In 2018, Finis “Fess” St. John IV was facing a looming mandatory retirement from the University of Alabama Board of Trustees after 17 years of service. With just one year left in his final term, he made a bold play in getting fellow trustees to appoint him interim-chancellor for the University of Alabama System when Ray Hayes suddenly announced after just two years in the position that he was stepping down.
St. John stepped in ostensibly to give the board an opportunity to conduct a thorough search, and he took the position without pay and without relinquishing his spot on the board.
At the time, fellow trustees praised St. John’s selflessness in taking a leave of absence from his Cullman, Alabama law firm to serve as chancellor while a proper search was conducted to replace Hayes. At the meeting where he was named interim chancellor, fellow trustee John England noted the two previous chancellors — Ray Hayes and Bob Witt — had both been internal picks, but said this search would include local, national and even international candidates.
Roughly nine months later, the search was over and the interim tag was removed as St. John was installed full-time and began drawing a salary, benefits and bonuses that paid him more than $922,000 in his first year, according to University of Alabama payroll records. A month after being named chancellor, St. John settled in, purchasing a $1.15 million home in Tuscaloosa.
But three years after St. John’s elevation to chancellor began, there are still those within the university network who believe discussion of a national or international search was nothing more than a ruse designed to blunt potential criticism for moving a trustee into the chancellor’s position full-time and for once again selecting an internal candidate.
For nearly two months now, Lagniappe has asked St. John’s office to provide information as to how many other candidates were considered for the position and how many of those were brought to campus for in-person interviews. The UA System Office has repeatedly ignored that question.
But this week, sources familiar with the University of Alabama Faculty Senate — which represents the interests of the university’s professors and academics — said the senate tried repeatedly to engage the UA Board of Trustees regarding the selection of a chancellor, but were rebuffed and essentially told it was a “board matter.” The source, who spoke on condition of anonymity due to fears of retaliation, also said the senate asked numerous questions regarding demographics of those being interviewed, but never received any answers. The source also said the Board of Trustees made it clear to them they wanted a “business person” and not an academic in the position, and the senate did not participate in any portion of St. John’s selection.
Faculty Senate minutes from Jan. 15, 2019 support many of those assertions.
“Specific information was requested by President Donahoe including methods of advertising the position, number of candidates, gender and diversity of candidates. A position posting for Chancellor for The University of Alabama System was placed on the UA website,” the minutes read. “The Board of Trustees will use its contacts and resources to identify individuals possessing the attributes and qualifications to fill the position. This will be a direct hire and search by the Board of Trustees. Evaluations will continue until a final candidate is identified with no specific deadline.”
In the wake of Lagniappe’s reporting on political columnist Steve Flowers being paid $96,000 a year plus benefits by the System Office for producing no discernible work, emails, letters and phone calls from current and former university employees have painted a picture of St. John as an administrator who bullied his way into the highly paid chancellor’s position and now runs things in a less-than-transparent fashion.
Nearly 10 former and present employees Lagniappe has spoken with on the condition of anonymity have not only complained St. John’s selection as chancellor was a foregone conclusion, but have also said his tenure has created an environment in which people are frequently driven from jobs they’ve held for years and silenced through generous severance packages accompanied by non-disclosure agreements. They complain morale across the entire System has fallen sharply under his leadership and the System Office now meddles far more in the day-to-day dealings of the universities and hospital system it oversees.
If St. John was selected as chancellor primarily due to his business acumen and fiscal management skills, the payment of nearly $260,000 to Steve Flowers since St. John took over might call some of those notions into question — particularly given that Flowers allegedly worked under St. John’s top lieutenant, Senior Vice Chancellor for External Affairs Clay Ryan.
But there are other examples of institutional looseness with the purse strings during his tenure.
Chancellor Ray Hayes was handed a rather lucrative payment package after he stepped down after just two years on the job, opening the path for St. John to take over. He retired in July 2018, but returned as chancellor emeritus to work on behavioral health resources for students and received more than $1.2 million in payroll and travel expenses from September 2018 through September 2020, according to System Office payroll records.
Director of System Communications Lynn Cole, the granddaughter of Trustee Emeritus Peter Lowe who served on the board with St. John, is a relatively new hire and was recently paid a $16,000 stipend to cover moving from the Birmingham area to Tuscaloosa. But inside sources said Cole hasn’t moved. The stipend also appears rather generous given that one Birmingham area moving company said they would move the contents of a five-bedroom house to Tuscaloosa for about $1,500. Cole did not respond when asked if she had moved or how the allowance was determined.
But financial largess seems to be built into the UA DNA when it comes to administrators. St. John’s salary was a big step up from Hayes’ and has only grown.
According to published reports at the time he was hired, St. John was to receive a base salary of $730,361 that could include up to $105,000 in annual performance-based incentives. He was paid the full $105,000 after just four months on the job, according to payroll records. His compensation package also included a $12,000 car allowance and $75,000 a year more as a housing allowance, taking his total compensation to $922,361, not counting retirement and insurance. The System Office has not responded when asked from which account St. John’s housing and car allowance are paid.
St. John’s base salary was kicked up to $817,000 just nine months after being named chancellor, and his year two compensation was $1,009,000, not counting retirement and insurance. In all, his nine-month-stint as an unpaid interim-chancellor paid off with more than $1.93 million the following two years. If history is any indication, those numbers may actually be bigger.
Former Chancellor Robert Witt made roughly $758,000 in 2015 according to payroll records. In 2016, he was paid a total of more than $3 million. And after he retired in late 2016, Witt still received more than $460,000, according to payroll records.
St. John’s predecessor, Hayes, was paid $578,000 in 2017, according to payroll records, but UAB Hospital System 990 records list more than $947,000 paid to him that year. He was also paid about $578,000 in 2016 from the UA System Office account, but UAB 990s listed payments of more than $767,000. UAB’s 2019 990s aren’t yet available, so it’s unknown if St. John will have other payments recorded there.
Ryan’s salary has also increased significantly since joining the University System. He is paid through the Hospital System and in his first full year, 2016, he was paid a total of $661,857, according to the 990 form filing. That increased to $670,578 in 2017, then went to $750,262 in 2018.
By 2019, Ryan’s base salary was $743,485 and additional payments of $31,768 brought him a total of $775,254, which means he received more than $113,000 in pay increases over a three-year period. After weeks of asking for Ryan’s current salary, the System Office said his base pay for 2021 is $742,512, which is actually a small decrease from 2019’s base. The System Office did not respond when asked to explain why Ryan’s base has declined.
The UAB Hospital System paid more than $5.8 million in 2013 for direct compensation to officers, trustees, key employees and highest compensated employees. By 2018, that number was over $8 million, with five of the 29 listed making more than $700,000 just from the system. Most also had income from other related sources.
In April, Board of Trustees President Pro Tem Stan Starnes released a statement that said, in part, “We endeavor to act with integrity and appropriate transparency in all matters.” Still, St. John’s office has refused to answer many questions arising from Lagniappe’s investigation into Flowers’ employment with the System.
Among those are:
Why did Flowers resign?
How much is St. John’s current housing stipend?
Why did St. John choose not to live in the chancellor’s house, Pinehurst?
Why have legal settlements with employees been paid through payroll and also listed as “professional services?
Where does the money for such settlements come from?
Is St. John compensated by the hospital system as well?
How many people were interviewed for the chancellor’s position?
Was the Board of Trustees aware of Flowers’ employment?
Does the Flowers situation create concern for the board about St. John’s financial stewardship?
How did St. John come up with the figure of $16,000 for Cole’s moving expenses?
Most of these questions were sent to Cole again one week ago. The System Office has not responded.
Rob Holbert is co-publisher of Lagniappe and can be emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org
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