Alabama House Bill 339 emerged from committee last month. This bill would mandate ethics training for members of the University of Alabama System Board of Trustees (UABOT). But this news was overshadowed in Birmingham by shenanigans at UAB—events that were, not coincidentally, triggered in the first place by ethically questionable actions by that same board.
One TV news account stated that this bill was “stalled.” It isn’t, and it shouldn’t be resisted. Not that it was in the Alabama House, where it passed 96-to-some guy in Finis St. John’s back pocket. Now on to the Senate, where the real aginners reside.
Ethics training is mandatory for many of those associated with higher education already. And in the very buckle of the Bible Belt, in a nation that is said to be Christian, what’s so hard about ethics anyway? Around here, ethics derive from principles that any Board of Trustees member should have learned in Sunday School: the Ten Commandments, and so forth.
For this reason, I refer to HB 339 as the “Bible Brush-Up Bill.” Why is it needed? Because here in Alabama we don’t want the UABOT to take ethics for granite.
Ethics are as simple as Exodus 20 (or Deuteronomy 5, if you’re one of those second-law radicals):
- “Honour thy father and thy mother,” but don’t put someone on the Board just because of his daddy;
- “Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor”ing institution’s research funding, nor its medical center, nor its honors program, nor its undergraduate population, nor anything else created by that institution;
- “Thou shalt not steal” resources from the state by permitting an institution to act as a fifth-of-a-billion-dollar piggy bank for Greek activities of a dubious moral nature, unless they are held at the church in Corinth;
- “Thou shalt not kill” football based on grudges, other institutions’ financial needs, or cooked-books financial analyses; and
- “Thou shalt have no other gods” running the Board, including The University of Alabama and Bryant Bank. (As in the Bible, you can tell when gods are being named by the overuse of capital letters.)
Any “Veggie Tales” veteran could guess the right answers to ethics questions based on these concepts.
Another part of HB 339 requires the UABOT to familiarize itself with the enumerated accreditation principles of the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS) Commission on Colleges for both the Board and the institutions it oversees. These, too, are no-brainers for anyone who grew up on Bible studies and church pot-lucks. There’s lots of overlap with the Commandments. For example:
- 1.1: The institution operates with integrity in all matters. This means that presidents don’t lie, senior vice presidents don’t fib on their ethics forms for five straight years, faculty athletics representatives aren’t cut out of the loop on athletics decisions, and faculty, staff, students, and alumni are not called names and mocked publicly.
- 2.2: …The board is not controlled by a minority of board members or by organizations or interests separate from it. This would preclude a situation in which, for example, more members of the UABOT are related to a bank than to two of the three universities being overseen.
- 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. This would mean, non-hypothetically, that a university president would not meet with a small cabal of UABOT leaders to decide the fate of three sports prior to speaking with the university’s vice presidents. Nor would a Board perform “coachus interruptus” on the tarmac during the endgame of a search process for a new football coach.
- 3.11.2: The institution takes reasonable steps to provide a healthy, safe, and secure environment for all members of the campus community. And so the Board would not permit a situation in which a football team practiced on a field full of holes, without hot water, and in a crumbling stadium. Furthermore, in accordance with SACS principle 3.2.11 the Board would not resist efforts to upgrade these facilities.
- 3.12.1: The institution notifies the Commission of changes in accordance with the Commission’s substantive change policy and, when required, seeks approval prior to the initiation of changes. Clearly, the Board could not countenance a situation in which the undergraduate component of a university is slated for termination without prior notice and approval.
Only a vocal few would dare oppose training in such common-sense, duh-hey standards.
(HB 339 also requires disclosure of economic interests as well as business relationships and transactions with other board members. However, most of the Board members were in the same fraternity at Alabama and their code of omerta apparently doesn’t permit such disclosures, so expect the offering up of an amendment that the Legislature can’t refuse.)
By now, I hope that the reader realizes that HB 339 is sorely needed. Why? Because each and every one of the thou-shalt-nots I’ve cited above has actually transpired in the recent past.
The University of Alabama System Board of Trustees needs to be “born again,” and ethics reform is just the first step toward its salvation.
John Knox is a native of Birmingham, the son of a Presbyterian minister, a Presbyterian elder, and the former chair of the board of directors of the Presbyterian Student Center campus ministry in Athens, Georgia.