But this critically important institution, thanks to the mismanagement of the University of Alabama Board of Trustees, is working on 17 years of failed presidencies. That streak of incompetence is only growing under UAB's current president, Carol Garrison.
Time magazine, however, recently spotlighted a man who could turn UAB's fortunes around. His name is Freeman Hrabowski, president of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC). He grew up in Birmingham, and his home state desperately needs him--or someone very much like him--to get UAB back on the path that made it one of the nation's higher-education success stories.
Time featured Hrabowski in an article about the "10 Best College Presidents in America." E. Gordon Gee, president of The Ohio State University, tops the list, and you can check out the full top 10 here.
Creating lists of the top this or that in higher education seems to be a popular--if dubious--pastime for various news magazines. It's almost impossible to determine what such lists really mean--and if they are accurate.
But it seems clear that Hrabowski is a big-time presence in higher education. And he has deep roots in Alabama, where his kind of leadership is sorely needed.
Hrabowski, an African-American, was jailed as a 12-year-old in the fight for civil rights in early '60s Alabama. His record indicates that he hasn't backed down from many challenges since.
Time notes that Hrabowski has been almost too successful at turning UMBC into a powerhouse in engineering and science, which are areas of strength at UAB:
Freeman Hrabowski has a problem. The president of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC), has been so successful at cultivating his school's reputation for steering African-American students toward science and engineering — fields in which they have been traditionally under-represented — that he fears the university will be forever typed as a hard-discipline powerhouse at the expense of everything else. "I often say to people that yes, over half of our students are in science fields, but the other half are in arts," says Hrabowski. "We're working to build a university that has first-rate research across all disciplines."
Is Hrabowski a well-rounded guy? Does he know how to get things done? Consider this from his biography:
In 2008, he was named one of America’s Best Leaders by U.S. News & World Report, which in 2009 ranked UMBC the #1 “Up and Coming” university in the nation and fourth among all colleges and universities in the nation for commitment to undergraduate teaching. In 2009, Time magazine named him one of America’s 10 Best College Presidents.
He serves as a consultant to the National Science Foundation, the National Institutes of Health, the National Academies, and universities and school systems nationally. He also serves on the boards of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, France-Merrick Foundation, Marguerite Casey Foundation (Chair), and The Urban Institute. He also sits on the boards of Constellation Energy Group, McCormick & Company, and the Baltimore Equitable Society. He also served on the board of the Maryland Humanities Council as both a member and Chair.
We highlighted the section about UMBC's commitment to undergraduate teaching because UAB needs a boost in that area. How badly does UAB need the kind of leadership that Hrabowski could provide? Consider its three most recent full-time presidents:
* J. Claude Bennett (1993-1996)--An internal promotion from the UAB Department of Medicine, Bennett resigned after it was discovered that state employees were performing work at his personal residence. Also, Bennett appointed Dr. Ken Roozen as executive vice president and provost, and Roozen managed to alienate huge segments of the campus--before beating a hasty retreat to South Carolina.
* W. Ann Reynolds (1997-2002)--UAB's first female president, Reynolds came from CUNY in New York with a stellar resume and a combustible personality. She was a major source of friction on the campus and exited not long after a whistleblower revealed massive research fraud at UAB. As a parting gift, Reynolds filed a lawsuit against the University of Alabama Board of Trustees, claiming she had been a victim of discrimination.
* Carol Z. Garrison (2002-present)--UAB has been beset by human-resources problems and a variety of research scandals during Garrison's tenure. In her first year on the job, Garrison embarrassed the university by playing a prominent role in a scandal that led to the ouster of University of Tennessee President John Shumaker. (Much more is coming soon at Legal Schnauzer on the Garrison/Shumaker story.) Garrison's unseemly dalliance with Shumaker on multiple occasions involved misappropriation of public funds. She probably should have been fired after only a few months on the job. She probably would have been fired, but the UA board already was expecting a lawsuit from Reynolds and almost certainly did not one to see another one coming from Garrison.
UAB can be viewed as a smaller-scale version of the United States. It's a big, robust institution, and a few bad presidents are not going to ruin it. The US of A, so far, has survived the George W. Bush debacle--and UAB is likely to survive the likes of Bennett, Reynolds, and Garrison.
But there are signs of significant decay at UAB. If you know the institution, and know where to look, you can easily spot them. And like the United States, UAB is not so powerful that it cannot become permanently scarred--and impaired--by an extended period of poor leadership.
Would Freeman Hrabowski consider returning to his hometown to take on the serious challenges facing UAB? On the plus side, he has been president at UMBC since 1992 and might be ready for a new challenge. On the minus side, Hrabowski's deep roots in our state probably give him significant insight into the dysfunctional nature of the University of Alabama Board of Trustees. He might not want any part of working for that board.
Here is the bottom line: UAB is too important to Alabama's future--and its present--to muddle along under incompetent presidents. Alabama citizens, particularly those living in the Birmingham metro area, need to rise up and demand that Carol Garrison be sent packing. And they need to demand that Freeman Hrabowski at least be consulted about the future of Alabama's most important university.
If we can't get Freeman Hrabowski himself, we at least need someone very much like him. And there is no reason that Hrabowski cannot be involved in the process to get UAB back on the right track.
UAB is suffering. And the process to heal a potentially great university needs to start now.