Former Congressman Jo Bonner, the first of three presidential finalists to be introduced to the University of South Alabama (USA) community in a public forum today, entertained just five questions from the public before the hour-long session came to an end.
Several people who were left standing, waiting to ask questions, were told to submit them to the Board of Trustees.
Bonner, currently Gov. Kay Ivey’s chief of staff, introduced himself to an audience of several hundred people at the Mitchell Center, where he recounted his long personal relationship with USA and said he was “extremely honored and tremendously humbled” to be selected as a finalist, after applying for the position himself.
Bonner pledged to “build on the success of others,” and repeatedly noted his existing relationships both within the USA community and in state and federal government. He said he believes in shared governance and he respects academic freedom.
He acknowledged he only had a bachelor’s degree, but cited a study by Inside Higher Ed which found some 40 percent of university presidents come from “the government, the military or business,” rather than a background in academia.
“It’s not an academic degree, it’s a lifetime of commitment of service to others,” he said.
Bonner introduced his wife Janée, and quipped that with her enthusiasm for public service, the school would get “two for the price of one” if he were selected.
“I would be honored if Janée could play an active role with me on your behalf,” he said. “If I’m fortunate enough to be chosen, I’m going to commit every ounce of energy I have to represent this campus with integrity, to represent it in a way we can be proud, to ensure we build a diverse campus — we have one but we can do better — and to work with the men and women of the faculty.”
Bonner said he is unique among the finalists in that he has a political voting record, “and I have to answer to that and I respect that.”
“If you will give me the chance to prove to you what I can do and what we can do together, I have every confidence we will succeed,” he said.
Then, when the floor was open to questions, Bonner was immediately forced to answer questions about his voting record.
Matthew Kowalski, a freshman out of Gulf Shores High School who identifies as a trans person, said Bonner’s record indicates he has a strong stance against women’s rights, abortion and gay marriage and LGBTQ inclusion. Kowalski asked how Bonner could make the university, which has a “very large” LBGTQ community, more inclusive.
Bonner said as a congressman, he voted on behalf of a majority of his constituents, “because that’s what they expect you to do.” He said he regrets some of his votes, particularly being one of only 33 members of Congress to vote against the renewal of the Voting Rights Act in 2006. He suggested his vote against gay marriage was based on the law at the time, and it doesn’t matter now anyway since it’s since been affirmed by the Supreme Court.
The second question from the crowd concerned the gap between Black and White graduation rates, and asked what Bonner could do to provide more resources to minorities.
Bonner said among the state’s 14 public universities, USA is at the top in terms of minority recruitment. But he acknowledged “we’re not doing a good job on retention.” He said he wasn’t sure of the cause or solution, but suspected affordability and convenience were factors, as well as a lack of college readiness in state high schools.
“I will give you my word that I will work with our academic advising team, our recruiters to make sure our minority students and all of our students have a chance to succeed,” he said.
Bonner then fielded a question about faculty benefits he was unprepared to answer and was also told the university has a lobbyist who has never lobbied on behalf of the faculty. Bonner commended the university’s lobbyist, and said the key to negotiating benefits is working with the Legislature. But he also said “the fact is” the school has to grow its enrollment to provide higher salaries and better benefits.
Dr. Kern Jackson, director of the African American Studies Program, asked Bonner about transparency in light of his existing personal relationships with members of the Board of the Trustees.
“I did not prior to this experience know every member of the board, but I did know many members of the board,” Bonner said. “I don’t know that I can prove to the faculty or anyone else that my relationship is such that I’m here for any other reason that I put my name in the hat. Give me a chance. My record speaks for itself in terms of working with others, working hard to make our area a better place.”
Hope Smith, a student from Alabaster, Alabama, commended Bonner for his work on the Deepwater Horizon oil spill settlement and federal recognition of the Poarch Band of Creek Indians, but assailed his “extremely outspoken stance” on a 2007 measure to end job discrimination based on sexual orientation; a 2006 measure to define marriage as between one man and one woman and a 2004 bill to ban same sex marriage.
“Your actions against the LGBTQ community are extremely concerning, and raise questions about your commitment to the safety of our marginalized students,” Smith said, asking Bonner what he would do to respond to reports of discrimination, or to protect vulnerable women on campus. “You voted against the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act of 2013, which raises questions about your mindset towards women’s safety.” Smith’s comments were met with applause.
Bonner explained that the title of a bill may not be entirely indicative of the text within, and his opposition may have been more nuanced than Smith insinuated.
“Just because a bill in Congress has a name that makes it sound more inclusive and more protective does not necessarily mean that’s what that legislation is,” he said, while also making a note of the broad political division in Washington today. “But you are looking at a snapshot of my public service … I am proud of my record, my total record.”
Bonner made a note of his record of economic development and constituent services while in Congress, adding he never once asked whether someone was gay, transgender, or a political supporter before offering his assistance.
The university will host presidential candidate Dr. Damon Andrew at the Mitchell Center at 11 a.m. Oct. 15. A public forum for the third candidate, Dr. Michael Tidwell, is scheduled at 11 a.m. Oct. 26 at the Mitchell Center.
For what it’s worth, Gov. Kay Ivey, the ex-officio president of USA’s Board of Trustees, is not participating in the presidential search, according to Press Secretary Gina Maiola, and did not nominate Bonner for the position.
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