Tennessee’s community-college students are starting the school year with high hopes, as thousands of first-years stream onto campus with the brand-new “Tennessee Promise” scholarship program. But state higher-education workers are getting off to a rougher start, fearing that instead of getting a funding boost, they’ll get sold to the highest bidder.
Under a plan recently issued by the administration of Governor Bill Haslam—who won national accolades for making Tennessee the first state to offer comprehensive “free community college for all”—workers at public facilities across the state, including higher-education institutions, will see their jobs outsourced, potentially at the expense of wages and benefits. The scheme, publicized last month by the campus workers’ union, United Campus Workers–Communications Workers of America (UCW), set off a flurry of angry criticism from officials and workers, who see both jobs and education at risk of aggressive privatization.
The request for information (the first step in the contracting process), quietly posted on the Tennessee Department of General Services website, invites vendors to inquire about providing services covering almost every campus function, including building maintenance, financial management, security, and possibly food service and project management in the future—striving for “continuous innovation” and lowered operating costs.
After union activists protested the plan, rallying under the slogan, “Tennessee is not for sale,” University of Tennessee President Joe DiPietro has explained in public statements that the administration has not finalized the outsourcing plans and might opt out of some provisions “if we determine they are not workable or don’t achieve long-term savings.” Still, the UT executives are largely on board with the statewide austerity agenda. Even while boasting of expanding access to college courses, the governor and education officials seek to retool the college “business model” by tracking academic outcomes and “finding efficiencies.”