Confidence in a Process, Not a President

First published by al.com.  You can link to that here.

As the UAB Faculty Senate Tuesday announced a no-confidence motion in President Ray Watts to be debated at a special meeting in January, my mind went back to a similar mess at Auburn my first year on faculty: the 2003 Jetgate scandal that resulted in the resignation of President William Walker (among others) — and a no-confidence vote from the faculty.

For Watts, trouble emerged from his decision to eliminate the UAB football program — a decision made without faculty input and based on a flimsy consultant’s report that seemed to confirm a decision already made.

For Walker, trouble emerged when he led a November 2003 secret trip to Louisville to talk to then-head coach Bobby Petrino about replacing then-head coach Tommy Tuberville.  The story on the trip was broken by Jay Tate of the Montgomery Advertiser, and likewise shattered Walker’s presidency.

Much has been written about the Jetgate situation.  One parallel between Auburn and the UAB situation is that in both cases, the Faculty Senate would convene to consider a vote of no-confidence against the president.

The Auburn faculty senate met fairly quickly, on Thursday, Dec. 11, to debate a motion demanding Walker’s resignation in view of the embarrassing news reports.  In this case, the meeting was open to the public and the media, and Walker answered questions publicly. Complete minutes for the Dec. 11, 2003 meeting are still available — yet another testament to the openness of the process.

Watts, on the other hand, has been spared a public Faculty Senate grilling so far — instead, he apparently met with faculty members Monday in an “impromptu” meeting that was closed to the public.  My hope is that the meeting in January will be open to all interested members of the UAB community.

I still remember hanging out in the sound room in December 2003; it was about the only place left.  Faculty, students, and staff, in questioning Walker, would make statements, often savage, in advance of their questions.

In some cases, the speakers would return to their seats even as Walker was answering, as if the statement and not the question was the focus.

Two days before the meeting, Auburn’s accrediting agency, SACS, had placed the school on probation for excessive trustee influence in day-to-day university matters, particularly athletics.  Many felt that Walker had forfeited moral authority in leading the university through such a crucial process.

In the end, urged by Faculty Senate chairman John Mouton, the faculty voted 42-27 against calling for Walker’s resignation.  They did, however, vote in favor of a no-confidence motion by a 37-31 vote (a move Mouton also spoke out against), with five abstentions.  A motion to censure passed unanimously.

By the next month, however, Walker would resign on Jan. 16, 2004, two days after meeting with Gov. Bob Riley, who also acted as chairman of the Auburn Board of Trustees. Dr. Ed Richardson, former state superintendent of education, would come in on an interim basis until a presidential search could be conducted.

Granted, what happened at UAB is far more tragic: the loss of a football program and the effects it has on not only the university community, but also the individual athletes and coaches who find their lives turned upside down.

That a university president like Watts would make the decision in the way that he did — Faculty Athletics Representative Frank Mussina was not even consulted — is truly an indictment of his leadership style and deserves more than the glossing-over apology he offered in his statement.  No university president should ever make such an important decision in such a unilateral manner.

It would seem insincere and definitely appear glib and flippant to assure the UAB community that everything will turn out OK by using Auburn as a parallel.

Things did get better for Auburn: Less than a year after almost being fired, Tuberville led his team to an undefeated season, though Auburn was deprived of a chance for a national championship.

However, in late 2003 we did not face the elimination of our football program, and that is a huge difference.  If the football team cannot be restored, perhaps faith in UAB’s leadership can.

Whether this can happen under Watts — whose actions in this process show decision making skill far below his position and pay grade — is doubtful.

Still, the process of debating this needs to happen in a more open and candid manner than Watts provided UAB with his football decision.  Let’s hope this happens in January, as it did in Auburn in December 2003.

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