by Victor Ashe
It is never fun to voice concern about the University of Tennessee and its spending practices. As a graduate of the UT College of Law, I am proud of my Tennessee law degree. Having attended graduate school there, I wish the following was fiction instead of fact.
However, when we learned over the past few weeks that donors to the UT athletic program are having over $18 million diverted from other purposes to fund payouts for three persons who were terminated, one has to wonder: Who is minding the store from a financial standpoint?
With the forced departure of Butch Jones as football coach by AD John Currie and now Currie’s departure, preceded by payouts for former AD Dave Hart and Mike Hamilton the total cost potentially exceeds $18 million. That is not pocket change.
When UT Chancellor Beverly Davenport fired (suspended) Currie, did she consider the cost involved to the Athletic Department as only 8 months earlier she had signed a contract with Currie on top of his actual salary which would guarantee him $100,000 a month until June, 2022 if fired without cause. Davenport and Currie worked well together until she suddenly removed him December 1 without warning or explanation to the public.
For the past six weeks Currie has been paid while no longer working while UT tries to reduce the amount they owe him due to the bad publicity which has arisen over these lavish sums being paid.
UT justifies the cost by claiming these contracts are what the market requires and without them they could not attract the quality UT needs. Of course, there is no evidence from UT that they even tried to cut costs in this area. Given the fact the last two Athletic Directors have been fired, one can wonder how successful their recruiting is.
UT accepted what these people asked for. UT leaders and Trustees cannot point to any steps they have taken to roll this back and to chart a new course which reduces or avoids these extravagant payouts.
Now, if one or more of the 7 candidates for Governor decided to make this an issue, it might change overnight.
State Rep. Craig Fitzhugh’s high point in his low key campaign for Governor to date may have been the day he called a news conference in front of the Pat Head Summit statute on the UT Knoxville campus and said he would restore the Lady Vols name to the team which former AD Dave Hart had removed. He said he would sponsor a resolution in the legislature on it and if elected Governor would bring it to the UT Board which he would be a member of by law.
Fitzhugh received more publicity that day in the media and on sports pages than his entire quiet campaign has received to date. He forced the lady Vols issue into the conversation and within hours Congresswoman Diane Black had joined his effort.
UT saw it was a winning issue and their 3 year campaign defending the name removal was about to be overturned by the Governor’s race. UT knew that not one candidate for Governor would defend them on the removal of the Lady Vols logo.
It only took UT 6 days to cave. Davenport and then AD John Currie restored the name within a week. We all know this decision must have been approved by UT President Joe DiPietro and key Trustees before they did it. UT wanted this off the table and away from the campaign.
The same applies here if one of the credible candidates for Governor decides to make this an issue. UT will take steps to actually impose fiscal restraint on these payouts. It is has yet to be proven that Currie was fired for cause. The truth has not come out yet on what transpired, who knew what and when, and who actually told Chancellor Davenport she must fire him. Hard to find anyone who believes Davenport decided to fire (suspend) Currie on her own.
While I think Currie will ultimately prevail and be given all or almost all of what the contract provides, one has to ask why did UT ever support and sign such a overly generous contract in the first place. Most people feel Currie was anxious to leave Kansas and return to Knoxville. His annual pay was generous and no one thought he would vanish in 8 months. Currie has employed an attorney to represent him on this issue.
Davenport, who has a $700,000 a year pay package, has failed the test of candor when it comes to explaining the Currie departure.
Furthermore, there is no way UT will trigger a lawsuit from Currie which would force depositions under oath from all the key participants in this process. They would become public and the testimony would tarnish the image of the University.
This will continue until UT Board calls a halt to it. Gov. Haslam’s proposal to reduce the size of the Board and to remove the Governor from the Board will reduce public influence over what it does. It is unfortunate that several Governors have not been diligent in attending Board meetings which state law placed them on. The legislature should be careful in reviewing this.
There is sentiment among some lawmakers to add the two Speakers (Speaker of the House and Speaker of the State Senate) to the UT Board of Trustees. The Board size could easily be reduced to 19 or so from 26. The UT President who works for the Board should not be a member of the Board which employs him. Having the two Speakers on the Board would give its deliberations a different flavor than currently exists.