Recently I complained in this space about the outrageous salary, over $700,000 per year, being paid to the new president of the University of Tennessee. Such a high salary supposedly enabled the state to attract a really "top notch" administrator who was going to turn UT into one of the country's top universities. This "top notch" president has since resigned in disgrace amid a swirl of scandal, following a wild spending spree while flitting about the world at public expense. How he had time to do any actual work, if he ever did any, between junkets in unclear. There was also a matter of a $300,000 payoff to one of his buddies to look into what the university should be doing in China. China!! Which Tennessee county does he think China is in? Didn't anybody give him a Tennessee map when he showed up? Did he lose track of what country as well as what state he was in?
The job of the University of Tennessee is to educate Tennesseans and to provide information that is helpful to commerce, agriculture and quality of life in Tennessee. Any benefits to the rest of the world are a desirable by-product of that mission, but are not what the university is there for. The UT president needs to be thinking about what is needed in Decatur and Decaturville and similar places, not about China.
To make the situation worse, this is the second UT president in a row to resign in disgrace after a brief stay in office. The root cause of both these failures is the Tennessee fascination with "experts from afar" the continuing notion that everybody else knows more than we do. It seems that every time there is an important job open in Tennessee, those in charge feel compelled to seek an "expert from afar" to come save us from our ignorant selves. The UT board of trustees did just that several years ago when the presidency became vacant. They came up with a drifter named J. Wade Gilly, who had been most everywhere and hadn't stayed long in most places. Shortly after coming to save us from our ignorance, he resigned for "health reasons," his way of saying that the Board of Trustees had grown sick of him. He left amid a flood of scandal, including the creation of highly paid, make-work position for an alleged girlfriend. The lady in question soon left also after it was discovered that she had falsified her resume.
Having learned nothing from this experience, the trustees promptly set out on another search for an "expert from afar" and came up with another drifter, who conned them into making him one of the highest paid university presidents in the nation with the promise that he could make the university into one of the top ones in the nation. Turned out the only thing he was really good at was wasting money.
There is nothing wrong with people who grew up elsewhere coming to Tennessee and making important contributions to the area. There are many examples of such outstanding people here in Bradley County, including the publishers of this paper, the Director of Bradley County Schools and principal of Bradley High School. It is understandable that people want to come to beautiful, friendly Tennessee and we welcome them, but dropping an outsider cold into the presidency of UT which requires a highly detailed knowledge of both the UT system and the state at large is sheer madness.
As the UT board of Trustees starts yet another search for a university president, they would do well to keep some thoughts in mind. First, UT is not going to become one of the country's leading universities. The state of Tennessee is not big enough or rich enough to compete with much larger and more industrialized states. UT needs to focus on serving the needs of Tennesseans instead of trying to build a world reputation, and the next president ought to understand that. Second, the trustees should keep in mind that people who are doing well where they are, rarely have much interest in dashing across the country to jump into situations they know little about. Those who want to move often have a good reason for it.