UAB President Ray Watts was able to transcend a pandemic and keep the state’s largest employer moving toward greater success. His leadership at UAB, in higher education, and for Birmingham and Alabama was recognized with the CEO of the Year Award for companies with 300 or more employees presented annually by the Birmingham Business Journal on Dec. 9, 2021.
“I am grateful for the acknowledgment of the work we have done as an institution, and I am privileged to be supported by the outstanding leadership and teamwork that made it possible for me to be considered for this award,” Watts said. “Birmingham is a great place to live and work, and being part of making that true is its own reward.”
During the past two years, the university and its medical center have sustained enrollment and instruction, reached new heights in research funding, provided critical testing and patient care, strengthened their financial outlook and received top national accolades as great places to work and learn.
The secret to that success is straightforward — but demanding.
Watts, who equates his achievements with those of the institution, credits both to a commitment to excellence. “When we remain aggressively committed to our mission and shared values, we can have the maximum positive impact on society,” he said. “UAB is successful because we have great people — leaders, faculty, staff, students, alumni, fans, donors, and civic and business leaders — who share a commitment to our mission and values.”
During incredibly trying times such as these, Watts said, “complacency is not an option.” UAB was challenged to remain a stable force and serve those who rely on us, which it did, and he takes great pride in the sheer fortitude and resilience of the UAB community.
“Incredibly talented and dedicated UAB teams led in testing, clinical care, vaccinations, COVID education and life-changing innovation and discovery,” he said. “Our impact was felt in countless ways — from saving lives to protecting livelihoods and maintaining our vital education, research and community engagement missions. I am proud of the difference UAB and our campus community made for each other, Birmingham, Alabama, and beyond in response to COVID.”
This year, UAB was ranked by Forbes as the Best Large Employer in the United States — ahead of organizations such as Google, Mayo Clinic, Microsoft, NASA, Netflix and Yale. At the time, Watts said, “What makes Forbes’ recognition so meaningful is that it is based in part on whether our employees would recommend UAB to friends and family. Especially after such a challenging year, knowing that our people are so proud to be part of the UAB family is eternally gratifying and humbling.”
But UAB cannot rest on its laurels, he says.
Post-pandemic employees are interested in nontraditional opportunities such as remote and hybrid work schedules. Those have huge implications on the allocation of resources for employee support and technology, and UAB is in the middle of a pilot program to explore long-term options.
“As an organization dedicated to the service of students, patients and our community, we have to balance those nontraditional opportunities with the assurance that we will continue to deliver excellence in our mission,” Watts said. “I think we will continue to see disruptions in the nation’s workforce as individuals and organizations work to find that balance, and my goal is to do it in a way that is a win-win for our employees and all those we serve.”
That is one way to attract and keep talented people in the region, along with a focus on innovation, Watts says. “There are a lot of great opportunities for Birmingham including tech and research, but precision medicine stands out to me as a particular strength for UAB. Precision medicine — based on genomics and other data — is the future of health care and something in which UAB and our local and state leaders are investing heavily.”
In Watts’ view, Birmingham is experiencing unprecedented collaboration and coordination across the public and private sectors, and that will improve the lives of its residents and the trajectory of the city and region. “I have been encouraged and inspired in recent years by the leaders in our region and their openness to working together,” Watts said. “We have a long way to go, but we have committed people in the right places who will make a bigger difference the more coordinated our efforts are.”
While serving as president, Watts has continued to care for patients.
“Beyond the rewards of leading a world-class doctoral research institution and academic medical center, continuing to be a practicing neurologist and seeing patients each week — even as president — has been important to me,” he said. “It is meaningful to have the honor and trust of patients and make their lives better — and to guide them and show compassion in difficult times. It’s why I became a physician in the first place, so I am very glad I get to do both.”