Birmingham-Southern’s Struggles: a Student Perspective

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When students return to Birmingham-Southern College next week, they’ll find a school that’s $10 million in debt and has a new interim president. Budget cuts also forced the elimination of 51 faculty and staff positions and five majors including dance, French, and (ironically) accounting. We sent WBHM intern and BSC student Collin Kurre to gauge the response of her fellow students.

Here’s a list of things college students get excited about: Free food. Themed parties (where nobody actually dresses up). Road trips. Know what’s not on the list? College finance issues.

In general, parents are much more interested in the events unfolding at Birmingham-Southern than their college-aged kids like me. We’re just trying to soak up the last week of summer vacation. I’m not saying there aren’t students who are paying attention, because there are. Lindsey Motlow (double major in physics and music technology) is feeling the effects firsthand. The music department is one of the areas that took deep cuts.

“I came to Birmingham-Southern last minute because I thought that it would give me the most opportunities post-grad in pursuing this weird area of interest that I’m so passionate about. But right now it looks like if I graduate from Birmingham-Southern, not only will I not have a degree that will really help me, or an education that will help me in the area that I want to study, I’ve lost my connections to work after graduation.”

The connections Lindsey’s talking about came through professors who are no longer at Birmingham-Southern either because their positions were eliminated or they’ve chosen to leave. This situation is familiar to Kent Chabotar, who is kind of a secret weapon for turning college finances around. Chabotar is currently the president of Guilford College, a liberal arts school in North Carolina that faced a similar financial crisis a couple of years ago.

“They can tell you that we’re laying off 10 people, or we’re not filling 20 positions, and they can talk about half of them in the academic program, etc. But they’re not going to be able to tell you that Professor Jones left because of X, Y, or Z reasons. That’s simply not going to get done and that fuels the suspicion of well why did they go, and the hurt of my favorite professor is leaving and I don’t know why. So it really puts the school in a bad position by not being able to comment, but that’s just how it is.”

The faculty and academic cuts at Birmingham-Southern have obviously changed some current students’ academic road maps. But I wondered if it would affect prospective students considering BSC. Meg Ratliff is a senior at Vestavia Hills High School. She has ‘Southern at the top of her list.

“I really like it. I just loved the atmosphere, the teachers, the faculty, how you could go with professors and research with them, I think that would be really cool, that you couldn’t really do with huge classes at Alabama or Auburn.”

Meg’s mother, Peggy Ratliff is a bit less confident about Meg’s future at Birmingham-Southern.

“You read in the newspaper how everything is just so negative, ‘Birmingham Southern’s not going to be around,’ and it really gave us pause whether we were even going to let her apply for it, and it’s where she really wants to go.”

Peggy’s not the only parent with reservations. But according to Don Stewart, local artist and BSC Class of ’81, the benefits of a Hilltop education outweigh the costs. He’s got one son at ‘Southern and another on the way.

“I can tell you what I have been telling other parents who are in that position. The education is worth twice what it costs right now. If there’s any way they can come up with that money, it would be a worthy investment.”

No one can guarantee that another financial crisis won’t happen. But Kent Chabotar, the college finance guru, says transparency is the key to long-term success.

“For example, you’re driving a truck down a mountain road and the windshield’s blacked out. All I’m suggesting is take the flack off the windshield so it’s clear. It’s not going to mean that you’re not going to come to more hairpin turns, but at least you’re going to see where you’re going next time a lot better than you do now.”

Recently Birmingham-Southern has taken steps towards increasing transparency. The Board of Trustees released a statement addressing both the causes and effects of the current situation.

But to be honest, I probably wouldn’t have read it if it weren’t for this story. I’m sure when classes start next week and students make their way back to campus, there will be more speculation, more gossip, and more involvement from the student body. But until then, I, like the rest of ‘Southern students, will be savoring the last moments of summer.