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

Bailey needs to succeed where Witt struggled

The University of Alabama got a new president this week, a moment that invites yet another discussion on the legacy of our last president. Robert Witt may have just moved down the street into the quiet confines of The University of Alabama System, but the legacy he leaves after eight years in Rose Administration offers several lessons for the next eight years and beyond.

Witt’s story is, by now, familiar: a tremendous increase in the size of our student body, an increased emphasis on out-of-state recruiting, more financial independence from the state legislature, a greatly improved and expanded campus infrastructure, and a return to national pre-eminence in athletics.

The results have been phenomenal for both the University and the surrounding Tuscaloosa community, which has managed to grow and prosper despite the national economic recession.

But Witt’s success in the business and academic areas of the University have not translated into the cultural growth many students want, and need, if UA is going to prepare students for success in an increasingly diverse society.

No, President Witt didn’t segregate the greek system. Many of the premier campus groups that make only token efforts at inclusivity existed long before he arrived. But he didn’t really do anything about those issues either.

Maybe Witt, looking back on a history of morally ambitious UA administrators who saw their tenures end quickly, chose to focus on areas where he thought he could have the greatest impact. Or maybe he just chose to neglect any issue that could threaten his ambitious business plan.

Whatever his motives, his choices can only be understood in the context of the great moral paradox that confronts all leaders at UA. Is it more prudent to dive straight into the most controversial issues and likely fail, or to work within existing structures and traditions to advance gradual changes, hoping the eventual result will be astounding progress?

So far, neither approach has proven very successful.

Despite the infusion of new students from new places under Witt’s leadership, the traditions that shape our student life haven’t changed much. Universities form institutions that reinforce themselves over time. Although we are bringing in thousands of new freshmen each year, with diverse backgrounds and different perspectives, these students are quickly separated into existing structures and adopt attitudes that reflect those communities.

Breaking that cycle takes leadership. Today, we commemorate Foster Auditorium as a testament to our progress as a university – the place where UA was integrated in 1963. But integration only happened after President Kennedy sent National Guard troops to force the sitting governor of Alabama aside and allow two black students to enroll.

Sometimes, bold intervention is necessary to challenge people to overcome prejudices and embrace the highest notions of American equality.

On financial and enrollment growth, Robert Witt was certainly bold. On other issues, not so much.

It’s not that he didn’t call out the National Guard to force a social justice agenda on a reluctant student population. It’s that Witt, a visionary leader who carried out his plans with remarkable precision, at times refused to even have a conversation about the growth of UA as a community. And if any president in UA history had the political capital to initiate such a conversation, Robert Witt did.

His failure to do so prompted criticism not only from people who dislike him, but also from people with strong ideological convictions about the very purpose of public higher education. From the day Abraham Lincoln signed legislation creating land-grant colleges to the passage of the GI Bill and the establishment of the Pell Grant program, public colleges have been seen as gateways to economic and social opportunity for the middle class. Indeed, public colleges are responsible, more than any other institutions, for creating the middle class.

When instead, they protect privilege, so that even students who have pushed themselves to the limit of human potential to earn a spot in college and figure out a way to pay for it are not given the full opportunities their college offers, they fail not only morally, but they fail at their single most important purpose.

UA has opened the gateways of opportunity for thousands of former students across the state and nation, both before Witt got here and since he arrived. But our love for the University should compel us to open those gateways for everyone who has rightfully entered our campus, so that the true breadth of the Alabama experience we have come to love is available to the entire student body.

Fulfilling that dream now falls to Guy Bailey, who has inherited from Witt a much healthier campus than Witt found when he arrived in 2003. Hopefully, he can pick up where Witt left off, and succeed where Witt struggled most.

Tray Smith is the Online Editor of The Crimson White. His column runs on Thursday.

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