If I told you a local research university started something called the Clean Air Initiative, you'd probably shrug and say something like, "cool. I'm all for the environment man."
If told you that and your name was Ray Watts and you just became president of UAB, you'd say, "yea that needs to be killed with the quickness."
If you were Watts, you'd also be one of the driving forces behind starting the initiative in the first place.
That's what a group called GASP (Greater Birmingham Alliance to Stop Pollution if you're curious) claims Watts did after being named Alabama-Birmingham President in 2012 in an obviously political move. If you replace "Clean Air Initiative" with "Blazers football team" the saga reads like the one that played out last fall.
Keeping it short, the CAI was started by Watts when he was dean of the UAB medical school. The aim was to study possible effects of Birmingham's industrial plants on the city's air quality, which apparently isn't good.
Stacie M. Propst, PhD, GASP's executive director, took her post with the group the same week the previous UAB president announced her resignation.
Then Watts took over:
Soon after joining GASP, I was engaged in the planning for the Clean Air Initiative Symposium to be held on Sept. 21, 2012 at UAB. The draft agenda included Garrison, Watts and Marchase. Abruptly, Watts informed the Clean Air Initiative partners that the Southern Environmental Law Center would not be permitted to participate in the Symposium. It was clear, even to a newcomer like me, that the move was purely political.
Around the same time, according to Propst, the Birmingham Business Alliance pushed Birmingham-Southern College out of the deal. The entire Clean Air Initiative was all but scrapped soon after, with Watts not bothering to consult GASP or the American Lung Association about it.
To recap: This happened not long after Watts became president. Not long before he became president, he'd been scheduled to speak about how important the initiative was!
Part of Watt's motive in the killing, GASP says, was to advance the financial interests of one Garry Neil Drummond, a University of Alabama System Board of Trustees Emeritus and CEO of Drummond Co., a major Birmingham coal company.
Anybody else feel like they've already watched this movie?
It isn't surprising there might be tension between an environmental group and a business that runs industrial plants. But for one person to back an environmental initiative, get promoted, and then kill it less than a year later?
Let's not even get into the time he scared everyone into thinking he was going to kill UAB's elite honors programs.
Once that issue was resolved Watts actually had a moment of clarity.
"If there's any responsibility for the miscommunication, I take it."
That would be nice to hear today.