. And the GOP supermajority NRA members, busy passing gun bills, resented his threats.

From where? Gov. Bill Lee swore in the new head of the Department of Commerce & Insurance last week. Interim Commissioner Carter Lawrence replaces Commissioner Julie McPeak, who moved on to the private sector.

We checked, and by golly, it turns out that Commissioner Lawrence is from Williamson County. As is Lee, House Speaker (for the moment) Glen Casada along with two or three other commissioners and U.S. Sen. Marsha Blackburn.

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