When the University of South Alabama (USA) announced it was forming a presidential search committee upon the sudden retirement of Tony Waldrop earlier this year, the USA Faculty Senate sent its constituents a 24-question survey. Roughly 413 faculty responded, judging the importance of certain attributes on a scale ranging from “not at all important” to “extremely important.”
Among the most heavily weighted preferences was a president who has “a record of successful administrative leadership” at a peer review university or major academic medical center, a president who “has an earned doctorate or equivalent terminal degree,” a president who “has a deep understanding of academic values and culture,” and a president who “has demonstrated an appreciation of and support for scholarly work and academic excellence.”
The final question was also deemed “moderately” to “extremely important” to all but four of the survey’s respondents.
“How important is it that the next University of South Alabama president is a skilled communicator and diplomat who can represent the institution’s decisions, priorities and goals to the university community, the Mobile community, and the legislative and executive branches of the state government?” the question read.
Last week, after a nationwide search “yielded significant interest from a broad array of candidates,” the committee announced its three finalists. They are:
• Dr. Damon Andrew, dean and professor, College of Education, Florida State University
• Jo Bonner, chief of staff to Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey
• Dr. Michael Tidwell, immediate past president, the University of Texas at Tyler
Bonner, of course, is well known to the South Alabama community as a former congressman from 2003 to 2013, when he resigned to accept the position of vice chancellor for economic development for the University of Alabama System. He held that position for four years before returning to politics.
Among the three candidates, Bonner has the least experience in education. In fact, his own education does not extend beyond a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Alabama. Upon graduation, he began his career as press secretary and chief of staff for then-Congressman Sonny Callahan.
Andrew, on the other hand, is an alumnus of USA with a bachelor’s degree in physical education and a master’s degree in exercise physiology. From there, he earned two additional master’s degrees in biomechanics and sport management from the University of Florida, and a Ph.D. in sport management from Florida State University, according to his biography.
Andrew went on to direct sport management programs at the University of Louisville and the University of Tennessee before accepting positions as dean at Troy University and Louisiana State University. His scholarly interests include leadership in sport, the attraction of sport and the effective integration of disabled individuals into sport.
Similarly, Tidwell is a native of Southern California who earned a bachelor’s degree in communication at Ball State University. He went on to earn a master’s degree and Ph.D. in organizational studies from Washington State University.
Until he accepted the presidency of UT-Tyler in 2017, Tidwell was dean of the Eastern Michigan University College of Business, dean of the College of Business at Bloomsburg University of Pennsylvania and assistant dean of the Clayton State University School of Business.
He has 20 years of administrative experience and teaching experience including faculty positions in Missouri, Washington State, Kentucky and abroad in India and Kenya. He has been a management and research consultant and his research efforts have focused on managing business relationships across international boundaries.
On the surface, two of the candidates appear to meet the faculty senate’s desire for a president with academic achievements and experience, while at least one, Bonner, is perhaps uniquely qualified to represent the school as a “diplomat” or ambassador in government.
When asked about the three finalists last week, Faculty Senate President Beth Shepard didn’t discuss their individual characteristics, but expressed, “USA is at a transformative point in its evolution as a university and our next president will have the opportunity to significantly shape the future of our institution.”
“The faculty see it as important that the board of trustees choose a new president with a record of successful academic leadership and experience, a demonstrated history of successfully advancing diversity, equity and inclusion goals, and a person who can strengthen the university’s connections to the local community,” Shepard wrote. “Additionally, the faculty believe that the next president should have experience in and appreciation and support of research and other scholarly work.”
According to the survey, the faculty was more divided on questions of inclusion and diversity, but about three-quarters believed it was at least moderately important to select a president “who has a documented history of successfully advancing diversity, equity and inclusion goals at a previous university,” and one who “demonstrates a genuine conviction that diversity is essential to improve education, our university and society.”
Respondents were even more divided about whether the next president should be “a person whose hire directly increases the diversity of university administration.” Ninety-nine said the issue was not important at all.
If selected, Tidwell would be the first African American president in USA’s 58-year history. Earlier this year, three faculty members came under fire for pictures posted on the Mitchell College of Business’s Facebook account in 2014 in which they dressed in “offensive” attire at a campus costume contest. More specifically, Bob Wood was pictured wearing a Confederate-themed uniform, while Alex Sharland was dressed as a judge and photographed with Teresa Weldy holding a noose.
Waldrop announced an independent investigation into the photos, which he called “contrary to our core principles of diversity and inclusion.” According to Kaya Wilkinson, president of the USA chapter of the NAACP, that investigation is ongoing, but she is hopeful the board of trustees will break the mold with the presidential selection.
“Our university is very diverse, in terms of student numbers, but engagement is not so inclusive,” she said. “I think we want to see [a president] who basically knows how to handle differences, one who is more aware and conscious of the world today and the time we live in right now.”
Wilkinson said the idea of a Black president is promising, but diversity shouldn’t be judged just by race. USA only has had three previous presidents, all of them have been older White males.
“Diversity could be with anything as far as religion and nationality, the way they were raised and their cultural experiences,” she said. “It’s someone who is more conscious and aware of diversity and knows how to make everyone feel included and they have a space on the campus. I think people are kind of tired of the same types of personalities being the president at South, especially with the world changing every day. People want someone who is more modern, who may be a bit younger, someone who may be more relatable with those who are attending college right now.”
Jim Moore, president of the USA Alumni Association, said he was proud of the search committee and was grateful the Alumni Association had a seat at the table.
“Every alumnus at the university had a chance to nominate somebody to be considered,” Moore said, noting he nominated an individual who did not advance to the list of finalists. “Reading through their resumes right now, [the finalists] all seem outstanding. But resumes say one thing, and when you meet somebody in person, it can be totally different.”
In the coming weeks, all three candidates will meet with the board of trustees behind closed doors, then take campus tours and participate in open forums. Bonner’s interview and forum were held Monday and Tuesday (click here for coverage of the forum), while Andrew’s forum is scheduled Oct. 15 at 11 a.m. at the Mitchell Center and Tidwell’s forum is scheduled Oct. 26, same time and place.
“I’ve never met any of the candidates personally, but I’m looking forward to meeting all three in the next couple weeks,” Moore said.
Jimmy Shumock, chairman of the USA Board of Trustees, said he was pleased with the finalists.
“We are really happy,” Shumock told Lagniappe. “We have a variety of candidates. We’ve got a lot of diversity within the pool, and I don’t mean just ethnicity, I also mean all-around from where they’ve been. We’ve got a former president, we’ve got a current business leader and a current dean at a major university.”
Without naming Bonner in particular, Shumock admitted some board members may be familiar with some of the candidates. But he was assured the position will be offered to the best candidate.
“Quite frankly, the candidates have to apply for the job,” he said. “I will say we had 100 inquiries or more for the position and 40-plus that actually submitted applications. We had a diverse committee of 18 across campus and the community and yes, we knew a lot of [the candidates] personally. I think all three [finalists] have demonstrated their ability to lead where they are and they’ve all been very successful in getting to where they are in their now-careers, and I think we’re in good shape to be able to pick the one, after we interview them over the next couple of weeks, that really will drive South Alabama forward. I think we’ve got that unique opportunity because we’ve got three really good candidates.”
Asked whether the next president will face any particular challenges at USA, Shepard spun a response in a different light.
“I like to think that our new president will have many opportunities rather than challenges,” she said. “For the right candidate, the common challenges facing the contemporary university regarding a steep demographic decline in traditional college-age students, waning state allocations, and heightened social and political conflict also present opportunities to cultivate a more widely diverse student body, develop new grant and fundraising strategies, and evolve curriculum that more fully engage the culture around us.”
Additional information about each finalist is available on the USA President Search website. Shumock said after reviewing feedback from the finalists’ campus visits, the board of trustees will meet to discuss its selection for president. The new president’s start date will be determined by their individual circumstances and will be announced after discussion with the selected candidate.
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.
Tommy Hicks contributed to this report.
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