“I’ve never seen anything like it. The loyalty to Tuscaloosa and the protectionist attitude the trustees have about it is something I’ve never seen…
[U]ntil the trustees… wish UAB well, then UAB cannot move forward.”
— Albert Niemi, departing Dean of the UAB School of Business, April 1997
In two previous Storyboards “The Early Days of UA and its Board of Trustees” and “A History of UAH and the UABOT,” I have chronicled the origins of both the University of Alabama (UA) and the University of Alabama in Huntsville (UAH) and the interference of the University of Alabama Board of Trustees (UABOT) with both universities’ progress. Unsurprisingly, the history of the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB), like that of UAH, also reveals pro-Tuscaloosa paranoia and obstructionism among state leaders, including elements of the UABOT. Bizarrely, these actions have been intended to thwart “what many consider one of the most compelling stories of university development in the United States.”
This quotation and others below come from Tennant S. McWilliams’s New Lights in the Valley: The Emergence of UAB, published in 2007 by the University of Alabama Press. McWilliams is a native Alabamian and, at the time of publication, was Professor of History and Dean of the School of Social and Behavioral Sciences at UAB. In this essay, I attempt to summarize the most relevant portions of McWilliams’ 546-page scholarly history of UAB (up to 1997) with a few additions based on my personal knowledge and research.
Two Genesis Stories
Most supporters and nearly all detractors of UAB are aware that it was once “just an extension center” or “just a medical center.” It was both, and then became bigger than the sum of both.
UA, desperate for money during the Great Depression, opened the two-year Birmingham extension center on September 14, 1936, much as it did in Huntsville in 1950. As early as 1940, the student leadership agitated for an expanded vision for the Birmingham center but was turned down. The UA administration took the view that state funds for higher education should not be diverted from Tuscaloosa to Birmingham, a rule that continued at least into the 1960s.
Meanwhile, in 1920 a two-year medical school was created at UA. But medical education fared poorly at the Capstone: the number of doctors in Alabama actually decreased during the next 18 years. The solution? A full four-year medical school in a more propitious location. Mobile and Birmingham, spurned in 1920, fought for the prize. Birmingham won. As McWilliams writes, “By February 1944, the scales of power in Alabama had tipped just enough to allow for the medical school and Roy Kracke to move to Birmingham.”
The Forgotten Founder
Who is Roy Kracke (rhymes with “Rocky”)? This undeservedly forgotten founding dean of the medical school in Birmingham set the tone for all that has followed on the Southside. He was a rising national star in hematology; he had both audacity and vision; and he was willing to take on a job turned down by other sitting medical school deans across the country because “I owed it to my native state and my native school.”
Kracke immediately dreamed big. In 1947, he proposed to the UABOT a more autonomous institution “with programs in health affairs, as well as in arts and sciences, teacher education, and engineering” modeled on his experiences at the University of Chicago and Emory University. The UABOT responded to this vision by not responding, for over seven years. UA president John Gallalee, a stiff and reviled Wattsian figure, felt threatened and retaliated by micromanaging Kracke. Kracke’s good friend and former UA administrator Ernest Lowe identified the UABOT as a big part of the problem:
With the prediction that UA was in the process of placing Birmingham affairs under “the complete domination of a group of men” on the board “who know little about it and have still less interest in it,” Lowe asserted that “the job [in Birmingham] cannot be done successfully that way.”
The stress of the situation seems to have killed Kracke, via a fatal heart attack on June 27, 1950. He was 53.
A Tier-One Research University
In just six years Kracke had planted enough seeds for the medical school — really, a broader medical center — to take off. His replacement, Tinsley Harrison, and his young dean of dentistry, Joseph Volker, would become nationally and internationally renowned figures. With other top faculty members including microbiologist Champ Lyons, endocrinologist and future UAB President Dick Hill and cardiologist John Kirklin, they would carry the torch of UAB to dizzying heights.
With a more supportive UA president at the helm, the UAB miracle took shape. One rising-star medical scientist after another arrived in Birmingham during the 1950s and 1960s, following the interdisciplinary research-based vision that Kracke and Volker had begun crafting in the late 1940s. The timing was impeccable: the United States had just entered a golden era of funding for the sciences, and the biosciences became the post-war epicenter for much of this funding.
The success of UAB as a research university is nearly impossible to overstate. During the Kracke spin-up era from 1945 to 1950 external funding averaged $4,400 per year. By 1996, it was up to $200 million annually — an inflation-adjusted increase of a factor of 5,649 in 50 years! McWilliams cites a comprehensive 1997 analysis of research universities in which UAB stood out:
In no other American state has a new urban campus of the state university so surpassed the traditional flagship as a research university.
A Respite from Retaliation
In 1945 or 2015, the knowledge that UAB had beaten out the “mother campus” would be fighting words for many in Tuscaloosa and in Montgomery. Why wasn’t it a trigger in the 1950s and 1960s? McWilliams presents several compelling explanations, including the consuming desegregation crisis at Tuscaloosa, some moderation of the UABOT attitudes toward UAB and, ironically, UA’s success on the gridiron, including a national championship in 1966 that “nurtured UA’s self-esteem.”
Even so, the retaliation never completely let up. The emancipation of the University of South Alabama from UA in 1963 was partly payback against Birmingham and its medical center on the part of a George Wallace crony. In 1967, the UABOT allowed the School of Nursing to move from Tuscaloosa to Birmingham but refused to transfer the funding for it, financially orphaning the school while hoarding the money for the “mother campus.”
UAB was christened in Birmingham on September 15, 1966, by UA President Frank Rose with these encouraging words: “The baby bird has grown and is ready to fly. We are pleased to see you spread your wings and soar to new heights above Birmingham.” Joe Volker immediately proceeded to knit together the medical center and the extension center into a comprehensive university — a vision dating to Roy Kracke’s time. In 1969 full autonomy was granted to UAB under the aegis of the new UA System, with Volker as UAB’s first president. Despite Rose’s imagery, this autonomy was not bestowed on baby-UAB by mother-campus UA. Then-Alabama Governor Albert Brewer later explained the creation of autonomy for UA institutions in this way: “…it was UAB’s development that made it necessary… To give UAB more room to operate we had to give it to the others, too.”
Like the medical center in the 1950s and 1960s, UAB as a whole enjoyed spectacular growth in the 1970s. Undergraduate enrollment trends outpaced even the explosive growth in external funding, climbing 237 percent from 1969 to 1978; master’s and Ph.D. student enrollments (not including medical center students) rocketed up 769 percent from 1968 to 1978. The School of Business became the youngest ever accredited. While UA remained scarred by its 1960s history, UAB elected its first African-American undergraduate SGA president in 1971. Buildings arose seemingly overnight on campus, funded mostly by grants, not the state. Even more world-renowned scientists came to this phoenix that miraculously rose from the ashes of “Bombingham.”
By the 1990s, UAB was designated an “R1” university, the only major research university in Alabama, and its economic impact on the state would reach into the billions. But the boom-time had slowed by then, braked by financial crunches and the plateauing of student enrollment—but also occasioned by another, longer-term cooling of the climate between UAB and the UABOT.
Fear Strikes Back
When the classic UAB model for success — take risks, hire the best you can — was applied to intercollegiate athletics, trouble brewed again. The hiring of UCLA’s Gene Bartow as UAB’s first basketball coach in June 1977, coincidentally during a relative lull in national championships for the Crimson Tide, was viewed as “heresy” by Tide faithful. Their fear only grew when Bartow’s Blazers made it to the Elite Eight level of the NCAA tournament less than five years later, an unparalleled achievement in the history of NCAA Division I men’s basketball.
In 1983 Lieutenant Governor and “fulsome Crimson Tide fan” Bill Baxley cracked down, hard on UAB via the UABOT:
“…undergraduate education in Birmingham needed to be held to a commuter program with a student life that included, at most, low-profile intercollegiate sports… I saw clearly where UAB leaders were headed—a traditional campus with big-time athletics. This was wrong for the state… The board as of the early 1980s was not going to block what UAB was trying to do. So I had to try by changing the makeup of the board at the first opportunity.”
Baxley thwarted the placement of Birmingham-friendly nominees to the UABOT, using the question “have you ever attended a Crimson Tide football game?” as a litmus test for board membership. Then, using his power as lieutenant governor, Baxley packed the UABOT with “men known for their advocacy of UA.”
McWilliams does not note that one of Baxley’s 1983 UABOT slate, Frank Bromberg, later played the decisive role in the elevation of Paul Bryant Jr. to the UABOT in 2001, retiring so that the controversial Bryant (the son of the legendary Alabama football coach and formerly Baxley’s gubernatorial campaign chair) could be appointed without legislative approval. Connecting these dots, Baxley’s 1983 UABOT-packing signaled the end of any respite for UAB and a return to a more obstructionist board for the next three decades and counting.
Despite the creation of UAB football in 1991 by Dick Hill’s successor, President Scotty McCallum, and its elevation to Division I-A status effective 1996 by McCallum’s successor Claude Bennett, the scales of power that had tipped in favor of Roy Kracke and proto-UAB in 1944 seemed to be tipping back a little the other way. While UAB athletics apparently triggered this backlash, it is my impression that the negative impact was felt more broadly across campus.
Exodus Follows Genesis
The comprehensive university had attained maturity despite the rise of a new era of fear generated by this success. But storm clouds were on the horizon, and overhead. Bennett became, at the end of 1996, the first UAB president to resign because of ethical lapses and mistakes made during “imprudent pursuit of ‘rapid change.’”
Worse yet, the flow of talent into UAB began to reverse. McWilliams curiously omits the story of the departure of high-profile UAB business dean Albert Niemi in 1997 after less than one year. Niemi’s blunt assessment of the UABOT’s role in holding back UAB is summarized in the quotation at the top of an essay from the front page of the UAB student newspaper Kaleidoscope on April 15, 1997. Niemi was quoted in the same article as saying that “(w)hen I came here [UAB] I really thought I would be here through the end of my professional career.” UAB lost out on as much as 18 years (and counting) of leadership it had paid rather dearly for.
The genesis of UAB from 1936 to the mid-1990s would soon be followed by an exodus of its long-time leaders and talent. While this occurred after the period covered in McWilliams’s history, many of the departed leaders are, like Niemi, mentioned in New Lights in the Valley. Asked separately, many of these expatriates have offered me nearly identical explanations for their departures: “It’s not the UAB I once knew.”
Is this disappointment with UAB simply nostalgia? Is it just the natural response to the inevitability of internal institutional rot? Or is it a sign that the renewed era of contention between the UABOT and UAB has taken a toxic turn for the worse, and damaged the university?
Dr. John Knox is an associate professor of geography at the University of Georgia, a native of Birmingham and a 1988 graduate of UAB.