UA BOT Member On Dr. Ray Watts, UAB Football Controversy

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Supporters of UAB Football have vowed to protest when the Trustees meet in Birmingham this Thursday and Friday, February 5 and 6. Read the meeting agenda here.

University of Alabama Birmingham President Ray Watts has been under fire since he announced in December that he was ending the school’s football, bowling and rifle programs. Watts has said the dissolution of the football program was his decision alone, but some of his critics suspect he was carrying out the wishes of the University of Alabama Board of Trustees.

For WBHM, Greg Bass speaks with Board of Trustees member Finis St. John of Cullman about the controversy and the role of the Board of Trustees in the life of UAB.

Interview Highlights

Greg Bass, WBHM: University presidents answer to the Board of Trustees, as does the chancellor. Who do trustees answer to?

Finis St. John:The trustees answer to the people of Alabama. We have a responsibility under the constitution to manage the university system. We understand that it’s a great responsibility because what we’re working with is the people’s money — money that comes from students and their parents and from taxpayers — and our goal is to create the most outstanding higher education system that we possibly can for the people of Alabama.

WBHM: Let’s talk about some of the recent events surrounding the UAB football program. In 2011, you wrote a letter to National Alumni Society urging UAB to focus on health care funding and put aside notion of building on-campus stadium, part of your argument was a lack of financial support for the football program. A similar argument used by Dr. Watts to end program. Based on your letter and the boards opposition to a stadium at UAB — can you see how public might think that Board of Trustees is involved in the day-to-day decision making of the university?

Finis St. John: Well I certainly understand the anxiety and the pain that some of these decisions have caused to the people involved, in particular I understand the disruption that it’s caused to the players and many of the supporters. I would emphasize that we know and Dr. Watts knows that it’s not their fault — they gave everything they could to their school and their team and we understand that.

Dr. Watts has a very complex job and he has to focus on more than just a single program, but on the entire University, and I think he has done an admirable job of trying to do that. He is a fine person, I’ve been particularly unhappy to see the personal attacks on him because I know Dr. Watts well. He’s a man of the city, he was raised here, he was valedictorian of his high school, he was a valedictorian at UAB where he went to college, he is an accomplished doctor…he was the unanimous choice of a broad-based search committee represented by students, faculty, leaders in Birmingham, and trustees to be the university. So I understand the difficulty that this issue has caused, and I hope that people will take a step back and consider the facts behind this decision and try to understand all sides of it.

WBHM: According to another press report, the UAB search committee charged with finding a new football coach felt they had to run selection by trustees Paul Bryant Jr and you. Is it customary for the board to be involved in personnel decisions at this level?

Finis St. John: That would be regular in a normal course of business. Paul Bryant was president pro tem at that time, I was chairman of athletics committee of the board at that time, and to inform us of a decision like that would be completely normal. That’s not to say that the athletic director or anyone else asked us who to hire or sought that information but it would be in our regular practice it would be very normal for that to occur.

WBHM: Representative Jack Williams wants to form a separate board for UAB. He’s calling for an investigation of the board of trustees. Chancellor Witt called Williams allegations reckless. What’s your response to Jack Williams?

Finis St. John: I know Representative Williams, I know he cares a great deal about the football program at UAB, I respect his opinion, I would disagree that there’s anything improper that’s occurred on the board. Anyone here understands facts of how we operate would know that some of the allegations that have been thrown around are absurd and couldn’t have happened. But we certainly respect him for his position in the legislature. We happen to disagree with him about governance of our university system. We think its governed well by the independent board of trustees, and would be governed not as well if it were turned over to legislature. But we want to work with him and other elected officials in Birmingham and around the state, we want to communicate well and we want to work together-because we all have the same goals.

WBHM: What can the Board of Trustees do to improve its relationship with the UAB community?

Finis St. John: We can listen and we can communicate, and we intend to do that. We have always tried to do that and we will continue to do that. I know that our pro tem Karen Brooks intends to appoint committees of board to meet with interested groups and individuals at UAB about these ongoing issues. Because we have no higher priority than that. We want to be open-minded. We want to listen, but I hope that people will understand that the board has the same goals that everyone at UAB, UA in Tuscaloosa and UAH has. And that is for best educational system of higher ed that we can offer our state.