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Conflicts emerge over city’s ‘higher ed center’

Two years ago, the relationship between three institutions of higher education in Alabama couldn’t have been cozier.

Alabama Southern Community College, the University of West Alabama and the University of Alabama all wrote endorsing letters for a new higher education center in Demopolis. Those letters — written to the Delta Regional Authority — ultimately secured $1.25 million for the city of Demopolis to construct the higher education center.

Today, those letters are a memory.

Dr. Richard Holland, president of UWA, has made it clear he’s disappointed in the planning and communication among those who first solicited letters of support from his university.

“We entered into an agreement with the University of Alabama and Alabama Southern to offer courses at the Demopolis center,” Holland said. “But we were supposed to meet about what courses would be offered, and I haven’t even heard from John Johnson.”

John Johnson, president of Alabama Southern, helped lead the effort to obtain the $1.25 million grant from the Delta Regional Authority. He also agreed that Alabama Southern would manage the higher education center in Demopolis. But as far as course work at the Demopolis facility, Holland had no idea Johnson wanted to open another branch of Alabama Southern.

“We thought [Johnson] was going to simply coordinate the scheduling of classes,” Holland said. “This was not to be an Alabama Southern extension.”

Apparently, the dissatisfaction of Holland has sweltered over the past few months. In late 2003, officials from the city of Demopolis released a new name for the higher education center. In a story printed by The Times, the center would be called Alabama Southern Community College Demopolis University Center.

Initially, it appeared Johnson took a bold move to establish the Demopolis center as his own. In reality, that wasn’t the case.

“As far as the name goes, there’s nothing for certain right now,” Johnson said.

Last year, officials from the city of Demopolis and chamber of commerce hosted a group of industrial prospects. During a conversation with those prospects, the new education center was discussed. At first, the prospects didn’t care much about a “higher education center.” Then, prospects heard a different explanation.

“Somebody told them it was going to be a community college, and apparently [the industrial prospects’] eyes lit up,” said Johnson, who was not present during the conversation.

Demopolis Mayor Austin Caldwell confirmed that report.

“That’s pretty much right,” he said. “That’s where it started.”

From that meeting with potential industries came the birth of a new name for the overly bland “Demopolis Higher Education Center.” With no apparent legal papers signed, the center adopted Alabama Southern Community College as its prefix.

What’s in a name?

Holland, who expressed concern over the name of the Demopolis center, said the biggest source of frustration in the project came when Alabama Southern began advertising for staff positions at the new school.

Among other things, Alabama Southern has taken applications for math, English and science teachers, and for Holland, that translated into a competitor more than a partner for UWA.

“My understanding throughout this entire thing was that the Demopolis facility would serve as a place for distance learning and workforce development,” Holland said. “Now it looks like a community college.”

During the application process for the $1.25 million grant, Johnson said he never indicated he would not use the school for core classes. In fact, Johnson’s letter supporting the center spelled out his college’s intention at the Demopolis school. Item No. 2 of Alabama Southern’s letter stated they would “provide university transfer associate degrees in selected majors which will be guaranteed to transfer to Alabama universities.”

“I thought it was pretty clear,” Johnson said. “We weren’t trying to hide that.”

The real controversy

Like so many other issues that soon become controversies, the apparent problems between Alabama Southern and UWA stem from one necessity: Communication.

Holland, who said his board of trustees has expressed dissatisfaction in the Demopolis center, said being left in the dark on curriculum is his biggest concern.

“To be honest, I have probably dropped the ball,” Johnson said. “I haven’t done a good job of communicating, and that’s totally my fault.”

Carolyn Dahl, who has represented the University of Alabama in the Demopolis center planning, admitted she doesn’t know much about the curriculum plans for a school Johnson said will begin enrollment and counseling as early as March.

“I don’t really know anything about the status of it,” Dahl said. “As far as I know, we’re still going to be involved, but I haven’t been involved in any recent discussions about it.”

Even Mayor Caldwell had concerns about Johnson’s recent moves.

“We were supposed to have a meeting — all of us — to discuss those things,” Caldwell said. “We haven’t heard anything.”

Johnson pledged to extend an olive branch to both Holland and Dahl. And he’s already scheduled a meeting with Caldwell for Tuesday.

“I think this tension is something we’ll work out,” Johnson said. “The mayor, the University of West Alabama and the University of Alabama delegated that to me, and we’re going to work this out.”

In any project of this magnitude, the bumps are a given. As for Johnson, Holland, Dahl and Caldwell, the next step seems quite simple.

“We need to meet to determine the next step,” Johnson said.

Coming Saturday: Can a college really make it in Demopolis?