Ray L. Watts, M.D. was recently appointed as the seventh president of the University of Alabama at Birmingham. Watts, a Birmingham native, graduated from UAB with a bachelor’s degree in engineering in 1976 and pursued further education at the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis. Specializing in neurology, he completed his residency and fellowships at Harvard Medical School and Massachusetts General Hospital.
Watts has served in various roles at UAB for ten years, most recently as the senior vice president and dean of the School of Medicine. Following a decade of leadership under Carol Garrison, many are curious as to where the university is heading under Watts’ direction.
Watts responded to the following questions from Weld. His answers are presented unabridged.
Q – What is the overall role of the university president, and what part of your responsibility is most important day-to-day?
My tenure as president has started with UAB in a true position of strength, and I am fortunate to take the leadership reigns of an institution that is on an upward trajectory. UAB’s footprint comprises 86 city blocks. We generate an annual economic impact of more than $5 billion. We have 23,000 employees and support 61,000 jobs in Alabama.
UAB is in this position because of our great people, and we will be successful as long as leadership charts the right course. The most important thing I can do as a president is to work closely with our internal and external stakeholders to set and communicate the priorities of this institution and expand in our areas of excellence.
Q – In what ways do your responsibilities expand from your position as Dean of the School of Medicine? Like your predecessor, you are a former graduate of UAB and a longtime employee. What kind of university development have you been a witness to over the years that you would to see grow under your leadership?
I have always loved medicine, but I love my collegiate alma mater UAB, my hometown of Birmingham and my home state of Alabama more. My responsibilities are now much broader than the School of Medicine, and they will allow me to work in more areas about which I am passionate.
I have been a student here, a faculty member, a chair, a dean and interim CEO of the Health System. I have been a staff member, too, when I worked on getting Engineering’s computers organized when I was a student. I have seen from many angles the positive impact that dedicated, forward-thinking presidents have had. The growth has been phenomenal – not just in our student population and the number of faculty and staff, but in the positive influence we have in our community and around the world.
Q – What are your initial priorities and concerns that you want to tackle through 2013?
UAB will remain ardently committed to advancing a mission to provide outstanding contributions in education, research, patient care, community service and economic development. In each of these areas, it is vitally important that we chart a course to meet strategic priorities and build areas of excellence around a common vision – both on and off campus.
As a first order of business, I look forward to meeting personally with our key constituent groups – our faculty and staff, administrative leaders, students, alumni, community supporters and government and corporate leaders – in order to become familiar with our greatest opportunities and challenges.
Over the coming months, we will engage all units across the university in a strategic planning process that will bring us together with a comprehensive plan to determine our top priorities, guide our investments and chart our course over the next one to three to five years. The strategic plan will also guide the priorities of our comprehensive philanthropic campaign to be formally launched in October 2013.
Q – What are your long-term goals for the university?
Our goal is to be one of the most dynamic and productive universities in the 21st century – a first choice for education and health care. We will get there by focusing on priorities and areas of excellence. We cannot be great in everything; but we absolutely can be great in some things. We will invest in our strengths, and in the future, and others will follow.
Q – What are UAB’s biggest strengths and greatest challenges in the next few years? Some students, particularly involved in the arts and sciences, are concerned that, with the potential for budget cuts and loss of funding, their programs could lose some support in favor of medical programs. Can you comment on these concerns?
Our people are our greatest asset – faculty, staff, students, trainees and administrative leaders – and we strive to fulfill our mission in full measure. They thirst for knowledge and work hard, save lives and improve quality-of-life, educate our future leaders and make great discoveries.
We have excellent facilities and room for growth. Hence, our major investments beyond our new student center, freshman housing and potential new research facilities in the near term will be primarily in people, programs and technology.
We are not without challenges. With state support down and issues with Medicaid and federal budget cuts looming, it is more important than ever that we plan very thoroughly, study very carefully and prioritize very effectively…not just to live within our means but to ensure that we are protecting and propelling our mission.
If Congress does not pass a federal budget, UAB estimates the resulting spending cuts would take $33-$43 million from the annual budgets of UAB and UAB Medicine. The expansion of Medicaid is also critically important, and uncertainties remain. Alabama stands to lose $1.7 billion in federal support in 2014 alone without expansion. These are being worked on diligently because it isn’t too late to stop such losses.
Q – How would you categorize former-President Garrison’s accomplishments? What is her legacy?
Carol Garrison is one of the outstanding presidents and campus leaders who have gone before me and built a foundation of excellence and set high standards for all aspects of this institution. Her legacy includes expanding UAB’s footprint, enhancing economic impact and broadening our influence.
Q – Should UAB push for more autonomy from the University of Alabama system?
No. Our trustees want all three campuses to succeed, to build on their individual strengths and to cooperate and collaborate on efficiencies and partnerships. I have had the opportunity to meet with the trustees and talk at length. We are mutually committed to and excited about the future of UAB. I look forward to working with the Board of Trustees, the chancellor and UA System leadership.