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Alabama’s Community Colleges Face New Challenges, But Remain a Gateway

Al Thompson

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By Al Thompson
Vice president of the Board of Trustees for the Alabama Community College System

Ask just about any Alabamian about the state’s community college system, and you’ll hear great stories about first steps, fresh starts, and fine finishes, too.

You’ll hear about people whose training led to a good job at an auto plant; people who established promising careers as nurses or welders; people who used our campuses’ convenience and cost-savings as a springboard to a four-year degree, just as I did.

Our campuses have been a gateway to prosperity for generations of Alabamians. Our state has a responsibility to make sure that remains true for generations to come. At the community college system’s board of trustees, we take this responsibility seriously and personally.

Meeting that obligation in today’s world, however, is an extraordinary challenge. To keep up with technological advances and a perpetually changing world, our community colleges must be in a position to adapt quickly, again and again.

Our students must be able to meet the needs of emerging and ever-evolving businesses and industries if we want them to get the good jobs of today and tomorrow. They won’t be successful if we provide them with yesterday’s skills.

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We must build a framework that allows our campuses not just to react to new workforce trends, but also to anticipate them and be ready when they occur. The success of our 83,000 students, and our state, depends on this.

Fortunately, Alabama leaders in the public and private sector recognized this need, and in recent years, they have initiated a process that will help mold our community college system for the 21st century and beyond.

In one of the first steps to ensure our campuses remain relevant and effective, the governor and Legislature separated the college system from the existing state school board, which had the unwieldy task of overseeing both the community colleges and the enormous K-12 system.

The new oversight board, which includes me and seven other volunteers from the private sector, is focused solely on the community college system and how to make it the best it can be.

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May 27 marked our first year on the job. We’ve spent much of that time listening and learning – about exciting things already taking place on our campuses, but also about the challenges they face and how we can meet them.

We have learned of many improvements over the years that have enhanced the value of studying at two-year colleges. Our campuses have worked closely with four-year institutions, for instance, to ensure a smooth transition for the thousands of students who take freshman- and sophomore-level classes at one of our campuses before finishing a bachelor’s degree elsewhere. Less costly studies on our campuses help put a full college education within the reach of many students. Our commitment to serving the needs of these students has not changed and will not change.

We must work just as diligently, however, to ensure a smooth transition for our students who leave our campuses with the expectation of getting a job.

Central to that effort is making sure that our associate’s degree and technical education programs line up with the actual workforce needs of businesses and industries.

If we want to prepare our students for high-wage, high-demand jobs, we must work closely with communities and employers to identify up-and-coming opportunities and to equip our students with the necessary skills. We are ramping up our partnership with state and regional workforce councils to ensure we meet the needs of business and industry. By doing this, we also will meet the most basic needs of our students.

We are also in the early stages of an effort to restructure the system — in some cases, by bringing multiple campuses under one administrative umbrella. This is not a reflection on the quality of any institution or leader; it’s simply a recognition that the less money we spend on administrative costs, the more money we have to invest in technology and programs that directly serve our students’ needs.

Ultimately, we will evaluate every campus in this state to see if there is a way we can improve what we are doing for the betterment of students and communities. These decisions will not be made in a vacuum. Any decision we make must be approved by state and national entities that provide oversight and assurances of the quality of the education we are offering.

We also will seek input from people who are most personally invested in our campuses and who have the most to gain from our efforts – students, employees, parents, alumni, taxpayers, business leaders, elected leaders, and local residents. We will solicit your input through community meetings, social media and other channels.

We understand this process could be unsettling and even unpopular. The people of Alabama have a sense of ownership and pride in their community colleges, and that is a testament to the value these campuses have provided over the years. I understand this deep sense of connection; my family was instrumental in the founding of Faulkner State Community College in Baldwin County.

But I’m also a businessman who understands how quickly employers have to move to stay up with trends and technology – and I understand that our campuses and students must be ready to move just as quickly, or they will be left behind.

Our community colleges are no stranger to change. At one time, some students at our campuses studied TV repair, but those programs faded out when the demand for TV repairmen declined. Likewise and more recently, medical transcription programs have found themselves squeezed out in the marketplace by voice-recognition technology.

But changes today occur at a much more rapid pace, and their impact can extend far beyond a single industry. Just think of the workforce implications of 3D printers, which allow consumers and businesses to “manufacture” their own goods and component parts. Think about the wide-ranging ramifications of cars and trucks that are able to drive themselves. These kinds of technologies have the potential to disrupt all kinds of businesses involved in the manufacture, distribution, or delivery of goods.

Potential game-changers like these demonstrate why our college system must work harder than ever before to understand and respond to evolving workforce needs. If we are not prepared for these changes, there’s no way our students will be.

The core of our mission is equipping our students to succeed. We must have a framework in place that allows us to do that. It’s imperative that we retool our thinking, align our system and invest in programs that will give our students their best chance for success.

There is no better gift we can give them, or our state.

Al Thompson is vice president of the board of trustees for the Alabama Community College System. He represents District 1, which includes the southwestern corner of Alabama. He is a former member of the Alabama State Board of Education and an alumnus of Faulkner State Community College, and owns Thompson Properties in Baldwin County.

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Opinion | The enduring legacy of Margaret Thatcher

“In the winter of British discontent, Thatcher emerged to lead the minority Conservative Party into the majority.”

Will Sellers

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Margaret Thatcher was Britain's longest-serving prime minister. (WIKIMEDIA COMMONS)

Thirty years ago, this week, the longest-serving British prime minister of the 20th century resigned. Margaret Thatcher, having governed since 1979, saw her leadership challenged, but rather than continue to fight, she was gaslighted into believing she was losing her grip on her party and would lose her office in an embarrassing vote.

None of that was true.

In fact, the very men who rode to leadership positions on her coattails and hid behind her skirts during controversy allowed their greed for power to debase their loyalty to the Iron Lady. Dejected, she resigned and thus, quietly exited British politics.

Prior to Thatcher’s leadership, Britain was in decline and, by all economic measures, sliding into second rate status. Rather than control its financial destiny, the International Monetary Fund was needed to help the Empire shore up her accounts. Socialism dominated with anti-capitalist trade unions and nationalized industries weighing down any real economic growth.

But in the winter of British discontent, Thatcher emerged to lead the minority Conservative Party into the majority. For more than a decade thereafter, she was the face of the party, and even when she left the scene, the imprint of “Thatcherism” would remain a dominate political ideology.

Thatcher’s political program relied upon a simple appeal to the British sensibilities. She believed in limited government, liberty of the individual, and the rule of law. But rather than relying solely on rhetoric, she acted on her beliefs and ushered in a golden age that changed not only Britain, but the entire world. Indeed, the world she inherited in 1979 stood in stark contrast to the world in 1990. She caused the contrast.

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Unlike many political leaders who espouse high minded principles, she pursued hers with what some considered reckless abandon. Thatcher took significant steps to push back the suffocating hand of state control and return the economy to a true free market. Government intervention was replaced with individual responsibility and human action.

There are five significant events revealing what Thatcher believed by how she acted. And the impact of her actions had ramifications that still affect both British and international politics.

Thatcher organized her government to firmly oppose state-sponsored terrorism and declined to allow the cloak of diplomatic immunity to cover subversive activities. When the Libyan Embassy in London was used to harbor snipers to shoot protestors and ended up killing British policewoman Yvonne Fletcher, the prime minister terminated diplomatic relations and used special forces to clear the embassy and send the terrorists masquerading as diplomats packing.

She would similarly send a large contingent of Russians home when it was clear their embassy was a cover for supporting domestic terrorists and spying on military and industrial targets. These actions rankled some in the diplomatic community who wanted her to be more deferential, but by sending a message of British resolve, she earned the respect of the world community.

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Perhaps the one thing cementing Britain‘s return to power was the Falkland Island campaign. While it was only a small British outpost near Argentina, Thatcher recognized that the Argentine invasion was not simply a threat to the islanders but also a challenge to international British interests. Unwilling to concede anything, she ordered the unequivocal liberation of the islands and effectively threw down a marker that she would defend and protect British subjects and interests anywhere at any cost.

Accepting the Argentine invasion would have been the easy course, but while some in Britain were embarrassed at her saber-rattling and projection of military power, the vast majority saw her actions as patriotic and a reminder of the former greatness of the empire. After the Falkland’s victory, Thatcher’s popularity soared, and when a general election was called, she achieved a landslide victory establishing a conservative majority that lasted until 1997.

On the domestic front, Thatcher knew from the beginning of her administration that she had a dead reckoning with trade unionism, whose power had grown so strong and influential that strikes could paralyze the country. But rather than take them on directly, the wily strategist first worked to pass laws that prevented union corruption and inappropriate strikes.

Once those laws were in place, she realized that the first challenge would be with the coal miners’ union. At that time, coal miners in Britain were a larger part of a socialist network that had grown in influence because coal was so critical to energy and the economy. But a minority of the unions were not part of this network and Thatcher allied herself with them, stockpiling coal to outlast the socialists.

So, when the coal miners decided to strike, she was prepared. First with lawsuits that prevented sympathy strikes from other unions by exacting fines and then with resources to close unprofitable mines and wait until the unions were unable to hold out. The coal miners were the first step, but gradually she reduced the unions’ economic stranglehold and began to privatize state-owned industries, which made the British economy more dynamic and competitive.

With an established Church, the parameters for separation of church and state are not debated in Parliament. In fact, the prime minister was involved in approving ecclesiastical promotion. Unlike other politicians who rarely addressed religious issues directly, Thatcher had no such reticence. When she became alarmed at the liberal bent of the established Church, she found an opportunity to explain to the professional clergy exactly how she viewed their role in society.

Addressing the General Assembly of Scotland, she boldly stated, “Christianity is about spiritual redemption, not social reform.” She chastised church leaders for failing to appreciate capitalism and the spiritual benefits it provided. It is hard to imagine a political leader who would have the intestinal fortitude to attend a denominational gathering, articulate a theology and take ministers to task for in essence failing in their mission.

Her speech, known derisively as “The Epistle to the Caledonians” is readily available on the internet. Some Sunday when virtual church is off, watch Thatcher explain her version of Christianity and see her sense of faith boldly defended and publicly exhibited.

Perhaps the one thing that both defined Thatcher and also led to her resignation was her idea of Britain’s place in the European community. Her view of Europe was with an eye toward free trade and removing regulations and restrictions on the free flow of goods and services. She saw Europe not as a melting pot where states and people lose their currency and cultural identity, but, rather, as a mosaic where nations and people maintained their unique culture within a framework of collaboration centered on trade.

As the idea of a united Europe moved toward a common currency, democratic socialism and a heightened regulatory environment, Thatcher stood her ground and refused to participate. Her speech to the College of Europe at Bruges explained succinctly her concerns and her vision of developing a strong capitalist Europe. Like her speech to the Church of Scotland, this speech, too, is worth a listen as it is prescient considering the current status of Europe, Brexit and NATO.

Lady Thatcher’s political demise was ushered in by disloyal cabinet members who were willing to subjugate British hegemony to an amalgamated Europe. Nothing they would say or do could detract from her legacy. In her retirement, as she traveled to the former Warsaw Pact countries, throngs of people venerated her as the force that helped liberate them from Soviet domination.

If Thatcher was not honored in her own country, the voices of the children freed from totalitarianism offered honor enough to the Iron Lady who held to her principles, saved her country from irrelevance, and ushered in a new world order based on liberty of the individual and the rule of law.

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Opinion | Giving thanks and staying safe

“As we’ve learned to adjust our daily routines and activities throughout the course of this pandemic, we know this Thanksgiving will not look like those of the past.”

Martha Roby

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(APR GRAPHIC)

Thanksgiving is a special holiday because it provides us an entire day each year to pause and give thanks for the many blessings we have received. Particularly amid a global pandemic, the stress and craziness of life often make it easy to lose sight of just how much we have to be thankful for.

Although this holiday season will look different for us all due to the current health pandemic, we must remember the countless ways in which we are blessed.

Whether you are gathering with loved ones or remaining in the comfort of your own home, I hope we all take time to celebrate gratitude — something we may not do enough of these days.

This year, it is especially important we remember those who have been impacted by the coronavirus. This horrific virus we continue to battle has stolen the lives of over 250,000 Americans and 3,400 Alabamians.

During this season of Thanksgiving, I hope you will join me in prayerfully remembering those who have lost a loved one to this virus as well as those who are suffering from it. My prayers are with those who are missing a family member or friend this holiday season.

As we’ve learned to adjust our daily routines and activities throughout the course of this pandemic, we know this Thanksgiving will not look like those of the past. Please be mindful of any safety measures and precautions that have been put in place to help protect your family and those around you.

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The Alabama Department of Public Health released guidance that includes a list of low, moderate and high-risk activities in order to help Alabamians have a safer holiday season. ADPH suggests a few lower-risk activities such as having a small dinner with members of your household, preparing and safely delivering meals to family and neighbors who are at high-risk or hosting a virtual dinner with friends.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends hosting an outdoor gathering and limiting the number of guests.

While the road to recovery is not always easy, I am confident that we will get through this health crisis together, and we will be better because of it. The American people are resilient, and we will not let this virus knock us down.

In the spirit of the holiday, I want to take this opportunity to tell you that I am thankful for the responsibility to serve our state and country in the United States Congress.

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I am honored to be in a position to make a difference on behalf of Alabama’s 2nd District, so thank you for allowing me to serve you. From the Roby family to yours, we hope you have a happy and healthy Thanksgiving.

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Opinion | 400 years later, the Pilgrim story is more relevant than ever

“I think that giving thanks for the land that we call home is especially important this year.”

Robert Aderholt

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(APR GRAPHIC)

This Thanksgiving will be different from any other we have had in our lifetimes.  This past year has been a struggle, as every single one of us has had their normal lives disrupted.  Many of us have also lost friends and family as the Coronavirus has swept through our communities. To say 2020 has been a trying time would be an understatement.

This year has not been unlike that first year the Pilgrims spent after landing at Plymouth Rock; their crossing of the Atlantic, their year of loss and struggle and their ultimate triumph.

Four hundred years ago, a group of 102 passengers set sail from England on a ship known as the Mayflower. They left their homeland with eyes set on the New World, where hopes of religious freedom and entrepreneurial opportunities awaited. Today, four centuries later, the New World that these pilgrims found is now the greatest country in the world, the United States of America.

As we look forward to celebrating Thanksgiving in a few days with our loved ones, (as best we can under the current situation) I think that giving thanks for the land that we call home is especially important this year. With the 400th anniversary of the Mayflower landing, we can look back and admire those brave men and women who embarked on a dangerous journey across the Atlantic Ocean. Many of the passengers aboard that ship sought religious freedom that would only be possible here in the New World. That religious freedom they risked their lives for remains a value we treasure and must continue to defend today.  Sadly, it’s a freedom we too often take for granted each and every day.

And when rough weather forced the Mayflower to land in Massachusetts rather than Virginia, the seeds of democracy were sewn. It was the Mayflower Compact that gave way to the Pilgrims establishing a colony that created its own laws and abided by them. This incredible feat of getting consensus among a diverse group is what led to the first self-governing document in the New World. The Mayflower Compact established something that had never been done before but was soon to be replicated on a larger scale when the nation’s Founding Father’s put pen to parchment and drafted the Constitution. 

It was the brave passengers of the Mayflower who started the tradition of a day of giving thanks in the year 1621. That first year, especially the winter of 1620-21 was harsh and deadly.  Of the 102 original passengers, 45 died the first year. Many died from exposure to the cold, from diseases and from malnutrition. Four entire Mayflower families also died that first winter in Massachusetts.

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But those who survived persevered.  While it wasn’t called Thanksgiving back then, it was a joyous celebration of the Pilgrims’ first corn harvest that they invited nearby Native Americans to join. Some two hundred and forty years later, President Abraham Lincoln established Thanksgiving as a national holiday to be observed on the final Thursday of each November. 

While we are still struggling through the season of COVID, we can look to those 102 brave souls from four centuries ago who also struggled.  But they trusted that brighter days and the prospect of freedom were on the horizon.   Not only that, but they looked to God for their guidance and thank him for bringing them to the place we are today.  

So, on this Thanksgiving, while we still struggle, we can take comfort from those who came before us.  We owe so much to the Pilgrims, as God put it in their hearts to travel to the New World.  Furthermore, they set before us a spirit of Thanksgiving to the all-knowing God.  And that is an example for us today, perhaps even more so than ever.

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Opinion | Record voter turnout in Alabama shows need for voting legislation

“When Alabamians had reasonable and secure options to access the ballot, they exercised their right to vote in the highest numbers in state history.”

JaTaune Bosby

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(STOCK PHOTO)

More than 140 million voters took part in the historic 2020 election. Alabamians cast 2.3 million ballots, and cast absentee ballots in record numbers. More than 300,000 absentee votes were requested in-person or by mail.

Headlines have lauded the level of participation; however, we must be careful in allowing a narrative to capture a moment while erasing the history and evolution of voter suppression in this state and across the Deep South.

That is why now more than ever, we must expand voting in Alabama.

The full enfranchisement of voters based on race has only been in place for 55 years since the passing of the Voting Rights Act, but that has since been undermined with the Supreme Court’s Shelby v. Holder decision, which removed federal oversight from state voting regulations and allowed for burdensome requirements like voter ID to become the standard.

Alabama, the very battleground for voting rights in this country, once again backslid and since then has remained even behind many of our neighbors as far as options for voting.

However, this year, when Alabama emerged as a hotspot for COVID-19, state leaders ensured voters would have more choices when casting their ballot this year by permitting use of the absentee and in-person absentee voting for all registered voters.

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This opportunity energized voters, as we saw long lines outside of courthouses across Alabama, from Mobile and Montgomery to Birmingham and Tuscaloosa. Voter turnout exceeded 66 percent nationwide and 61 percent in the state.

When Alabamians had reasonable and secure options to access the ballot, they exercised their right to vote in the highest numbers in state history.

These numbers show that Alabama voters want more voting options prior to Election Day, and it is now up to lawmakers in this state to take a stance for the citizens of Alabama. In the upcoming legislative session, the Alabama legislature must ensure we make voting expansion a priority.

The right to the ballot box should not depend on signatory requirements or excuses to be able to vote safely by mail, as millions of Americans did this past election. Passing legislation can give working parents, caregivers, people with disabilities, and all voters more choices so that voting is made simple and accessible for all Alabamians.

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This historic fight of Civil Rights activists in this very state sent a message to not only the rest of the U.S., but to the world, that democracy and the right to vote is one of our most powerful tools to make our voices heard.

This year, our collective voices have been resounding, and despite our circumstances — a global pandemic, an international social movement, and major political shifts that have impacted our families and our communities for decades to come — we ensured that our voices were heard at the ballot box.

Today, we must aim to be a shining example once again of democracy’s promise and demonstrate that free, fair and accessible elections drive civic engagement at every level and give the people of Alabama the voice in our government that we deserve.

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