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Killing UAB Football Is Part Of A Larger Plan For The Alabama Board Of Trustees

Underlying data and anecdotes suggest that UAB's loss of football is part of a greater UA System goal fueled by generations-old classism and out-moded business practices.

Stephen Dunn/Getty Images

One of the big questions in the UAB football saga is that of motive. It's clear now that the University of Alabama System Board of Trustees, with the assistance of current UAB president Ray Watts, decided they wanted the program dead and then went out and found some reasons to justify it.

But why?

Tuscaloosa Feels Underpopulated

Plenty of football powerhouses have strong mid-major programs in their states and manage to coexist peacefully. Whether it's only a few teams trying to coexist (Georgia, Georgia Tech, Georgia Southern and Georgia State) or a whole gaggle of teams tripping over each other geographically (Texas, Texas State, Texas-San Antonio, Texas A&M, Baylor, Texas Christian and Southern Methodist all within three hours of each other), they figure out how to coexist.

If that many teams can succeed just within the golden triangle of Texas, why would Alabama have such trouble with fewer teams in more space? Did the Crimson Tide really see the Blazers as a threat to recruiting and fan support?

I don't think so, and neither does anybody else.

Then again, this isn't actually about athletics. The motive behind the whole football fiasco is to draw in a university's most valuable resource: students. The Board of Trustees wants rapid enrollment growth in Tuscaloosa, with an end goal of being among the top five nationally in enrollment.

What would that look like? Well, if I take the national enrollment numbers and remove those that get massive droves of online students, this is the top ten, with Alabama added at the bottom for perspective.

Rank School Location Enrollment
1 Arizona State University Tempe, Arizona 60,168
2 University of Central Florida Orlando, Florida 59,770
3 Texas A&M University College Station, Texas 58,809
4 Ohio State University Columbus, Ohio 57,466
5 Florida International University Miami, Florida 52,980
6 University of Texas at Austin Austin, Texas 51,145
7 Michigan State University East Lansing, Michigan 49,300
8 University of Florida Gainesville, Florida 49,042
9 University of Minnesota Minneapolis/Saint Paul, Minnesota 48,308
10 Indiana University Bloomington, Indiana 46,817
** University of Alabama Tuscaloosa, Alabama 36,155

As you can see, this vision for the system's flagship campus is going to require nearly 50 percent growth from its current enrollment. Surely the Alabama administration wouldn't set a goal that it couldn't realistically reach, so what's the big deal?

Nowhere to Go But Down

Well, the state population is more or less stagnant. It has only grown 8.7 percent since 2000, and has grown only 1 percent over the last three years. Because of this, they've had to get creative.

First came adding students from outside the state. Aggressively so, if you look at the data that goes along with the trend:




What you see there is a school that has drifted further and further out of state in order to boost its enrollment numbers. Since 2007, overall undergraduate enrollment has increased 71 percent, while in the same period of time, in-state enrollment for undergraduates has actually gone down 4 percent. This leads UA to where it is today, a place where a full 60 percent of its most recent freshman class was from out of state, and 51 percent of its entire student body is not from Alabama.

Of course, you can only continue that kind of growth for so long before folks start sending leery eyes your way for being a supposed "flagship" university of the state while having a student body that has so many "foreigners."

It has already started, with some people questioning its status as a state school when so few of its students come from its own state. But if such rampant recruitment from other states has only gotten it halfway to its ultimate goal, what comes next?

Borrowing from Gene to Pay Paul

If you can't steal more out-of-state students, I guess you steal in-state students. Now, stealing from Auburn would lead to an all-out war, so you do the next best thing and bring in students from institutions you control.

I doubt that UA would do such a thing with UAH, at least in part because Huntsville is so small that UA could shut down and absorb the entire campus and UAT would still only gain about a 20 percent increase in enrollment, leaving them another 10-15,000 students shy of their goal.

It just so happens that UAB has roughly those 15,000 full-time students who could potentially bridge such a gap. Rumor has it that if those running the University of Alabama system got their way, the UAB campus would eventually revert to its origins as the UA medical school, so Tuscaloosa could absorb all those bodies and be that much closer to their goal.

One good way to do this is to take away programs undergrads want, such as a football team or the marching band that exists largely because of that team. Then those undergraduates begin to lose interest and seek to transfer, and you can continue to have what UA wants: enrollment that is growing far faster than any of its competitors and far faster than any other data would suggest is possible.

Enrollment Number vs Year

Alabama saw 74 percent growth while most of its counterparts saw anywhere from 9.9 to 28.7 percent growth. So that means that there has been a 20 percent increase in full-time enrollment at four-year public institutions across the entire state of Alabama in the last ten years, and only one of its 14 four-year institutions is responsible for nearly 60 percent of that growth.

Look at enough of this data, and you see a pattern of growth that is most certainly unsustainable, even by unnatural means like skewed out-of-state recruiting or in-state poaching, and it's not even necessarily serving a direction that all of the university's own faculty is interested in travelling.

Aiming to Be R1, Not Just D1

Most four-year universities pride themselves on bringing in teachers who do great research and also teach great things. Many schools, including Alabama, talk about being an R1 school, or one that is in the first tier of schools with respect to the amount of money they have available to conduct research. Alabama is missing that mark by a wide margin, having ranked 194th nationally in total research funding two years ago.

In an email to all UA faculty on Jan. 15, 2015, they were asked three questions with regards to the next university president:

  • What do you think the focus of the search committee should be as the search moves forward?
  • In what direction do you believe the university must move in the future?
  • How does that direction need to tie to the leadership and vision of the new president?

As I sifted through 37 pages worth of responses, patterns became evident. There were repeated mentions of the university's poor focus on research and graduate education. There were also repeated mentions, even among those who were happy with the undergraduate growth, about a lack of effort towards modifying the university's infrastructure and staffing to actually accommodate all that growth. Some highlights:

"Considering the already large number of students, a further 50% boost in student number seems unrealistic and perhaps not even desirable."

This one and several others referenced the fact that they would like the administration to put more effort into adjusting staffing to manage the currently bloated student to faculty ratio before increasing the top half of that fraction.

Here we go again. In 2013 President Guy Bailey resigned his short lived appointment...if the rumor mill is not in error, because the BoT blocked his plans to rein in "The Machine"'s century old lock of frats/sors on the UA SGA....Under Prez Bob Witt, UA has expanded so much (in size alone) since 2003 that the numerical majority of the undergraduate student body is from outside Alabama, and their quality (as measured by National Merit Scholarships and other metrics) has improved.

So here's our first mention of The Machine (which we will come back to) but there's mention of significant growth, a sticking point for better or worse among numerous UA faculty based on these survey answers.

I don't think the current administration has thought carefully enough about how to manage the costs and benefits that have resulted from the successful recruiting of additional students. Furthermore, it is my understanding that there is no "Plan B" if there is a decrease in the number of paying students. The most important issue facing the university is a shortage of doctoral students...any policy designed to be a solution to this problem, however, will be subject to the constraint that most of the universities resources come from tuition and fees paid by undergraduate students.

So here we have mention of that lack of planning beyond "add more bodies," as well as an absence of alternative planning in case "add more bodies" stops being successful.

As growth slows, finding alternative revenue streams...building campus human resource infrastructure to match the demands created by growth.

There it is, pretty much literally. Simultaneously referencing that a) there is a finite end to this growth and b) there needs to be better supply to meet the accompanying demands, whether that growth continues or not. Of course, that kind of structural bolstering isn't on the administration's radar, because their plan of attack is outdated from the start.

More Isn't Better, It's Just Different

UA's dilemma is not all that different from what I've seen first hand in the realm of physical therapy. Most companies respond similarly to a loss of revenue and face what they see as a difficult choice: completely overhaul their business model and accompanying portfolio of revenue streams (in terms of both services provided and how they provide them), or simply acquire more providers of service and more services to provide.

The choice between re- configuring your revenue and adding more sources is not "this solution or that solution," though. The choice you really face is whether to solve the problem now by reformulating your portfolio, or just patch the problem now with an expanded portfolio so that someone else can deal with the reconfiguration later.

The University of Alabama at Tuscaloosa is not in the same quandary (there's only so much re-configuring you can do within your student body), but they are attempting the same solution. Get more students (especially out-of-state ones who have to pay a lot more), bring in more money, and all will be solved. Of course, that only temporarily solves anything, because like most things education is ever-evolving, so today's solution won't likely work tomorrow.

UA Student Government Association president Elliot Spillers, the first black SGA president at Alabama since 1976, made a salient point when he was asked about the Machine's influence in blocking his staff appointments after failing to prevent his election. He said that their influence is still there, but it has gradually lessened because the university as a whole had grown, changed and diversified much faster than they had.

Adapt or die, right? Well, we may be witnessing the beginning of that death.

"That's the way it has always been done" is not in and of itself a legitimate reason for doing anything, ever. At an absolute bare minimum, you must provide a logical explanation as to why the way it has been done until now is superior to the change that is being proposed.

Things change over time. For instance, up until about 15 years ago Texas State primarily allowed UT dropouts to drift off to San Marcos, so the Texas flagship snatching that up would be akin to just reabsorbing a satellite campus. Nowadays that wouldn't work, because Texas State has grown and evolved into serving a completely different clientele, one that is wholly separate from the flagship and whose students would be the furthest thing from guaranteed to enroll at UT if San Marcos wasn't an option.

Both UAB and UA have changed and grown over time (both in size and composition), and this has likely caused similar shifts in the type and number of students who find each place appealing. UAB, the booming undergraduate campus, draws a very different crowd than UAB, the glorified med school, did, just like a 36,000-student UA campus would attract a very different student than a 25,000-student UA campus.

This is the kind of logic that UA is missing out on: you can't just operate on the assumption that removing the things that would make UAB a desirable destination for 15,000 undergraduates would lead to a 15,000-student bump for you. Maybe they choose South Alabama or Troy or Alabama State or somewhere else altogether.

Those are the kind of assumptions you would expect from someone with a sense of entitlement, and that attitude at UA is behind all of this. They laud themselves as superior to to UAB or UAH, but that's kind of a given. Their campus is more than 180 years old, while UAB and UAH combined haven't even been around for 120 years yet.

It's the rough equivalent of a 22-year-old bragging about how he dunked on his six-year-old nephew out on the basketball court. Bragging about repeatedly outperforming someone over whom you have a long-standing and substantial competitive advantage is tacky at best.

But eventually that changes. Eventually everyone ages, and it's not so easy to dunk on your nephew when suddenly he's 16 and you're 32, especially when you've let yourself go and he's actually participated in sports during school. Go another ten years down the road, and now you're in your forties, and he's in his prime and pretending to let you win.

Rage Against "The Machine"

Which brings me back to The Machine. The group I reference is one of those "the first rule of The Machine is you don't talk about The Machine" organizations, tacitly acknowledged by just about everyone with a strong knowledge of Tuscaloosa history.

It was once a national fraternity, then became a national secret society, and now it exists only here at Alabama. I bring this story back around to The Machine so that I can discuss the following point; within the context of what is known about this organization, the Board of Trustees' behavior towards UAB and its athletic department makes a lot more sense.

Here is an excerpt from a feature written on the group in Esquire magazine back in 1992, edited for length:

It controls life at the University of Alabama, but nobody can see it. Its influence extends to the statehouse, but nobody can touch it. It stinks of corruption, but nobody can smell it. It is, simply, the Machine...

But what's most striking about the Machine is the extent of its influence. U. S. Senator Richard Shelby of Alabama is said to be a former Machine president (his office denies that he was a member of TNE), and many of the leading politicians in the state have been products of this organization. The Machine's power lies not only in the people it turns out but in the lessons it offers on how power is won and wielded. Indeed, it has helped remake state politics in its own shadowy image...

The Machine is the academy for people going into state politics, so it's part of the problem. First off; Greeks leave Tuscaloosa with too many of the wrong friends to ever be effective reformers. They aren't going to campaign against the network they raise money from...

For another thing, the Machine — an unaccountable group meeting in a back room as kingmakers — offers outmoded political lessons. The people who are brought up in this fashion are good organization men, and very polished to boot; but they aren't necessarily good politicians. They tend to feel entitled. No wonder Alabama is alone among the Deep South states in never having elected a New South governor...

The Machine has no understanding of how common students feel."

If you'd like to think of this as a story of a long-ago time pulled from an archive, then you're probably unaware of all of the myriad allegations that have been levied against The Machine just in the 20 years since this article was written, most of which center around utilizing their structurally ingrained privilege to their political advantage. It is no different now than it was when this story went to print.

When you add to this the fact that two of the Board of Trustees' loudest detractors in UAB's general direction -- Joe Espy and Paul Bryant, Jr. -- are purportedly Machine alumni, then this entire situation becomes a whole lot clearer.

The Machine is all about protecting its own, and so is the University of Alabama flagship.

The Machine is all about doing what is necessary to achieve the right end goal (garnering votes for the right candidates), and so is the University of Alabama flagship (garnering students to reach its own on-campus goals).

While I would be remiss to not commend that brand of fierce loyalty to one's own, as well as some serious political prowess, those are both skills that can quickly turn a situation sour when they aren't being used for good. Or more specifically, when they do only as much good as they want, and not as much good as they could.

Lead, Follow, or Get Out of Your Own Way

When you've been doing something long enough, it's easy to get lost in upholding traditions and defending your borders, rather than searching for ways in which you can grow, change and -- God forbid -- even improve with the infusion of some new perspective and opportunities. Adapt or die.

That's what we have right now, because everybody who is a member of the University of Alabama system would much rather see it adapt than die. The system can grow, change and improve from allowing as many new and original ideas as possible to enter the conversation, while allowing all of the old ideas to at least be tested if not modified and/or eliminated, and finding out what they are truly capable of achieving.

I would imagine they could achieve a lot when everyone whose affiliation begins with "University of Alabama" attempts to work together, instead of attacking anyone whose affiliation doesn't end with "Tuscaloosa." I also hope that it happens soon, because otherwise there will be no option but to remove the affiliation altogether. If this is truly to be a system of universities, then they will succeed as much as possible because of each other, rather than in spite of each other like they are now.

We're at a dangerous crossroads. It's not just a matter of "adapt or die;" you have to adapt in the right ways. The University of Alabama System administrators need to make the right steps, ones in the best interest of everyone. Otherwise, they could wind up permanently injuring or stunting the growth of everyone (including their own flagship campus), simply because of their insistence that they know what is right.