The Right Choice for Alabama State President Isn’t Even a Close Call

Most higher education insiders can easily recognize when the fix is on in a presidential search. Maybe the process is conducted in secret without input from the campus, or the position description is written to match the skill set of a particular candidate.

But the easiest way to spot a stacked search in favor of one candidate is to look at the list of finalists, and when that list reveals skill or cultural mismatch, you only have to look down the list to see which person stands out from the others.

This is what’s happening with Alabama State University, which yesterday revealed its list of four finalists for a new president. There is no question about how critical this search is for the university, which has fired two presidents since 2012, and will look to fill the position for the sixth time in the last nine years.

The ASU presidency has been a political and cultural lightning rod in the state for dozens of years, reaching an apex in 2012 when the university hired Joseph Silver and fired him after his attempts to expose corruption among its board of trustees and executive cabinet. That firing revealed the interference of then-Governor Robert Bentley, which led to a years-long, multi-million dollar forensic audit which yielded no results.

It also led to the hiring of Gwendolyn Boyd, who almost instantly became the target of sexist-driven campaigns for her ouster, and internal efforts to expose the university’s shortcomings in accreditation sustainability, external contracts and hiring controversies.

All of those things led to yesterday’s crop of finalists, which we now know should favor Alabama State alumnus and Alabama state senator Quentin Ross. A finalist in the search which produced Dr. Boyd, Ross now has two things he did not have in 2013; no competition from a super candidate (Dr. Boyd was an ASU alumna with a doctorate in theology vying to become the university’s first female president), and a full slate of competition from former presidents who based on circumstances of departure from their previous institutions, should be nowhere near the ASU search.

The other finalists are former Grambling State University President Willie Larkin, former Norfolk State University President Tony Atwater, and former Johnson & Wales President Robert Mock Jr.

Dr. Larkin was forced out at Grambling less than a year after his arrival, following a no-confidence vote from faculty, controversy over his engagement in academic affairs and institutional strategy, and misleading statements about a trip to Cuba for outreach, which were later revealed to be a vacation with the choir from his previous institution, Morgan State University.

Dr. Atwater was fired following revelations surrounding accreditation, a refusal to meet filing deadlines with state auditors, and disconnection with faculty.

Dr. Mock left his institution after just one year, and no one knows why.

If Dr. Ross doesn’t get the job, there’s every reason to believe that politics continue to drive the actions of the ASU board, which over the last five years has had members dismissed, appointed and publicly chastised for the struggles of the institution. The last thing ASU needs is to bring in a president who either has issues with telling the truth, issues with managing finances, or who may have issues from a previous campus following him to Montgomery. 

None of the four finalists exactly fits ASU’s most pressing needs – finance and management, fundraising, and STEM development – but with Dr. Ross comes relationships in the state legislature, a knowledge of the best and worst of ASU’s culture, and the endorsement of alumni and executive stakeholders.

Presidential stability may cause the ASU board to learn how to be less engaged in day-to-day operations, may give state lawmakers pause on its efforts to disrupt the school into accreditation censure, and may give alumni and students the confidence that the school continues to be worth support in donations, enrollment and graduation. 

Or maybe the right hire will do none of these things. But the prospect of getting it right requires that the school do the right thing, right now. One candidate fits this objective, and looking at the full list of finalists, it appears ASU is well on its way to finally getting it right.

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