Johnson: College will work

Published 12:00 am Saturday, January 31, 2004

Without a doubt, confusion lingers over the purpose of a new higher education center for Demopolis. Then again, the confusion must be qualified.

Dr. Richard Holland, president of the University of Alabama, openly discussed his concern over a project he endorsed — and ultimately helped obtain $1.25 million. When the city of Demopolis applied for the Delta Regional Authority grant that would fund a new higher education center built on property at the city’s SportsPlex, Holland’s willingness to publicly support the project certainly aided in the city’s ultimate success in obtaining the grant.

But Holland wasn’t the only one who offered his school’s support. The University of Alabama got behind the project. And Alabama Southern Community College President Dr. John Johnson got behind the project.

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Truth be known, Johnson spearheaded the project. He also offered his college’s resources to manage the new Demopolis higher education center, meaning the only responsibility for UA and UWA would be to offer classes at the facility.

Johnson has taken heat for the lack of communications between his college and the two universities in this project. Some privately have indicated Johnson had intentions of making the Demopolis center just another branch of Alabama Southern. And while Johnson admits he “dropped the ball” in terms of communication between the city and the two universities, he does not believe he misled anyone about his intentions for the new education center.

“I thought it was pretty clear from our letter what [Alabama Southern] planned to offer in Demopolis,” Johnson said.

And his point appears valid. In the official letter from Johnson endorsing the Demopolis project, the college president spelled out eight commitments to the new facility. In summary, Alabama Southern would:

Lease the facilities and manage the annual operations of the center;

Provide university transfer associate degrees in selected majors which would transfer to any Alabama university;

Provide 50 percent of the coursework required for an associate degree in Paper and Chemical Technology (and possibly Industrial Engineering Technology);

Provide associate degree and certificate technical training in selected areas based on community need;

Coordinate adult education and development coursework necessary to enable the under-prepared;

Coordinate Workforce Investment Act training and services;

Coordinate facility scheduling with the University of West Alabama and the University of Alabama to assure access to baccalaureate and graduate coursework; and

Coordinate with the Alabama Technology Network to provide short-term technical training and technical assistance needed by business and industry.

Johnson outlined those plans in a letter dated March 25, 2002, and he hasn’t changed his thoughts.

“We do want to offer the first two years of core classes for students,” Johnson said. “And those courses are guaranteed by the Legislature to transfer to any state university.”

When Demopolis began the process of applying for the DRA grant, Johnson was involved in the preparation. When the architects were hired to design the building, Johnson strongly urged the Demopolis City Council to hire PH&J Architects because of his working relationship with them. And when the blueprints to the new center were complete, Johnson lent his eye to the plans. In other words, he’s been more involved in this higher education center than any other president — in part because UWA and UA only thought the center would serve as a satellite office for all three schools.

Though he’s careful about his comments regarding the future of the Demopolis higher education center, it’s clear Johnson has a community college in mind when he discusses the project. But what makes him think this will work?

In the late 1990s, Alabama Southern operated a satellite campus in Demopolis that ultimately failed. Before that, Shelton State in Tuscaloosa tried the same thing and it failed. This time, Johnson says the results will be different.

“The only two attempts at this in Demopolis have been when the classes were evening only,” he said. “I know this can be an effective operation with an organized commitment in the community.”

Johnson admits the closing of his college’s satellite office left a “sour taste.”

“When you run something like that, it’s always a challenge in rural areas,” he said. “You have so many things you have to watch. You have to keep overhead as low as possible.”

Things are different now, he said.

“What we have now is a collaborative effort of a community college and two universities,” Johnson said. “We have a tremendous improvement in technology and the ability to deliver, electronically, a class from any institution.”

According to the proposal written by the city of Demopolis, the new education center will spend $300,000 on computer and technological equipment.

“You have a significant commitment from the community and from the Delta Regional Authority,” Johnson said. “And it is so encouraging to know that you’ll be able to serve college students in your area.”