kscope-logo-circleOpinion
Contributing Writer

My background:
I am a 1988 summa cum laude graduate of UAB in mathematics, UAB’s first-ever finalist in the Rhodes Scholar competition (in English language and literature) with a doctorate in atmospheric sciences from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. 
Today I am, like you, a member of the faculty of a major research university: an associate professor of geography at the University of Georgia (UGA).

My position on the current situation at UAB:
It is not just about football, bowling, and rifle. The reasons I urge a no-confidence vote in President Ray Watts involve basic issues at the heart of academic institutions: shared governance, due process, transparency, honesty and integrity.
My realization that the Watts administration had departed from the culture of UAB came in the summer of 2013.
As the first student that emerita professor Ada Long ever recruited for what is now the University Honors Program (UHP), and as an integral part of the Honors community during and after my college years, I have been one of its biggest supporters. Therefore I was deeply troubled by the stories I heard from reliable inside sources in 2013 that essential characteristics of the UHP were under direct attack by the administration.
I could not attend the meeting of honors students and the administration on July 30, 2013, but I livestreamed the meeting from my hotel room in London in the middle of the night on the way to an invited talk in Scotland. What I heard shocked me. Halfway through his remarks, Watts deviated from script and became divisive and insulting.
Students who had turned down Ivy League offers to attend UAB’s honors programs, and who now were reconsidering their decisions in light of the changes to these programs, Watts called “elitist.” That was a first for me;  I’ve known many college presidents, but never have I heard  students called “elitist” for wanting a top-notch education from a program such as the UHP that has produced two Rhodes Scholars, one Marshall Scholar, ten Goldwater Scholars, and five Truman Scholars.
The events I witnessed in regard to the UHP were essentially the same as the events leading up to the termination of the football, bowling, and rifle programs last month. The basic M.O. of the Watts administration was on display already in 2013, and with regard to academics—not athletics. It is a cycle of ham-fisted failure that the whole nation now associates with UAB:

1) a signature aspect of UAB’s undergraduate experience is targeted;
2) faculty and other stakeholders are not included in the decision-making process;
3) secrecy begets concern and a strong social media reaction;
4) once the situation festers, Watts intervenes;
5) Watts’s tone-deaf intervention turns a festering situation into a gangrenous crisis;
6) the suppurating mess spills over into the media; and
7) Watts blames others for misrepresenting the facts while half-heartedly attempting to take the blame himself, but only after it becomes a media embarrassment for UAB.

In other words, UAB is being led by a president who makes the same mistakes over and over again, mistakes that divide the campus—literally, as when he refers to the “West Side” and the “East Side” as if they are rival gangs—and gaffes that hurt UAB in the media and in the future as well. The differences between his treatment of UAB’s honors programs in 2013 and his termination of football, bowling, and rifle teams in December 2014 are matters of degree, not of kind.
Watts simply upscaled his bungling from thousands of concerned students and alumni in 2013 to tens of thousands of concerned students and alumni in 2014, and from hundreds of downloaded mp3 files in 2013 to millions of views online in 2014. These are not good trend lines.
Because of this recurrent pattern of failed leadership, I feel strongly that Ray Watts must step down or be removed as President of UAB. I am especially aghast at Watts’s conduct during UAB’s billion-dollar capital campaign. Incredibly, Watts continues to insist publicly that the current mess at UAB will not impact donations. Speaking for myself, he is dead wrong. As I have communicated to Dean Robert Palazzo, "I am terminating my own high-three-figure annual donations to UAB immediately and I am removing my five-figure bequest to UAB from my will, until such time as effective leadership returns to UAB."
But money is not at the heart of a university, people are--including students, faculty, staff, and a supportive administration. UAB once was a special place where faculty could excel, students who sought a different and more meaningful education could flourish, and administrators, who would go on to remarkable careers in academia, tended the campus habitat with care and love.
Based on what I have witnessed, this habitat has been destroyed in recent years by an exodus of leadership, an influx of cronies who lack respect for the voices of faculty and students, and a sulfurous culture of fear and intimidation that has come to grip the campus. The reasons for these changes extend far above the level of the UAB President, but, as Ray Watts said a week after his termination of three sports, “The buck stops with me.” Indeed it does, if UAB is to remain an accredited institution. In order to restore UAB’s path to a healthy future, the departure of Ray Watts is a necessary condition.
I have no confidence in Ray Watts as President of UAB. I hope that you or your representative on the Faculty Senate will express your own “no confidence” in him on the morning of January 15.

Thank you for listening.

Sincerely,
Dr. John A. Knox        
UAB ’88
Associate Professor of Geography and Undergraduate Coordinator, Department of Geography
and Atmospheric Sciences Program, the University of Georgia
1983 U.S. Presidential Scholar
1987 Rhodes Scholar Finalist
1988 Omicron Delta Kappa National Leader of the Year Finalist
1988 National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellow
1988 Phi Kappa Phi National Fellow
2010 T. Theodore Fujita Research Achievement Award, National Weather Association
2014 CASE/Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching state of Georgia Professor of
the Year


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