Thursday, September 17, 2009

University of Alabama Continues to Exhibit Clueless Leadership

The folks who run the University of Alabama System continue to look like a bunch of dolts.

The latest example? My former employer, the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB), apparently is not content to cheat people out of their jobs. Now UAB faces charges that it essentially stole intellectual property belonging to two local graphic artists. Interestingly, the case centers around UAB's Office of Public Relations and Marketing, where I worked before being unlawfully terminated.

The case also raises interesting questions about another lawsuit, one involving perhaps the best-known artist in Alabama--a man who has become synonymous with University of Alabama football. (More on that in a moment.)

Samuel and Amy Collins state in a federal lawsuit that UAB unlawfully used copyrighted illustrations in various print publications and on university Web sites. The Collinses cite roughly 250 instances where their illustrations were improperly used. Their complaint alleges copyright infringement and conversion, which is essentially a civil form of theft.

Defendants are the University of Alabama Board of Trustees (the legal entity for UAB), the UAB Health System Managing Board, and Ron Gamble, the director of UAB Creative Services.

I worked closely with Gamble for the past six or seven years. A couple of years ago, the managers in our office--including Gamble and my former supervisor, Director of Periodicals Pam Powell--became aflutter over this very issue.

It must have been around March 2007 because, according to the Collinses' lawsuit, that's when they notified Gamble that they had discovered one of their illustrations being used as the banner on the UAB Comprehensive Cancer Center Web site.

I can remember the editors in our group receiving cautionary notes about the use of copyrighted illustrations. Evidently someone wasn't cautious enough. The Collinses' complaint states that in September 2007 they discovered more than 200 of their illustrations on various UAB Web sites and publications, re-published or re-used beyond the scope of their respective licenses.

I'm not sure why Gamble is singled out as the only individual named in the lawsuit. I can think of several other folks, particularly Powell and Associate Vice President Dale Turnbough, who are responsible for UAB publications and Web sites--and should be held accountable in this case.

Gamble is one of many people at UAB who does real work--and does it well. It's possible Gamble screwed up in this situation. But based on my experience, my guess is that he was hampered, like everyone else in Public Relations and Marketing, by an utter lack of leadership from Dale Turnbough--and from her superior, Vice President Shirley Salloway Kahn. If the Collinses want to hold some individuals accountable, I hope they will look higher up the UAB food chain, beyond Ron Gamble.

God knows, I'm hardly a fan of Pam Powell at the moment. But she, too, operated under the handicap of lax leadership. In fact, Powell flat out told me that she didn't trust her UAB superiors to make a wise decision in naming her successor upon her retirement. That's one area where Powell and I agreed.

Turnbough and Kahn provide almost no oversight or support to those who work under them, and from where I sit, they are the ones who ultimately should be held accountable in the Collins lawsuit.

Come to think of it, I seem to recall seeing a memo from the UAB Office of Counsel about the issue of copyrighted images. That might explain this whole screwup. Based on what I've seen of University of Alabama lawyers, they would have to improve greatly to merit a comparison to The Three Stooges. If UA lawyers were involved, they probably are the source of the problem.

We will follow this case with great interest. The last time I checked the court file, UAB had filed its usual defense, claiming that its status as a state entity makes it immune from a lawsuit.

Interesting isn't it that an institution that rakes in more than $400 million a year in federal funds would claim that its immune from federal law? But UAB seems to do it almost every time it is sued. There are a number of exceptions to claims of sovereign and qualified immunity, and I suspect the Collinses' lawsuit will move forward--if they get a judge who is halfway honest, always a big if.

And what about that beloved artist we mentioned earlier. We are talking about Daniel Moore, who has become famed for his paintings of iconic moments in University of Alabama football. One can only imagine the number of dens and living rooms around Alabama that feature a Daniel Moore print.

In a baffling case of ineptitude and cluelessness, the University of Alabama Board of Trustees decided to sue Moore four years ago, claiming that he was improperly benefiting from use of the university's image. The case is ongoing, now on its sixth judge, and here is the latest.

Moore has filed a countersuit, and from where we sit, he clearly should prevail on First Amendment grounds.

The University of Alabama suing Daniel Moore is a little like the Catholic church suing Michelangelo. Few people on the planet have done more than Daniel Moore to portray the University of Alabama in a favorable light. And he is much loved by UA's supporters. So it makes lots of sense to sue him, right?

The Daniel Moore lawsuit might go down as one of the most ignorant legal maneuvers in history. But it's an example of the kind of short-sighted, ham-fisted thinking that rules in the University of Alabama System these days.

The Collins lawsuit--and my unlawful termination--are two other glaring examples. And there are others, including recent lawsuits involving longtime UAB faculty members, such as Susan Key, Rosalia Scripa, and Horace Huntley. And let's not forget lawsuits involving several international medical residents at the UAB family medicine training program in Huntsville--a subject we will be covering extensively in the coming weeks.

Now let's compare the Moore and Collins lawsuits for a moment. In one, the University of Alabama is hyper protective of its image. In the other, the University of Alabama says its perfectly fine to misuse images belonging to someone else.

See what I mean about ham-fisted thinking?

While we're at it, let's compare the Moore lawsuit to my unlawful termination. In one, the University of Alabama contends that Moore does not have a First Amendment right to create art based on public events. In the other, the University of Alabama apparently contends that an employee (me) does not have a First Amendment right to discuss matters of public concern on a blog that he produces on his own time.

Hey, at least university leaders are consistent on the First Amendment. They don't believe in it for anybody.

I don't know all of the facts and the law associated with the Moore and Collins cases. But I do know I'm going to be pulling for Moore and the Collinses to prevail big time.

If they do, perhaps that will help cause the people of Alabama to wake up and realize they need major changes in leadership at their flagship university.

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