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.

The Cruel End of Dreams

First published by College and Magnolia (SB Nation). You can link to it here.

As Auburn students begin another school year, and Auburn fans look ahead to football season, the sad reality of Philip Lutzenkirchen’s untimely death will hit home even more. His death was a jolt to the Auburn community, even as it happened over the summer, with many of our students gone.  Social media connected the Auburn family in its mutual grief, while also demonstrating just what Philip meant to the campus and the greater community. For many Auburn students, the first experience with peer loss is a jolt — a dose of the reality that youthful invincibility is ultimately an illusion.

For us faculty and staff — many of whom already are guaranteed decades more than these lives lost too soon — it is a jolt as well, a reminder of an uncomfortable truth: Young people, current and recent students, die.

The odds turn on them with cruel randomness, and they die in car wrecks or as crime victims.

Their struggle with terminal illness lacks the ultimate triumph.

An undiagnosed condition steals in and steals life.

The substance abuse they thought they could control proves otherwise.

And some mistakenly decide that ending their own lives is preferable to living with the pain.

As faculty and staff members find ourselves within a grieving community, it is our responsibility to help the students grapple, even as we struggle in our own way.  It doesn’t get easier with practice.

In 1997, while I was at Campbell University, a freshman wrestler, Billy Saylor, 19, died while trying to cut weight for a tournament.  He was one of three wrestlers who would die that way within a month.  It led to stricter weight-cutting guidelines from the NCAA.

As word of his death spread across campus that Friday (it had happened late the previous evening), life also seemed to stop at the small campus.  It was a day of talking to students, worrying about the teammate who was there when Billy died, facing the Raleigh, N.C., media barrage.

As I watched the 6 o’clock news, it struck me.  The worst thing that happened was that Billy’s dreams had died with him.  Becoming a champion wrestler, marrying his high school girlfriend, whatever career he was aiming for — the dreams were gone too.

I remember verbalizing a question to myself: Why did God give me and not Billy Saylor November 7, 1997 (and about 6,000 more days after that)?  It seemed unfair.

The answer that came back — we could debate the source — was that I could find the answer to that question in each day that followed.  That also became my vow, and it has continued through my 11 years on the faculty at Auburn.

But more than that, the experience changed how I looked at my students.  No longer were they 85 percent fun, 15 percent why-don’t-you-listen-to-what-I’m-trying-to teach you (with the 15 percent dominating).

Instead, they became conveyors of something precious — their dreams and goals.  My vocation, besides getting them to look up spellings and AP style rules and gather and structure information, was to bring them closer to those dreams, by whatever means. Even a change to a new major, if necessary.

Over the past 17 years, I’ve tried to keep that thought before me.  Yes, sometimes students make it difficult, when they don’t seem to have many dreams beyond the next Wednesday night Toomers Corner pub crawl.  Sometimes they have to be reminded that unlike animals who eat, sleep, breed, and annoy other animals, they have the capacity to aspire to make their lives better and to simply be better.

I also know that each student is a treasure to someone, even one parent or a sibling or an aunt/uncle.  And that treasure is committed to Auburn University — with fear and trust, but mostly fear — for the next 4-plus years.  Our job is to return that treasure with something valuable, increased knowledge, so that society can benefit as well.

In spring of 2007, after the horrific shootings at Virginia Tech, I attended an on-campus vigil Auburn students conducted in front of Samford Hall.  I saw one of my students, Megan, there.  I wondered how her parents felt after realizing that twenty-seven families had lost the students they had sent to Virginia Tech.

After the vigil, I put my arm around Megan and said, “For all that we (faculty) give you guys a hard time, it would devastate me if anything like this happened to you.”

In the seven years since, students have died.  A suicide in February brought two of his fellow students to my office with questions of whether they could have done more.  We couldn’t know.  All we knew was that his pain overrode everything else in his life, including his dreams for his life and his parents who considered him their treasure.

And when a 23-year-old recent Auburn football player dies in a wreck on a rural Georgia road, it brings it home again.  Why did God give me and not Philip Lutzenkirchen July 30, 2014, and the days that followed?

As I said, I don’t know the answer to that question, but I do know that I will find it in each day that follows.  And I know that a big part of that answer involves my students, and their dreams.