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Speech given by President Anjali Wagle to the Board of Trustees on Friday, February 6, 2015.
To everyone in attendance today, thank you for letting me speak. As the student representative, my role today is to describe the state of UAB from a student’s perspective.
This past year has been one of tremendous development for our campus. Enrollment has yet again hit record numbers. With that, student life at our university continues to grow and to consistently reshape UAB’s image as a university that offers a holistic experience. Our students have taken the lead to constantly redefine what is possible as a university and as a community.
A vital component of the identity that students have created for UAB is service. Student organizations at UAB have set standards for success that are mimicked nationally. Recently our own chapter of Active Minds, a mental advocacy organization, scattered hundreds of backpacks throughout the campus with a story of a student who committed suicide attached to each backpack. Multiple national media agencies covered this event and brought positive attention to our university as groundbreaking in fighting the stigma of mental illness. However, the true success of the many student organizations at UAB is not measured by media attention, but by the impact they have on UAB, the Birmingham community, and the world. Our students are leaders in philanthropy, raising tens of thousands of dollars amongst the Greek organizations alone for various charities. We’ve had students who biked thousands of miles from California to Washington D.C. to raise money and awareness for people living with disabilities. Our medical students have set up a free clinic for the underserved populations in Birmingham that is entirely funded and run by students. These are but a few examples of the passion our hard-working students have for their fellow human beings.
During my time at UAB, I have also seen tremendous revitalization in Birmingham as a whole. This offers UAB a unique advantage in attracting some of the brightest minds in the nation with our diverse community nestled next to a burgeoning, cosmopolitan city. Our students actively engage with our flourishing community and take the lead in all fields of academics and research. Last year alone saw another 2 UAB students win the Goldwater Scholarship for exceptional research, leading to a total of 17 UAB Goldwater Scholars since 2005. 2014 also saw 7 UAB students attend the prestigious Clinton Global Initiative to share and further develop their unique projects and ideas to better the world. And lastly, we are so proud to have 2 Blazers become Rhodes Scholar finalists; with Ameen Barghi finishing as a scholarship recipient. For a university as young as we are, it is telling of UAB’s potential that we have had the most number of Rhodes Scholars of any Alabama institution in last 15 years. These winners of some of the most prestigious scholarships in the world are a testament to the academic environment here at UAB. We are an institution with a culture that recognizes that while knowledge is important, our faculty and students are the ones who will change your world. I come today to share with you some of the success and passion our students have for learning, for achieving, for innovating, and for dreaming. We all love our university for its unwavering commitment to nurture our minds, provide boundless opportunities, and offer a unique and memorable experience.
However, there has been a clear shift in the tone of our campus these past couple of months. As students, we have seen dramatic and sudden changes to our university with little warning and no input. Our football team, a symbol of persistence and hard work, achieved so much in one year. When few gave them a chance, they drew inspiration from each other and became bowl-eligible for the first time in over 10 years. Our football coaches, who won multiple national accolades this year, worked tirelessly to develop the players not only as athletes, but also as students, achieving one of the highest APR’s in our history. Our football team’s quick turnaround parallels the revitalization of a whole community. One of UAB’s key attracting features for potential students is that like the city of Birmingham, we are young, and we are growing. I came to UAB fully believing that I could have a tremendous impact on the course of UAB’s future. It is very telling that one of our mottos is “Ever Faithful, Ever Loyal.” Our students, our alumni, and our faculty are faithful and loyal because we all contributed to where UAB is today. I cannot tell you the number of times alumni have come up to me these past couple of months just to share a story about what UAB was like 5, 10,or 20 years ago. They shared stories about the challenges and struggles in going to a school that was labeled “just a commuter school” by others. They told me about how they fought against the stigma that students who came to UAB are either too poor or not smart enough to go to Alabama or Auburn. They told me about how they worked tirelessly to bring a sense of student life to UAB, from the early days of Coach Bartow’s “experiment” to what we have today. The one defining feature of all their voices is that none held any resentment. They did not resent what they did not have; they took pride in what they built. UAB is now the largest employer and the highest-revenue generating institution in Alabama. We have world-class research in fields from medicine to archeology. We have a downtown area that has been consistently ranked in the top 10 for up-and-coming cities in the nation.
Yet for the past couple of months, the only national attention we’ve received is about failure. Students, alumni, and faculty are embarrassed that the school they worked so hard for would be portrayed in such light. Their achievements are overshadowed by an administration and a system that has discounted the value of shared governance and equal representation. Students, especially, have voiced a sense of worthlessness when they see that their experiences are simplified to mere financial numbers. While many believed that these recent decisions would be met with little opposition, reality proved otherwise.
I have witnessed a resounding refusal by the UAB community to allow its university to be downsized without objection. When pushed, our normally soft-spoken community has decided to no longer remain silent. We have and continue to make our voices heard. Yet the response we received from the Board of Trustees has been truly disappointing to many of my constituents. Following the Faculty Senate’s vote of no confidence, the Board’s response acknowledged what had occurred but did not address the underlying concerns of the faculty, the students, and the alumni. A vote of no confidence is a vote of no credibility.
On campus and in Birmingham, there is a real and growing distrust towards the Board. This distrust will not go away; it will continue to fester, and build resentment. The health of the system is in question, ultimately putting all of us at risk. I urge the Board to no longer avoid this problem. Let’s repair that relationship to the people of Alabama who bleed Green and Gold or Blue and White. Let us start sincere and transparent discussion about the composition and manner of succession for the Board. Let us engage the stakeholders, hear their concerns, and work to collaborate rather than dictate. Let us show in action that education is not a zero-sum game, and that 3 strong and independent campuses are better for all of Alabama.
I am excited to see what my alma mater will accomplish in the future. Thank you.