Staff Reports

protest fireRW CMYKStudents and community members are questioning Watts' power after release of new documents (Photo by Sarah Adkins).For many members of the UAB community, Spring Break was no time for relaxing. On the morning of Monday, March 23, Alabama Representative Jack Williams, R-Vestavia Hills, called for President Ray L. Watts M.D.’s immediate resignation from his position as UAB President. Williams says that confidential documents that were released to his office by “someone with a conscience” indicate that the decision to terminate the UAB football program was finalized months before the announcement on Dec. 2.

That day, Alabama Media Group (AL.com) published over 120 pages of public relations documents, drafts and emails obtained and released by Williams that describe what led up to the disintegration of UAB’s football, bowling and rifle teams.

The Documents
The documents released on Monday morning disclose confidential drafts of time lines, talking points and answers to potential media questions—information that prompted Williams, as well as AL.com and the UAB Alumni Association, to ask for Watts’ resignation.

The bulk of the documents come from Sard Verbinnen and Company, a public relations firm out of New York, hired by UAB to give suggestions on a communications strategy for the announcement of the athletic cuts, and CarrSports Consulting, a search and management firm out of Florida that offers expertise in the area of collegiate sports and compiled the Carr Report that evaluated the cancellation of the football program.

The documents, including a draft of the Carr Report, date back to Sept. 3. “Therefore, in accordance with the University’s new strategic plan, UAB21, UAB Athletics’ strategic planning includes a rigorous evaluation of its appropriate NCAA Division I classification and sports sponsorship-including the possible elimination of Football,” the introduction of the report said.
Not only was the football program’s cancellation evaluated in early September, but also the process of cancelling the football team was to begin the week of August 11, 2014: before the football season started. Described as “Phase 1-Gaining Alignment on Messaging” by Sard Verbinnen, Carr Consulting was to send a “full summary of their findings” on Aug. 14, according to the Sard Verbinnen Task List found in the released documents. The same task list disclosed that the football team’s cancellation announcement was originally scheduled for Sept. 30 as well.

However, on Sept. 5, an email from Sard Verbinnen to Jim Bakken, UAB’s Director of Media Relations, proposed the Sept. 30 date as potentially problematic to football team morale and suggested to reveal the news at a later date, directly following the last regular season game against Southern Mississippi on November 29.

“After further review, and additional input received from Carr Consulting, we believe a post-season announcement on Sunday, December 1, 2014, or Tuesday, December 2, 2014, is the most suitable option to communicate the results of the Athletic department’s strategic review,” the email from Sard Verbinnen said.

On Dec. 2, 2014, Watts sent out a campus wide email revealing the news: “In order for us to more effectively reinvest in athletic programs that are most likely to bring growth, prolonged success and national prominence to UAB, the 2014-2015 academic year will be the final season for UAB football, bowling and rifle.”

In addition to the proposed dates found in the PR firm’s documents, a list of talking points for the Sept. 12, 2014, University of Alabama system Board of Trustees meeting, included a discussion of “UAB’s Athletic Plan Announcement.”

Topics listed in the confidential draft dated Sept. 12, include: “Focusing Resources around Sustainable Excellence,” “UAB Athletic Department is Facing Unique and Significant Challenges,” “Difficult Decisions but Taking the Right Steps for the Department as a Whole” and “We are Confident UAB will be Handling This Transition ‘The Right Way.’”
Within the second topic heading, a bullet point stated, “So we support the Athletic Department and administration’s decision to make 2014-2015 the final season for men’s football, and women’s rifle and bowling.”

Calls for resignation met by denial
In his statement on Monday, Williams said he believes that this information seems to contradict Watts’ insistence that the athletic department review was a part of an ongoing and “incomplete process,” in his November 6 statement. “The president is lying to the board, faculty, students, and the community at large…I call for Dr. Watts to resign,” said Williams. Watts quickly responded to Williams’ statement with an email addressed to UAB students, faculty and staff countering Williams’ “inaccurate accusations covered in the media”. He describes Williams’ statement as “reckless,” “categorically untrue” and containing “a number of inaccurate accusations” that need to be corrected.

He explains that the review of the athletic department was simply a part of the “campus-wide strategic planning process” he announced when he became president. After gathering all of the necessary information, he made the final decision to cut the football program in November, and “felt it was appropriate to wait until after the regular season to tell the team and the UAB family.”

Watts further points out that “it is common to prepare for potential scenarios from a communication standpoint, even prior to a final decision being made.” Therefore, the documents that Williams’ revealed were nothing more than drafts for potential communication, and were further reviewed and deliberated once the final decision was made.

Following Williams’ statement, the UAB National Alumni Society (NAS) released a statement of their own. The NAS Board of Directors and Past Presidents met on the evening of March 23 to discuss the evidence and conclusions Williams presented that morning.

In their unanimously approved statement, they expressed that, based on the information in the documents that Williams released to the public, the NAS Past Presidents and Board of Directors “has no confidence that…Watts can provide effective leadership.” They, too, called on Watt’s immediate resignation, stating that they believe “this action is in the best interest of the University and its various constituencies.”

“UAB’s mission has been compromised during this crisis and should now take priority,” concluded the NAS.

In response to the NAS statement, Watts gave this comment:
“I am very disappointed with the decision of our alumni leaders. I have been and will continue to work with them for UAB. Rep. Jack Williams has grossly misrepresented the truth, and I am saddened that others put any credence in anything that he has to say related to UAB. It is most disappointing that misinformation about the athletics strategic plan has detracted from the truly life-changing work being done by so many remarkable people at UAB every day. I will continue to work with our alumni and others in the most constructive ways possible to move our institution and our plans forward.”

University of Alabama Chancellor Robert Witt also weighed in on the issue, expressing that Watts still has his full support. Witt notes that, under Watts’ leadership, “enrollment has reached an all-time record high, national research rankings have improved dramatically…and undergraduate programs have grown and improved.”

Ultimately, Witt states that he agrees with Watts’ decision to terminate the UAB football program, as “taking money from UAB’s other valuable endeavors, including critical health care and life-saving research, is not the answer.” Witt did not provide a comment on the justification of discontinuing the Respiratory Therapy Program—certainly one of UAB’s valuable endeavors.
In closing, Witt remarks that it is unfortunate that only a “vocal few” question Watts’ ability to lead and govern UAB.

March to the Administration Building
On Thursday, March 26, students and alumni banded together in another march to the UAB Administration Building to protest the recent actions of Watts and the University of Alabama system Board of Trustees. Students had information that Watts would be scheduled to leave his office at 12:30 p.m., and so had made an effort to time the march with his exit from the building.

The march was planned almost immediately after the announcement by the UAB NAS. Some students have found Watts to be an ineffective president. 

“I didn’t even know what Ray Watts looked like until he shut down the football program on Dec. 2,” said senior Courtney Campbell, who organized the march. “You used to see Carol [Garrison] sitting with the students at games and making her presence felt.”

On a humid, yet otherwise temperate day, people began to slowly gather near the flags on the Green. The protesters seemed to be in high spirits as the preparations began for the march. Shortly before the march began, a UAB Police car showed up on the sidewalk, and told people that they would need a permit for this protest, which was the first time such a demand had been made, according to Campbell.

The crowd of around 21 people walked alongside University Blvd. to honks and cheers from motorists, before arriving at the UAB Administration Building at approximately 12:15 p.m. only to be informed that Watts had already left. The protesters stood and yelled at the Administration Building, pleading for Watts to come down and hear their views. After approximately 30 minutes, the crowd began to disperse. The message of discontent had been delivered. The people await a response.

Article written by Alex Merrill - Social Media Editor, Brandon Varner - Features Editor and Casey Marley - News Editor.

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