The new president of Alabama State University comes across assomeone who loves her alma mater, who is proud of its legitimateaccomplishments, but who recognizes its faults -- and who plans to do somethingabout them.
Gwendolyn Boyd's plan to turn the ASU ship in a more positivedirection faces its first real test later this week when the university's boardof trustees meets to consider her plan to streamline a bloated administrativestructure.
"These aren't things that we need to think about; these arethings we have to do," she said of her proposed reorganization.
In a wide-ranging interview with WSFA news staff members thisweek, Boyd focused on the university's fiscal problems and the need to addressthem swiftly and sufficiently. She was especially concerned about adowngrading of the university's bond rating by Moody's Investor Service inJanuary.
Moody's said the downgrade "reflects the weakening financialhealth of the university as evidenced by five years of declining cash andinvestments" and "leadership, management and governance challengesand lack of best practices which we believe will make return to financialstability in the short term more challenging." The downgrade also cited anegative outlook for ASU's financial situation because of "expectationsfor further resource erosion."
In other words, ASU's financial situation is bad, it is expectedto get worse, and ASU's leadership and management practices prior to hiringBoyd were a big part of the problem.
To address those issues, Boyd has proposed a new reorganizationchart for the university that would eliminate the jobs of several vicepresidents, including the executive vice president position now held bypolitically powerful state Rep. John Knight. Knight has said he plans to retirelater this year.
Boyd emphasized that she has talked about the need to address theissues raised by Moody's since her interview process for the presidential post.
"We have to look at our leadership structure," she said."We have to be more lean, we have to be more critical in looking at wherewe are as an institution, such as the size of the institution vs. the number ofpeople that we have in leadership."
The proposed reorganization chart is so obviously an improvementover the old one that the public might think that getting the board of trusteesto endorse it would be a slam dunk. But this is the ASU board, and nothingcomes easy with some of its members.
Consider that the chairman of the trustees, Elton Dean, seemedmore concerned about how the reorganization plan was presented than about itscontents. Dean questioned why the plan was submitted to a committee of trusteesin a meeting open to the public instead of being run by trustees for theirinput prior to its being made public.
But that's part of the problem at ASU. Some board members have ahistory of meddling with the day-to-day operation of the administration insteadof focusing on the board's real purpose of setting policy. There already is anongoing investigation of allegations of sweetheart deals for the families andfriends of some board members.
It is proper for university presidents -- and schoolsuperintendents and other public officials who work for boards -- to presentproposed administrative changes to the appropriate committees of the full board.But running such changes by board members secretly ahead of time for theirinput and proposed changes comes close to crossing the line into a violation ofthe state's open meetings act, which requires deliberations of publicbodies to be done in public except in narrow, specified circumstances.
In other words, there was nothing wrong and a lot right with Boydpresenting her plan to the appropriate trustee committee and to the public atthe same time. The trustees will have the opportunity for input at the fullboard meeting, which is the proper venue.
Boyd's openness and transparency should be applauded, notcriticized.
The public should demand that the board of trustees fully andunequivocally support Boyd's reorganization plan. In addition, the publicshould hope that the trustees make it clear that they support further reformsat ASU to make the university's management more open and efficient.
Boyd said this week that the reorganization is just the "firststep, or phase one, of many things, many things that have to happen in order toget us where we need to be."
She said that ASU has to take Moody's criticisms seriously. "Wehave the potential for another downgrade if we don't show them we are movingforward, we are paying attention, we are being lean, and we are looking at ourfinances."
And it's not just the bond rating organizations that have to betaken into account. The university's accrediting agency, the SouthernAssociation of Colleges and Schools, also has asked questions about managementissues at ASU. Many members of the Legislature, upon which ASU depends for muchof its funding, have questions about management and accountability at theuniversity. Most importantly, ASU must rebuild its credibility with alumni andthe taxpaying public.
Trustees have already run off a president after only three monthson the job, paying him $685,000 in public money to resign. If they do notsupport this new president in her first major initiative, it will set adangerous precedent.
Gov. Robert Bentley, who has said he is in Boyd's corner, ispresident of the ASU trustees (as well as other boards of public colleges). Heneeds to be there to preside over this crucial board meeting to support Boyd.
But with or without the governor, the trustees need to supportBoyd's plan -- and they need to do so enthusiastically to send a message thatthey welcome future reforms as well.
Otherwise, ASU's financial tailspin easily could get worse.
Ken Hare was a longtime Alabama newspaper editorial writer andeditorial page editor who now writes a regular column for WSFA's web site.Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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