Change of Power: Saad picked to lead UWA board

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, June 8, 2004

LIVINGSTON — University of West Alabama President Dr. Richard Holland sat at the head of his conference room table Monday afternoon, offering barely a fidget or a noise.

A few seats down, Alex Saad, unanimously selected new chairman of the UWA Board of Trustees just three hours earlier, made plenty of noise — and he made it perfectly clear.

“Our job is to hire and dismiss the president,” he said, bluntly. Holland didn’t budge.

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Sure, a university’s board of trustees has numerous other responsibilities. As Saad outlined them, this particular board approves a budget, blesses building programs and aids in the overall advancement of the university. But in his sharp, short sentences, Saad’s point made perfect sense.

In some ways, Saad’s is the right approach, considering the near cataclysmic tenure of the university’s board over the past two years. Lawsuits, in-fighting and division of powers tip the heap of havoc created from steadfast board members.

“You know, I think every member of this board has always wanted the best for our university,” said Saad, appointed five years ago by former Gov. Don Siegelman. “But there’s been a real big difference in opinion about how things should have been done.”

Classifying the disagreements as “big differences” might be the nicest choice of words. In fact, the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools considered the differences so immense that the agency immediately placed the university on academic probation last winter.

“In some ways, I think it may have taken the SACS probation to wake some people up,” Saad said. “Today, before our meeting started and after it was over, I think everybody in that room was 100 percent supportive of getting this SACS thing off the university.”

The unanimous vote to select Saad as the new chairman may have been the first indication. Preston “Mann” Minus, who called Monday’s board meeting to order, made it a point to put the new chairman immediately in his place — literally. Within 10 minutes of the meeting, Minus and Saad changed seats.

Clearing the university of the SACS probation — even worse, a possible loss of accreditation — may be as simple as the shuffling of a few seats.

“The SACS report said ‘This is what’s broken. Now repair it,'” Saad said. “It’s about being better organized. It’s about not interfering with the day-to-day operation of the university.”

Beyond that, the new chairman said, members of the board must simply do their jobs approving budgets and promoting the university.

“This probation isn’t academic, really,” he said. “We’ve got the proper faculty, and we’re teaching the proper courses. We’ve just had a board that’s been in a struggle, in a fight for a number of years, and the only people who can repair the problem are the board members.”

Will that be easier said than done? Not according to Saad, who has already thought through the possibility of further in-fighting on the UWA Board of Trustees.

If it happens, Saad believes bringing the problem — and the perpetrators — to light immediately is the best solution. He indicated public sanctions, with a dose of humiliation, might offer the best option to nip a boisterous disagreement before it escalates into a problem.

“You know, when the 13 board members are gone, the brick and mortar of this university will still be right here,” Saad said. “No one will be visiting my grave in 100 years, but they’ll be visiting this university.”

Saad’s attitude of oneness comes through in his answers to nearly every question. Asked about the time he’ll invest in his new position as chairman, the Daphne businessman replied, “As much as it takes.”

Saad is part owner of a family business that operates retirement communities and nursing homes and sells medical equipment.

“We’ve got a family with two graduates from UWA and four who attended,” Saad said. “Because of that strong connection, and because I’m in a family business that has other family members who can help, I’ll have as much time to dedicate as I need to.”

In philosophical terms, Saad considers the role of the board to be almost transparent.

“I believe this board is going to do the right things,” he said. “And in some kind of way, I’d like to see us disappear from the front page of the newspaper.”

If he has his way, Saad’s 3-year tenure as board chairman will create headlines of the kinder version.

“We need to get involved in advancing this university,” he said. “We’re starved for fundraising, and we need to continue promoting the positives.”