3 years ago

Bama has grown into an economic powerhouse as its new president charts a path forward

Dr. Stuart R. Bell, the 29th President of the University of Alabama, has just released a new strategic plan for the fastest growing flagship university in America. (Photo: contributed)
Dr. Stuart R. Bell, the 29th President of the University of Alabama, has just released a new strategic plan for the fastest growing flagship university in America. (Photo: contributed)

The University of Alabama last week rolled out a “strategic plan” that will serve as a roadmap going forward for the fastest growing flagship university in America.

The strategic plan’s four stated goals focus on “providing a premier undergraduate and graduate education,” bolstering the university’s research and innovation capacity, enriching the work environment on the Tuscaloosa campus, and recruiting and retaining top-notch students, faculty and staff.

UA president Dr. Stuart Bell, who has been in Tuscaloosa for just over a year, told Yellowhammer the strategic plan’s completion is perhaps the UA community’s most important accomplishment since he took the helm.

“People may not realize how much effort went into it,” he said. “We sent out over 100,000 surveys and held 16 town hall meetings. I can’t even count the number of committee meetings we held over a ten-month period. As a campus, we’ve grown more united as we worked together to craft a plan that we can now use as a roadmap going forward.”

Dr. Bell is presiding over an economic powerhouse, which has a total annual impact on the State of Alabama of $2.5 billion. The most recent study, released in 2014, estimated the flagship campus creates over 12,000 jobs and $111.5 million in income and sales tax revenues, producing a 17 percent annual rate of return on the $144.2 million annual appropriation the school receives from the state. Home football games alone had a statewide impact of $177.9 million. Additionally, the 2013-2014 graduating class will pay additional state income and sales taxes of $885.3 million over their careers than they would have without their UA degrees.

Yellowhammer caught up with Dr. Bell by phone late last week. A lightly edited transcript of the conversation can be found below.

What is UA’s new strategic plan and why is it important?

If you want to end up in a different place than you are today, you are going to have to change a little of the direction and a little of the pace. As a university, we need to be thoughtful and strategic about where we are wanting to go. That is what this plan is all about.

One of the great things about the ten-month process of creating it is that we were able to become more united. We have had so many discussions with stakeholders and constituency groups, both internally and from outside the campus, and it has helped us identify what is important to this university.

From academics and service programs to athletics and grounds, all of the units and departments will now be able to plug in and be a part of this plan going forward. We’ll all be pulling in the same direction. That’s going to enable us to get where we’re ultimately wanting to go.

What are some examples of the changes in “direction” or “pace” that the UA community can expect?

We have experienced incredible growth in our undergraduate programs. That will continue. But we have not experienced that same type of growth at the graduate level. Expect that to change.

That won’t happen on its own, and we are continuing to have conversations about how that looks. Is it more academic program offerings? Is it bringing in more graduate students? If we want to grow in this way, we are going to have to be intentional about identifying the challenges. At the undergraduate level, we have recruiters going all over the country. The graduate model is a little different, but we need to be making some tweaks to how we attract graduate students.

The faculty senate did a survey that identified some other areas we plan to address as well.

The faculty want more activity in the discovery and research areas. We need to focus on what it means to be a national flagship university. Where are we strong and where can we improve? We are thinking a lot about that now.

UA was just named the fastest growing flagship university in America. Can we expect that kind of growth to continue?

You are either growing or you’re dying. Growth is healthy. I was at a recruiting event in Memphis recently and it was so packed with students and parents we couldn’t get anyone else in the room. We don’t necessarily have to be the fastest growing flagship every year, but we will continue to grow.

We will be strategic about our growth going forward. We will have more focus at the graduate level and on our discovery and research activities, but we will continue to grow undergraduate, too.

We are all about helping our students be more successful in their careers and in their lives.

For the first time, more than half of UA’s students are coming in from out of state. What is attracting these students to Tuscaloosa?

First and foremost, great students want to be around other great students. Just look at our numbers: We had 151 National Merit students last year, ranking us among the country’s top public universities. Thirty-six percent of our freshmen scored 30 or higher on the ACT. That places UA in the 95th percentile. These students are coming out of high schools all over the country at the top of their classes, and they see themselves coming to UA.

The cool thing about this is that it feeds on itself. When a great out-of-state student comes to UA, they are kind of a bell cow for all of their friends. The more great students you attract, the more great students they attract to come in behind them.

This is huge for the state of Alabama from an economic development standpoint. We are bringing in the best and brightest and a lot of them want to stay here. They are going to create jobs and invent products and companies that we don’t even have right now.

There was a time when Alabama brought in some rocket scientists to Huntsville. What was it like before that? It wasn’t known for rockets, but today it’s “The Rocket City.” Twenty years from now we will be saying, “Wow, what an impact these out-of-state students had on this state.”

What is the biggest challenge in the implementation of the new strategic plan?

It is going to be important for us to stay in communication with our campus and UA constituency groups. We are going to be aggressive with some of our initiatives and it is going to take a lot of energy and discipline to stay the course and make it happen. But that is the fun part. That is why we are here — to implement new ideas, assess how they are working, then repeat that process.

What accomplishments or challenges stand out from your first full academic year at UA?

It has been a great year. We had a record number of incoming freshmen. The graduation classes — wow, they were big. We graduated over 6,000 students. Our student-athletes had a great year, too. We won some SEC championships, and had a pretty good football game out in Glendale, Arizona. It was exciting to watch gymnastics finish third in the nation, and their team GPA was 3.748, including Lauren Beers’ 4.0!

I have really enjoyed getting around and meeting all of our alumni and supporters and feeling how much they love UA. I know we are going to be able to go where we need to because of how invested they are in helping us move forward.

9 hours ago

Mayor Randall Woodfin throws down the gauntlet at Birmingham Business Alliance meeting

BIRMINGHAM — Delivering opening remarks at the Birmingham Business Alliance’s (BBA) annual meeting on Wednesday, Magic City Mayor Randall Woodfin challenged the region’s business leaders to stop being so “risk averse.”

Woodfin opened his speech with words of praise for outgoing BBA chairwoman Nancy Goedecke and incoming chairman Jim Gorrie.

He then transitioned into a call-to-action.

“Usually I would get up here and give you all some stats about what we’ve done and what we’ve accomplished,” the mayor advised. “I think it is fair to say that 2019 has been a good year for many [in] your organization — individually and collectively for our Birmingham Business Alliance.”

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Woodfin advised that the BBA leadership is pointing the region’s business community in the right direction.

“And the question is: as members of this organization, are we prepared? Are we ready?” he added.

“I don’t have to tell anyone in this room that since the Great Recession… 60% of all jobs have only gone to 25 cities in America,” Woodfin continued. “You need to know that Birmingham is not on that list. So the question becomes, when you walk out of this room, are we prepared to invest in our competitiveness? Do we want to compete? Do we want to set ourselves apart and not be like any other city in America?”

“We don’t have to be like Nashville or Chattanooga or Atlanta or Austin,” he said. “We need to be the best versions of ourselves.”

The mayor outlined the road to getting to that goal.

“That is going to require us to shake off the way we’ve always done things… just based on the sheer nature of what you do, you’re risk averse. But being risk averse in this time as we move into 2020 under Jim’s (Gorrie’s) leadership will not work for us as an organization or as a city. Or for the future and present of what we want our business community to be — to attract, retain, grow and many other things we have to do,” Woodfin stressed.

“As my challenge I leave to the members of this organization in this room, that we are willing to stand behind Jim, just as we did with Nancy (Goedecke), but really be aggressive,” he concluded. “Really be the opposite of risk averse and be hungry enough to do something that’s going to be different to make Birmingham a place that attracts more businesses and for the current businesses in this community to be and remain successful.”

RELATED: Almost two years in, Randall Woodfin reflects on biggest initiatives

Sean Ross is the editor of Yellowhammer News. You can follow him on Twitter @sean_yhn

12 hours ago

Above and beyond: Regions associate honored with Better Life Award after learning sign language to serve deaf customers

Regions Bank on Wednesday honored one of its Alabama associates in a major way for going above and beyond to better the lives of the company’s customers.

In a story posted on Region’s “Doing More Today” website, the company announced Gayla Land was presented with the Better Life Award. This is the top honor bestowed upon Regions associates “for outstanding dedication and job performance, as well as exemplary involvement and commitment to the community.”

For Land, a Regions Bank branch manager in Dothan, the genesis of the award goes back to 2016. She was reportedly serving a deaf customer but wanted to be able to do so better, as communicating properly was a real issue.

“I felt there was something missing. It frustrated me,” Land reminisced. “I could only provide what I could write down. I couldn’t share the information in his approved language.”

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The Regions associate turned that frustration into a solution. Land, on her own time, went out of the way to enroll in American Sign Language classes at the Alabama Institute for the Deaf and Blind.

However, her dedication did not stop there. She not only learned sign language herself but decided to strike up a partnership with the school.

“I fell in love with the deaf community and the language itself,” Land explained. “Then I told the school, ‘Let’s make a partnership to have them come into the branch for financial education seminars,’ and they agreed.”

The student subsequently became the teacher, as Land began teaching in sign language a series of lessons that cover money management, retirement, identity theft and fraud prevention. Her first group reportedly graduated earlier this year.

This is having a real impact on the lives of Regions customers with hearing impairments.

“They feel more confident in their ability to make financial decisions, and I learn something new every time they are with me.” Land advised.

Her commitment to the hearing impaired continued to be displayed Wednesday when she received the award from Regions. The company donates $1,000 in the honoree’s name to a nonprofit organization of his or her choice, and Land chose the Alabama Institute for the Deaf and Blind to receive the money.

“They do great work providing skills and education to the deaf and blind communities,” she remarked. “I know they will make great use of the money to provide for those families.”

However, her journey is not done yet.

Land is planning to sharpen her sign language fluency by taking advanced classes.

She also used her new platform to urge others to learn the language as well.

“Don’t be fearful or feel judged. Just try to learn. Even if it’s just one new word every day,” Land concluded. “Your eyes will be opened to a new perspective, and you’ll be embraced by the deaf community because you tried.”

You can watch an almost six-minute video on see Land’s work in action below or here.

RELATED: Merry and bright: How Regions’ headquarters building lights became a holiday tradition

Sean Ross is the editor of Yellowhammer News. You can follow him on Twitter @sean_yhn

13 hours ago

Auburn’s Bo Nix named SEC Freshman of the Year, Derrick Brown named best defensive player

The Southeastern Conference’s (SEC) 14 coaches have voted Auburn University quarterback Bo Nix as the SEC Freshman of the Year and defensive tackle Derrick Brown as the Defensive Player of the Year.

The honors were announced Wednesday by the league office. Coaches are not allowed to vote for their own players.

Brown was also named by the Associated Press as the AP’s SEC Defensive Player of the Year earlier in the week.

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Nix now holds the Auburn Tigers’ freshman record for passing yards (2,366), pass completions (200) and touchdown passes (15) in a season. The Alabama native also rushed for seven scores.

Brown had a monster season on the defensive side of the ball and landed as a finalist for just about every national award possible.

Sean Ross is the editor of Yellowhammer News. You can follow him on Twitter @sean_yhn

14 hours ago

Rogers’ report from Washington: The season of giving across East Alabama

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Each Christmas season, I like to highlight a few of the kind things folks across East Alabama are doing for others.

Below is a small sample of ways our fellow Alabamians have cared for each other over the past year.

In Clay County at Central High School, a teacher, Amanda East, gathered the school supplies that were going to be disposed of from the locker clean out. Those items are now set up to donate to students who need them.

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In Lee County, The Hallmark Channel is coming to Beauregard to present new homes to the 15 families who lost everything when the EF-4 tornado devastated the area.

Hallmark will also serve residents a holiday meal at Providence Baptist Church with Santa and toys for the little ones, too.

In Calhoun County, Dara Murphy of Rosa Lee Boutique organized a White Bag Project for individuals to grab a white bag and fill it up for a child in need. They are also taking clothing and furniture to 20 families.

In Lee, Macon and Tallapoosa Counties, Rep. Peeblin Warren assists 400 seniors with gift baskets.

In Randolph County, the Roanoke Police Department is holding its annual toy drive to ensure local children get a Christmas gift.

In Chambers County, the Christian Service Center collects food and toys to donate to families.

In Montgomery County, Woodland United Methodist Church/Town of Pike Road distribute food. Pike Road and Central Alabama Health Care Systems also distribute hygiene items for local veterans.

Reading these stories makes me proud to be from East Alabama. It is truly heartwarming to see our brothers and sisters across the Third District taking time to take care for someone who needs it most.

May we carry this attitude of service to others all year long.

Wishing you and your families a very Merry Christmas. Remember the reason for the season.

U.S. Rep. Mike Rogers is a Republican from Saks. 

14 hours ago

Crimson Tide’s Jaylen Waddle named SEC Special Teams Player of the Year

University of Alabama sophomore wide receiver and returner Jaylen Waddle on Wednesday was announced as the Southeastern Conference (SEC) Special Teams Player of the Year.

He is the first Crimson Tide player to be named SEC Special Teams Player of the Year since Christion Jones in 2013. The honor was voted on by the league’s 14 head coaches, with coaches not permitted to vote for their own players.

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Waddle, who was already selected by Pro Football Focus as a first-team All-American at returner, led the nation this season in punt return average at 24.9 yards per return. Waddle had 19 punt returns for 474 yards and a touchdown, including a long of 77 yards.

The playmaker also returned four kickoffs for 152 yards and one touchdown this season, in addition to 553 yards and six touchdowns on 32 catches at wideout.

This comes after Waddle was one of 14 Bama players on Tuesday who were named to the All-SEC Coaches’ Team. He was actually named to both the first and second teams at different positions.

Juniors Jerry Jeudy (WR), Alex Leatherwood (OL) and Jedrick Wills, Jr. (OL) were first-team selections on offense, while redshirt senior Anfernee Jennings (LB) and junior Xavier McKinney (DB) were honored as first-team defense. Waddle was a first-team selection on special teams.

Redshirt junior center Landon Dickerson was named to the second-team offense along with juniors Najee Harris (RB), DeVonta Smith (WR), Tua Tagovailoa (QB) and Waddle (WR). Seniors Raekwon Davis (DL) and Trevon Diggs (DB) and redshirt junior linebacker Terrell Lewis were second-team choices on defense.

Waddle was named the SEC Freshman of the Year in 2018.

Sean Ross is the editor of Yellowhammer News. You can follow him on Twitter @sean_yhn