To reporters today, Gov. Phil Bredesen gave an impassioned defense of top aide John Morgan's selection as Board of Regents' chancellor. He lashed out at critics who are questioning whether the appointment was rigged. The governor accused Republicans of engaging in "this kind of Washington politics stuff," and he bristled at suggestions that the fix was in for Morgan.
"I mean that’s kind of offensive. We have during the entire course of the time that I’ve been governor, I have worked really hard to put the right kinds of people in these jobs. And there’s no place where I have slid somebody in."
To choose Deputy Gov. John Morgan, the Board of Regents had to abandon its practice of requiring chancellor candidates to hold a doctorate degree. The job description seemed written with Morgan in mind, focusing on an ability to work with state leaders and on knowledge of the state's new higher education law. The search committee interviewed only Morgan shortly after the application deadline passed and hired him a week later.
Sen. Bill Ketron, R-Murfreesboro, is calling for legislative hearings into the appointment. "That disappoints me," Bredesen said. "That is very political. That’s about a guy who’s trying to advance politically in his party" apparently referring to the possibility that Ketron will run for the Senate GOP caucus chairmanship next year.
Q: Governor, this John Morgan thing is stretching out and the legislature is thinking about holding hearings on it. Is there anything to gain from that that you can see?
Bredesen: That disappoints me. That is very political. That’s about a guy who’s trying to advance politically in his party. There are probably as many Republicans as Democrats who are highly supportive of John as the choice for that particular job. You know, anytime somebody criticizes something it’s helpful. You go back and make sure you did everything right. When the Board of Regents first started talking with John and John told me he was doing that, I just said, ‘Look, this is one you've just got to turn absolutely square corners and make everything right.’ I think they really bent over backwards to try to do that. Most importantly, though, I want to say that in the midst of this kind of political season stuff, we don’t need to lose track of the fact of what this is really about, which is that we’ve got to get the college graduation rates in Tennessee up. If we don’t do in the next 20 years substantially, we’re not going to be having these economic development announcements that we’ve been able to have over the past 30 years. … We made a bunch of changes in the law to try to advance that, which was widely supported by both parties in the special session in January. I think John’s a good selection. And I think part of the reason is he’s from Tennessee. He knows this. He’s been working in this field for a long time. He’s got the business expertise and really the political expertise to work his way through those kinds of issues. But that was the board’s choice and I think he’s a good choice, and I hope that in this stuff we don’t let a little bit of this kind of Washington politics stuff get in the way of keeping in mind what this is all about, which is getting college graduation rates up and finding the best possible way to do that.
Q: Given that they had to rewrite the job description for him, how is that a square corner? He’s not qualified under the old qualifications.
Bredesen: The discussion about rewriting those job qualifications has been going on for years. I mean, I have been pushing for four years at least. … It’s one of the many ways in which we’ve got to get out of the old way of doing things. There are plenty of examples around the country of people who don’t have terminal degrees who have been very successful college presidents. That doesn’t mean that you can’t hire someone with that. You just don’t put that as a fence on the front end, you know, to keep other people from being there. We’ve had difficulty in getting applicants for that job. If you remember, we went through a whole round a year ago here or a year and a half ago and basically put it aside because we had no candidates who applied that we were really happy with and knowing we were likely to be making some changes and decided to push it all back. The list this time was not all that strong. …
Q: Are you saying it’s a coincidence that they changed the job qualifications just before Morgan applied?
Bredesen: Well, I certainly know that they didn’t organize that to let him apply because I don’t think that at the time they did that stuff I’m not even sure he had put in his application yet. I genuinely, I was not present in the things and, when Morgan applied, I just took myself completely out of the issue because while, say, for seven of my years as governor or six and a half, he was over across the hall watching over my shoulder, for the last year, he’s been working as deputy governor obviously. But I certainly have supported, I think you can go back a long time, the notion that we ought to stop making this a kind of sinecure for a particular kind of person, a particular kind of background in this job and open it up. I mean, I don’t know, you know, I’m not applying for it and have no interest in it, but I think I could be a good chancellor of a university. Whatever my strengths and weaknesses are, I’d want to be evaluated on those based on what I’ve done in my life and what I could bring to the job and not whether I happen to have a law degree or a ph.d in some other science. I think it’s perfectly appropriate.
Q: So you think he’s the best guy for the job who just happened to be the deputy governor? Isn’t that far-fetched?
Bredesen: No, it isn’t. I mean that’s kind of offensive. We have during the entire course of the time that I’ve been governor, I have worked really hard to put the right kinds of people in these jobs. And there’s no place where I have slid somebody in. When we went through the recruitment of a new president with President Peterson at UT, if you remember, I kept being asked by the board, ‘well who’s the one you want? Who’s the one you want?’ I never would answer that question. I voted for somebody else. … So I’ve been really careful about telling these boards if there’s one job a board has, it’s picking the management team of the organization. … I’ve wanted these boards to learn the process of doing that. … When John said he wanted to apply, I said I think it’s great. We’ve been doing these national searches and recruiting people over at UT from outside the state and it hasn’t worked out all that hot. We’ve had a couple of failed presidencies in a row over there. I think you had in John, who I thought was otherwise qualified, somebody who was known to people here, had a long history with the state, had committed his career to the state of Tennessee, knows a huge amount about higher education, has an interest in it in Tennessee that long predates my being governor. And if he wanted to apply for it, he should. Certainly of the list they had, I thought they made the best choice. But I also told him, he’s not coming in here as I’m pushing him forward. I didn’t that at UT the last time. I’m not doing it for him this time. If you look back over my time, I’ve got a really good record of not messing around the behind the scenes to make political things happen for friends or something like that. … I’ve been really careful about that. And frankly to suggest that now, I don’t like it. … That’s not a fair assessment of what was going on here.