Melvin Johnson Leaves TSU


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You may have seen headlines last week that Melvin Johnson has stepped down as TSU president, effective January 2011, and will return to the classroom as a prof in the College of Business that fall semester. He cited family and personal reasons for leaving, but, according to a big Tennessean report, TSU was in the grip of an unstoppable downward spiral, plagued by inefficiency, mind-numbing bureaucracy and an overall state of atrophy.

Two years ago, we reported on early signs of that critical mass in this story about students who, a few weeks away from midterms, still didn't have their financial aid. Students who were sent on a fool's errand through a maddening maze of bureaucracy, only to still be told their check was held up. They talked about rude administrators, slackened criteria, the pride they felt in attending a Historically Black College and University — pride quickly dashed. But two years ago, Melvin Johnson thought he could turn it all around.

True, he'd just inherited a school in crisis. So he commissioned a consulting group to look at the university's problems. The report called for a "cultural shift of seismic proportions," among other concerns:

Among many cited weaknesses, the report rapped TSU for paying more money to teachers and administrators than other Board of Regents schools, offering courses of study with limited depth, and having no reliable way to tell whether a program needs improving. It also said TSU must fix the poor service it offers students.

These problems could not come at a worse moment. At the same time TSU hopes to increase enrollment, college tuition at state institutions has risen 53 percent above inflation over the last decade. On top of that, more than a third of today's students are adult learners—one of the groups hardest hit by the current recession. And yet Melvin Johnson insists, unfazed, that TSU wants to become Tennessee's premier public university.

To his credit, he got to work: He tried to increase enrollment, even giving the university its first academic master plan in its 96-year history. He cleaned house, replacing the heads of financial aid, academic affairs and enrollment. He called for budget cuts and a hiring freeze. He brought in software to help fix the dreadful financial aid troubles. Board of Regents Chancellor Charles Manning said he had faith Johnson was just the man to turn things around.

But then last year, 95 faculty members signed a petition asking for more power in top decision-making. And last week, Johnson resigned. Was it hubris that gave Johnson the confidence to state such optimistic claims in 2008, or was he merely a mortal trying to save a sinking ship? We may never know that: He has said throughout interviews that his journey is about the students, but it's more than clear that, in spite of his best efforts, they still weren't being well-served.


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