University of Alabama at Birmingham President Ray Watts addressed a tough crowd at Friday’s University of Alabama Board of Trustees meeting.
As Watts was introduced at the meeting, he was met with mocking laughter from the crowd gathered to protest the embattled president. As he spoke, the crowd turned their back on him and oftentimes shouted back.
During his address, Watts touched on the tumultuous months that have followed the decision to cancel the UAB football program, in addition to the rifle and bowling teams.
“I want to acknowledge that the past several months have been difficult for the UAB family — all of us in this room and those in the community who love this institution and believe its promise…I have heard your frustration and concern, and I know that trust has been lost, but I want you to know that I am committed to restore that trust,” Watts said, protestors intermittently shouting in disapproval.
“And so now,” Watts continued, “I must earn the confidence of our UAB family so that UAB can continue to fulfill its mission and its promise. … I am committed to building a positive, constructive working relationship with all who love UAB, and we have already started.”
Asked after the meeting if he has any plans to resign, Watts replied, “No, I don’t have any intention of resigning, because the mission of this great university is here. This is one factor in a university that [is the most] important institution in the state of Alabama to help the people of Alabama. Our mission is far larger than disagreements.”
During the meeting, protestors held up signs that read, among other things, “UAB BOT—Liars, Tyrants and Bears, Oh My!” and “UAB Zoo, Featuring Lots of Snakes and One Bear Cub.”
Anjali Wagle, the UAB student body president, said that the distrust with Watts will not go away, and that “a vote of no confidence is a vote of no credibility.”
Wagle also mentioned the accomplishments that UAB has garnered over the last several years, such as producing more Rhodes Scholars than any other university in the state over the last 15 years. But the news about the football program that broke in November marked a “clear shift,” and brought about “dramatic and sudden changes” to the university and student morale.
“UAB is now the largest employer and the highest revenue generating institution in Alabama. We have a world-class research center, and a downtown area that is consistently ranked in the top 10 for up-and-coming cities in the nation. Yet for the last couple of months, the only national attention we received is about failure,” Wagle said.
“Students, alumni and faculty are embarrassed that a school they worked so hard for would be portrayed in such a light. Their achievements have been overshadowed by an administration and a system that has disregarded the value of shared governance and equal representation,” Wagle continued.
Faculty Senate Chair Dr. Chad Epps also outlined the faculty’s loss of confidence in Watts, which was only exacerbated by the decision to cancel the football program.
“On Sept. 1 of last year, I became the chair of a faculty that was already expressing concerns about the way our university was being governed. Over the president’s 18-month tenure, there has been a powerful disconnect with the senior administration and the faculty. While the faculty understood the role of the senior administration in making executive decisions, the concern was perceived as a lack of faculty input. Shared governance; inclusive, clear and transparent decision making; open communication among all members of the community; accountability; mutual respect and trust are all tenets that were not perceived as being honored by the senior administration since the president’s appointment in 2013,” Epps said.
“The decision by the president on Dec. 2 amplified the feelings that were already stirring among the faculty about the lack of shared governance,” Epps continued.
UA Trustee Joe Espy spoke to reporters after the meeting and said that he has full confidence in Watts. But he also said he has heard the message from those gathered in protest, which was overwhelmingly in favor of relieving Watts of his duties.
“There’s three things we’ve got to do,” Espy said. “We have to communicate, we have to remain positive and we have to take the high road. This is a great institution and we are not going to gain anything by taking the low road. Let’s deal with the facts.”
Would this public outcry be happening if UAB was granted proper representation on the UA Board of Trustees? Espy believes the two UAB graduates who sit on the BOT is enough representation.
“There are two UAB graduates on the board. Here’s the thing, we’re a system, none of us are supposed to be on the board because we’re this one or that one. We’re supposed to be serving everyone. I think that if you look back the faculty on this campus got the most raises out of anyone. We support everyone. We’re all supposed to work together. It doesn’t need to be UA and UAH and UAB. It needs to be all together,” Espy said.
Would the BOT support legislation that would change membership of the board or to pull UAB out of the control of the BOT? “Absolutely not,” Espy said. “That’s not in the best interest of this state.”
A committee has been tasked with reviewing the decision to cut UAB’s football program and exploring the financial alternatives to fund the program. After the meeting, Watts said he never wanted to cut anything, and that the funding is finite.
Asked what he was thinking while addressing the crowd — which was, at times, very vocal — Watts said, “Our mission is far larger than disagreements. I’ve always been proud of working here. We are helping people across the city, across the state and across the world every day, and that’s way bigger than one issue. I’ve spoken with Dr. Epps and Ms. Wagle and I told them, let’s continue this discussion. We are all committed towards working together to find the best path forward.”
However, during the meeting, both Epps and Wagle mentioned the vote of no confidence in Watts and urged the BOT to, “No longer ignore this problem,” as Wagle put it. If no action is taken, Wagle said, “The feelings of distrust will only fester.”