Not so long ago, I would have written a scathing column about a university in this state hiring a career politician as its president. I would have bemoaned the good-ol-boy system that led to such a hire. I would have predicted certain doom for a university that put political posturing above academic aspirations.
But such a column would ignore the reality of higher-ed life in Alabama. And it would particularly ignore the life of a relatively small, public university, where dollars are hard to come by and the success and failure of many academic programs are made and broken based not on the academic knowledge possessed by the university’s president but by how well that president fundraises and schmoozes.
And that’s why I’m not writing anything bad about the University of South Alabama hiring former congressman Jo Bonner.
Because in Alabama, where educational dollars at the university level can, and do, fluctuate wildly from year to year, it is vitally important to have a leader who can pick up the phone and call the decision-makers, and be relatively sure they will listen. It is equally important to have someone who understands the budgeting process and how a university can best be positioned to both gain more funds and protect existing funding.
And in that regard, Bonner, who is a well-liked, well-respected statesman and who has spent the last few years making deals with every state lawmaker as Gov. Kay Ivey’s chief of staff, is custom made for the job.
It should not be this way.
State schools should not be fighting tooth and nail every year to protect funding. Their budgets shouldn’t be dependent on the whims and wishes of politicians. The selection of board members shouldn’t be politicized. Various programs shouldn’t depend on who’s friends with the most politicians in the state government.
But you can fight reality or you can accept it, and try to manufacture success in it.
Like Alabama State University did four years ago when it hired Quinton Ross as its president.
Now, to be fair to Ross, he is more than a politician. He has a long and respected work history in public education and had deep ties to ASU. Those attributes should not be discounted or diminished.
But ASU has hired men and women with such academic credentials in the past. In fact, it chose a lifelong academic over Ross three years prior to his hire in 2017.
Many of those hires saw their tenures end in a blaze of embarrassing news stories, in-fighting and scandal, because they couldn’t manage to navigate the political pitfalls that university presidents often face in this state.
I covered ASU for more than a decade. I’ve sat in countless board meetings. I’ve written so many stories about fights and funding woes and scandals and sanctions and budget cuts that I’ve lost count.
Before Ross, who was a state senator when he was hired, ASU was in particularly bad shape. It had problems on a variety of fronts, including funding, accreditation and public image. It was bleeding students and parents were scared to send their children to ASU because they were concerned that it might lose accreditation.
In the meantime, there was a scandal every other week and near constant public fighting among university officials. There were massive budget issues and the school’s credit rating had been decreased multiple times.
Former president Gwendolyn Boyd, who had been chosen over Ross, was selected for her academic qualifications. She had zero political connections and few friends.
She was chewed up and spit out by the political machine. And the entire university – including many of the programs and the faculty – suffered because of it.
When the trustees ultimately decided to fire Boyd just three years later, I wrote at the time that Ross was likely the only candidate capable of correcting ASU’s messes. That’s not me patting myself on the back. It was an obvious choice, because Ross was the only candidate who could consistently go to the legislature and get funding and support.
Because, like Bonner, he was well liked and well respected.
What Ross has done at ASU over the last four years has been remarkable. And to be honest, I didn’t think this level of turnaround was possible.
ASU’s credit rating has been restored. A couple of weeks ago, the university was granted another 10-year accreditation approval by its accrediting agency.
Ross used his connections in the legislature to up ASU’s annual allocation in the state budget. He used other connections to attract various programs to the campus and to educate lawmakers on the good things happening at the school. And he used his understanding of public relations – much of that skill set acquired while working as a politician – to help mold an image of ASU as a community university that’s serving the underserved population of Montgomery and rural Alabama.
(As an example, ASU has been a leader in the community effort to vaccinate Montgomery’s low-income population for COVID-19. It has partnered with the Department of Public Health. It has hosted free clinics. It has handed out free tests and administered shots. Those sorts of initiatives don’t materialize by accident, and they make a real difference in the eyes of lawmakers when it comes budget time.)
It would be challenging to find a four-year period in ASU’s history that has been as scandal-free and productive as the last four under Ross.
Has it been perfect? Of course not.
You show me any large corporation with hundreds of employees and thousand of customers walking around the premises – and living on the premises – and you can bet there are issues and problems and people doing dumb things. You’ll never eliminate that. But you can manage it, and that’s what Ross has done.
The question, of course, is will Bonner be that successful as president at USA? I have no idea. And this isn’t a column predicting his success, or predicting that he’ll even be good at the job.
It’s just merely to point out that the role of university president, particularly at a state school in Alabama, has changed a lot over the years. And a large part of that job today is navigating the political pitfalls – most of which have absolutely nothing to do with academics – that can cause a variety of issues at a university.
Bonner certainly has those skills. The only question is how well they’ll serve USA.