By Josh Moon
Alabama Political Reporter
Gov. Robert Bentley believes a request from an accrediting agency to remove him the boards of all State colleges and universities is politically motivated, but the agency that made the request said it’s simply a matter of aligning the governance structure of Alabama’s universities with other states.
Belle Wheelan, the director of the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, said during a phone interview on Tuesday that she has no political motivation to do anything in Alabama and said the structure which allows Bentley to both appoint board members and serve as the president of the boards is “unique.”
“I don’t live in Alabama. I don’t vote in Alabama. I don’t much care about the politics of Alabama,” Wheelan said. “What I do care about is that my board asked me to have a meeting with Alabama legislators to see if we could address something that we find to be unique to Alabama and that we see as a problem. The current structure is a tremendous conflict of interest, and I don’t think it’s terribly difficult for anyone to see that.”
Except, maybe, for the Governor’s office.
Monday afternoon, Bentley’s office released a statement about SACS request to remove him from the college boards.
“We disagree strongly with the assumption that the Governor has undue influence on boards of institutions,” the statement said. “It appears the recommendations outlined in this letter are misguided and politically motivated. The placement of the Governor on the board is set up by statute and by our Constitution, and I’m going to obey our Constitution.”
The letter from Wheelan that began this back-and-forth was addressed to the chairs of the Alabama Legislature’s education committees – . In it, Wheelan asks for a meeting to discuss the possibility of introducing legislation that would remove Bentley from the college boards because of a conflict.
That conflict, as noted in the letter, says Bentley serves as president or Sen. Dick Brewbaker and Rep. Terri Collinschairman of the boards of every college and university in the state, yet he also has the power to appoint members to those boards and has authority over the institutions’ budgets.
“Honestly, I was just asking for a meeting to discuss this so we could all come to a better understanding of what the conflict is and why we see it as an issue,” Wheelan said. “I never expected such a response. I mean, can we really not have a conversation? Is that too much to ask?”
Wheelan said she endured an angry phone call with the Governor’s staff on Friday, who accused her of attempting to take power away from the governor.
“Well, yeah, that’s exactly what we’re trying to do, because he has too much of it – more than any other governor in any other state,” Wheelan said. “It’s a significant problem that we think the legislature there needs to address. I even told the governor’s staff that we don’t care if this happens while the current governor is in office. If the change were to take effect with the next governor, I think that’s something we would accept.”
The recipients of Wheelan’s letter were much more accepting to a conversation with SACS. Brewbaker and Collins told Wheelan that they would be glad to meet and discuss the issue.
“I think it would be very useful,” Brewbaker said. “I also think we need a better understanding of what’s at stake here. We need a little clearer letter on what the results of failing to act might be.”
Asked what the results could be if Alabama lawmakers thumbed their noses at SACS and left the governor in charge, Wheelan said she wasn’t sure at this time.
“That would be up to my board to decide,” she said. “But we think discussing it and outlining our concerns is the proper step.”