When I was growing up in Small Town, Alabama, going to college was viewed as the only pathway to success. For as long as I can remember, my mother, who was raising me on her own and did not go to college herself, started saying, “WHEN” you go to college, not “IF.”
When I was in my dreamy pre-teens, I would say I planned to go to Duke, Georgetown or Harvard. I liked the idea of those storied universities — they just sounded so fancy, and I could see myself walking around campus with a sweater in the hues of school colors tied around my shoulders, books in arm, walking to class and ultimately on a stage to receive a diploma that would alter the course of my life — in the greatest possible way — forever. It was more of a romantic notion than a realistic one. I just hadn’t figured that out yet.
I did well in school and got multiple scholarship opportunities, but there was no amount of scholarship money in the world that was going to allow me to go to any school far out of state, much less one in the Ivy League. That is, if I ever wanted to be able to go home or eat.
So dreams of being a Duke Blue Devil, a Georgetown Hoya and whatever Harvard’s mascot is (Do they have one? I’m sure they do, but no one ever really says it, do they?), quickly turned into becoming a Troy Trojan, South Alabama Jaguar or part of the Crimson Tide.
After reviewing all the options, I had the best scholarship offer from South, had multiple friends already or planning on going there (always an important factor in college consideration) and it was close to home and my mom.
So I “went South,” as they used to say. And I do think I received a good education there. But I am not going to lie, I always kind of thought it was one of the dinkier choices I could have made, especially back in the ’90s when it was still considered a “commuter school.” After all, I had dreamed of taking classes in 200-year-old brownstones. Or cobblestones. Or some sort of fancy, old stone. And at South, as a communications major, I spent the vast majority of my time in a building that was once a strip mall anchored by a grocery store.
As they say, USA has come a long way, baby, and I am proud to drive through that campus now and call it my alma mater. Go Jags! (Even the ol’ shopping center building looks nice now!)
But even though I considered it a “low-rent” choice at the time and had a scholarship for books and tuition, and financial aid and a job to help with living expenses, it was still a huge burden on my mother financially to help me make it through to graduation.
I remember going home to wash clothes, eat, go party with my old high school friends, sleep and ask for money, as all college kids do. With my hand out on my way out the door, she would say, “OK, I just need to look at my bills first.” And she would sit down at our kitchen table, and get her checkbook and calculator out — it was one of those adding machine ones that had a roll of paper on it and made a lot of noise — and figure out what bills she absolutely had to pay and the bare minimum she needed to survive on until her next paycheck, and then she would write me out a check for whatever was left.
Don’t get me wrong. It’s not like we were standing in line at soup kitchens or anything, but it just wasn’t easy. And I know it caused her a great deal of stress.
I did not appreciate her sacrifice at the time. But it was something that she was determined to make happen, no matter the cost. And she did. I wish I appreciated it more back then.
As a parent myself now, I get it. I know my husband and I would make similar sacrifices to make our kids’ dreams happen, whatever they may be. What parent wouldn’t?
But unlike my mother, my faith in institutions of higher learning is beginning to crumble. Across this country and right here in the great state of Alabama, it seems like storied universities dedicated to producing tomorrow’s leaders and/or “making legends” are more dedicated to making their administrators incredibly wealthy.
I am sure this goes on to some extent at all colleges and universities, but no one has done a better job of shining a light on the gross excess occurring at one of our premier publicly funded universities in this state than my co-publisher Rob Holbert, in his investigative series on the University of Alabama System.
He has been reporting for months on large salary increases for their current chancellor and other top administration officials, excessive farewell bonuses to “retreating” top academics or administrators, large settlements paid through payroll to employees who say they were sexually harassed or had some other such grievance, and a whole host of other infractions that evoke reactions that range from eye-rolling to nausea-inducing.
Something is definitely rotten in the current state of the University of Alabama System.
If your employees think you are such a buffoon and are so unfit to run the university you are charged with that you have to threaten them and force them to sign confidentiality agreements, well, it’s not exactly an overwhelming vote of confidence in your leadership. And yet, some of them still violate it anyway. Hence, our stories on this.
And you just have to wonder, why isn’t the UA Board of Trustees stepping in to curtail this? They are really the only body that has the authority to do so. (I mean, maybe Nick Saban can, but he’s kind of busy right now. Roll Tide!)
But the board hasn’t. Why?
In this week’s cover story, that question was seemingly answered, as Rob painted a picture of such vulgar excess lavished upon the UA Board of Trustees that it will make your stomach turn. These perks include a multimillion-dollar “playhouse” for them to party in on game days, unlimited access to food and drink, trips to away games, national championship rings and necklaces, box seats and even police escorts to games, like they are the kings and queens of England or something.
There is no wonder they are incapable of holding any top administrators accountable for gross financial mismanagement. They are enjoying the perks of it!
Of course, let’s be real. Most colleges and universities are just big businesses whose “product” is the first step, that piece of paper you must have, to achieve the American dream. It’s an easy sell, just ask my mom. And to be fair, they often help their graduates do just that.
And like all big businesses that employ thousands of people, their leaders deserve to be well compensated. I am not saying they shouldn’t be. It’s no doubt a big job with big responsibilities. But there is a line between fair or even generous compensation and out-of-control, egregious, wasteful spending. And if the University of Alabama hasn’t crossed that line, then I do not know who has.
I think about my own mom sitting at our kitchen table 25 years ago trying to figure out how to send me to college and the worried look on her face. And I know there are parents across this state right now from the Coast to the Wiregrass to the Shoals, who are sitting at their own tables right now, with that same look of worry, trying to figure out what they can cut so they can scratch out the next tuition or rent check for their kid.
Meanwhile, these fat cats are sitting at a $4.4 million playhouse deciding who else needs a $2 million bonus, while wearing their gaudy national championship bling, eating Wagyu beef and knocking back $100 shots of Scotch, wondering where their royal escorts are to take them to a football game.
Think about that. And then think about all those parents sitting at those tables across this state, calculators in hand.
And doesn’t it just make you sick?
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