Photo | Shane Rice
‘We want to be the flagship of the Gulf Coast’
With new leadership in place, newly placed University of South Alabama (USA) President Jo Bonner says it’s time to set sail.
Bonner stepped in full time as South Alabama’s fourth-ever president Monday, Jan. 3, taking the helm of an institution he hopes to hoist up as a “flagship of the Gulf Coast.” He views his new assignment as being the executive “recruiter and chief” for the university, tasked with identifying and repairing leaks in enrollment and retention rates and engineering a rig of culture, branding and vision to help propel the region forward.
With just five days under his belt as the head Jaguar, Bonner sat down with Lagniappe in his half-unpacked presidential office Friday, Jan. 7, to discuss his position, address the state of the school and give stakeholders a heading for what kind of direction they can expect to see the university move. The gist of his message is he wants people to know South Alabama “has a place for them.”
“Whether it’s a prospective student, a member of our staff or faculty, or it’s a supporter, we want this university to become the University of the Gulf Coast,” Bonner said. “We want you to be a part of where we’re going because we’re getting ready to take the university to the next step, and we’d like you to be on the team with us.”
Bonner, 62, is still in the process of moving from Baldwin County and is still filling up his office cabinets and shelves with the personal notes, memorabilia and articles he has collected throughout his last four decades working in politics and higher education.
Bonner graduated from the University of Alabama in 1982 with a journalism degree and spent the first 20 years of his career, between 1982 and 2002, working communications for politicians, most notably for Congressman Sonny Callahan as a press secretary. In 2002, he was elected to fill Callahan’s seat and represent Alabama’s 1st Congressional District. He won five consecutive terms and eventually retired from Congress in 2013. He was given an honorary doctorate from USA in 2012.
Back in Alabama, Bonner, vice chancellor of economic development for the University of Alabama’s three-campus system, was hired by Gov. Kay Ivey in 2018 to be her chief of staff. Bonner is married to Janée Lambert Bonner, of Mobile, and they are the parents of a daughter, Jennifer Lee, 26, and a son, Josiah Robins III, 23.
Bonner largely hopes the 40 years of developed influence and experience represented by the trinkets and pictures sitting in his office are a boon to the University of South Alabama, which will directly benefit the region he spent a decade working for in Washington, D.C.
With a reported 7,000 faculty and staff members, South Alabama is already one of the largest employers in the region, and provides a billion-dollar-plus economic impact for the state, enrolling more than 14,000 students. Bonner believes helping the coastal Alabama community take ownership of the university will be a big focus, and he wants the school community to be contagious in Mobile and Baldwin counties.
“Wouldn’t it be great if we have little statues of our Jaguar, Southpaw, all around town like other university mascots?” Bonner said. “They can go to Alabama, they can love Auburn, but they can also love South Alabama. We are the Gulf Coast university. As I say: We want to become the flagship of the Gulf Coast. And we need people to be proud of what this university has become in 58 years and be excited about where the university is going to go in the next 58 years.”
“This is a campus that is going to be producing leaders in every area of service to mankind. We’ve already been doing it, but I’ve never been more optimistic than I am now that the future is brighter for South Alabama,” he said.
Bonner was raised in the small, Mayberry-like town of Camden, Alabama, in Wilcox County, in the 1960s, which at the time had a modest population of roughly 1,200. He said the town had the bare necessities: groceries, a dentist and a doctor. He says the town is still about the same size today.
“We didn’t have a McDonald’s or Hardee’s. Up until a few years ago, there still wasn’t a McDonald’s. You could ride your bike up and down the street, and everybody knew your name, and everybody would help you,” Bonner said.
If someone from Camden had bigger needs, such as buying a car or getting surgery, they were looking at traveling 32 miles to Selma or 70 miles to Montgomery.
“But it’s a special place because it’s where I learned the kind of values that have stayed with me throughout my life and career,” Bonner said.
Despite itself, Camden must be settled over a spring of providence because it has produced some of the most influential Alabamians in the past two decades.
Bonner said his older brother, Jimmy, was classmates with the now-Gov. Ivey from kindergarten to 12th grade, and they would hang out with each other after school. His sister, Judy, who would go on to lead the University of Alabama as president for three years, was classmates with a boy named Jeff Sessions.
“There wasn’t a lot to do, there was a movie theater, but there wasn’t a bowling alley or anything, you know, fancy to entertain yourself. So they rode horses and I would ride with them,” Bonner said. “But I spent a lot of time with Jeff and Kay and Judy and Jimmy and their other friends. They’re a few years older than me.”
He said Jimmy and Ivey’s graduating classes at Wilcox County High School had just 32 people; Judy and Jeff’s had 28. He said Ivey’s class even nominated her “Most Likely to Become Governor,” prophesying her rise to Alabama’s top executive role some 40 years later.
“None of us were surprised when she became governor,” Bonner said.
Sessions, who was one the state’s earliest prominent Republicans, would, of course, later rise to Alabama attorney general, U.S. attorney for the Southern District of Alabama, U.S. senator and then U.S. attorney general under former President Donald Trump.
Bonner said he was raised with simple, traditional values and a strong work ethic.
“I was one of three kids whose parents showered the three of us with love, encouragement and positive reinforcement and with discipline,” Bonner said.
Once while visiting Montgomery, Bonner said he stepped over an empty Coke bottle laying on the sidewalk and his father, Josiah Bonner Sr., who called him “Jo Robbins,” told him to go back, pick it up and throw it away.
“I told him I didn’t drop it, but he said, ‘Yeah, well someone else did. You need to pick it up,’” Bonner said.
He said this was an impressionable moment for him and representative of the kind of husband and father he strives to be.
“Those values have served me well. I was always taught you should try to do the right thing even when no one is looking. And you should always be willing to roll up your sleeves and lend a hand and serve,” Bonner said.
Bonner’s father was an attorney and a Wilcox County probate judge. Wanting to follow in his father’s footsteps, Bonner began his education at the University of Alabama (UA) in law. But it wasn’t what he was expecting.
“I didn’t care for it all,” Bonner said.
His sister, Judy, who was wrapping up her academic studies at UA, knew he had always liked writing and suggested he change his study focus to journalism — a decision that eventually would spark the beginnings of a successful career in politics.
Bonner said he always had found solace in writing and a transition to journalism seemed fitting.
After the death of his father when he was 13 years old, Bonner said his mother remarried and he moved to Greenville. In the first week of being at his new school, he said he helped launch a school newspaper as a ninth-grader. He later would submit articles to the Camden newspaper and would work with the University of Alabama’s Crimson White.
Politics was on his radar at this time, too.
“I ran for student body politics, and I was never elected to office,” Bonner said. “Yet, every time I ran, I met new people and found new ways to get involved.”
His relationships with the other candidates paid off, though, and he was appointed to serve on the student government association’s media planning committee, which oversaw the yearbook and student newspaper.
The day after he graduated from the Capstone in 1982, Bonner said he was able to step onto the campaign team of an old family friend, George McMillan, who was running against George Wallace in the Democratic primary for Alabama governor. Wallace won the primary and ended up winning the general election for what was his final term. From there, Bonner was able to pick up an internship with Democrat Congressman Jack Edwards (in office 1965-85), serving in the nation’s capital.
“I fell in love with Washington. I had Potomac fever instantly,” Bonner said.
He said by the end of the gig, all his fellow interns on Edwards’ staff were referring to him as “Congressman Bonner” and even had a T-shirt made.
As fate would have it, while he was working for McMillan in his gubernatorial bid, Bonner was introduced to a man named Sonny Callahan. Bonner’s few years of experience in politics and communications background would land him the spot as press secretary for Callahan’s congressional campaign around 1984 to succeed Edwards. Callahan, who switched parties to become a Republican for election, would defeat Democrat Frank McRight by 4,000 votes in the general election.
Bonner was in Washington when President Ronald Reagan’s second inauguration was moved inside and the parade was canceled due to sub-freezing temperatures. He said a little-known story about this time was three weeks into the job in Washington he received a phone call from a college friend whose father wanted to have lunch with him. Bonner said this man offered him a chance to go to work for then-Vice President George H.W. Bush as a speechwriter.
“I called my mother and I said, ‘Mom, you won’t believe this, but they want to interview me to be Vice President Bush’s speechwriter,’ Of course, I’m sure he had more like 15 speechwriters,” Bonner said. “There was this long pause, and I asked, ‘Are you there?’ She said, ‘I am.’ And I said, ‘Well, what do you think about that?’ She said, ‘Well, that’s a big honor, and I’m real proud, but you wouldn’t have gotten to Washington if not for Congressman Callahan, and you should never forget who helped you get where you are.’ She didn’t have to say more. I knew right then and there was no way I was going to work down in the White House.”
So Bonner continued to work with Callahan and he said his relationship with the congressman grew into a father-son dynamic — the kind of relationship that lasted through Callahan’s death last year. Bonner even delivered Callahan’s eulogy during his funeral.
“He [Callahan] and Jack Edwards both are truly two of my heroes because they served this area of the state with such integrity, with such distinction, with such hard observation of character,” Bonner said. “When I was fortunate to get elected in 2002 — they were both on my side and on my team — all I could think about was I had an opportunity to build on what Congressman Edwards for 20 years and Congressman Callahan for 18 years helped lay the foundation for.”
During his six terms in Congress, Bonner said, before every vote he cast and every decision he made, he would ask himself, “What would Jack do? What would Sonny do?”
‘Meet me halfway’
Bonner said the first week as president of USA was a flurry of meetings with department heads, school functions and even a few sporting events. He said he has received a warm welcome from many, and it is his general impression that his appeal last month to his critics and skeptics to “meet [him] halfway” has resonated with many.
“I believe we’re off to a good start in that way,” Bonner said. “I’m getting to know people. Every day, I meet someone new. There’s an incredible faculty. There’s a dedicated staff. There’s a proud alumni base — we’ve got almost 90,000 alumni — and there’s going to be 14,000 students coming to campus on Monday.”
The few objections to Bonner’s appointment to the president’s office have come from those critical of his public voting record. He faced an especially tough crowd during a town hall meeting in October where he was probed about his conservative voting record while in Congress.
“I really don’t spend a lot looking back on my voting record or the 10 years in Congress and wish I had done something different,” Bonner said. “That’s kind of a waste of time. I can’t do it. I was very proud I never lost an election, and a couple of times I ran unopposed, both in the primary as well as in the general election.
“I loved working for people. I always have. And the votes go with the job,” Bonner said, noting he was the only one of more than 100 candidates South was considering at one point to have a public voting record.
“I didn’t have a long list of academic publications I had worked on. They could focus on [other candidates’] publications and they could focus on my votes. So I understood that. It did not bother me. The ballot gives you three options. You can vote yes, you can vote no and you can vote present. They don’t give you a chance to put an asterisk with all your votes and say, ‘Well, I’m going to vote yes, but I really have problems with this provision. There’s never a bill you love. It’s the lesser of evils or the better of several options.”
Working across the aisle
“Meeting halfway” seems to be a working philosophy for Bonner, as he has been able to create a successful political career doing just that.
When he was elected to Congress in 2002 as a Republican, he said he made a point to form good working relationships with those portions of the First Congressional District where he didn’t win the majority vote. He specifically noted his work with and for the Prichard area, despite its residents voting against him anytime he had an opponent. He said this didn’t stop him from advocating for the area and attempting to get them support. This very strategy actually worked and paid off in Washington County, which voted against him in his first election, but gave him majority support in each election afterward.
“I’ve always believed in working hard to try and win over people who may not always agree with me politically or see eye to eye with me on a vote,” Bonner said.
During his 10-year tenure in Congress, Bonner garnered a reputation as someone who could secure earmarks for his district even in a Democrat-controlled House of Representatives. So much so he was even called upon by the free-market advocacy group FreedomWorks to take a one-year moratorium on earmarks in 2007 when he was appointed to the Appropriations Committee.
Meeting halfway was even a job requirement for him in his final four years in office.
Beginning in 2009, Bonner served as the ranking minority leader on the House Ethics Committee and he had a seat right next to California Democrat Zoe Lofgren. When Republicans regained control of the House in the 2010 elections, Speaker of the House John Boehner made Bonner the chairman of the Ethics Committee — the only committee to hold a 50-50 split between parties and not the typical ratioed makeup.
“The last thing you want to be in Congress is the chairman of the Ethics Committee,” Bonner said, laughing.
Despite the fact, Bonner said one of his proudest accomplishments in Congress was he was able to lead the committee in a bipartisan fashion.
“We never had a matter come up, whether the member was a Democrat or Republican, where we didn’t get unanimous support,” Bonner said. “I wanted the Democrats and Republicans around that table to know our job was to try to do the right thing, to find the facts, to make the right determination. And we never had anything short of a unanimous vote on all the matters we dealt with.”
Bringing back the bucks
While hesitant to make specific promises, Bonner said the path forward to seeing South Alabama bolstered by funding programs and grants all starts with relationships — and he intends to use his relationships to immediately benefit the university.
When Bonner took his seat in Washington in January 2003, he said Callahan left him a note on his office desk which he has kept to this day.
It says, “Don’t forget: Don’t burn a bridge because you won’t have it to cross back over when you need it.”
He said this advice has become the core of his work philosophy and it has helped him keep and grow valuable relationships throughout his career. He sees these relationships and connections as the secret ingredient in obtaining resources and support.
“We can’t do some of the things we need to do to improve our academic programs, to build new buildings to provide new services, without money,” Bonner said. “So, I hope those relationships will bear fruit for this campus because I think the community needs a strong University of South Alabama.”
The first year of a university president’s tenure can normally be consumed with visiting business leaders and politicians on the state and local levels. While Bonner said he’s looking forward to those meetings, he said he likely knows all of these figures already.
“I won’t be introducing myself. I’m going to be talking about what our incredible faculty are doing and how much this university is making a difference,” Bonner said.
In 2018, Bonner was made Gov. Ivey’s chief of staff. He said he had never worked in politics on the state level before, but said the experience was invaluable to “peek behind the curtain.” and learn firsthand how much work can be accomplished and how much of a difference decisions can make on Alabamians’ daily lives.
Bonner said he has a close, personal relationship with everyone in Ivey’s cabinet, including those in charge of Medicaid, transportation, mental health and education. His sit-down interview with Lagniappe was shortly delayed as he shared a phone call about an urgent need with Ivey’s director of finance, Bill Poole.
Capital improvements on campus could be a result of these relationships. He noted USA’s medical school building is antiquated and there is a need for a new facility to help grow the university’s health care network and bolster its successful nursing programs.
Free speech on campus
This “meeting halfway” approach ties in closely with Bonner’s views of creating a culture of free speech and expression on the university campus, an issue which has been exacerbated by controversies over proposed laws banning the teaching of critical race theory as well as with a plethora of cases nationwide of speakers being protested against and canceled from campus engagements and events.
Bonner said leadership, in general, should be grounded primarily in listening to others and learning to appreciate others’ perspectives. He said there was no better place than the House of Representatives to learn this.
“We [Congress] oftentimes would have fierce debates about emotional issues,” Bonner said. “But at the end of the day, we were all pining for the same goal: a better America. Even though I feel my colleagues from California have a different objective, we really are all pulling for the same center.”
Though some student organizations on USA’s campus have already expressed their skepticism of Bonner, he is 99 percent certain they share the same concerns about the same problems, though they may disagree on how to address them.
“Everyone should be comfortable in sharing their views and thoughts in an open, inclusive society,” he said, recognizing academic freedom is a key facet to nurturing these kinds of principles.
He said the university should be like a laboratory of society, where students and teachers can express themselves, talk about what they believe in, what they don’t believe in and not be punished but accepted for their different perspectives.
“I think part of leadership is to encourage and nurture this environment,” Bonner said. “The door to my office is going to be open. I’m going to get out on the campus. And, as I said during the interview process, I don’t intend to become tied down to this desk.”
One example Bonner said he has pulled from in his career is that of former Senate leaders Tom Daschle, D-South Dakota, and Trent Lott, R-Mississippi, who co-led a 50-50 Senate in the early 2000s. He said the two kept phones with direct lines to each other’s offices.
“The way they were able to govern even in a divided nation was they always agreed to meet in the middle, they always agreed to be available to hear the other person’s concerns,” Bonner said.
“I hope as we are debating free speech and diversity of ideas and changes in lifestyle and changes in culture, our University of South Alabama would be a place where we can have those debates, be respectful of them and understand everybody is not going to see things the way we see them. This doesn’t mean they’re wrong, and we’re right, or we’re right and they’re wrong. It just means to nurture a more open-minded and caring heart, we need to hear other people and give them the benefit of the doubt.”
One idea Bonner has to help promote freedom of expression is to start a leadership series and leverage his relationships to get some high-profile and household names out of Washington and elsewhere around the country on the South Alabama campus to talk about their perspectives.
The university faces several controversial cases at the moment, including the alleged complicity with player abuse from a former volleyball coach and a surfaced picture of faculty members at a 2014 Halloween party holding a noose and wearing Confederate soldier costumes. Other staff-related incidents exist as well, including new ethics charges against the former director of student media.
Though all of these incidents have happened before Bonner even applied for his current job, he said he realized early on they will likely still be unresolved or remain under investigation when he takes office.
Bonner said he is taking one from Nick Saban’s playbook and is going to “trust the process” and recognize addressing these types of cases takes time. Specifically, he has looked into the university’s response to the 2014 Halloween pictures, and he believes former President Tony Waldrop and interim President John Smith handled the situations well and were right to say these incidents were not who the University of South Alabama is.
“I was not here then and I don’t know the people involved,” Bonner said. “But It doesn’t reflect the 14,000 students or the 7,000 people who work in USA.”
A thorough investigation is needed into the issue, according to Bonner, and he is confident the university will get just that as they have hired an outside firm to conduct a review. He said he has not yet seen any of the results or findings at this time.
Bonner acknowledged Lagniappe’s work for open record access. He said he wants the university under his leadership to be as open and transparent as it can be.
“When y’all have a question, I want us to be seen as somebody who can try to help you get the answer, even if we don’t have it. Because I think we’ve got a responsibility to do that,” Bonner said.
These principles are important to Bonner, who said they are rooted in his journalism days and working under Congressman Callahan, who would always say, “The best thing to tell people is the truth.”
South Alabama athletics
USA’s athletic outlook is promising, Bonner acknowledged, saying he believes “the best is yet to come.”
Bonner said he has met with USA Athletic Director Dr. Joel Erdmann already two or three times to discuss the programs and believes he has put together an “outstanding coaching staff.”
“We’ve got 17 different sports. It’s a big part of why students want to come here to have the facilities, which are second to none in the Sun Belt Conference (SBC). They’re second to none anywhere in the nation,” Bonner said.
The Jaguars won the Vic Bubas Cup for the 2020-21 sports season for having the Sun Belt’s top all-around program after five USA teams claimed a combined seven Sun Belt regular-season division and tournament championships in cross-country, soccer, tennis and baseball. USA has won the award five of the last seven years and a total of 15 times since the program began in 1977.
Those successes have already begun to build in the current season, with the volleyball team stepping up to secure an SBC championship title. Volleyball head coach Jesse Ortiz was named the American Volleyball Coaches Association Southeast Region Coach of the Year and the SBC Coach of the Year.
Bonner noted momentum and expectation for the Jaguars’ football program are growing, especially with the addition of the state-of-the-art Hancock Whitney Stadium, which he notes has been used for the LendingTree Bowl already and will host the Reese’s Senior Bowl Saturday, Feb. 5. He says he wants to see other events such as concerts hosted in the venue to draw out more of the community to the campus.
“We’ve got facilities, we’ve got quality coaches, we’ve got outstanding student-athletes. And they’re our best ambassadors. If they put a winning program on the field or on the court, fans are going to come, which is happening,” Bonner said.
Bonner said successful coaches being poached by larger programs is just “the nature of the beast” and he has had discussions about this already with Erdmann.
“At the end of the day, we want our student-athletes to have a world-class experience. And I think we’re doing this,” he said. “I think we’ve got a great athletic department. And I’m really looking forward to getting to go to games. I’m not going to be able to make every game of every sport, but I’m gonna go to as many as possible.”
Cost of education
Across the nation, Bonner said, one of the biggest challenges in education is affordability.
“We have a lot of students on Pell Grants at the University of South Alabama. So we need to find ways to be more helpful with financial aid,” he said. “Students feel a lot of pressure right now, whether it be financial or the other things young people worry about today.”
USA’s in-state credit hour costs currently range between $344 and $393 and its 2020-21 estimated expenses for an undergraduate student living on campus is $29,506, which includes tuition and fees, living expenses, books and health insurance.
Bonner said one of his first meetings on the job was to find out how USA’s student loans and scholarship opportunities compare with its peer institutions statewide as well as in the region.
“I don’t have the answers yet, but this is one of the first things I’ve asked for,” Bonner said.
Making sure the university is keeping its programs viable for developing industries is another facet of the job, Bonner explained.
“To me, a degree from a university is like someone’s first stock certificate,” Bonner said. “You’ve made a decision to buy into this university, and now our job is to make sure the value of their degree continues to grow. Even if new opportunities come your way, we want you to always think the University of South Alabama was the best investment you made.”
During his time as the vice chancellor for economic development for the University of Alabama System, Bonner said, the commonly cited statistic was students carry more debt today than all the debt on credit cards and vehicle loans combined.
“It’s a staggering amount,” Bonner said. “So, we’ve got to make sure when a young person comes we’ve given them every chance to be successful and they can graduate in a reasonable time. Maybe it won’t be four years, but hopefully, it’ll be five years.”
Enrollment, graduation rates
Meetings have already been held between Bonner and USA’s enrollment and admissions officers, and more are already scheduled in the upcoming weeks.
Bonner believes boosting enrollment is one of the biggest expectations for him by the USA Board of Trustees, and he anticipates devoting time and resources to address it.
The University of South Alabama’s enrollment rate has been on a steady decline since a peak in 2016, according to online enrollment records. Fall enrollment for the 2016-17 school year set an all-time record of 16,699 students. Every year since this number has fallen roughly 600-700 students. Fall 2021’s enrollment registered 14,288 students.
“They understand it’s been going in the wrong direction. And we need to really put the brakes on and turn it around,” Bonner said.
He believes understanding why these numbers are dropping is key to addressing underlying causes. One answer to offset losses could be expanding out-of-state recruitment efforts.
“Once we understand why we have been sliding, then we’ll be in a better position to understand what we need to do to go out and reverse it,” he said. “I think there’s a big playing field — we get more students from Mississippi than any other state besides Alabama. There’s a lot of opportunities in the panhandle of Florida, in Louisiana and even as far away as Texas. So we’ll look at our recruiting efforts and we’ll look at our marketing efforts.”
Targeting under-tapped Alabama markets will be a personal goal for Bonner, too. He said he recently was called by a friend in a small town north of Mobile, asking him to speak with students at the local high school. He said the University of West Alabama and Troy University sent recruiters there, but South Alabama made little-to-no effort.
Bonner said he plans on visiting personally and inviting students there to take tours of the South Alabama campus.
“If they visit us once, they’re sold,” Bonner said.
Addressing a problem like enrollment is an extensive undertaking, according to Bonner, who said he will be looking for insights from faculty to help identify and resolve some of the problems.
“It’s gonna take an army of people who love this university and want to help us grow,” Bonner said. “Look, I am calling prospective students right now and inviting them to come, and when they come to campus for a tour, I tell them to stop by my office and meet me. I’m gonna be the ‘recruiter in chief.’”
He plans to speak with students throughout campus as well for their input.
“I want to find out why they chose South, and what we can do to make their educational experience here more meaningful, more rewarding and more valuable to them,” he said.
The other side of this coin is student retention, and Bonner said something that has alarmed him is South Alabama has a lot of students who start at USA but don’t finish with a degree.
“I don’t know why they don’t finish and it will take me a little longer than a week to figure this out,” Bonner said. He believes research needs to be done to probe college readiness and academic preparedness in South Alabama’s service region. He would also like to see if affordability has a part to play in drop-outs.
“The last thing we want is for people to come and spend a couple of years here and leave without a degree, without knowing what we could have done to help them stay and finish,” he said. “What we need to do is emphasize the personal touch of coming to South Alabama to get a great education and hopefully, a bright and prosperous future.”
Bonner wants to look at brand-building as well, noting South Alabama hasn’t done any new marketing rollout since its “We Are South” campaign launched seven years ago. He was meeting with the USA marketing team directly after Lagniappe’s interview to discuss those very plans.
“Our job is to go out and to tell the story and to get people to invest in, to buy into it, to support it,” Bonner said. “We’ve got so many great things going on with USA. I’m incredibly excited I get to go out and tell this story — it’s really a book filled with stories about not one person, but about a team of men and women, some of whom have been here for 35 or 40 years. They wouldn’t have stayed if they didn’t find this to be a great place.”
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