By Collin Brooks
A historic change for the better started on Friday, March 24, according to East Tennessee State University President Dr. Brian Noland, when the ETSU Board of Trustees meet for the first time.
The hope for the new nine member group is that they will solve problems Tennessee state universities, including ETSU, have run into as they try to remain competitive in a landscape that is ever-changing.
Each university has a board that will allow the universities decisions to be more specific to their region. If they have new programs, initiatives and partnerships can be approved faster than the old model with the new 9-member board of trustees.
“The benefit for us with the establishment of the board is that it gives us one, a relationship with the businesses in the region. Two, a deeper connection with the region, but then selfishly it allows us to be a little bit more nimble than we have been in the past,” Noland said. “If we want to move a new academic program through, I have the opportunity to work with the board and move that at a different rate of speed than we had if everything was moving through Nashville.
“We can respond at the speed of business to the needs of students in business and industry across the region,” he said. “So that is why this is a paradigm change, it allows us to be more nimble.”
Scott Niswonger, Founder and Former Chairman and CEO of Landair Transport, Inc. and Chairman Emeritus of Forward Air Corporation, was selected chairman of the board while David Golden was elected co-chairman.
“Today was putting the underpinning in place,” Niswonger said. “All of the rules, all the regulations, so it drew out to be a pretty long day. The meetings going forward will be more inspirational in terms of getting into the meat and substance of where we are going as a university and how we are going to meet the 21st century needs of young people to graduate.”
Noland said that there was no better person to chair one of the most important groups in the school’s history than Niswonger.
“I cannot think of any individual in this region who has had more of an impact on the lives of the people of the region, through his charitable efforts, though his policy efforts and his leadership efforts than Mr. Niswonger,” Noland said.
The group will be able to act on a plethora of ETSU issues, which range from improving faculty and staff salaries to taking measures to attract more students to the institution, along with other matters. It will give ETSU a chance to address ETSU problems, Noland said.
“ETSU solutions to ETSU’s problems, that is the concept I was trying to convey of looking much more like a private institution,” Noland said. “Because, be it King or Milligan or Vanderbilt, they solved their problems through locally developed ideas, not looking to Nashville to address the challenge.”
While the enrollment numbers are above where they were in 2006, the university will make an aggressive push to reach traditional, non-traditional and online students in order to increase their enrollment from 14,500 to 18,000 for next year.
The change in law came when Governor Bill Haslam signed the Focus on College and University Success Act (FOCUS Act), which amends state law relative to the structure of the organization of state higher education. It became effective on July 1, 2016. The FOCUS Act authorized the creation of institutional Boards of Trustees for each of the former Board of Regents schools.
The state’s six public universities (Austin Peay State University, ETSU, Middle Tennessee State University, Tennessee State University, Tennessee Technological University, and the University of Memphis) added local boards.
Haslam was on hand for the first meeting in the DP Culp Center on ETSU’s campus and he took time to praise the university and their effect on the region.
“ETSU being a great university is not just important for the university and the students and the faculty, and you all know this, that is why you are sitting here,” he told the board. “It’s important for this whole region in a way that few other institutions are. And when you look at this part of the state, ETSU is the dominant institution and I’m not talking about just education.
“But it’s more of the health and welfare of this region, I think depend more on ETSU, than really anything else…You’re more than just serving the school, you are serving the entire part of the state.”
The board laid their foundation for future meetings, establishing the guidelines and adopting the university’s strategic plan during their first meeting. Their next meeting will be on June 9 and they will meet quarterly after that. Niswonger said that the next few meetings will be much faster.
“The fun part will come in three months when we get into being helpful,” Niswonger said. “We have a board of nine individuals with very diverse, but successful backgrounds. They will contribute immensely, so that Dr. Noland and the leadership team can establish goals for where are we going to go. What is the next program? And how can we help the team work the strategic plan to make this university wildly successful.”
ETSU junior Nathan Farnor was selected to serve as the student represenatvie. Other members of the ETSU Board of Trustees are Dr. Fred Alsop (faculty representative), an ETSU professor in the Department of Biological Sciences; Janet Ayers, president of the Ayers Foundation; Steven DeCarlo, CEO of AmWINS Group Inc.; Dorothy Grisham, owner and operator of Dorothy Grisham Allstate Insurance Agency; Dr. Linda Latimer, board-certified anatomic and clinical pathologist; Jim Powell, founder of Powell Companies; and Ron Ramsey, owner of Ron Ramsey and Associates and former Lieutenant Governor of the State of Tennessee.