Ron Ramsey returned from Nashville this weekend, fresh off gaveling to a close his final legislative session as speaker of the senate and fighting a case of walking pneumonia, only to walk into a rumor mill buzzing about the possibility he would head up a newly appointed board overseeing East Tennessee State University. In a Monday morning interview with Johnson City News & Neighbor and The Business Journal, Ramsey was quick to throw cold water on such speculation.
“Would I be interested in serving on that board at some time? Yes,” Ramsey said. “But do I want to be chairman? No. I don’t want that much responsibility.”
The 60-year-old Ramsey announced last month he would not run for re-election to the Tennessee State Senate, saying at the time he wanted to spend more time with his family. Monday Ramsey said it wouldn’t make sense for him to step down, only to immediately take on another major obligation.
“I want to come back and run my real estate business,” Ramsey said. “I want to work one full-time job instead of two full-time jobs like I’ve done for 24 years. I want to slow down just a tad. I told my wife last week, ‘All my life I have been in a hurry. I started my surveying business at 24 and my real estate business at 30. It just seems like all my life I have been in a hurry. I want to be able to step back at laeast a little bit.’”
Putting the chairmanship aside, Ramsey said he does not believe he will be eligible even to serve as a member during the ETSU FOCUS (Focus on College and University Success) board’s first term. “I don’t guess I can until I get out of office. I haven’t ever looked at that in particular. Those board members will be appointed this fall, though, so I don’t think I could be one of the initial ones.
“I am a state senator till Nov. 8, election day, but since the speaker of the senate is a two-year term, I am speaker till Jan. 10,” Ramsey said. “Those boards will be appointed by then, and I assume that as an elected official I can’t serve on that.”
Whether Ramsey serves on the board soon, someday or never, ETSU President Dr. Brian Noland favors the change to more regional autonomy for the soon-to-be-former Tennessee Board of Regents (TBR) universities. The recently passed FOCUS Act enabled the creation of the local boards. Noland was the only president among the six such schools to serve on a technical advisory committee that helped shape the ultimate structure.
During his administration, ETSU has moved with large, high-profile projects toward additional community partnerships, from football and the arts to research and even downtown redevelopment, with ample support from Ramsey in the process. Noland said a regional board can serve as “a conduit for feedback” as well as providing a buffer between community pressures and the day-to-day tasks of university administrators.
In a late January interview with News and Neighbor and The Business Journal, Noland said the existing institutional structure leaves high-level staff, “having to play a very direct, personal role in gaining feedback, navigating terrain, and trying to do some things without the benefit of what a board could provide, which are nine sets of ears to the ground, nine sets of individuals who can say, ‘Brian, I heard this when I was out to dinner, you need to be aware of this,’ or, ‘this question came up, have you thought about this?’
“It’s that opportunity for feedback, input and deliberation that I think is a real benefit to us as we’re vetting possibilities.”
Ultimately, though, Noland believes the state approved the FOCUS Act as part of its Drive for 55 effort to increase college and career certification completion rates statewide. The new law also gives the TBR more time to sharpen its efforts on aiding the state’s community colleges.
“I think you’ll see some adjustments as it evolves, but FOCUS will have been successful if it facilitates quicker progress toward the goals of Drive to 55 at the state level,” Noland said. “At the campus level, we’ll have been successful if we create an environment that facilitates, promotes and enhances the spirit of shared governance that exists on our campus.”
Ramsey has close ties with the university and is profuse in his praise for its administration, and whether he is on the FOCUS board or not, he says he plans to continue supporting the university. “I love Dr. Noland to death. Golly, what a dynamic personality. We have to keep him at ETSU,” Ramsey said. “The governor was teasing me when the Chancellor John Morgan of the Board of Regents stepped down. He said, ‘Dr. Noland would be good for that position.’ I looked him right in the eye and said, ‘Don’t even think about it.’ We want to keep Dr. Noland here for a few more years.”
Noland and Ramsey have worked together to bring state funding to bear for both the Fine and Performing Arts Center project and the university’s new football stadium.
“Well, obviously I love ETSU,” Ramsey said. “I went there. My wife went there. All three of my daughters went there. My sons-in law went there, my mom, my grandmother – we kind of bleed blue and gold. So I want to continue to help ETSU. But I’m not interested in being chairman of that board.”