The University of Florida defeated Oklahoma 24-14 last night to win the national championship of college football. It was the Gators' second title in three years, and Coach Urban Meyer is the toast of the college-football world.
But the man who really deserves credit for Florida's success on the gridiron is university president Bernard Machen. And Bernard Machen should have been the president at my former employer, the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB).
As we noted in a recent post, UAB has been experiencing a crisis of leadership that dates to Charles A. McCallum's resignation as president in 1993. With the exception of Paul Hardin, a retired University of North Carolina chancellor who served as interim president at UAB in 1997, the Birmingham campus has seen a series of wretched presidents, topped off by the current lapdog, Carol Garrison.
UAB has suffered through 15-plus years of lousy leadership because of a string of stupendously bad decisions by the University of Alabama Board of Trustees. And the worst of those decisions was the failure to hire Bernard Machen.
First, some background about the University of Alabama System: The three-campus system is run by a board and chancellor's office that are based in Tuscaloosa. The "mother campus" (Roll Tide Roll!) is in Tuscaloosa, with a campus in Birmingham (once known mainly for its hospital and medical center) and a campus in Huntsville (once known mainly for its science and technology programs).
UAB and UAH have evolved into comprehensive urban universities, and UAB even has Division-I athletics and a football team (Go Blazers!). But it's a poorly kept secret that most of the board members know little, and care less, about the Birmingham and Huntsville campuses. With two or three exceptions at any one time, the board members have thoroughly crimson blood.
That might help explain why the board has done such a horrific job of hiring presidents for UAB, even though the university and its biomedical-research enterprise are the keys to Alabama's economic future. In fact, UAB brings in more research funding than the University of Alabama and Auburn University combined.
But the UA Board of Trustees evidently cannot be bothered to hire an actual leader for the state's largest employer, in the state's largest city.
UAB's decline started with the failure to hire Bernard Machen. And yours truly had a front-row seat for the sideshow. Follow me through this travelogue of incompetence in higher education.
McCallum resigned as UAB president in 1993, apparently fed up with grief he was receiving from the board for approving the formation of a football program in Birmingham.
J. Claude Bennett, a Birmingham native who was widely respected for his leadership of UAB's Department of Medicine (the largest academic department in the state), seemed to be a logical choice as president. But Bennett proved to be a flop in that position. He appointed a number of administrators who could charitably be called "hatchetmen," promoting widespread unrest on the campus. Someone finally pointed out that Bennett was using state employees to work at his personal residence--Oops--and so he was quietly shown the door.
Hardin, a lawyer by training, did a splendid job as interim president in 1997, and my understanding is that many influential folks begged him to stay on. But he was getting up in years and did not want to be a full-time college administrator anymore.
So UAB conducted a national search that came down to two candidates--W. Ann Reynolds, chancellor of City University of New York (CUNY) and Bernard Machen, provost at the University of Michigan.
The choice seemed clearcut. Reynolds had an impressive resume, but she also had a history of causing uproars on several campuses. Word was that she had gone through something like 18 secretaries in a short time at CUNY. I later heard from a trusted source in human resources at UAB that those stories were true, give or take a secretary or two.
Meanwhile, Machen appeared to be a perfect fit. He is a dentist by training, and UAB has one of the top dental schools in the country. UAB has a tradition of strong dentist/leaders. Both McCallum and Joseph Volker, UAB's first president, rose to the top spot through the School of Dentistry.
Machen reportedly had family in the South, and that made the UAB job particularly attractive to him. In the Publications Office, where I worked, word was that it was a done deal--Machen would be UAB's new president. We were so sure of it that we did not even attend Reynolds' public interview session with the board. I was right there on the front row for the Machen session, sure I was hearing from our next president.
But in a classic case of snatching defeat from the jaws of victory, the UA board hired Reynolds. How could this decision get screwed up so badly? Here's what a trusted source told me:
Michigan was going through a tumultuous stretch at the time, and Machen had been pretty much holding the campus together, handling two or three jobs over several months. The UAB interviews were in the spring, and when board members asked Machen when he could start, he made the mistake of being honest. Machen reportedly said the heavy workload at Michigan had left him tired, and he would like to take some time to recharge his batteries before starting at UAB. Plus, he had a number of loose ends to tie up at Ann Arbor. Machen suggested that he start at UAB in the fall, around the time the school year started.
When asked the same question, Reynolds said she could start right away. In fact, she couldn't wait to get to UAB. Of course that was because, according to reports at the time, she was about to be ousted at CUNY.
According to my source, board members said something like, "This guy from Michigan sounds worn out. We need this energetic gal from New York."
And so Ann Reynolds was hired as president of UAB. Perhaps the only worse personnel decision of the past 25 years was the "election" of George W. Bush over Al Gore in 2000.
What was the fallout of the Reynolds hire? After running through umpteen secretaries at UAB, alienating large chunks of the campus community, and allowing research fraud to become rampant, she was finally shown the door. As a parting gift, she sued the UA System for gender and age discrimination.
And Machen? He went on to serve with distinction as president of the University of Utah for six years. While in Salt Lake City, Machen hired a football coach named Urban Meyer who turned the Utes into a national power. In fact, in a bit of delicious irony, Utah recently kicked Alabama's butt in the 2009 Sugar Bowl.
Machen became Florida's president in 2004 and promptly hired Meyer to lead the Gators. Two national championships later, things look pretty rosy in Gainesville.
Let's make one important point: I'm a sports guy, and I've written professionally about sports for 30-plus year. I maintain a keen interest in UAB's sports program, even though the university screwed me out of my job.
But even I know that Bernard Machen's status as a university president is not based on football championships. It's based on academics and leadership, and Machen has a sterling reputation in both areas. Student applications and research grants have risen steadily at Florida, and Machen oversaw similar growth at Utah. The only bad thing I can find about him is that he endorsed John McCain for president. Ugh!
As for UAB, it's left with a sock puppet named Carol Garrison for president. The university is awash in research fraud and HR problems, and numerous top-flight faculty members have hit the exits in recent years. University computers are being used to send bigoted and racist e-mail messages, and UAB apparently has done little about it.
But the UA board evidently has the kind of president it wants. When UAB was hiring a football coach, it wanted to hire highly regarded LSU assistant Jimbo Fisher (now head-coach-in-waiting at Florida State). Instead, the board wanted UA graduate Neil Callaway to get the job, and Garrison caved in. (By the way, I follow UAB football and happen to think the Blazers lucked out with Callaway. A former assistant at the University of Georgia, Alabama, and Auburn, I think he is doing a good job at UAB, and I like him personally.)
I suspect a similar process took place with my termination. Evidence strongly suggests that Governor Bob Riley and U.S. Attorney Alice Martin did not like the contents of my blog--which UAB's own investigation showed I was writing with my own time and resources. Someone connected to Riley/Martin probably complained to someone on the board--Riley is ex oficio president of the board--and pressured Garrison to fire me without anything remotely close to just cause.
Hopefully, someone at the UAB Medical Center can perform a spine transplant on Carol Garrison someday.
As for UAB athletics, one can only wonder how much farther along Blazer sports would be if Bernard Machen had been hired as president. Heck, Urban Meyer might have been UAB's football coach.
And here's a thought: If Machen had been hired at UAB, I think he might still be here. Florida certainly is an impressive institution, but in terms of research funding, UAB does not take a backseat to many schools. Only the University of North Carolina and Duke University receive more federal research dollars in the South than UAB.
Also, Florida had an advantage in recruiting Machen away from Utah. He has roots in the South, and that probably was a factor in him leaving Utah.
But if Machen had been hired at UAB, he already would have been in the South. Would UAB have been able to fight off Florida in a bidding war for Machen's services? I think it would have been possible.
It's hard to calculate how much better off UAB would be--not to mention Birmingham and Alabama--if Bernard Machen had been hired when the UA board had the chance.
Alabama's loss is Florida's gain.