Poor planning, more scholarships led to TSU student housing shortage, state report finds

Poor planning, more scholarships led to TSU student housing shortage, state report finds

At a time when Tennessee State University was already facing a campus housing shortage, leaders launched an extensive enrollment campaign and quadrupled the scholarship budget for the 2022-23 school year, further exacerbating the problem and pushing hundreds of students into off-campus hotel housing.

That was one of the findings in a special report released Wednesday from the Tennessee Comptroller’s Office. The office has been reviewing TSU since September following concerns from state lawmakers over the Nashville-based university’s financial practices and a major campus housing shortage that will likely continue.

Overall, the report found that “lack of planning, management, and sound decision-making” exacerbated the need for emergency housing as the university enrolled a record number of first-year students for the fall 2022 semester.

“Key staff did not properly assess the risks inherent to increased admissions, including the basic needs of housing the student population and fulfilling scholarship obligations, and did not take substantive action for long-term solutions,” the report said. 

In a statement in response, TSU on Wednesday called some of the policy recommendations in the report disappointing and inequitable, but said it “recognizes that more should have been done sooner to meet housing needs” and is taking additional steps. 

“We see our error in relying on past data to estimate that a certain percentage of students who apply to TSU, will actually attend TSU,” the statement said. “As a result, management has put in place procedures to prevent the reoccurrence of this issue.”

State Comptroller Jason Mumpower presented the report to a special Senate committee on Thursday, in a room packed full of TSU alumni, students and staff all wearing blue to support the university. 

Mumpower said he was “disheartened” by what his staff found after a four-month review.

“Right now TSU is not a well-run organization,” he said. “The housing issue that we’ve illustrated today is only a symptom of a much larger management problem.”

Among the report’s findings:

  • Student housing demand has exceeded TSU’s supply each year since 2017. Despite the housing shortage, the university’s scholarship budget for 2022-23 skyrocketed from $6.4 million to $28.3 million, of which the majority were full-cost scholarships that guaranteed housing.
  • Of the 1,722 students who received scholarships, one-third did not meet the minimum GPA requirement for these scholarships. They may have qualified based on financial need, but the university did not have records for that information based on a random sample review of students files.
  • The $28.3 million in scholarships budgeted for the 2022-23 school-year was not fully approved by the TSU Board of Trustees until November 2022.
  • The housing problem will likely continue as the on-campus housing capacity is 3,680 beds, short of the estimated need of 4,800 beds for Fall 2023. 

With a flood of new students last year, the university requested to lease six properties, including five hotels, for emergency housing for hundreds of students.

But information from TSU leaders on the housing issues has been unclear at times, the report said, noting there have been “repeated inconsistencies between testimony given by TSU officials and actions later carried out regarding hotel leases and the housing of freshmen in off-campus locations.”

Senators:Tennessee Senators question whether TSU’s housing problem is growth or leadership related

Housing crunch:Tennessee State students adjusting to hotel life amid housing shortage

The report also made policy considerations, including possibly vacating TSU’s Board of Trustees and placing the university under the authority of the Tennessee Board of Regents. TSU fell under the oversight of the Board of Regents until 2017.

TSU called several of the report’s findings untrue, including the number of scholarship students not meeting GPA requirements. And in its statement, the university said it was disappointed by some of the policy considerations such as changing the university leadership, which it called inequitable and overreaching.

Full report:Read the Comptroller’s full special report on Tennessee State University.

TSU responds: Read Tennessee State University’s full statement at the end of this article.

In a fiery speech before the Senate committee on Thursday, TSU President Glenda Glover said the university would be in a better housing situation today but for the fact that it has been historically underfunded.  

“To remove or dismantle TSU leadership at this point in time would not only hurt and destroy the legacy of TSU but will cause irreparable harm to our students and their families,” she said. “It’s time to support TSU and not destroy TSU.”

TSU is one of seven historically Black colleges and universities in Tennessee and the only public institution among them.

Glover said the university increased its scholarships in response to an increase in demand but will be limiting the number of new first-year students this fall and works on the housing issues.

“We want to help get more of our Black kids in school,” she said. 

TSU Board of Trustee members who spoke to the Senate committee said they are working with an outside consultant for improvements and should be given the chance to correct the issues and self-govern.

Following decades of historic underfunding by hundreds of millions of dollars in land-grants, lawmakers last year passed a proposal from Gov. Bill Lee to invest $250 million in the university to improve physical infrastructure. The funds, however, are designated only for capital improvement projects as outlined by the state and cannot be used for campus housing.

Freshman Egypt Johnson was one of dozens of students who came in support of TSU on Thursday. Johnson said students appreciate that many of the university’s board members and leaders are also alumni who understand their needs. 

“How can you understand what we’re dealing with if you haven’t walked in our shoes,” she said. “What we’re asking for is support, not control.”

Reach Kelly Puente at kpuente@tennessean.com.