UA Board of Trustees expansion efforts are ineffective, unsustainable

John Knox

The University of Alabama that I knew when I stayed at Paty Hall during Boys State in 1982 is gone, supersized like a McMansion. The University’s enrollment grew 126 percent between 1982 and 2014, while the population of Alabama grew only 24 percent over the same period. The University is now larger than UGA, despite the fact that the state of Georgia has more than double the population of the state of Alabama. So, what spurred the University to this rapid doubling in size, after essentially zero (0.47 percent) growth in enrollment at the University from 1980 to 1996? In 2003, then-UA President, now-UA System Chancellor Robert Witt proposed an ambitious plan for growth. He wanted the University to be everything: a much larger tier-one research university that would be a destination for the best and brightest, serving the citizens of Alabama. The UABOT, consisting primarily of prominent supporters of the University, concurred.

Problem: The University of Alabama is nowhere close to being a tier-one research university. Ask your professors, they know. In 2013, the National Science Foundation ranked the University 190th in the nation among research universities in terms of research and development dollars, well below UAB (#44), UAH (#146) and every flagship university in the nation except The University of South Dakota. And these rankings come after a decade of the big Witt push for research. The University of Alabama is the land-grant university that time forgot, a school that never made the 20th century transition to a research university, while the rest of the nation and even its much younger siblings roared past it.

The University does have more “best and brightest” students, yes. But fewer UA students come from Alabama, both in percentages and in real numbers. From 2004 to 2013, the percentage of UA undergraduates from Southern states not contiguous with Alabama doubled, and the percentage of UA undergrads from outside the South more than quadrupled. The citizens of Alabama are served less and less with each new UA freshman class.

Recruitment of students from far away isn’t cheap. To outbid the competitors and bring these students all the way to Tuscaloosa, non-athletic scholarship expenditures shot up by a factor of 3.28 from 2007-08 to 2012-13, to over $100 million a year. And then there are the extraordinary lending practices of the University to its Greek organizations. By my count, over 30 fraternities and sororities at the University have benefited, or are scheduled to benefit from over $200 million in UA spending or lending for new or renovated houses. Spending and lending mean debt. And this is where the story of the University’s growth could eventually turn into a nightmare.

The University’s “non-current liabilities” – mostly long-term debt – were $951.8 million as of Sept. 30, 2014, up an incredible 169 percent (from $353 million) in just five years. The taxpayers of Alabama will be stuck with the debt of the UA expansion for decades. How much debt? As of last September, the total UA debt service through 2044 amounted to $317.56 for each man, woman and child in the state of Alabama. And it’s going up, fast.

In short, it appears that the University is trying to grow its way out of debt, but it’s not working. From 2006 to 2013, it added nearly 11,000 students while adding only 62 tenured/tenure-track faculty lines (net) – ditching the tier-one research university strategy in favor of packing the classrooms with out-of-state tuition dollars and inexpensive temporary instructors. But the debt is exploding anyway. To some of us academics on the outside, the Witt plan looks like a failure and a bubble that will eventually burst.

You’re not going to hear this assessment from the system’s chancellor, who created this plan. The current board will deny there’s a problem as well, because they approved and have overseen this unsustainable plan for over a decade and counting. But you need to know. As UA students, you are innocently caught in the middle of a much larger matrix of mismanagement at the UABOT level that could have serious consequences for your alma mater, and mine too. It’s no fun for me to report this either; as the Oracle in The Matrix said, “I hate giving good people bad news.”

Ask hard questions about the future of the University. If you do, you’ll rapidly learn that the only way to change things in a UA system institution today is at the top, by changing the board of trustees. And you will realize that it is in the best interests of The University of Alabama, as well as its sister institutions in Birmingham and Huntsville, to reform the board now. Bills to accomplish this reform are currently before the Alabama House of Representatives Education Policy Committee. I urge you to contact the committee members immediately and to advocate for reform of the UABOT, for the good of the University of Alabama.

John Knox is an associate professor of geography at The University of Georgia. He is a 1988 summa cum laude graduate of UAB in mathematics and a 1987 Rhodes Scholar finalist.