“The greatest danger [the University of Alabama] has to apprehend is from its Trustees.”
— The Southern Advocate, Huntsville, Ala., September 17, 1831
Saturday, April 18, was the University of Alabama’s 184th birthday. But good luck finding out much about its early days. Even on its own website, UA is tight-lipped; President Judy Bonner carefully omits any specifics after UA’s founding in 1831 and before George Denny’s “Capstone” catchphrase in 1912.
What are they hiding? In 1953 James B. Sellers, a professor of history at UA as well as a two-time alumnus, published History of the University of Alabama Volume One 1818-1902. You’d expect it to be a homer’s history, fulsome in its praise of the Capstone and the young men who studied there. Instead, it is a most dispiriting saga of a university’s failure to launch. And the UA Board of Trustees (UABOT) plays no small role in this saga and this failure. I summarize and quote from Sellers’ book below.
Origins and Missed Chances
The Alabama Legislature created the UABOT in 1821 and charged it with a variety of duties, including selecting a site for a female institution that would have been a branch of the University. This bold move would have made UA the first co-educational institution in the United States, more than a decade ahead of Oberlin College, which still proudly proclaims its status as the first co-ed college. But the men on the Board never got around to it. UA did not admit women until 1893, 72 years later, long after Northern colleges had gone co-ed.
In all, 138 men served on the UABOT before and during the Civil War — a level of turnover inconceivable in the current Bryant Bank era of the Board. They were paid honoraria for their services out of university funds, a practice that was supposed to stop when UA was opened. This stipulation was conveniently forgotten, and the payouts continued even while the fledgling university struggled for resources (see below).
Sellers writes that “it is questionable whether such extensive authority over the University should have been left to the discretion of men few of whom were educators themselves” — a statement of timeless relevance (p. 12).
The University opened to scandal in 1831. It was to be financed by land sales, but the Legislature and the UABOT let the purchasers largely off the hook. A minority of the Board fought this action, suggesting that UA was getting shortchanged so that wealthy cronies could make a killing on land deals. These shady dealings led to “violent controversy” and bitter criticism of the UABOT in the state media (p. 17). In the end, the land sales netted only about half of the proceeds that were originally anticipated. The University got off to an impecunious start.
The criticism intensified in 1834 when an investigation revealed that the Board had violated state law by spending money in excess of state appropriations and the university’s funds (p. 23):
“There was nothing in the law to give them these rights. They had, in effect, diminished the capital stock of the University, and this was direct violation of law. The trustees were severely censured for carelessness.”
By 1848, Sellers writes,“[t]he large debt hanging over the University was holding back many very valuable and necessary improvements and causing great embarrassment in the management of its affairs” (p. 25). A deal was worked out in that year to resolve the mess, but the Board did not act on it for eleven years.
It might have helped if the UABOT had had a treasurer. Sellers sardonically observes:”[i]t is interesting to note that, although the board found it advisable to protect its privacy by employing a doorkeeper in 1832, no treasurer to protect its financial affairs was appointed until 1848” (p. 22). Sellers balances this observation with statistics demonstrating the parsimonious treatment of UA by the Legislature, but clearly the Board did not inspire much public trust through its own actions.
“Rioting and Gun Fire”
It would be uplifting to report that the University transcended these difficulties and soared quickly to academic prominence. Instead, it face-planted out of the gate, a victim of its own students’ behavior and destructive actions by the UABOT. Sellers describes the scene in spring 1834 as “campus warfare” (p. 59). He includes an account from future U.S. and Confederate Senator Clement Clay, then a UA student, of an “open and audacious rebellion” including students dressed in white in the night, brandishing pistols, clubs, and stones. Two of the students expelled for this rebellion later chased after UA President Alva Woods with large whips.
“With campus discipline in such a shocking state,” Woods went to the Board for help (p. 60). The Board blamed the faculty and drove out the alleged troublemaking faculty member, the second of the original four faculty members to flee. Nevertheless, “[b]y the spring of 1837 rebellion was at its height… rioting and gun fire… The faculty were defeated… Some 101 students are listed in the University Catalogue for 1837, but only one… qualified for a degree.” The third original faculty member, young Henry Tutwiler, left that year. Tutwiler, the father of the famed Julia Tutwiler, was held in such esteem that later on the University tried to lure him back, twice, as UA president. Both times he refused the offer.
Retry and Abort
When President Woods left for Rhode Island in December 1837, along with all but one lone remaining faculty member, the University essentially had to restart from scratch. This retry did not fail as utterly as the first attempt, but the bad still drove away the good.
The prime case in point was F.A.P. Barnard, UA professor of mathematics and natural philosophy beginning in 1838. When Barnard and two other “outstanding professors” (p. 96) left in 1854 over possibly illegal salary cuts by the UABOT and Board meddling in the UA curriculum, the UA president rejoiced, “One great incumbus thrown off—Barnard is gone…” (p. 73). Barnard went on to serve as president of Columbia University and lead that university to growth and national prominence. Barnard was memorialized via the naming of the women’s college at Columbia for him—Barnard College.
With a reputation as a “trouble spot where… University life [was] a continuous, disgraceful brawl,” Alabama experienced brain drain (p. 197). As of 1850, about one-third of young men in Alabama attended college out of state rather than go to UA. And in the days before football and abundant Greek life, UA had little to attract out-of-state students. In 1857 only 1.4 percent of UA students were from outside of Alabama. The next year, when a UA student was shot and killed in a fight and his assailant was acquitted, the situation worsened. A student wrote home, “Even Brown, the Trustee of the college, congratulated him [the assailant]… about thirty of the most respectable students have already gone home… I do not think you ought ever to send another one of the boys here…” (p. 254).
To quell the general on-campus disorder, the University of Alabama was turned into a military school for the next 43 years. With students turned into cadets under a commandant, drilling an hour a day, the discipline problems abated to an extent. But the University’s progress was slow, due to 1) the burning of the UA campus by Union troops in 1865, because it was a military school; 2) a slow restart following the Civil War; and 3) a military parade of 14 presidents/acting presidents in 32 years, many of them “Confederate generals and lawyers” (p. 335).
“Secular and Sectarian Opposition”
But perhaps the biggest drag on the University was its own reputation, and the resulting widespread opposition to UA that Sellers focuses on, surprisingly, in his concluding chapter.
An address on campus in June 1873 by an 1856 alumnus of UA was withering:
“He charged that the University of Alabama had ‘never been a university in fact’… It had prepared none… for entrance into any profession other than teaching, and it had given few degrees higher than the lowest in the arts” (p. 553).
Fifteen years later The Birmingham News concurred, alluding to UA as “a second or third rate semi-military little institution, unknown outside of Alabama” (p. 559).
And with that, plus some discussion of early 20th century reforms, and a promise that “[t]he day of the Great University was about to dawn,” Sellers’ history ends. There is no published sequel, only an unpublished manuscript by Sellers.
It is likely that no other in-house history of an academic institution, published on the university’s own press, is so unflinchingly critical. No wonder that today UA fast-forwards its history from its founding to its football team.
The Missing Sequel
The history of the University of Alabama as a Great University has never been published, for reasons that should be obvious. Opened 20-40 years before other state universities in Wisconsin, Minnesota, Illinois and California, by the early 20th century UA not only had squandered its lead but was not even mentioned in the same breath as these prominent public research universities. The gap between UA and these universities would only widen in the 20th century and beyond. (UA’s annual R&D expenditures in 2013 were 8 percent of UC-Berkeley’s, 7 percent of Illinois’, 6 percent of Minnesota’s, and 5 percent of Wisconsin’s.) Sadly, the signature moment of the 20th century for UA as an academic institution was as a visual prop for George Wallace’s segregationist “schoolhouse door” theatrics in 1963.
At the heart of the problem, then and now, is the UABOT. Mismanagement and micromanagement by the Board sapped the strength of UA in the 19th century, and threaten to do the same to all three UA System institutions in the 21st century. Some things never change.
Dr. John Knox is an associate professor of geography at the University of Georgia and the 2014 CASE/Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching Professor of the Year for the state of Georgia. He is a native of Birmingham and a 1988 graduate of UAB.