By Ralph Harrison
Welcome to the third part of Understanding UAB. For a quick review of the first two parts, we start with an understanding of what branding is. Branding is telling your story so that others have a desire to be part of it. UAB has not been allowed to write her own story freely but has done as much as possible.
The UAB brand that the UAB Family promotes is different from the UAB brand that the UA System wishes to promote, and the Family’s brand has been a stronger, more influential story. That brand functions within a state where the indoctrination, what people are taught to believe about a subject, works against it, but it has relied on a powerful form of enculturation on campus to create new members of the UAB Family. UAB was created to serve a purpose, but it has, instead, created an alternative to the status quo. It is a small challenge, but it is a challenge none the less. Now, we will discuss what the UAB story is not.
Understanding what something is not can be more important than understanding what something is. The negative description (as in “what it is not” not “a description that includes bad points only”) often helps people grasp why something is different without a side-by-side comparison. While this understanding does not give the reasons that someone would love UAB, it does show why so many people in the state of Alabama have no real understanding of why the UAB Family does love UAB.
Throughout this list, you will see reasons that UAB stands out from the typical thought process of many Alabamians. This is not meant to imply that UAB is inherently better. The statements are only to show the differences.
First, UAB is not part of the antebellum, Civil War, Reconstruction Era, or Early 20th century history of Alabama. In this state, this is a major blow to its appeal. Alabamians love the good old days. UAB cannot participate in that at all. So, unlike the University of Alabama, which tells stories of its students going to fight for Robert E. Lee, or Auburn, which tells the story of the first War Eagle, a survivor of the Battle of the Wilderness, UAB doesn’t really start its own story until man walked on the moon.
Those of a nostalgic nature find UAB to be lacking. Part of the reason is that Birmingham as we know it did not exist until the 1880s, so even the city itself cannot harken back to the glorious ancient days.
Second, UAB has no real significant ties to the desegregation fight or the Civil Rights Movement, despite being located in Birmingham. This is actually an amazing fact, but it is one that has both positive and negative connotations. For those who seek a return to the “Good Old Days,” UAB holds no appeal. For those who want to escape the mention of them at all, UAB has that. BUT, because UAB is located in Birmingham, the Civil Rights Movement permeates everything to some degree, if for no other reason than how far UAB has come.
Third, UAB is not in a college town. It does not have a traditional campus. UAB students are not the typical college student, either. Although the typical student is closer to the traditional than ever before, it is not quite there. UAB students tend to be slightly older than the traditional. UAB students tend to work while in school. UAB students tend to gravitate toward the biomedical field and science.
Unlike Auburn, which is the town of Auburn, or the University of Alabama, which dominates Tuscaloosa, UAB does not control the majority of the city of Birmingham proper or the metro area. While the school and medical center is the dominant industry, it is not the only one. UAB is also in an urban area, in the center of the largest metro area in the state and one of the 50 largest in the country. It is not in a sleepy college town and does not have that appeal.
Finally, UAB is not dominated by the college experience. UAB is first and foremost a research medical center and major research university. While every other aspect of university life is present at UAB, those aspects are ancillary to the main functions of the university: education and research. That does not mean that you must be interested in research to attend UAB, or even interested in medicine.
On the contrary, UAB has amazing departments in engineering and business as well as the science departments. What it means that typical UAB students do not come to be Greek first, or because their dream is to watch a game from the student section, but because they value the educational opportunity that UAB affords.
So, if you want a school with a long history, strong ties to the old South, involvement in segregation, in a sleepy little town, and that places more emphasis on the college experience than the college education, UAB is not for you. That is not our story. That is not understanding UAB. And that is why UAB is not understood. Part of the indoctrination of the citizens of Alabama has been that a university includes those things, and if they do not exist, that school is diminished. Ironically, not a single one of those criteria has anything to do with why a university exists in the first place.
Next time, the final part of Understanding UAB: What UAB Is.
Ralph Harbison is a business consultant and personal, business, and wellness coach based in Birmingham. Ralph is also a co-founder and chairman of Dragon PAC, a state political action committee dedicated to education transformation in Alabama. For more about Ralph, visit ralphharbison.com and to help Dragon PAC, visit dragonpac.org.