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Tennessee Tech faculty senate challenges Fitzgerald glider kit study

Fitzgerald Glider Kits has been producing glider trucks since 1989. (Photo: Shutterstock)

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Tennessee Tech, with an enrollment of more than 10,000 students, is the state’s only technological university, with strong STEM programs, as well as traditional liberal arts, business, education, agriculture, human ecology, fine arts, and nursing. It is highly ranked by numerous publications and organizations, such as Money magazine, U.S. News & World Report, the Brookings Institute, the Princeton Review, and Washington Monthly.

Yet a controversial study, which found that glider kits do not pollute any more than engines equipped with modern emission systems, was funded by Fitzgerald Glider Kits. It currently has the university embroiled in a fight for its reputation.

Fitzgerald Glider Kits in Crossville, TN (nearby the campus) specializes in installing the remanufactured main heavy truck components -- engine, transmission and rear axles -- from a donor truck that was either wrecked or unsafe for the road, into a new cab and chassis. Those who love the trucks argue that they are reliable, fuel-efficient trucks that require less maintenance, and yield less downtime. Fitzgerald, founded in 1989, produces more than 3,500 trucks per year. 

The Tennessee Tech study concluded that pollution from glider trucks was no worse than from trucks with modern emissions controls, and was cited by EPA director Scott Pruitt when he announced in November he would make the regulatory change requested by U.S. Rep. Diane Black. Last June, president Oldham had signed a letter endorsing the study.

The study was then used to lobby a measure that allows the rebuilt diesel engines to be exempt from federal emissions rules.

Days after Pruitt moved to exempt gliders from implementing modern emissions standards, staff at the E.P.A. entered into the agency's official record-keeping docket a study that the agency had itself performed of emissions from a Fitzgerald glider kit truck that directly contradicted the results from Tennessee Tech, concluding that the air emissions were 43 to 55 times those of trucks with modern emissions controls.

According to the New York Times, the Tech study has in recent weeks been condemned by an array of businesses and major truck makers like Volvo and Navistar; fleet owners like the United Parcel Service; lobbying powerhouses like the National Association of Manufacturers; health and environmental groups like the American Lung Association and the Consumer Federation of America; and some Fitzgerald competitors in Tennessee, Texas and Oklahoma.

Besides paying for the study itself, Fitzgerald Glider Kits also paid for a building, named the Center for Intelligent Mobility.

“As partners, we are answering the call of the governor, of industrial leaders and local governments, our citizens and, most of all, our students,” said Tennessee Tech President Phil Oldham in August of 2017. “This will be the first partnership in the south to bring together an industry partner, a university with research and development capabilities and a center for applied technology to create a center for mobility technologies.”

“The Fitzgerald family saw a need, a need that they had but a greater need. They saw the need of our region,” Myra West, president of TCAT Livingston, said. TCAT Livingston is one of the state’s premier providers of state-of-the-art technical training for workers to obtain the technical skills and professional training.

“This is an example of private industry recognizing a need and partnering with higher education institutions to meet the needs of the workforce. We are honored to be a part of this.”

Now, a few months later, as the integrity of Tennessee Tech is being called into question, the faculty and students are not feeling so honored. In fact, there is widespread outrage. Some 50 people gathered at a rally in the pouring rain last Thursday morning, holding signs announcing "Tech can't breathe."

Faculty member Andrew Smith addressed the crowd.

"We are not against research," he said. "We are not against ethical public-private partnerships. But we are against turning a public university into a for-profit engine...We are against the political moves that implicate some of our top administration, a member of our board of trustees and the Fitzgerald family in bankrolling the gubernatorial campaign of Diane Black, who would be the top supervisor over this institution if elected."

The faculty senate has already demanded a more aggressive effort to distance the university from what they call "embarrassing research," according to the TTU Faculty Senate Business Meeting notes from January 29. 

Brewer said that in “2016 he sat down with Fitzgerald leadership, an engineering company," who had "no engineers on staff." Fitzgerald had never tested their engines before. They proposed a study for $39,000 with $12,000 for equipment.

“An E.P.A. approved portable hand-held device for field-testing was used to test the exhaust of 13 vehicles, 5 of which were brand new," according to the meeting notes. "Tests indicated no significant differences in any of the 13 tested in Fall 2016." Brewer says he stands by this study using only a calibrated hand-held device for a few weeks in the fall of 2016.

Brewer was asked: "Who has the data? Where was it done? Why believe the data? Why did you draw the conclusions you did? Who wrote the letter to the President?"

Brewer only said he was the one who wrote the letter for the President to sign. Diane Black asked Fitzgerald for the summary data for "Phase I." It is not known who the advisor was for the first-year engineering student who performed the tests.

The senate went on to criticize Brewer and the process, calling the leaps from the study to his letter to the President “exaggerated” and even “stupid.” The senate said there are very specific standards for this kind of research, especially in the name of the University, and that Brewer and his researchers didn’t even engage with an academic unit. Finally, they cited “an appearance of conflict of interest.”

The senate has since resolved for the president to suspend Brewer from all university activities pending the results of an independent investigation. They also required the president to write letters withdrawing the University support for the study pending investigation results, and to “confirm within 5 working days of the passing of this resolution the successful formation of the impartial investigatory committee.”

While the Tech faculty has responded, the results of the pending investigation will have the real lasting impact.

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