Serving the campus of the University of Alabama since 1894

The Crimson White

Serving the campus of the University of Alabama since 1894

The Crimson White

Serving the campus of the University of Alabama since 1894

The Crimson White

Witt oversaw era of unprecedented growth

Witt oversaw era of unprecedented growth

Nine years ago, the University of Alabama was a different place. Fewer than 20,000 students populated a campus that did not yet include the Bryce property or an Honors College. The University accepted 85 percent of freshman applicants. Bryant-Denny Stadium, which sat about 84,000 fans, played host to a 4-9 football team that was not living up to its mythic legacy.

Today, the University has more than 31,000 students, a budget of $709 million and the University’s acceptance rate has fallen to 53 percent. Bryant-Denny now has room for 101,821 spectators, and it has two more flags to denote the 2009 and 2011 national championships.

The man who led the University through these many facets of growth is now the chancellor of the University of Alabama System, creating an opening for his successor to be named while still maintaining great influence on the Tuscaloosa campus. But when Robert Witt first arrived in Tuscaloosa nine years ago, after serving for more than seven years as president of the University of Texas at Arlington, expectations weren’t that high.

Mike Price: ‘An awkward situation’

Witt became the center of attention in the state shortly after he arrived, but it wasn’t for his vision for the University or his plan for enrollment growth. It was his decision to fire then Alabama Crimson Tide head football coach Mike Price.

Price’s job was jeopardized after published reports revealed that an unknown woman charged $1,000 to his hotel room the night after he spent hundreds of dollars at a strip club in Pensacola, Fla., where he was playing in a golf tournament. Price had been at Alabama for just four months and had never coached a football game.

“Certainly I can think back on the Mike Price situation, and this happened very, very early in his career here, and how strong Dr. Witt was in his decision and at the same time supportive of me,” Athletic Director Mal Moore said. “I think of all that a lot.”

Moore became the director of athletics in 1999, four years before Witt’s arrival, at the onset of NCAA-imposed penalties against the football team. He said there was an air of uncertainty when first meeting with the new president.

“But I’ve thought back and looked back on our years together here and realize just how very comfortable I felt with Dr. Witt from the first meeting we had all the way through,” Moore said.

Price, who was the Tide’s third head coach in four years, received support from some football players, including then-quarterback Brodie Croyle.

“It was an awkward situation for [Witt],” Moore said. “There were feelings both ways. But he was the president, and he was very strong in his belief and decision.”

It was an unusual beginning for a presidency that would end less than two months after the Tide won the 2012 BCS National Championship Game, the second under Witt’s tenure. But athletics wasn’t the only department to change dramatically under Witt’s leadership.

Quieting the skeptics

“I will tell you exactly the mood that prevailed when President Witt came in,” said engineering professor Clark Midkiff, the outgoing president of the Faculty Senate.

The University was in the midst of forming a re-allocation committee with the purpose of identifying budget cuts.

“So the prevailing mood across campus was ‘yes, we have some budget issues, we’re going to solve it by cutting hundreds of fingers off all over campus,’” Midkiff said. “President Witt got here and told people, ‘I don’t want to solve this problem by cutting, I want to solve it by growing.’”

Many were skeptical of Witt’s vision.

“I’ve been here now 35 years,” said Hank Lazer, associate provost and the director of Creative Campus. “I think people who have been here for a good while have heard optimistic speeches before and so I think there was a certain degree of justifiable skepticism.”

Lazer said Witt’s goals sounded very unlikely at the time.

“I was working closely with admissions, and we were working hard to bring in a qualified class of 2,600 freshmen. We’re now looking at 5,500 to 6,000 better-qualified freshmen. On the surface of it, that sounds preposterous,” he said.

“When he came in, we thought we were doing pretty well,” said Robert Halli, who was named founding dean of the University Honors College in November 2003. “We had to cope with bad budget allocations from the state, but so did everybody else. I didn’t see that there was any alternative to that.”

State appropriations made up 29.5 percent of the University’s budget in 2003. Last year, prorated appropriations from the state made up only 20 percent of the budget.

“He just said this business model is not going to work, because we’re not going to keep getting appropriations from the state that allow us to do what we want to do. That’s when he started recruiting,” Halli said. “Bringing people in from all across the country, so we have the tuition coming in as a stable source of income and didn’t have to rely on the fluctuating amount of money that we were going to get from the state. That’s really what’s driven the growth.”

‘A money-making strategy’

That extraordinary growth has sparked some questions about campus overcrowding and Witt’s overall business strategy.

“Of course his objective all along was to increase enrollment,” said Charles Nuckolls, a former UA anthropology professor and faculty senator who now teaches at Brigham Young University. “It was a classic money-making effort. And he did know how to market, so he increased student enrollment way beyond what campus was or is able to accommodate, got money and used the money to reward those in his favor.”

Nuckolls was a member of the Alabama Scholars Association, which published The Alabama Observer, a statewide paper distributed on campus through the University mail system. After publishing stories about grade inflation, inadequate library funding and attempts by UA administrators to prohibit students from hanging flags in their dorm windows, the ASA was told it would have to pay first class postage to distribute its paper through University mail.

Nuckolls said that would have prohibitively increased the paper’s distribution costs, and the Alabama Observer ceased publication in the fall of 2003 after printing only two issues.

“We were very critical in our newspaper,” Nuckolls said. “The Witt administration could not tolerate it so they banned it from campus, citing postal regulations.

“It was a perfect example of the selective use of power to achieve political goals, which in this case was the suppression of anything that could be critical of his regime,” Nuckolls said. “You have to go back to the Soviet Union to find a comparable political structure.”

Midkiff said there have been occasional incidents where a minority of the faculty has been upset, but by and large the faculty at this campus has been blessed, at least financially.

“People at UAB and UAH were not getting raises, and we were because of President Witt’s very successful vision and plan to grow student enrollment and to increase the revenue provided by tuition,” he said. “I think that history will show that President Witt has brought a golden era to our campus in a lot of ways.”

Lazer said that without fiscal strength, conversations and developments related to the growth of the University would be impossible.

“I think that what his presidency has taught me is a president’s first, second and third job is fiscal,” Lazer said. “His job is to create the conditions for such successful innovations, but he himself doesn’t have to know or pick what those innovations will be. He creates the conditions; he creates growing conditions.”

Physical campus

One of those growing conditions has been the development of the University’s physical infrastructure. During Witt’s tenure, the University has done $1.4 billion worth of construction, University planner Dan Wolfe said. With the completion of the North Bluff residence hall, he will also have added 5,000 beds to campus.

In May 2010, the University also purchased the Bryce Hospital property, adding 168 acres to campus.  Wolfe said that the University plans to develop Bryce over a long period of time, enabling the future growth of the University.

“What I saw when I came here and I think what President Witt saw, was the University had great bones, great history, great tradition. It was just kind of tired,” Wolfe said. “It just hadn’t been well cared for, hadn’t been manicured, hadn’t been all those things.”

Moore said that he was thrilled that the athletic department has been able to support President Witt in a positive way

“His plan for this University, to grow it with out-of-state students [and] support the students within the state … under the tough economic times and the inability of the state to properly support higher education, what he’s accomplished has just been quite amazing,” he said.


Editor’s Note: This is part one of a two-part series. Pick up Thursday’s paper for an examination of Witt’s interactions with students and his reaction to social issues on campus. 

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