Power to the Publics:The Struggle For Autonomy in Birmingham
By John A. Knox
I am a 1988 graduate of the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB), UAB’s first Rhodes Scholar finalist, and I am now a professor at the University of Georgia.
The termination and reinstatement of football, bowling and rifle at my alma mater during the past six months have been misunderstood by many commentators outside of the state of Alabama. Painted as yet another tug-of-war between athletics and academics, this interpretation is shorn of context and misses the deeper point. This pitched battle is instead the latest chapter in a long saga of colonialism and absentee-landlord politics that has dominated the history of my hometown of Birmingham, Alabama.
UAB was founded in 1945 as the medical school of the University of Alabama, 60 miles from the main campus in Tuscaloosa. Its first dean, Roy Kracke, was a nationally known hematologist who turned down the dean of pathology position at what is now Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York City in order to create something from nothing in Birmingham. Kracke’s dream from day one was a comprehensive public university in Birmingham, the largest city in the state. Against the odds UAB flowered, funded by billions in research grants rather than by sufficient state appropriations. UAB became an autonomous comprehensive research university in 1970; today UAB is one of the top 50 research universities in America (https://ncsesdata.nsf.gov/profiles/site?method=rankingBySource&ds=herd), one of the top 25 U.S. institutions in National Institutes of Health funding (http://www.genengnews.com/insight-and-intelligence/the-top-50-nih-funded-universities/77899877/?page=2), and one of the top 10 public universities producing Rhodes Scholars during the 2000s (data compiled from http://www.rhodesscholar.org/winners/winning-institutions/).
Autonomy is an elusive thing in Alabama, however. Despite the miracle story of UAB and its 45 years as a fully fledged university, it is still referred to condescendingly as a “satellite campus” of the Tuscaloosa flagship campus (although UAB has eight times more research funding than the flagship campus does; https://ncsesdata.nsf.gov/profiles/site?method=rankingBySource&ds=herd). The Board of Trustees that oversees the Tuscaloosa, Birmingham, and Huntsville campuses is composed of 80% Tuscaloosa alumni—including the son of Paul W. “Bear” Bryant, the famed football coach of the Crimson Tide from 1958 to 1983 (http://uasystem.ua.edu/members-of-the-board-of-trustees/).
As numerous stories in the Alabama media over the past several years have revealed, basic decisions about UAB are made among a small group of board members huddled around Paul W. Bryant Jr. These decisions extend far beyond athletics, and have led to the ouster of previous UAB presidents (including former CUNY chancellor W. Ann Reynolds) who would not bend to the Board’s desire to hold UAB back. The decisions of the current board-compliant UAB president have led to four no-confidence votes against him, most prominently by the UAB Faculty Senate on January 15.
According to a former member of this Board of Trustees, successive leaders of the Board have had a hidden agenda to shut down the entire undergraduate academic component of UAB (http://www.al.com/opinion/index.ssf/2015/05/uab_football_first_step_in_hid.html). In other words, the termination of football at UAB was just the tip of the iceberg, the beginning of the end for UAB as a comprehensive university after decades of lower-grade obstruction by the board.
In the three weeks since this revelation regarding the planned shutdown of UAB’s undergraduate side was made public, the Board of Trustees has had no rebuttal to this claim, and no response explaining what the motives might be for planning to shutter UAB’s 11,679-student undergraduate program. UAB is financially healthy with a $2.4 billion in operating revenues annually; furthermore, UAB carries zero athletic facilities debt. Therefore, financial concerns at the Birmingham campus cannot be the explanation. The spiraling billion-dollar debt at the Tuscaloosa campus may be a contributing factor, however (http://www.cw.ua.edu/article/2015/04/ua-board-of-trustees-expansion-efforts-are-ineffective-unsustainable). The board is silent on the reasons why.
Faced with an existential threat to UAB as we know it, supporters across the nation mobilized into the grassroots #FreeUAB movement. #FreeUAB is dedicated not only to reinstating sports wrongly terminated in a process that circumvented NCAA and accreditation procedures, but also is in strong support of reforming the University of Alabama System Board of Trustees. We believe that no major research university in America should be run by the partisan supporters of another rival institution.
Birmingham has a long frustrating history as a city where the shots have been called by outsiders: by U.S. Steel in Pittsburgh, by hostile politicians in Montgomery, and by skybox residents of Bryant-Denny Stadium in Tuscaloosa. The #FreeUAB movement is for Birmingham as well as for UAB, and is committed to a vision of self-determination for both UAB and Birmingham.
This is why the UAB story is about much more than football, and how this saga meshes with the larger sweep of current events in American higher education. Whether you are in Madison, Wisconsin, where tenure guarantees are at risk and budgets are being slashed in the University of Wisconsin System; or Baton Rouge, Louisiana, where financial exigency may be declared at LSU and other public universities; or Chapel Hill, North Carolina, where political interests are seeking to move faculty out of research at the state’s top research universities, you are aware that your school’s decisions are being made by others, decisions that endanger its excellence and/or existence. The same is true at UAB. Instead of being an athletics vs. academics squabble at UAB, the power play of the Board of Trustees against UAB closely resembles these other ongoing assaults on American public higher education.
The grassroots revolt for self-determination in Birmingham can also be instructive to those who are battling for their universities’ souls and survival. For example, UW-Madison and UNC-Chapel Hill have enjoyed academic autonomy for generations; at UAB, the struggle for autonomy has been a daily fight since 1945, ever since Roy Kracke arrived in the “Magic City” and worked his own magic to create UAB. #FreeUAB is a quest for autonomy long deferred; around the nation, the fight is for autonomy regained. There is synergy in numbers. Understanding and uniting with the #FreeUAB movement is power to the publics.
John Knox is an associate professor of geography at the University of Georgia, a 1988 alumnus of UAB and the 2014 CASE/Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching Professor of the Year for the state of Georgia. He earned a Ph.D. in atmospheric sciences from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and held a post-doctoral fellowship at Columbia University in the City of New York.