Friday, May 22, 2015

Will UA trustees gut undergraduate programs at UAB and UAH to help pay off massive debt in Tuscaloosa?

UAB campus
The University of Alabama Board of Trustees plans to address a debt of almost $1 billion by gutting undergraduate programs at UAB and UAH, according to a report from an associate professor at a Southeastern Conference school.

A misguided growth program at the Tuscaloosa campus is "unsustainable," according to the report, and the killing of UAB football is the first step toward turning the Birmingham campus into mostly a medical school, with the campus in Huntsville designated for math and science programs only.

Students who want a comprehensive undergraduate experience will have to go to the campus in Tuscaloosa--to help bail trustees out of a spiraling debt.

John Knox, an Alabama native and UAB mathematics graduate, is an associate professor of geography at the University of Georgia. He has shown that UA has "non-current liabilities"--mostly long-term debt--of $951.8 million, up 169 percent in just five years. Knox says the debt bubble likely will burst, leaving a nightmarish mess at the feet of Alabama taxpayers.

How did this happen? Knox traces it to a growth plan that UA President Robert Witt (now chancellor of the UA System) launched in 2003, built largely on recruitment of out-of-state students, with the goal of turning UA into a top-tier research institution. The plan coincides with Paul Bryant Jr.'s rise to power on the Board of Trustees, beginning in 2000--and Knox says it is failing miserably.

Enrollment at the Tuscaloosa campus shot up by 126 percent from 1982 to 2014, while the population of Alabama rose only 24 percent during that period. Where did those students come from? Mostly from out of state, and recruiting students from faraway places is expensive. That was a key factor in fueling the current debt.

With the Witt/Bryant initiative about to implode, a scheme was developed behind the scenes to deal with the debt. Knox received a message several months ago from a UA insider that let him in on the plan. In part, the message read:

"The hidden agenda is to focus UAB as medical school only, UAH as math and science only . . . (board of trustees) presidents have pushed this agenda . . . Deep pockets of trustees allow them to buy whatever they want."

Who provided this insight? Knox explains:

(It was) no less than a former member of the University of Alabama System Board of Trustees responding to my queries concerning Ray Watts and the imminent termination of football (and bowling, and rifle, as it turned out) at UAB. This source is the ultimate insider, who refuses to go public out of deep fear of retaliation.

From that moment forward, I knew that the battle for football at UAB was about much more than athletics. It is a last stand by Birmingham against those on the UA board who wish to crush autonomous public higher education in the Magic City.

In other words, Birmingham and Huntsville are supposed to pay the price for a bone-headed growth plan that originated in Tuscaloosa. Here is more perspective from Knox:

This debt is the result of a growth plan run amok at the Capstone, without any UA board restraint. Current UA System Chancellor Robert Witt created this plan as UA president in 2003, with dreams of UA at last becoming a tier-one research university, growing a larger student body, and serving the citizens of the state.

The plan didn't work. The research university dreams at UA have crashed and burned. Witt's big push barely moved the needle on the national ranking of UA among research universities (UA was a miserable 190th in the nation in research expenditures in 2013). I have recently learned through sources at the Capstone that there will soon be zero "hard money" funding for any college-based research centers or institutes on the UA campus, a tacit admission of failure.

UAH campus
Instead of research, the big bucks have been poured into metastatic growth for growth's sake, centered on extracurriculars, not academics. To try to cover the ensuing debt, UA has gone after out-of-state tuition payers with such vigor that the Capstone's dearth of Alabamians has become national news. But without steadily increasing out-of-state tuition revenues, the debt will be unsustainable—the Moody's reports on recent bond issues for UA imply as much.

Is there any chance the Witt/Bryant growth plan could work out in the end? Knox says it isn't likely:

How bad is the situation? A respected academic colleague at another flagship university with inside knowledge of the situation in Tuscaloosa gave me his assessment: " . . . a very unsustainable model . . . they are driving 100 mph toward a brick wall."

How can Witt, Bryant, and their Tuscaloosa cronies avoid crashing into the brick wall? By gutting UAB and UAH, Knox reports:

This is where the over 17,000 undergraduates at the Birmingham and Huntsville campuses likely come in. UA needs more in-state undergraduates to maintain the illusion of a commitment to the state of Alabama and keep the state's power-brokers happy. How many more in-staters are needed? A lot—because at the same time, UA is going to have to keep bringing in even more out-of-staters to try to grow its revenues faster than its spiraling debt. Where could UA magically find thousands upon thousands of in-state students to enroll? The perfect solution: Shut down UAB and UAH at the undergraduate level and herd those students to Tuscaloosa. Judging from the current mission statements of UAB and UAH that curiously omit the word "undergraduate," this plan has been in the works for a while. My trustee source confirms this.

A reasonable person might say, "But UAB and UAH have been extraordinarily successful campuses--driving economic growth, bringing in research dollars, offering top-notch educational opportunities in metropolitan centers. No way the UA System could shut them down."

Knox's reply: Don't be so sure about that.

Could a Board of Trustees be so short-sighted and venal as to contemplate the gutting of two universities in order to pay off the irresponsible billion-dollar debt of a third? This is Alabama. Yes.

In summary, the decisions made at UAB during the past six months regarding athletics, by a president servile to the UA board are the beginning of the end of UAB as we know it. Sports will go first, followed by the undergraduate programs.

In doing so, the board is killing the goose that has laid the golden eggs.


Anonymous said...

People in Birmingham and Huntsville had better take this seriously.

Anonymous said...

It's time for the people of Alabama to take back our university. It belongs to us, and we've entrusted it to some bad eggs.

Capn Blazer said...

John Knox should be next president of UAB.

e.a.f. said...

when campuses shut it turns some areas into virtual waste lands. Jobs and spin off jobs leave the area.

if the university were smarter they would simply recruit in Communist China, increase tuition fees and make the money there for a few years. There are 35 Million, millionaires in Communist China and they'd love for their kids to have that western education. In B.C. some schools boards count on foreign students to make the extra money their districts need.