Minutes into Tennessee State University’s search for a new university president, members learned the choice wouldn’t be up to them. 

“The email came through about five minutes into the meeting and at that point, we continued the interview, but we were no longer trustees.” Shaun Wimberly Jr., TSU’s former student trustee, told Open Campus. 

What started as a bipartisan compromise amongst state lawmakers to vacate just three positions from TSU’s Board of Trustees swiftly turned into House Republicans introducing a bill with the same language the Tennessee Senate passed at the end of March. Senate Bill 1596 called for the vacancy of all eight members of TSU’s board. 

Although approved in a 66-25 vote, this sudden change didn’t go over well with some lawmakers.

“Now at the 11th hour, we’re going to pull this?” Rep. Sam McKenzie, D-Knoxville said before his coworkers the day the bill was voted on, according to WTVF.

Most Republican lawmakers in the state, however, argued their decision is justified. 

“Tennessee State University is a remarkable institution and my administration, in partnership with the General Assembly, is committed to ensuring students are being served,” Gov. Bill Lee said in a statement. “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.” 

Last year Tennessee’s comptroller released a scathing report that blamed TSU’s management and planning after a record number of students were admitted without the university having adequate housing. 

The school has been under the microscope for the last few years. Over the years, there have been many audits that found bad record-keeping. Legislators also ordered an external forensic audit which did not show any signs of fraud.

Despite all eight of the new trustees being alumni of TSU, the university did not express support in this decision. 

“This is unprecedented, unfortunate, and uncharted waters for any public university in the state,” read a statement from the university. “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 new board includes prominent Tigers, including: Trevia Chatman, president of Bank of America Memphis, Dwayne Tucker, CEO of LEAD Public Schools, and Dakasha Winton, senior vice president and chief government relations officer at BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee.

 TSU, the state’s lone land-grant historically Black university, has been shorted between $150 million and $544 million over the last 60 years when stacked up against the University of Tennessee, TSUs  predominately white land grant counterpart. This is according to a 2021 report from state officials. However the federal government said that number is closer to $2.1 billion.  The Legislature acknowledged back in 2021 that TSU has missed out on upwards of $544 million in funding, based on the calculations of a 2021 report from state officials.

 Despite these findings of mismanagement  one expert says that the decision to vacate the board was still unwarranted and part of a larger scheme to hinder Black progress. 

“If [wanting TSU students to succeed] were true, then they would not have underfunded TSU by billions of dollars,” said Gevin Reynolds, former speechwriter to Kamala Harris.

“Given the Biden Administration’s finding [that] billions of dollars HBCUs have been shorted, you would be sorely wrong to think this move is anything other than a blatant attempt to hamstring Black educational institutions and punish Black students,” said Gevin Reynolds, former speechwriter to Vice President Kamala Harris

As TSU navigates its next steps with a new slate of officials, Wimberly Jr., the former student trustee, cautions that too much state oversight runs the risk of the same thing happening later. 

“I think the next couple of years is going to be fine,” he said “But who’s to say in eight years from now, (the state will) do what they just did again if TSU decides to do things differently than what the state wants?” 

Prior to his position being vacated, Wimberly Jr. was working to get more students a seat at the table. He pointed out that progress in a position like his doesnt come as easily as replacing members.

“ I was working on building a committee of students that essentially will serve almost like a Universities student government administration.[this committee would] help assist the student trustee with things like research, building initiatives, reaching out to certain people out in the community to start on programs.”  While Gov. Bill Lee still has one more slot to fill, the current board doesn’t yet have a student trustee. 

TSU and its community has doubled down on the notion that the University’s chronic underfunding is the root of the university’s recent controversies and larger issue needing to be addressed.

TSU and its community  has doubled down on the notion that the University’s chronic underfunding is the root of the University’s recent controversies and larger issue needing to be addressed.

Shortly after the news broke, TSU students stood in protest at the state capitol with a sign that read:  Stop The TSU Takeover.

TSU Student Body President Derrell Taylor voiced his opinion about the funding woes to a local news outlet (News Channel 5 Nashville).

“[We] still have no response as far as the funding would have looked like or what the university could’ve looked like if we didn’t go through the underfunding issues. Nothing was done to address that. Nothing was done to address what will happen in the future and where to receive these funds.”

Despite nothing being done to level the playing field between the two land grant universities,  The legislature agreed in September 2023 that TSU has missed out on  $544 million in funding. 

As TSU and other Black land grant Colleges and Universities continue to operate on a lackluster budgets,  operational mistakes persist – this has potential for significant fluctuation in HBCU leadership.

At the beginning of May Glenda Glover resigned, ending her decade-long tenure as TSU’s president. This came a year after republican lawmakers threatened to fire her due to housing issues, and further pressure for her termination earlier in the year from the state comptroller, Jason Mumpower.

Richard Brown is a fellow with the HBCU Student Journalism Network, a project of Open Campus.

Richard is a senior journalism student at Florida A&M University.