In my early months as chancellor of the Board of Regents, I had spent a great deal of time meeting with campus constituents and developing a long-range plan for our system. The result was a bold document entitled “Agenda 2000 – The Board of Regents’ Plan to Serve Tennessee.”
By coincidence, the plan was completed just after Republican Don Sundquist was sworn into office to succeed the Democratic governor I had served and just after I had named the former deputy governor to a vice chancellorship at the Board of Regents.
In planning for the release of the plan, we decided to give the news break to the Nashville Banner and arranged for a meeting with the newspaper’s editorial board. The publisher at that time was Irby Simpkins, my former boss. Of relevance to the point I want to make, the publisher’s wife was Peaches Simpkins, the newly named deputy governor.
I arrived at the meeting with press packets in hand, looking forward to yet another friendly meeting with old friends at the Banner and, subsequently, positive news coverage. Then, suddenly, I realized I had walked into an ambush.
Within seconds after warm greetings, the publisher interrupted me before I could complete the first sentence of the briefing. He immediately chastised me for hiring the former governor’s deputy and alleged that our “Agenda 2000” was nothing more than a political ploy to lay the groundwork for me to run for governor four years later. For added measure, he outlined an array of examples of what he considered to be excessive spending by the Regents.
I was stunned by the surprise attack but politely made an effort to refute the allegations. I assured Simpkins that I had no interest in running against the incumbent governor four years later. I defended the decision to hire the former governor’s deputy by citing his credentials. Moreover, I responded to each of the allegations of excessive spending.
All I said clearly fell on deaf ears. As I left the Banner offices, my mind was racing. I was dumfounded. The shock of the ambush was falling full force on me.
Over the next two weeks, we were pummeled almost daily in both the news and editorial columns of the Banner. No matter how we responded, our messages were being garbled in the press coverage. It was an unsettling time for the board and the staff.
In addressing the Banner’s concerns, I pulled from the files a memo that I had sent to our board members following my appointment the previous year expressing my commitment not to use my position as a stepping stone to the University of Tennessee presidency or to the governorship and pledging that I would serve until my retirement from state service. In addition, I drafted a new memorandum reiterating my pledge not to run for governor four years later. Both memos were shared with Irby Simpkins.
In regard to the criticism of my appointment of Ned McWherter’s deputy to a vice chancellorship, I sought advice from the former governor. Unknown to Simpkins, McWherter had asked me to find an appropriate position for the deputy, and the position he was given was the one that best fit his credentials. McWherter, a long-time friend of both Irby and Peaches Simpkins, privately intervened and closed the case on the deputy.
Some three months after the Banner’s surprise attack, I called Irby Simpkins and asked to meet for the purpose of providing him with an update on what we had done. At the meeting, my opening comment was, “Irby, I want to thank you for giving me a wake-up call. We were not minding the store the way we should have been, and you set us straight.”
A huge smile crossed his face, and we had a very pleasant meeting. As the meeting ended, Irby remarked on how struck he was with my opening statement and asked if I would be willing to say that to the Banner’s editorial board. “Our editors and reporters often wonder if what we are doing is having any impact on public officials, and your statement would be of interest to them,” he said.
I responded by saying that I meant what I had said and that I would be happy to meet with the editorial board.
The meeting took place. The promised statements were delivered. Never again did I have to confront a negative story or editorial in the Banner. Mistakes had been made and corrected. Proper apologies had been issued. The crow had been eaten while it was hot.
-adapted from Journal of a Fast Track Life © 2018 Charles E. Smith. All rights reserved. Top photo courtesy of cocoparisienne at pixabay.com