President only evidence of Auburn’s problem

Published 12:00 am Friday, January 23, 2004

Auburn University appears to be on the brink of real change. The optimist hopes that’s true; the pessimist is waiting to be shown.

If Gov. Bob Riley can pull it off, reforming the way Auburn is run will rank high in any list of accomplishments of his administration.

Creating stability at Auburn, the state’s largest university, is important to more than just the Auburn “family.” The state’s research universities are critical to Alabama’s economic health in the 21st century, and Riley knows it.

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Auburn has been in ferment for years, but the letter from the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools placing the school on probation was finally a call to action.

SACS said the university hasn’t ensured that there is delineation between the role of the trustees as policy makers and the role of the president as the chief executive officer.

It said the university hadn’t proved that the trustees are not controlled by a minority of board members and had failed to prove that a majority of the trustees had no personal or financial interest in the university.

SACS said the university had not proved the president has control over the athletics program and over athletic funds.

Many faculty and alumni have been making the same charges for years with little effect.

Although the SACS probation is critically important, it wasn’t likely to get the degree of attention that the possible NCAA sanctions against the university’s basketball program would get.

The board of trustees probably would have applied whatever minimal measures would satisfy SACS and gone on.

Then President William Walker (accompanied by trustees Earlon McWhorter and Byron Franklin on trustee Bobby Lowder’s company jet) took that ill-advised trip to Louisville on Iron Bowl eve to try to recruit a replacement for football coach Tommy Tuberville.

It was a freeze frame of every bad thing about the way the university has been ruled, and it gave Riley an opportunity to take bold action.

Clearly, it was Riley who told Walker he could serve the university best by stepping down.

Clearly, it was Riley who decided that state schools superintendent Ed Richardson was the person to work through the problems as interim president.

Walker, however, was not the problem. He was only evidence of the problem. The key to any real and lasting change is in the composition of the board of trustees. It is there that Riley has the opportunity to make a lasting impact.

He needs help from the state Senate, which has to vote to confirm trustees.

The Senate stalled last year on the nomination of three trustees, all of whom appear to be independent of the current trustee power structure. The names of the three have been submitted again, and senators have promised a vote during the coming session.

The death of trustee Jimmy Samford in December created another vacancy. Richardson served as a trustee by virtue of his job as state schools superintendent. His replacement in that job will fill Richardson’s slot on the Auburn board of trustees.

There have been calls for the resignations of trustees Lowder, McWhorter and Franklin, but the three give no indication that they’re listening. Even if they remain, five new trustees are likely to change the dynamics of the board.

Some faculty members were unhappy that Richardson was named interim president without their input. Riley makes the plausible case, though, that the university needs to begin dealing with the SACS probation immediately.

Richardson has said he will serve only as interim president.

Walker, it should be recalled, also was an interim president. Then the trustees removed the acting title without conducting a genuine search.

That cannot be allowed to happen again.

It will take a truly national search and the selection of a president who has no allegiances with any board faction to demonstrate that things really have changed.

The more cerebral types complain that football gets too much emphasis at the expense of the other roles a university plays.

So there is some irony in the fact that a flap over a football coach may the spark for real institutional reform.

If that happens, maybe one day they’ll name an academic building for Tommy Tuberville.

Bill Brown can be contacted at 377 Quail Hollow Drive, Dadeville AL 36853 or by e-mail at

(c)2004 William B. Brown