Dr. Ray Watts officially was named president last week of the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB), the largest employer in our state and the No. 1 driver of economic activity in the metro area. Watts had been dean of the UAB School of Medicine before taking over for Carol Garrison, who abruptly and mysteriously resigned last August.
What challenges does Watts face in his new role? As a former UAB employee, with almost 20 years of service, I have a few thoughts on that question. And I decided to share them in an open letter to the school's new chief executive.
February 12, 2013
Dear Dr. Watts:
I used to think being president of UAB would be a pretty cool job. I became an admirer of the university quickly after moving to Birmingham from Missouri in 1978. I covered the early years of the Blazers athletics program under Gene Bartow for the now-defunct Birmingham Post-Herald and went on to work at the university in a variety of editorial position for almost 20 years. My employment came to an end in May 2008 when I was unlawfully terminated from my job by various forces under your predecessor, Carol Garrison.
That experience taught me a number of inconvenient truths about UAB that I wish I had never known. And it's why I do not envy you in the task that lies ahead.
The cold truth is that Garrison's reign was not just unpleasant for me; it was an unmitigated disaster for UAB as a whole. I chronicled some of the malfeasance and incompetence that took place on her watch in a post titled "UAB Dysfunction Doesn't Happen in a Vacuum."
Perhaps Garrison's greatest failing was that she allowed a culture of fraud to take over the campus. The place is riddled with liars, cheats, and other bad actors. I submit that your No. 1 task will be to root out moral decay and restore a sense of integrity on the Southside.
Am I overstating the problem? Well, consider a couple of examples from my own experience.
Evidence at my grievance hearing showed there were no grounds for discipline of any kind, much less immediate termination. In fact, UAB's own committee found I should not have been terminated. But Garrison upheld the termination anyway. Indisputable evidence shows I was fired not because of any misconduct or performance issues on my part, but because I was reporting on this blog (on my own time, with my own resources) about the political prosecution of former Governor Don Siegelman--and that apparently was a hot topic that was not to be publicly discussed, even though I had a First Amendment right to do so.
Am I imagining all of this? Not in the least. A UAB human-resources official admitted to me in a tape-recorded phone conversation that I was targeted because of my reporting on the Siegelman case. You can hear the conversation in a video at the end of this post.
Here is where we get to moral decay, and it's apparent in an employment lawsuit I filed against the UA Board of Trustees and various individuals at UAB: The same woman who admitted I was targeted because of the reporting on the Siegelman case, denied in an affidavit that I was terminated because of my blog. At least four other UAB employees who had reason to know the truth made similar untruthful statements under oath. As I'm sure you know, their actions amount to perjury, which is a felony.
The ugliness does not end there. William M. Acker Jr., an 85-year-old federal judge in Birmingham, granted summary judgment without giving me an opportunity to conduct discovery. That cannot be done under the law, and everyone with three days of law school knows it. How gross is Acker's misconduct? It would be the equivalent of a doctor giving a patient strychnine instead of aspirin.
But why should this concern you? Individuals in the UAB Office of Counsel, led by John Daniel and Lisa Huggins, have to know that Acker ruled unlawfully in a way that benefits the university. In fact, a strong argument can be made that Acker engaged in criminal conduct, and this is spelled out at 18 U.S.C. 242 ("Deprivation of Rights Under Color of Law") and a 1997 U.S. Supreme Court case styled United States v. Lanier.
Did Daniel and Huggins knowingly engage in a conspiracy to violate Section 242 on UAB's behalf? If so, they and the university could have serious problems on their hands.
If you are like most medical folks I've met at UAB, your primary concerns center around biomedical research funding and revenue from patient care. But you have inherited a situation that involves criminal conduct on the part of UAB personnel, and you would be wise not to ignore it.
Carol Garrison was like a lax parent who allowed 5 year olds to play with matches. You didn't create this situation, but it's your responsibility now. If you don't handle it properly, you might find flames--and the law--licking at your heels.
UAB desperately needs new leadership. Garrison was preceded by two other failed presidents--W. Ann Reynolds and J. Claude Bennett. That means UAB has been running in place, at best, for more than 15 years.
You clearly are a man of strong scientific credentials. But your presidency probably will be judged by your ability to restore integrity to UAB. Consider this quote from Theodore Roosevelt:
"Unless a man is honest we have no right to keep him in public life; it matters not how brilliant his capacity; it hardly matters how great his power of doing good service on certain lines may be. . . . No man who is corrupt, no man who condones corruption in others, can possibly do his duty by the community."
I hope you will take those words to heart. I also hope you will prove to be the president that gets UAB back on the right track.
Roger Shuler (aka "Legal Schnauzer")
Here is direct evidence of the moral decay that has become rampant at UAB: