“The destinies of cities and their universities are inseparable. One cannot flourish unless the other prospers. Birmingham and UAB have made an impressive start toward these goals.”
— Joseph F. Volker, founding President of UAB, in his Newcomen Society Address “The University and the City,” November 3, 1971
“Actorum memores simul affectamus agenda.”
(“We look back but go forward.”)
— Motto of The Newcomen Society of the United States, 1923-2007
In three previous Storyboards (“The Early Years of UA and Its Board of Trustees,” “A Histoy of UAH and the UABOT” and “The UAB Miracle and Its Obstructionists”) I have laid bare the good, the bad, and the ugly histories of the universities that make up the UA System. The common enemy to excellence in these histories has been the UA System Board of Trustees (UABOT). Individually, there have been good and decent trustees. Collectively, however, the UABOT has spent the past 184 years failing to launch the Tuscaloosa campus as a top flagship university. It has interfered with the full flowering of the Huntsville campus. And it has thrown up one roadblock after another at the Birmingham campus that required nothing short of brilliant strategy on the part of UAB leaders to overcome in order to achieve astounding success.
“Turn Out The Lights”
As I write these words, the UABOT is hip-deep in it yet again. UAB President Ray Watts, who took over after two previous UAB presidents were ushered out largely because of clashes with the UABOT and its confederates, is once again conferring with the UABOT in order to arrive at a decision on UAB athletics. Never mind that this likely violates SACS Principle of Accreditation 3.2.11: “The institution’s chief executive officer has ultimate responsibility for, and exercises appropriate administrative and fiscal control over, the institution’s intercollegiate athletics program.” It is clear to virtually every clear-headed observer of this saga, from coast to coast, that a cabal of the UA Board composed of Paul Bryant Jr., Finis St. John IV, and Joe Espy have arrogated to themselves the ultimate responsibility for UAB’s intercollegiate athletics program. (The fact that the SACS Commission on Colleges overlooked compelling evidence of this violation prior to these even more blatant examples is an indictment of SACS, not of its principles.)
The mismanagement of the UA System by the UABOT has reached an extreme. UA System Chancellor Robert Witt defensively and dubiously claims that the UABOT “serves the people of Alabama extremely well.” This is the view of only a vocal few, however. University of Wisconsin-Madison professor of higher education governance Noel Radomski recently observed that “the (UA System) should strongly consider a change with the board.” There is now statewide support for UABOT reform, in the form of multiple bills that have been dropped in the Alabama Legislature this session. One such bill, Rep. Jack Williams’s brainchild HB 339, would require the trustees to undergo sorely needed ethics and SACS accreditation training and to disclose the myriad financial and professional entanglements that define the UABOT in its current Bryant-dominated era. This bill passed the House by a 96-1 vote, a rout in favor of ethics in one of the most corrupt states in America. Another bill in the works would make the UABOT’s frequent use of closed meetings illegal.
The party may be over for the UABOT cabal.
The Rest of the Story
All this is true. But observers of the UAB struggle, biased and unbiased alike, have pointed out that the UABOT is not the only problem UAB has faced over the years (although UAB’s history suggests that it has been the major problem). At the risk of alienating some UAB supporters who have enjoyed my previous writings, now I turn to another side of the UAB story. This is precisely the right moment to do so: before a decision has been reached on UAB’s future, unswayed either by the thrill of victory of reinstatement or the agony of defeat at the hands of the UABOT cabal.
Local Vs. Federal Support
In the process of writing my Weld historical trilogy on the UA System institutions, it was impossible not to compare and contrast the rise of the Huntsville and Birmingham siblings. The fact that the UAH history is actually a history of its educational foundation, created before UAH formally existed, stands out. This foresight, and the continual support of UAH by the Huntsville community, are integral components of the UAH success story.
The history of UAB differs slightly. The resources that grew UAH in the absence of much state or UABOT support came from Huntsville. The resources that did the same for UAB came to a far greater extent from federal research grants, from Washington. This is, of course, unfair to the many local major donors to UAB over the years, and compresses several decades and billions of dollars into one sentence. But if it is not quite the truth, it is also in my opinion a truth.
This is why the bitter “Troll Tide” critics of UAB draw some blood even while flailing about with ridiculous claims that “15 people were in the stands” at Blazer football games, and so forth. Even a blind pig(skin) finds an acorn sometimes. It’s not because the critics know anything about UAB, academically or athletically. It’s a lucky shot. But it does strike near another real problem UAB has faced for decades.
Collectively, Birmingham has never quite understood the gem it has in UAB. As I know better than anyone else who’ll go public about it, Birmingham has come this close to losing UAB as a comprehensive university. Its future may still be in doubt, as a matter of fact, depending on the fate of the UABOT cabal.
Until Birminghamians comprehend what they’ve got, what they could lose, and what has to change to prevent that in the future, the struggle for the soul of UAB will be doomed.
So, in the words of Dead Poets Society’s John Keating, “Huddle up!” Time for a story, and a way forward.
“He Who Has Ears, Let Him Hear”
It was May 1988 and I was about to graduate from UAB. As UAB’s first Rhodes Scholar finalist, Phi Kappa Phi Fellow and a National Science Foundation Graduate Fellow headed to the University of Wisconsin-Madison, I was invited to speak briefly to the UAB President’s Council—a group of pro-UAB civic leaders, most of them, of course, not graduates of our young university.
I took this assignment very seriously. In an era when valedictory speeches were out of fashion, it was my one chance to advocate on behalf of UAB to people who would both be receptive to the message, and who also had the monetary means to make a difference.
I spoke on the future of UAB’s undergraduate programs. As a non-health-sciences student who vied for top national awards, I wasn’t a fluke, I said. There’ll be more: not just finalists but winners of the Rhodes, and more Truman Scholars like my friend Kellie Isbell, and more NSF Fellows, and so on. Academically as well as athletically, UAB was on the rise to the very top. (And I didn’t even know what new UAB President Scotty McCallum, sitting there listening to me, had up his sleeve regarding UAB football!)
It was a pep-rally speech to the faithful. Or so I thought. As I reached my climax, I expected a rousing “U-A-B!”
The UAB President’s Council laughed at me. I will never forget it, as long as I live. The millionaires on the Council who were supposed to be supporters of UAB thought I was joking about the stellar future ahead for UAB’s University College. They couldn’t fathom it. I’ve never misjudged an audience so badly in my entire academic career.
Stunned, immediately after the meeting I went up to Tom Rast, a member of the Council and a past (and good) member of the UA System Board of Trustees, and said quietly, “I wasn’t kidding, you know.” Rast looked at me and, with what I think was a shade of embarrassment, replied equally quietly, “I know.”
A University, If You Can Keep It
There’s something quintessentially Birmingham in my little vignette. UAB has risen so high, so fast that the Magic City hardly knew what hit it. Most of the time, Birmingham residents have some vague sense of UAB’s glory. But they usually undershoot, if asked to give some kind of verifiable estimate of UAB’s status and impact. Perhaps this is because there’s really no other university quite like UAB in the South, if not the nation. In terms of research prowess and academic excellence, UAB is in many ways a public Emory (an appropriate analogy in that UAB’s first founder Roy Kracke was recruited from Emory). Alabama is not a higher-education-savvy state, either, and so not very many people know how UAB stacks up against the competition. Finally, there is the completely unjustifiable slur that UAB must be a little “satellite campus” for stupid and homebound people that is propagated by those whose allegiances are with lesser institutions.
But this drip-drip-drip of underestimates and incomprehensions and slurs distorts how Birmingham views UAB. That’s my best defense of why the UAB President’s Council laughed at me that day in May 1988. But, frankly, it was indefensible. No other comparable university’s civic leadership would have mocked one of their successful graduates in the same setting in the same way. 27 years and four universities later, I have no doubt about this.
That’s my story. Many observers of the UAB scene have theirs, as well. We tell them in whispered tones, afraid that the trolls will hear. Where are the Golden 100 at basketball games? Why haven’t the newspapers of our city ever covered UAB as the hometown team? Why can’t you find UAB apparel in local stores or at the airport? As Gene Bartow would have said, why didn’t Birmingham adopt UAB the way Memphis bonded with Memphis State? Why is UAB seen as “the other” even within its own city limits? Without UAB, where would Birmingham have headed after 1963? Where would it be in 2015?
And where were you when Watts dropped the axe on football, and bowling, and rifle? The residents of the one-time Football Capital of the South ought to at least defend against that. What did you do in the “war,” as Ray Watts’s PR firm called the efforts to rebut the FreeUAB movement? During this football saga I have been reminded of the Molly Brown line from the movie Titanic, to the survivors sitting on their hands as the thousand or so in the water succumbed: “I don’t understand a one of you. What’s the matter with ya? It’s your men out there!”
Thousands of UAB supporters did respond, some heroically, most of them doing a lot more than I have, sitting here at a computer 220 miles from the Southside. And it’s not the size of the dragon crowd in the fight, but the size of the fight in the dragon crowd. But whether or not Watts/UABOT decide to reinstate the sports, things are going to have to change if Birmingham is to keep UAB as we have known it, and to realize UAB’s full potential—which, as Joe Volker reminds us in the quotation at the beginning of this essay, is also the only way for Birmingham to realize its full potential. Period. No turning back.
And that means everyone who supports UAB and/or Birmingham, from its leaders and donors down to the “nobodies” who are the backbone of any successful long-term civic movement, has to step up for the long haul.
“A Great City and a Great University”
How does this happen?
1. Show up, stand up, speak up, pony up. The FreeUAB movement, despite all of its messy grassroots democracy, has shown the way. Regardless of differences in every conceivable way, from politics to zip code, it has been a united effort to do what’s right for UAB, its students and its student-athletes. Many supporters have said, “I should have been doing more.” And now they are. This needs to become not just an emergency effort, but a long-term commitment. I have every reason to think it already is among those I know. But that circle needs to be expanded. And the commitment must include time and energy and voice and money. Because it is clearer than ever that UAB has enemies who will stop at virtually nothing to thwart it. It’s not a conspiracy theory, it’s a real conspiracy. Eternal vigilance is the price of UAB’s and Birmingham’s liberty. No excuses.
2. United we stand. I hope that the seriousness of the UAB struggle has awakened the local governments to what could be lost if the opponents of UAB carry the day. The 56 government resolutions of support obtained by Phyllis Rodgers with the support of Tim Alexander and others are a great start toward uniting north and central Alabama behind UAB. The City of Birmingham, too, has stepped forward with monetary support and a shot or two across Watts’s brow. Most other college towns and regions are keenly aware of the hole they’d be in without their major public university. This realization must be a daily event across the Birmingham metropolitan area, and beyond.
3. Knowledge is power. The UAB community needs to know what UAB is, because there are powerful people in the state of Alabama who want to hide its light under a bushel. Even if the sports are reinstated, those forces of denial will not give up. They will continue to remind UAB of every “failure,” projecting their own worst fears onto a university that in its entire history has never experienced the kind of meltdown that its “mother campus” did just five years into its own history. They will try to divide UAB into the “West Side” and the “East Side” in order to conquer it. But there were never two competing sides in the minds of Roy Kracke or Joe Volker—just one UAB. The university needs to know that, all the way from the Spencer Honors House to Volker Hall to the Administration Building.
Once pro-UAB leadership is firmly in place in its administration, I propose that there should be a “Blazer History” seminar taught to every new UAB student. [It’d be a better use of money than the bloated Quality Enhancement Plan on teamwork (!) that the Watts administration offered up to SACS.] I think Scotty McCallum and Bob Kracke and Tennant McWilliams and Richard Arrington and Ed LaMonte and Odessa Woolfolk and Jenny Gauld and others ought to tell UAB students why they are at the best university in the best city in the land, and why. It would be an introduction to the history of higher education and UAB’s singular place in urban higher education. Hold the class in Bartow Arena; first stop, the Gene Bartow statue. I’ll drive over from Athens and speak to the class myself. By the time the class is done, those students will be wearing Blazer green and gold the rest of their time at UAB. And they’ll go to the basketball games, too, because it’s their classroom! Extra credit for attendance at sporting events, and for interviews with the legends of UAB and Birmingham, past, present, and future.
4. Power to the people. The hard work of learning who UAB is has happened in the trenches of the FreeUAB movement. That learning has to spread outward, and the power of knowing must be exercised. How? By never again letting others set the agenda for UAB and for Birmingham. By never again letting ourselves believe the lies of those who project their own failings onto our university and our city. By never again letting UAB’s mission be smaller than what Drs. Kracke and Volker, and their successors, envisioned it to be. UAB is a unique university, our university, not an imitation of anyone else’s, committed to its city as well as to excellence in all its pursuits. We look back, and realize what could have been—and has already been—lost. We go forward, determined to reclaim the future.
“We at the University are grateful for substantial gifts of land, building, and funds from the community and its citizens. We are committed to use them for the common good of mankind. God willing, we will move forward together to become a great city and a great university.”
— Joseph F. Volker, the closing words of “The University and the City,” November 3, 1971