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

Governing bodies for higher education need reform

Auburn alumni erupted into an outcry over the summer when a committee Governor Bentley serves on recommended Bobby Lowder for another term on the school’s board of trustees. Lowder, the controversial former CEO of the failed Colonial Bank, has been involved in multiple scandals at Auburn, including a 2001 decision to fire university president William Muse and the attempted ouster of former football coach Tommy Tuberville in 2003.

The backlash against the recommendation prompted Lowder to withdraw his name from consideration, and the committee is now working to formulate a new list of nominees to submit to the state senate.

The drama on the Plains provided a nice contrast to our own board of trustees, which rarely draws attention to itself and conducts its regular business without a hitch. Still, the ordeal offers an opportunity to reevaluate higher education governance throughout the state of Alabama, including at the Capstone.

Other states like Mississippi and Florida have one board responsible for governing all public colleges.  Alabama has 14 public four-year colleges, 11 of which have their own boards. The University of Alabama, the University of Alabama at Birmingham, and the University of Alabama in Huntsville are all part of the University of Alabama System and are governed by its board of trustees. The University of South Alabama, the University of West Alabama, and the University of North Alabama are not part of the system and are governed autonomously.

There is little reason for maintaining such a disjointed governance structure. Why should UA, UAB, and UAH share a central coordinating bureaucracy, but UNA, UWA, and USA shouldn’t? Why do some schools need an overarching chancellor and support staff, but others don’t?

There is also the Alabama Commission on Higher Education, which carries out some coordinating responsibilities but mostly serves to perpetuate the fiction that Alabama has a coordinated, strategic higher education policy. Then there is the Alabama Board of Education, which oversees K-12 schools and two-year colleges.

For the Capstone and other members of the UA system, board members are appointed to represent the state’s congressional districts. For a state school educating in-state students, that structure is fine.

However, for a university that is increasingly catering to out-of-state students and that boasts a rising number of impressive out-of-state alumni, limiting our board of trustees to residents of the state’s congressional districts doesn’t really make sense.

Impressive Alabama graduates such as MSNBC host Joe Scarborough, Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales, and Kathryn Stockett, author of the New York Times Bestselling book “The Help,” are ineligible for service. But they represent the type of visionary, progressive leaders who could propel our university forward.

Our board is also self-selecting, meaning it nominates its own membership. But all of its nominations have to be approved by the state senate. So, the Alabama Senate has veto power over everyone nominated to serve on our Board of Trustees, even though the state only provides about 20 percent of our total funding.

Unfortunately, all of this is determined by the Alabama Constitution, an anachronistic document that has far outlived its usefulness.

It’s not that the members of our board of trustees aren’t well-intentioned people who have given a lot to the University of Alabama; they are. However, the structure of the board makes it inadequate for the modern era.

Alabama needs to decide if it wants a higher education system in which its colleges are operated jointly or if it wants each institution to operate autonomously. Alabama needs to decide how it wants to allow out-of-state alumni to play a role in the governance of its colleges and universities. Alabama needs to identify how students, who pay the tuition that allows our colleges to operate, can have a greater voice in the decision-making process.

Alabama needs to decide what it wants from its higher education system, and then create a system that can deliver it.

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