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Opinion | A do-over might be the only hope for Alabama A&M’s president search

“The search, which has been widely criticized, is now threatening the legacy of outgoing president Andrew Hugine.”

Alabama A&M

Alabama A&M is going to choose a president on Saturday, and the outgoing president really, really wants you to know that he thinks that choice should be Daniel Wims. 

Normally reserved and calculating, President Andrew Hugine has been anything but as he exits A&M as one of the best — if not the absolute best — presidents in the university’s history. His accomplishments and ability to navigate both the political pitfalls and institutional racism present in Alabama have been well-documented. 

But the last month has been a curious sequence of odd choices, uncharacteristic boasting and obvious meddling that has — even to Hugine’s most ardent supporters — left a bad taste. 

All of it, alumni claim, has been in an effort to ensure Wims, a longtime A&M provost, fills the president’s chair when Hugine exits. 

To be sure, university presidential searches are rarely smooth undertakings, because so many stakeholders have so many different ideas about what’s best for the school. And because so many people care deeply and honestly about the university and its future. 

A&M has not been unique in that regard. Different groups have different opinions on who should be the next president, how that president should be chosen and who should do the choosing. They all love their university, and they all believe their voices should be heard. 

That creates an environment ripe for in-fighting and backstabbing. 

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It also creates an environment in which those who have held onto secrets and bad experiences are willing to share them — usually because they believe that someone might listen to their stories and care. 

Whatever the reason, there have been more than a few stories shared about Wims. APR reported a few weeks ago on allegations from three women and one man who claimed Wims sexually harassed them. Nearly two dozen other A&M employees or former employees corroborated those allegations or spoke generally about the environment on campus related to Wims. 

Two of the alleged victims went on record with their allegations and provided APR with specific details, including dates and locations. They also talked about their efforts to report the harassment and subsequent unfair treatment, and how their complaints disappeared. 

When APR reached out to A&M officials to inquire about these allegations, we were told that no documentation of such allegations exists. But then we spoke with two people who could provide evidence in the form of HR complaints. 

Wims issued a brief statement denying the allegations, but he refused interview requests. 

In the meantime, Hugine had already started admonishing alumni who were complaining about the search process — a process, alumni complained, that seemed to cut applicants very quickly and weed out some with vast amounts of leadership experience and advanced qualifications. 

Some alumni said they believed the process was “rigged” to give Wims a better chance. They even sent a letter to Gov. Kay Ivey requesting that she intervene in the process and perform an audit. That letter included the name of alumni association president Mary Moore, who also served on the search committee. And when someone on the committee is claiming there are problems, it tends to raise some red flags. 

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Hugine fired off a letter of his own, essentially telling alumni to butt out, and that A&M doesn’t belong to them. 

Following the APR story, Hugine wrote a second letter — this one to students — to say that an allegation being circulated was untrue. That allegation concerned an incident that APR didn’t report on. 

Instead, it was contained in a letter sent to the board of trustees by Pamela Thompson. In it, she claims that Wims sexually harassed another A&M employee, but that Hugine had the complaint pulled and instead gave the victim a job in his office. 

Hugine called the allegations by Thompson “blatantly false” and “defamatory.” Hugine did not, however, address the allegations contained in the APR story. 

That is, until this week, in a third letter. 

In this letter, Hugine outrights endorses Wims for the job and attempts to undercut the allegations against him — not with facts and evidence, but with the same, tired, empty defenses that we have seen trotted out in nearly every case during the #MeToo movement. 

Hugine said the allegations were old and laid “dormant” for too long. He said he’s known Wims a long time. And he said that Wims has hired women to top positions at the university. 

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None of which refutes a single sentence uttered by the women and man who accused Wims of harassing them, of derailing their careers, of making their daily work lives miserable. 

It’s also worth mentioning that the letter from Hugine was distributed by a PR firm — a PR firm presumably hired by the university. If that’s the case, it creates quite an odd dynamic — a university hiring a PR firm to defend a candidate vying to be that university’s president.

The fact is this: the women and man who made claims against Wims weren’t con artists. In every case, they were accomplished professionals with advanced degrees and decades of academic experience. They didn’t make vague allegations, and APR isn’t in the business of printing half-truths or allowing such allegations to appear in print without a mountain of supporting evidence and corroboration. Or without giving the accused every opportunity to respond. 

(The story containing the accusations against Wims, which ran on the day of the first interviews, was delayed multiple times at the request of the university to give Wims time to respond to the allegations. Ultimately, he issued only a statement and it was printed in its entirety.)

Making matters even worse, one of the three candidates, Dr. Roderick Smothers, bowed out this week, citing the tight turnaround time — A&M expects its chosen candidate to be in place by Jan. 1. That leaves just Wims and Dr. Colette Pierce Burnette, and again led to alumni calling for do-over on the search. 

At this point, that might be the best option. Clearly, the alums and biggest supporters of the university are unhappy with how things have gone. It’s unlikely that either candidate could mend those burned bridges. 

Another search might ease concerns and stifle the anger. And most importantly, it might save Hugine’s legacy.

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Josh Moon is an investigative reporter and featured columnist at the Alabama Political Reporter with years of political reporting experience in Alabama. You can email him at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter.

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