JM 2-7 column

Published 12:00 am Friday, February 20, 2004

If this were grade school, we wouldn’t have a choice. The teacher would send us straight to the chalkboard with stern instructions.

“Write it 100 times so you never forget again,” the teacher would say.

Then we’d begin writing, in crooked cursive: “It will work.”

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“It will work.”

“It will work.”

What will work? A college, right smack dab in the middle of town. Right here in Demopolis.

Guess what else will work? A university, right there in Livingston. Four years of higher education learning, skilled professors, an athletics program, dormitories, and great big parking lots. The University of West Alabama will work. Write that one down 100 times, too.

If you’re unfamiliar with this issue, Demopolis received $1.245 million to build a “higher education center.” Three institutions — Alabama Southern Community College, UWA and the University of Alabama — all pledged to support the center. They pledged different avenues of support. They also apparently communicated about as poorly as three state institutions could communicate.

What followed was a growing controversy that pitted Alabama Southern against UWA. Preston “Mann” Minus, chairman of the UWA majority board, and I talked Monday and he spelled out the real concerns of placing a JUCO in Demopolis. Woody Collins, Austin Caldwell and Chuck Smith spelled out the benefits of placing a higher education center in Demopolis. Howard Dean called and said he plans to drop out of the presidential race. Wait… Never mind.

One week ago, in this space, I defined legitimate concerns about taking Marengo County students away from UWA, thus costing the Livingston school hundreds of thousands of dollars. I also knew of no solution to address that concern.

Talk to enough people enough times, and it’s amazing what happens — especially if you listen. Turns out there is a solution, but in an awkward sense of the word.

A whole lot of people have a dog in this fight. The Livingston folks care about their city (and university) first. The Demopolis folks care about their city (and higher ed center) first.

All the while, we’re trying to fit this convoluted sense of regionalism into the mix. We want to say the right things at the expense of saying the true things.

Dr. Richard Holland, president at UWA, doesn’t want to ruffle the Demopolis feathers because his university stands to lose too much. Maybe that’s why he attended the Demopolis Chamber of Commerce banquet last week.

Mayor Caldwell doesn’t want to tell long-time friend and Livingston Mayor Tom Tartt to take a hike, either. Caldwell doesn’t ever stir the masses — at least publicly — and with seven months until retirement, why start now?

The last ingredient, Alabama Southern President Dr. John Johnson, probably would admit he has a college-president-sized ego, and he just wants to cut the ribbon on a new school. He’s spent time in Demopolis, and he attended the bi-state bore-me-posium at UWA on Friday, but in my opinion, regionalism ranks somewhere near the ground on Johnson’s priority list.

There’s a cryptic sense of beauty to that equation: Solving the emerging conflicts between UWA, Alabama Southern and Demopolis is about as easy as getting a kid to write in crooked cursive.

For the past two weeks, all we’ve talked about are problems.

Holland, who assured his faculty and staff back in 2002 that no community college would open in Demopolis, now has to answer to a board of trustees that thinks a community college is about to open.

The UWA board has to answer to the gang down at the barber shop that wants to know why its beloved university is about to lose 200 students.

Caldwell, Collins, Smith et. al. don’t want to look like the evil villains to the East, and they don’t want citizens in the region to think they’re going to destroy a state university. They also don’t want to waste $1.245 million.

And Johnson, again, just wants to cut the ribbon on a new school. If the school works, it’s a feather in his administrative cap. If it doesn’t work… hey, he tried to help Demopolis and the entire region.

If the teacher told us to write: “It will work,” there must have been a reason. She didn’t con us, did she?

This project will work because we’re dealing with the unknown.

We can sit around the card table and try to predict how many students from Marengo County will leave UWA and attended the Demopolis whachacallit, but do we really know?

Sure, there will be some who opt to take core classes in Demopolis for two years, but we don’t how many. Maybe it’ll be 100; maybe it’ll be 10.

Sure Johnson wants to offer associate degrees at the Demopolis center, but do we have any idea how many kids who would have never gone to college decide they can fork out $800 a semester to get a chance at higher education? And do we know how many of those students will continue their education at UWA? And what if they do so well in undergrad that they take some graduate classes — at UWA — after that?

If the unknown dictated decisions, we’d have told Columbus to turn around, Franklin to cut the string, and Davey Crockett to stay out of the frontier.

As far as I know, the education leaders of this project still haven’t met. When they do, the unknown might just become electricity. And if it doesn’t, we’ll fly another kite.