[Fire on the Mountain is thrilled to bring you this first-hand account of a major victory for the student movement--and the labor movement--this one in the University of Tennessee system. It's from the keyboard of Nelson Hawkins of the sorely missed Pottawatomie Creek blog. One note for non-residents of the Hog & Hominy State: the union mentioned, United Campus Workers--CWA Local 3865, has taken on the difficult challenge of organizing in a right-to work state where public employees have no formal right bargain collectively.]
It reminds me of a story an old friend would tell. He was a Black minister in the south; very involved in the freedom movement. In his later years he visited an enemy, a local racist who wound up in jail. The next day the man died. When asked about the coincidence, the preacher replied, 'I had no idea my prayer was so powerful.'This was the response of a Knoxville area minister who had helped plan Tuesday's prayer vigil to stop layoffs at the University of Tennessee when he learned Wednesday that UT President John Petersen had just resigned.
Yesterday around 2:30 PM, Knoxville time, the Vice Chair of the University of Tennessee’s Board of Trustees sent an email to staff and faculty announcing Petersen had resigned, and that the media would be notified shortly. Petersen had been working without a contract since last summer, and was currently undergoing a five-year review that by all accounts had not been going well.
Petersen’s resignation comes after months of mounting protest over proposed higher education budget cuts in Tennessee. As the economy has imploded, tax collections in the state have evaporated; after all Tennessee does have the most regressive tax structure in the US with no income tax whatsoever, a very small capital gains tax (the Hall tax), and the highest sales tax at nearly 10% with no exemption for clothing and only a 1% exemption for food. As a result, public higher education in Tennessee faced a 15-20% cut in public funding.
In the past three weeks alone students and campus worker kept Petersen constantly on the defensive:
January 27, 2009. Students with UTK’s Progressive Student Alliance and the broadly-left based Students for a Just University met with Petersen and requested he sign a petition aimed at Gov. Bredesen calling for tax reform and active work on the part of decision-makers to secure Federal Stimulus funds to offset budget cuts in higher education. A media spokesperson for Petersen was quoted in the largest newspaper in TN saying he would not sign the petition prior to the meeting. All local TV stations, some TV in Nashville, radio and print media from across the state covered the event with a noticeably pro-student bias.
January 28, 2009. Nearly 300 campus workers and students rallied at the UT Law School demanding that state and university officials do all they can to secure Federal Stimulus money for TN higher education and use other state means to offset higher education layoffs.
February 9, 2009. Over 400 students, campus workers and our allies held a mock funeral for higher education, a march with posters and coffins ending at the State Capitol mere moments before Gov. Bredesen delivered his “State of the State” address. This was held with the informal state-wide Coalition to Save Our Schools, whose Nashville contingent had held an earlier march there.
February 17, 2009. Nearly a dozen Knoxville area and campus ministers held a prayer vigil with three dozen or so campus workers, students and supporters calling on Petersen and the UT Board of Trustees to do all in their power to offset layoffs. The ministers then lead the delegation to Petersen’s office where they attempted to present the letter to him. All TV media in Knoxville was present, and the story was played by affiliates in Nashville and possibly elsewhere in the state. On one station the reporter even claimed that Petersen had refused to meet the clergy, although he had not even been present.
Certainly other factors contributed to his resignation: Petersen’s ouster of a somewhat popular administrator on the Knoxville campus, a well reported falling out between Petersen’s wife and a major, multi-million dollar donor, his regular use of UT’s private jet to travel to Chattanooga and Nashville (both within a 3 hour drive), and a series of articles in the Knoxville News Sentinel (itself prompted by agitation from United Campus Workers members) exposing top level administrative pay, benefits and an over-budget renovation of Petersen’s campus offices.
Yep, Petersen had one foot on the banana peel, but many were struck by how fast it happened. The U's public relations folks offered as an official rationale that he should leave now, so that the administrators who have to handle this year’s budget cuts will be in place prior to July 1 when the cuts must be made.
Oddly enough, newspapers across Tennessee are today reporting that due to the economic stimulus package, higher education may see its funding restored to 2006 levels, which will result in a funding increase!