ICYMI: ASU has difficult rebuilding to do

Originally published in the Montgomery Advertiser, December 29, 2012

(NOTE: With news reports indicating that there will be a change in leadership (AGAIN) at Alabama State University, I want to remind people what I said in 2012 after the last president was removed. If they make a change again, I’m coming back for more…)

ASU has difficult rebuilding to do

On Christmas Day, I was sitting on the couch at my mother-in-law’s house,
watching NBA action before leaving for dinner. On the coffee table were a
number of magazines. As I always do, I flipped through the ASU Today that
is a fixture at her house. She and most of her siblings are alumni.

The latest edition focused on the successful second tenure of Dr. William
Harris as president, but there was an article about the recent selection
of Dr. Joseph Silver as the next president.

The article included glowing remarks from board members and mentioned the great support that Dr. Silver had as he entered the presidency. The
university seemed to be poised for a smooth transition, as well as the
excitement of the stadium’s completion. The article indicated that the
next edition would provide more information on Dr. Silver.

We left for dinner at her sister’s house. An hour later, the house where
we had been sitting was hit by a tornado. In a matter of an hour we went
from Christmas dinner to full recovery mode, out in the dark trying to
determine the extent of the damage.

Alabama State University also has been hit by a tornado, this one
man-made. Once again, another institution has been savaged by a
kakistocracy, a Greek word essentially meaning government by the least
qualified citizens.

No member of the board of trustees has the kind of expertise and knowledge
of higher education as Dr. Silver, and yet after two months, he is forced
out. The only way this action would be justified is if he had committed a
crime or major moral indiscretion. All indications suggest neither
happened.

I’ve known Dr. Silver for over a decade. He is a proven higher education
leader, student-focused and well versed in accreditation. All of those
assets would have served Alabama State well. But the board has done major
damage to the reputation of the university and unknowingly has severely
compromised the university’s ability to attract a quality president.

I’ve spent eight years as a president. I have been recruited to
participate in a number of searches. I knew what to look for, what
questions to ask. And I also had colleagues I could talk to with insights
into those institutions. Over the years I have provided the same insight
to colleagues.

As things stand today, there is absolutely no way I would recommend anyone to seek the presidency of Alabama State University. In fact, it could be career suicide. Any time you watch a board take seemingly arbitrary actions, with the students, faculty, staff and alumni rallying together asking for answers and this same board ignoring them, it is troubling, to say the least.

Good candidates will talk to respected leaders in the field. Good
candidates will read years of news stories in the Advertiser in online
archives. And good candidates will realize that their careers are not
worth risking for Alabama State. That is a tragedy.

But Alabama State can rebuild its reputation. It will take some time, but
there are a few simple things that can be done immediately. First, the
entire board should resign in order to clear the slate and provide some
assurance that a new president will not be subjected to the whims of this
current group. Politically appointed boards are often problematic, and
this is a perfect example.

Second, an outside search firm should be hired by the governor to handle
all aspects of trying to convince an excellent candidate to review this
opportunity. Part of their work will be image rebuilding; the other part
persuasion.

The board handling the search would be a disaster. As it stands now, the
university will only be able to attract two kinds of candidates — those
who have failed other places, and those just wanting to be a president. I
cannot stress this enough: Quality candidates will not seek this
opportunity as it is presently situated.

The final recommendation may be a shocker. Some of Dr. Silver’s comments
revealed a power struggle within the university. Having a strong political
figure as executive vice president like John Knight can be a gift and a
curse, and in this case, it seemed to be problematic. Dr. Silver was
quoted as saying there can only be one president. I agree.

Therefore, the board should either elevate Mr. Knight to president, or he
should walk away for the good of Alabama State University. I have never
met Mr. Knight and am not casting any doubt on his ability or dedication.
But his role in the lawsuit that for years has been a central issue, and
which has rightfully provided resources for the university, makes him much
more of a central figure than the average EVP (the Joe Reed situation
comes to mind). For there to really be a clean slate, he should leave the
university. If not, he should be the next president.

The day after Christmas I returned to the place where I was sitting an
hour before the tornado hit. I could see the sky from that seat. And I saw
that ASU Today on the table, dirty, warped and wet. It was placed in a
pile of things to dry out and salvage, but the rest of the house needs
lots of work.

Her house will be rebuilt. Alabama State’s reputation can be as well.