To properly tell my portion of the story, I feel that it is important to understand my connection to UAB. In 1991, when I graduated from high school, I was one of the most highly sought after academic students. I was accepted by almost every major university in the nation, most of which had never been sent an application. I chose UAB for a variety of reasons, not the least of which was my early acceptance to the medical school and my admission to the UAB Honors Program. While at UAB, I was extremely involved in student life.
My involvement included two terms as a UAB Ambassador, serving as a student recruiter, a member of the Blazer Crew, secretary of the USGA, a member of the UAB Basketball Pep Band, a member of the UAB Jazz Ensemble, marching in the first Marching Band, and more. I was awarded the title of Mr. UAB in 1993, which made me the last Basketball Mr. UAB. I was highly involved in student life, and I am proof that there always was a place for a student who strove to “be involved” on campus. Because of my involvement, I was aware of the particular battles that UAB faces on a regular basis. These battles are being waged even now, and in a more serious form than ever before.
Prior to my first day at UAB, the Blazer family had already fought and won many battles. The University of Alabama System Board of Trustees had opposed expansion of undergraduate programs, including dedicated schools of business and engineering, the construction of dorms, and athletic programs of any sort. Most of these battles were eventually won by UAB, through the hard work and vision of great men and women who saw that UAB needed to be more than a commuter school for those who were unworthy to attend in Tuscaloosa. Slowly, the university that saved Birmingham, and through that the entire state, had started the long journey into being seen within the state as it was seen outside of it: a major institution of higher learning. That said, one of the major battles was in a very heated stage. UAB, under the direction of Athletics Director Gene Bartow, was establishing a football team.
Please understand that this was opposed by most, if not all, of the Board of Trustees. In fact, I was involved in a very heated argument with one of the Trustees on the third floor of the old Hill University Center. After being told that any UAB student who wants football and the various activities that accompany it needs to transfer to the “REAL University of Alabama,” I was enraged. The discussion was not always cordial on either side, and it ended in a most inelegant way, but I was not to be insulted. And yet, the program was started. Please note that I am not going to cover the ill-will and bad blood between the system schools. That is for another story teller. Just keep in mind that vengeance is a major driving force in all of this.
As mentioned earlier, I worked as a student recruiter and was a tireless promoter of UAB. Sadly, in my visits to schools around the state, I was exposed to several very real truths. First, a sizable portion of this state considers any university without football to be the rough equivalent of a community college. Some, in fact, take it to the extreme and consider schools with less football acumen to be sub-standard, including Harvard and any other Ivy League school. The administration recognized that. So did the Board of Trustees. Second, the absence of a football team meant no marching band. No marching band meant kids who loved that part of their life would not choose UAB. Those students tend to be exceptionally loyal to their alma mater, and they tend to be above average students. The administration recognized that. And so did the Board. Third, UAB had a reputation of being “not white enough” for a great deal of the more rural areas. More than once, I was told that UAB stood for the “University of Asians and Blacks.” As racist and insulting as this was, it was also exceptionally difficult to overcome that objection. UAB needed a way to showcase itself as both a modern university for all students as well as a traditional school that had “everything” those other schools had, with world class research. Football allowed for that.
As time went on, the “vision” of the Board was made more clear. Anything that created a strong alumni base was to be verboten. Somehow, a strong Greek system was perfect for Tuscaloosa but evil for UAB. Dorms were treated with kid gloves, even though the demand was high at all times. A cafeteria and true student union building were off-limits. Football was part of that list. Recently, the UAB Honors Program was added to it as well. The Honors Program is a leader in academia in its approach. Instead of being in one subject, it covers the core curriculum. Instead of it accepting only the 4.0 GPA with a 36 ACT score, it accepts a range of student from the traditional to the atypical. And these students are loyal to each other and the program. And because of those reasons, they, too, are a threat to the powers that be.
Recently, the Honors Program was under attack by Dr. Watts. Many reasons were given, such as it being too exclusive, the students being too elitist, or it not fitting into the current vision. There was strong push back, but it isn’t safe yet. Imagine a university that has a program that is unique, is studied by other programs around the world, and has a strong following, and the president of that school wants the program gone. Illogical? Yes. And that is part of the problem here. Why, exactly, would a great selling point for UAB be under attack? Why would a president of a university want to destroy a program that is considered among the best in the nation?
The destruction of football means several things. It means that each year, 85 or so young men will not be able to attend UAB on scholarship. It means that every student in the Marching Band is now out of work, possibly out of school. It means that another aspect of student life is gone forever, and UAB will be marketed as football-less in a state that treats football as a religion. But it is deeper than that. UAB added several women’s sports to remain balanced in Title IX. Those sports are no longer needed. Those young women will lose opportunities as well. Again, the appeal of UAB is diminished. Without football, much of the athletic department is gone.
Most of my career has been spent in some form of sales and marketing. As such, I have learned to accept two very real points. In order to sell an item, you must be able to show how it fits the needs of the person buying it and how it is different and better than any similar product on the market. Having football and a strong student life allows for the former and programs like the Honors Program allow for the later. Removing those two programs cripples UAB’s ability to recruit new students. It begs the question as to why that is a good long-term plan.
A president with vision, such as Joseph Volker, S. Richardson Hill, and Ann Reynolds, would EXPAND these programs. Much has been said about a potential “academic and research triangle” between major schools in this state. A president with vision would hold that the only triangle that is needed for that starts at Vulcan and runs to the Red Mountain Expressway for one corner, along Third Avenue South to I-65 for the base, and back to Vulcan for the point. The president would push the issue into the court of public opinion. UAB literally funds the entire University of Alabama System. It is time that power is exerted within the System. UAB deserves to have a president and a Board of Trustees that understand this.
This isn’t about football. This is about an attempt to create a less appealing UAB, to force UAB to regress into a commuter school.
Ralph Harbison, Mr. UAB 1993