By John Knox
I’m a 1988 graduate of UAB, with a B.S. degree in mathematics. I was the first student ever recruited for the UAB University Honors Program (UHP), the first honors program on the UAB campus. I was also UAB’s first Rhodes Scholar finalist, with a nomination letter from Gene Bartow. During and after my time at UAB, I met with each UAB president from Joe Volker through Ann Reynolds one-on-one in his or her offices. My wife and I have contributed substantially to UAB, in particular to the UHP and the Department of English.
In that context: unless something changes radically for the better at UAB during the next few weeks, I support the departure of UAB President Ray Watts. And, unless radical positive change occurs, we will not contribute financially to UAB until he departs.
My grandfather was a small-college football coach and a football referee in the Southern Conference, a predecessor to the SEC. But sports are not my particular concern here. I attended a UAB that did not field a football team. Today, as a professor at an SEC institution, I can recite both the good and the bad of big-time college athletics.
My concern is how UAB’s administration has lost the energy, vision and autonomy that typified its presidents from Volker through Reynolds—and, most critically, the application of this energy, vision and autonomy to the undergraduate component of UAB. A graduate of Huffman High School in Birmingham, I chose to attend UAB over Rhodes College in Memphis because of the vitality of the professors at UAB.
I soon learned these professors were backed to the hilt by visionary administrators such as Thomas Hearn, who later distinguished himself as the long-time president of Wake Forest University.
At the very top of UAB were renowned medical doctors who, paradoxically, were passionately interested in seeing the undergraduate side of UAB flower. They cultivated and encouraged brilliance. Ann Reynolds, who did not rise up through the ranks of UAB, nevertheless embodied these attributes as well. She did not simply take orders from above and abandon the best interests of UAB. In my opinion, that is one of the reasons she was forced out in 2001, despite leading a vigorous and fabulously successful capital campaign (which is the measure of modern college CEOs).
We are in a different situation at UAB today. I have observed Ray Watts talk down to honors students face-to-face and brand them as “elitists” because, like me, they came to UAB for a first-class honors education that now appears to be endangered via bureaucratic reorganizations.
All of us have witnessed the shameful spectacle of UAB’s football program, once burdened with a miserable “legacy admit” of a coach hired because of his connections to another campus, rejuvenating at the very moment that its own president sticks a knife in its future recruiting with ominous talk of a strategic review.
And, as with the honors students he insulted, Watts has placed the blame on others for his actions and inactions, decrying “rumor and innuendo” that he could have quashed himself in a few sentences.
While many may see this website and my statement here solely through the prism of football, I believe that the battle is larger than any one sport, and bigger even than sports itself (a shocking claim in Alabama!). I fear that the vitality, if not the existence, of UAB’s undergraduate component is at stake, here and now and in the future.
I hope that I am wrong, that my sources are wrong, and that President Watts will rise to the level of the presidents whose shoes he is trying to fill. He has a very difficult job, balancing the partisan natures and desires of those above him with the needs and desires of the institution he leads. But his job cannot be any harder than it was for Joe Volker in the 1970s, or for Ann Reynolds in the late 1990s, or for the other presidents in-between.
They stood up for UAB; they did not hide behind the cant of business-speak and the “can’t” of lowered expectations; they did the right thing, and all of Birmingham and Alabama, and the nation and world, have benefited from their leadership.
It is time for Ray Watts to stand up for UAB.
--John Knox is an associate professor of geography at the University of Georgia. Last week he was honored in Washington, D.C., as the state of Georgia Professor of the Year by CASE and the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching.