Tennessee Republicans Replace Trustees at State’s Only Public HBCU

Gov. Bill Lee replaced all eight trustees at Tennessee State University, one of the nation's historically Black colleges and universities. The university is owed $2.1 billion from the state.
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Published on April 4, 2024
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  • All new appointees are alums of Tennessee State University (TSU)
  • The state recently concluded an audit that found an "unsustainable" 250% increase in scholarships from 2019-2023.
  • TSU said it believes the move to replace the trustee board will harm students' educational pursuits and the university's image.
  • Tennessee currently owes over $2.1 billion to TSU, according to federal government findings.

Tennessee's governor last week replaced every trustee at its only public historically Black university.

Gov. Bill Lee announced the eight new Tennessee State University (TSU) trustee appointees on March 28, just a few hours after the General Assembly voted to authorize the move.

"Tennessee State University is a remarkable institution, and my administration, in partnership with the General Assembly, is committed to ensuring students are being served," Lee said in the press release.

"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."

House Majority Leader William Lamberth told reporters the state is "vacating some personalities and bringing others in" to make TSU, one of the nation's historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs), successful.

The new TSU board members are:

  • Trevia Chatman: President, Bank of America Memphis
  • Jeffery Norfleet: Provost and Vice President for Administration, Shorter College
  • Marquita Qualls: Founder and Principal, Entropia Consulting
  • Terica Smith: Deputy Mayor and Director of Human Resources, Madison County
  • Charles Traughber: General Counsel, Division of Real Estate, Retail, and Financial Services at Bridgestone Americas
  • Dwayne Tucker: CEO of LEAD Public Schools
  • Kevin Williams: President and CEO of GAA Manufacturing
  • Dakasha Winton: Senior Vice President and Chief Government Relations Officer at BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee

TSU has wrestled with funding for some time. The state just concluded an audit of the university that found several monetary inconsistencies. It said the university's 250% scholarship increase between 2019 and 2023 wasn't sustainable.

That led to an unsustainable housing boom.

The university had to use hotels as overflow housing for the historically large 2023-24 incoming first-year class.

However, TSU has previously pointed out that the University of Tennessee at Knoxville has also had to house students in hotels, and the state hasn't intervened.

The state's moves also come as it owes TSU billions of dollars in funding. Last year, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and Department of Education (ED) sent a letter to Lee stating the state owes TSU $2.1 billion for historical underfunding — the most any state owes to an HBCU.

TSU student-activists have since sought to recover the funds, consulting with civil rights lawyer Ben Crump, to see what they could do to make the state pay.

The university referenced the billions it is owed in its response to the governor's replacement of its trustee board.

In a statement reported by The Tennessean, TSU said that the move is unprecedented and that the university would be in a different position if it received the funds owed by the state.

"We believe this legislation will disrupt our students' educational pursuits, harm the image of the university, and remove a board that had achieved success in its enhanced governance of TSU," the statement said.

Other Tennessee lawmakers spoke out against the General Assembly and governor's moves to replace the TSU trustees.

"You're driving off the cliff right now," state Rep. Bo Mitchell, D-Nashville, told 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 yea, we're going to take their board."

State Rep. Justin Pearson, D-Memphis — one of two Black representatives expelled from the Tennessee House of Representatives last year who then won back their legislative seats — took to X, formerly Twitter, to decry "authoritarian and draconian" efforts.

"We must #ProtectHBCUs from authoritarian and draconian efforts by the @tnhousegop and republican party," he wrote. "It's painful and necessary to fight for TSU — the ONLY Public HBCU in our state! Overreach and hypocrisy governs this mobocracy. We must resist and persist!"