Rondini, a 20-year-old UA student who killed herself after her rape allegations were met with indifference and a string of lies about Alabama law from investigators, almost certainly would be alive today if she had gone to a college or university in her home state of Texas. She almost certainly would be alive if she had gone to school in the vast majority of other states. But Rondini understandably chose UA -- which has an attractive campus, a powerhouse football team, a welcoming Greek system, and outwardly pleasant surroundings (when Tuscaloosa isn't being threatened by a tornado).
Those amenities, plus scholarship opportunities to attract high achievers from beyond Alabama's borders, are a major reason students from around the country have been flocking to UA in recent years. But many come with no particular ties to the Tuscaloosa community, a place where "connections" reign supreme. That makes them vulnerable, especially female students like Megan, when a wealthy and connected local like T.J. Bunn Jr. allegedly preys on them.
In most functional college towns, Megan's allegations probably would have been taken seriously and investigated, putting a guy like "Sweet Tea" Bunn at risk of facing years behind bars. In Tuscaloosa, a dysfunctional network of white privilege and entitlement, combined with the Bunn family's financial donations to local law-enforcement candidates, bought protection for "Sweet Tea."
Megan met a stonewall of resistance and deception, leading to frustration and despair that apparently caused her to take her own life. That might lead to an expensive public-relations nightmare for the University of Alabama and its environs, whose secrets could be unmasked in a wrongful-death lawsuit brought by Birmingham attorney Leroy Maxwell Jr., on behalf of the Rondini family.
That's ironic because the University of Alabama has been thriving on the backs of students like Megan Rondini. It is among the nation's top institutions at growing enrollment by attracting students from out of state.
Just 10 years ago, UA was a relatively small flagship university, with an enrollment of 23,878. By fall 2016, the student body had grown to a record 37,665. As the university approaches 40,000 students, it's heading into the rarefied neighborhood occupied by the nation's largest institutions, such as Ohio State (66,046), U of Michigan (44,718), U of Texas (50,950), U of Florida (52,286) and UCLA (44,947).
Many public colleges, facing shrinking state support, have started chasing out-of-state students -- and their tuition dollars -- according to a report last July at The New York Times. The University of Alabama has engaged in that battle so aggressively that its enrollment now features more than 50 percent non-resident students. From The Times article:
Elliot Spillers, from Pelham, Ala., was student body president at the University of Alabama last year — the first black student in 40 years to have held that position. He said he doubted he would have been elected if the student body, which is mostly white, had been homegrown. The university’s enrollment is now more than half out-of-staters.
“It’s definitely shifting the culture here on campus, which is a positive thing,” Mr. Spillers said, echoing the views of many students.
Others see a less positive side to the change.
Of the out-of-state undergraduates at Alabama’s Tuscaloosa campus, more than 3,000 receive merit aid in the form of free or discounted tuition — an average of $19,000 per student. In 2015, the university gave $100 million in merit aid.
Scholarship support for out-of-state students at UA is substantial. A Capstone Scholar receives $20,000 over four years. A Collegiate Scholar receives $24,000 over four years. A Foundation in Excellence Scholar receives $52,000 over four years. A UA Scholar receives $76,000 over four years. A Presidential Scholar receives $100,000 over four years. A Presidential Scholar receives full tuition for up to four years and one year of on-campus housing.
Megan Rondini was attracted to UA, in part, by financial support. From the BuzzFeed News article that broke her story to a national and international audience (with almost 2.3 million views):
Megan had an honors scholarship at UA, and she studied hard, scoring a spot in a special MBA program for high achievers in STEM fields and working after class at a lab studying Alzheimer’s disease.
Last November, The New York Times published a story titled "How the University of Alabama Became a National Player." From the article:
How . . . you might ask, did Brianna Zavilowitz, a Staten Islander with 2120 SATs and a 4.0 grade-point average, daughter of a retired N.Y.P.D. detective and an air traffic controller, with zero interest in pledging and middling enthusiasm for football, wind up in Tuscaloosa for college?
This was not the capricious choice of a freckle-faced teenager, which she is. Rather, the reason she turned down the University of California, Berkeley, and canceled her Columbia University interview (“I figured I didn’t want to waste his time”) reveals the new competitive ethos in public higher education: Think big and recruit.
Ms. Zavilowitz first noticed the university on Facebook. A few clicks and Bama was omnipresent. Pop-ups, emails and literature piqued her interest. She visited, took the bus tour, was tickled by the Southern hospitality. Her mother appreciated detailed parent information suggesting “a well-oiled machine.” There was more: a full-tuition scholarship. “My mom kept telling me not to look at the money,” said Ms. Zavilowitz, chatting in red Alabama footies. “But it definitely helped.” Roll, Tide, roll.
Here is more about the strategy that has made the University of Alabama the fastest growing flagship campus in the country:
With state funding now just 12.5 percent of the university’s budget, campus leaders have mapped an offensive strategy to grow in size, prestige and, most important, revenue. The endgame is to become a national player known for more than championship football. [California] Berkeley, the University of Michigan and University of Virginia are the schools “we compare ourselves against,” said Kevin W. Whitaker, Alabama’s interim provost.
Alabama has invested heavily to lure students like Ms. Zavilowitz, who does not qualify for federal financial aid. The university is spending $100.6 million in merit aid, up from $8.3 million a decade ago and more than twice what it allocates to students with financial need. It also has hired an army of recruiters to put Bama on college lists of full-paying students who, a few years ago, might not have looked its way.
The University of Alabama is the fastest-growing flagship in the country. Enrollment hit 37,665 this fall, nearly a 58 percent increase over 2006. As critical as the student body jump: the kind of student the university is attracting. The average G.P.A. of entering freshmen is 3.66, up from 3.4 a decade ago, and the top quarter scored at least a 31 on the ACT, up from 27.
This seems to be the equation: Hire "an army of recruiters" to go after top non-resident students; dangle serious scholarship money; offer lots of amenities, promote Southern culture and top-notch football; compare yourself to Cal, Michigan, Virginia, and the like . . . and students flock to your campus from all over the country.
One thing seems to be missing in the equation. Many students, from all destinations, enjoy the occasional (OK, frequent) night on the town. In Megan's case, that meant a trip to Innisfree Irish Pub, where she came in contact with "Sweet Tea" Bunn. When that led to a sexual encounter that Megan insisted was not consensual -- at Bunn's mansion -- she discovered that UA's interest in her did not go far beneath the surface. In the Rondini vs. Bunn match, Megan never had a chance; Tuscaloosa elites sided heavily with Bunn.
Ultimately, Megan Rondini lost her life because of the indifference that lurks throughout the city and university hierarchy. Other potential UA students from out of state might want to think twice about that before falling for the university's entreaties.