BSC’s Daniel Coleman talks about his years-long effort to save the school and what happens next.

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Birmingham-Southern College President Daniel Colemen

Birmingham-Southern College President Daniel Colemen

Cameron Carnes, Birmingham-Southern College

Earlier this week, Birmingham-Southern College President Daniel Coleman hurriedly put together a meeting of the college’s Trustees. A new bill that could provide the financially-strapped school with a loan from the state had passed the Alabama Senate, but had been stalled in the House for about three weeks.

Called the Distressed Institutions of Higher Education Revolving Loan Program, the bill is actually a revision of a law passed last year. Among other changes, it would give oversight of the program to the Alabama Commission on Higher Education, taking it away from State Treasurer Young Boozer.

Last year, Boozer denied Birmingham-Southern a series of loans, totaling $30 million, saying the school did not meet the minimum criteria the state requires. School officials disputed the finding and took Boozer to court. But, the case was dismissed, with the judge finding that the law put the state treasurer in charge of the program. 

Because of poor decisions and bad timing, the college had been faced with a lack of funds since the Great Recession. Coleman and the BSC community had been fighting for years to find a way to get the school back on sound financial footing.

The new version of the bill was seen as the nearly 170-year-old school’s last chance to remain open, at least through the next school year. Then, Tuesday, with the trustees assembled in Birmingham, some flying in from across the country, Coleman delivered the news.

The bill was dead. Opposition centered on how some lawmakers thought the loan had become more of a grant and worried that the bill, if it became law, would open the floodgates on private colleges wanting a handout from the state.

Coleman and the trustees made the decision to close the college at the end of May, and called a meeting for later that afternoon with the rest of the campus community. Coleman said later that he regrets having to make the announcement this week — during spring break, when most students are away — but he felt it couldn’t wait.

The meeting was closed to the press, but as director of Birmingham-Southern’s Southern Environmental Center, Roald Hazeloff was in attendance.

“Daniel Coleman got a standing ovation,” Hazeloff said of the moment when Coleman made the announcement the school would close. “It was a very, touching moment, because he has fought with all his willpower and all his intellectual means.”

Hazelohoff took a breath, then continued.

“I mean, that man must have lived on two hours sleep. Amazing. So, the fact that, even as he announced his bad news, to get that kind of response from faculty and staff, it was very telling.”

By Wednesday, Coleman looked exhausted. He explained he was disappointed and still processing the announcement about the closing.

When asked about the standing ovation, he could barely speak through the tears.

“It made me feel appreciated for a very, very, very difficult two years. And it’s important because, you know, the people that did that, they’re going to lose their jobs.”

He took a drink of water, gathering himself.

“The fight the board, myself, and the senior leadership team … we fought for them and for our students and for the future of the college. And so, I really appreciated that.”

Closing was the exact outcome Coleman had worked so hard to prevent for the five years he’d led the college. Now, with the decision made, he spoke to WBHM’s Richard Banks to explain some of what had happened and what happens next.

The following interview was edited for time and clarity.

What’s happening here at the school, while you prepare to close.

We look at it this way – our number one priority is placing our students, our first-year, sophomore, and juniors. We’ve got to make sure they’re placed at a college that’s good for them. And we’re going to work hard on that and try to get that done in the next few weeks. We have a lot of colleges calling us, offering to help. I just talked to the head of the UA system, the Chancellor of the UA System, and he’s been terrific. And I just think we have great students, and a lot of people will want them. But we’ve got to make sure they get settled as soon as possible. Our second priority is our faculty and staff. We have about 225 terrific people, about 80 faculty. And, we’ll look to try to get them placed as soon as possible. And then our third priority will be, settling our debts and selling the campus. And that will take a little while.

If you had the opportunity to do this again, would you do anything differently?

I think a lot about that, and it’s hard to see a different path, because when I became president, we had financial difficulties. We’ve been really in a distressed situation since 2010. All the presidents since then [and] I have done everything possible to keep things going. When I became president, I talked to the board and I said, “Look, we have to preserve our mission.” And our mission is to be a leading academic institution in the state. Our mission is to offer really personalized education, where we have very small classrooms, where faculty and students really get to know each other. It’s the best way to educate in my view, but it’s the most expensive way. But we had to hold on to that. We couldn’t just slash costs and turn into something that we’re not. We would have lost support, and we wouldn’t have provided the state with what I think we provided them for the last 160 years.

I think the elephant in the room is State Treasurer Young Boozer. It’s one thing to deny a loan application, but as [you’ve said before] he took a while to make his decision, and that delay hurt Birmingham-Southern’s ability to pivot, to continue to raise funds. Any thoughts on his actions?

You know, I look back on the actions, and we looked very carefully, and it’s hard to conclude that he did anything but push out the application to where we didn’t have any money and had limited options. So, you know, that’s really frustrating, and I’m not sure why he did that. But, there’s nothing to do about that right now. I just really try to focus on the people that stood up for us, and that gives me a much better feeling about our state and gives me hope for our state.

What do you think is going to happen to the campus?

We have 192 acres, 1.1 million square feet. It’s a fabulous campus. It’s a mile and a half from downtown Birmingham. It’s really important to this neighborhood. We have obligations to our creditors. We also have obligations in this neighborhood. And we’re going to do what we can to make sure we maximize sale price and bring someone here that that will keep this neighborhood going. And this neighborhood’s a great neighborhood, Bush Hills. And they’ve been terrific to us, and we want to make sure whoever owns this campus is a good tenant.

What have we missed? What else would you like to say?

I’m really sorry. I’m sorry for the state. I’m just, really sorry about this. I think the people who’ve gone here understand what just happened. I think it’ll take the state 5 to 10 years, but it’s a shame.

Editor’s Note:

Regarding State Treasurer Young Boozer’s denial of BSC’s loan application, Boozer previously told WBHM the school did not meet the minimum criteria the state requires. He declined to address other questions concerning the loan.

 

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