The inauguration of a college president is always a stately and festive affair, but a small liberal arts college can’t always draw the attention afforded Maryville College as it inaugurated its 11th president this past weekend.
Gov. Bill Haslam, making his first visit back to Maryville since being elected governor, and Tennessee’s senior senator Lamar Alexander shared the podium at a Civic Leadership Luncheon at the college’s Alumni Gym on Friday. Inauguration events for Dr. Tom Bogart began Wednesday and continued through Saturday.
Gov. Haslam and Sen. Alexander headlined the luncheon for approximately 135. Their remarks and responses to the questions following their presentations emphasized not only the importance of education to the state and community, but the contributions of Maryville College today and through the years.
Haslam said he was present at the inauguration of the president of a private college because of the tremendous contributions Maryville College has made in East Tennessee. “It matters who the president of Maryville College is,” he said.
The governor said the state has challenges to face in education.
“Nationally, in the adult population over age 35, 30 percent have college degrees. In Tennessee, that average is 20 percent,” he said.
Haslam said that when recruiting industry, Tennessee has much to boast about, including a great quality of life and no state income tax. “But we don’t compare when it comes to educational attainment,” he said. Solving that problem is going to take changing not only K-through-12, but expectations for colleges, Haslam said.
“If we’re going to solve the problem, it is going to take different approaches.”
The governor said private institutions like Maryville College will have to be a partner with public four- and two-year institutions to change that trend. “Maryville College, with its strong tradition of being a great liberal arts school, will play a role in solving that issue,” he said.
Haslam said part of the issue is the state has a major budget challenge. “We have $1.8 billion less than last year. We have to make adjustments, and higher education is one of the place we had to cut this year, which is obviously something we didn’t want to do,” he said. “We can not make college unaffordable for middle class families.”
The governor said the United States was first in the percentage of adults with a college degree 20 years ago, but now ranks ninth in the world. “In less than one generation, we’ve gone from first to ninth in the number who receive college degrees,” he said.
The governor said Maryville College has a role in turning that trend. As he lauded the new leadership of Maryville College, Haslam said that just as it matters who leads Maryville College, leadership in public schools matters. “I’m convinced that to be successful you get the right person to be principal, pay them a fair salary and get out of their way,” he said. “It’s about finding the right leaders, and if we do that, we, as a state, will move ahead.”
Haslam said Maryville College has produced many leaders who influence the community and state. “We need Maryville College to continue to produce those students,” he said. “What you do makes a difference for our state.”
Sen. Alexander’s ties to Maryville College reach beyond his birth. Alexander said if it weren’t for Maryville College, he and his sisters wouldn’t exist because his parents met there as undergraduates in 1931. “They got married in 1939, and I have a lot of boyhood memories from here. Bo Henry taught me how to swim here, and I took my first piano lessons here,” he said. “Maryville College has enriched our community in many, many ways.”
Alexander said that Maryville College had a role to play in partnering with state community colleges in providing a portal for students to continue their education and finish their degrees.
As to what makes the difference in the quality of schools in Maryville, Alexander said, “Education works here because the people want it to. I tell people your schools can be just as good as you want. What happens is people begin to value education. How do you replicate that? You can’t replicate schools like you can McDonald’s. The best schools happen when the families, principals and teachers value education.”
In a question from Alexander during the question and answer period on what the new governor would like his legacy to be, Haslam said he wants to see job numbers increase, but progress in education is high on his list of priorities. “If we could change the culture of expectations about education in Tennessee… and if we as a state can come to a greater realization of how important education is, I’ll take that as a success,” the governor said.
The senator and governor were asked about the priority music and the arts should have in education. Alexander said that in tight economic times, it’s hard to object to emphasizing math and reading, saying that time for music and the arts may become after-school activities. “We really need longer school days and more days in school,” Alexander said. Gov. Haslam said local school systems should be allowed more flexibility in reorganizing school time to allow for the arts because those subjects are essential to a well-rounded student, and often to keeping students in school.
“In 2010, 28,000 students dropped out of school in Tennessee,” the governor said. “The arts and physical education are important in themselves and can also be magnets to keeping kids in school.”
In a press conference before the luncheon, Gov. Haslam was asked about the new legislation recently signed into law increasing the length of time it takes to earn tenure from three to five years. “Obviously some people don’t like it, but almost overwhelmingly the feedback has been positive,” the governor said. “Good teachers want to work with other good teachers and work with great principals. Put us in that environment, and you’ll see even better results,” he said. “I’ve been pleased with how little pushback I’ve seen.”
In a press meeting after the luncheon, Alexander was asked about TVA’s announcement that it was closing several coal-fired plants in its system. Alexander said the closings were good for Tennessee. “Clean air makes us healthier. It is also cheaper to build gas-powered plants and nuclear plants,” he said.
The senator said it is also good for industrial development because when a company such as Volkswagen considers building in a community, it has to check to see if there are any air-quality issues.