The new president of Alabama State University comes across as someone who loves her alma mater, who is proud of its legitimate accomplishments, but who recognizes its faults -- and who plans to do something about them.
Gwendolyn Boyd's plan to turn the ASU ship in a more positive direction faces its first real test later this week when the university's board of trustees meets to consider her plan to streamline a bloated administrative structure.
"These aren't things that we need to think about; these are things we have to do," she said of her proposed reorganization.
In a wide-ranging interview with WSFA news staff members this week, Boyd focused on the university's fiscal problems and the need to address them swiftly and sufficiently. She was especially concerned about a downgrading of the university's bond rating by Moody's Investor Service in January.
Moody's said the downgrade "reflects the weakening financial health of the university as evidenced by five years of declining cash and investments" and "leadership, management and governance challenges and lack of best practices which we believe will make return to financial stability in the short term more challenging." The downgrade also cited a negative outlook for ASU's financial situation because of "expectations for further resource erosion."
In other words, ASU's financial situation is bad, it is expected to get worse, and ASU's leadership and management practices prior to hiring Boyd were a big part of the problem.
To address those issues, Boyd has proposed a new reorganization chart for the university that would eliminate the jobs of several vice presidents, including the executive vice president position now held by politically powerful state Rep. John Knight. Knight has said he plans to retire later this year.
Boyd emphasized that she has talked about the need to address the issues 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 where we are as an institution, such as the size of the institution vs. the number of people that we have in leadership."
The proposed reorganization chart is so obviously an improvement over the old one that the public might think that getting the board of trustees to endorse it would be a slam dunk. But this is the ASU board, and nothing comes easy with some of its members.
Consider that the chairman of the trustees, Elton Dean, seemed more concerned about how the reorganization plan was presented than about its contents. Dean questioned why the plan was submitted to a committee of trustees in a meeting open to the public instead of being run by trustees for their input prior to its being made public.
But that's part of the problem at ASU. Some board members have a history of meddling with the day-to-day operation of the administration instead of focusing on the board's real purpose of setting policy. There already is an ongoing investigation of allegations of sweetheart deals for the families and friends of some board members.
It is proper for university presidents -- and school superintendents and other public officials who work for boards -- to present proposed administrative changes to the appropriate committees of the full board. But running such changes by board members secretly ahead of time for their input and proposed changes comes close to crossing the line into a violation of the state's open meetings act, which requires deliberations of public bodies to be done in public except in narrow, specified circumstances.
In other words, there was nothing wrong and a lot right with Boyd presenting her plan to the appropriate trustee committee and to the public at the same time. The trustees will have the opportunity for input at the full board meeting, which is the proper venue.
Boyd's openness and transparency should be applauded, not criticized.
The public should demand that the board of trustees fully and unequivocally support Boyd's reorganization plan. In addition, the public should hope that the trustees make it clear that they support further reforms at ASU to make the university's management more open and efficient.
Boyd said this week that the reorganization is just the "first step, or phase one, of many things, many things that have to happen in order to get us where we need to be."
She said that ASU has to take Moody's criticisms seriously. "We have the potential for another downgrade if we don't show them we are moving forward, we are paying attention, we are being lean, and we are looking at our finances."
And it's not just the bond rating organizations that have to be taken into account. The university's accrediting agency, the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, also has asked questions about management issues at ASU. Many members of the Legislature, upon which ASU depends for much of its funding, have questions about management and accountability at the university. Most importantly, ASU must rebuild its credibility with alumni and the taxpaying public.
Trustees have already run off a president after only three months on the job, paying him $685,000 in public money to resign. If they do not support this new president in her first major initiative, it will set a dangerous precedent.
Gov. Robert Bentley, who has said he is in Boyd's corner, is president of the ASU trustees (as well as other boards of public colleges). He needs to be there to preside over this crucial board meeting to support Boyd.
But with or without the governor, the trustees need to support Boyd's plan -- and they need to do so enthusiastically to send a message that they welcome future reforms as well.
Otherwise, ASU's financial tailspin easily could get worse.
Ken Hare was a longtime Alabama newspaper editorial writer and editorial page editor who now writes a regular column for WSFA's web site. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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