One year later
A year ago this month on Nov. 1, 2012, Judy Bonner clutched a small box with freshly printed business cards marking her official new title. Now, the first and only female president in The University of Alabama’s 182-year history reflects on the 365 days spent in the position of president so far.
After a unanimous vote from the UA Board of Trustees, Bonner was elected as the 38th president of the University, taking over the position from Guy Bailey who resigned two days prior.
The two-time UA graduate has honed her skills in more than one position at the Capstone. Beginning as head of the department of human nutrition and hospitality management in 1981, she later advanced to dean of the College of Human Environmental Sciences in 1989. She remained in that role until 2003, subsequently taking on temporary roles as special assistant to the president and assistant academic vice president, as well as provost and vice president for academic affairs. In spring 2006, Bonner was promoted to the University’s executive vice president and provost. Bonner remained in this role until receiving the nomination of interim president, after then-President Robert Witt was chosen as chancellor of the UA System.
Her current position allows for a more omnipresent view of the workings of the University. She said with her current role, she enjoys the chance to reach a broader scope of the University and see its growth firsthand.
“As provost, the admissions office reported to me, so I’ve known what was going on within admissions. But as president, I’ve had the opportunity to travel with them and see firsthand how much excitement is being built throughout Alabama and around the nation for The University of Alabama,” Bonner said.
She also said through her travels as president, she has gotten to meet alumni who continue to grow the strength of the Capstone.
“I’ve had the opportunity to meet with alumni throughout Alabama, and really across the United States,” Bonner said. “I’ve had the opportunity to hear from them and see firsthand the effect that the University has had on their lives.”
She also credits the alumni association for providing many students with opportunities to attend the University through various scholarships.
“Our alumni association has an endowment of $38 million for scholarships. They have provided this year over 2,400 scholarships that amount to $4.2 million for our students,” she said. “I knew how very supportive they were, but I hadn’t had the opportunity to travel to their communities to meet with them and to hear firsthand.”
Bonner said she knows the involvement and participation from UA alumni across the country plays an important role in the recruitment of future students. Year by year, numbers alone highlight the sheer growth of the University.
“Last year, our admissions staff had 26,000 students apply for a seat in our freshman class. This year, for the freshmen that entered in fall of 2013, we had 31,000. There is simply a tremendous amount of excitement about coming to The University of Alabama and studying here,” Bonner said.
The rapid increase in applications has presented a double-edged sword for the University, as well as the greater community of Tuscaloosa – the benefit of a growing community but the responsibility to accommodate a growing student body.
“Clearly, we need to slow the growth so we are not growing at the same pace,” Bonner said. “But the University works closely with the city of Tuscaloosa in planning for future growth and development. The growth that the University has experienced has contributed to the prosperity that [it] has experienced.”
As president, Bonner said she aims to work with all facets of the University to ensure growth is monitored precisely.
“The University of Alabama is the fastest growing university of any flagship in the nation … and that has allowed us to do so much,” she said. “We have the capacity to continue to grow, but we need to grow more slowly, and we need to continue to plan to ensure that the infrastructure is in place to handle the increased growth.”
Aside from campus growth, Bonner has also faced campus controversy in her first year, including the recent accusations aimed at students’ alleged voter fraud in the Tuscaloosa City Board of Education election in August. In a statement released that month, Bonner said she and the administration do not condone voter fraud.
Later in the semester, on Sept. 11, The Crimson White published an article titled “The Final Barrier: 50 years later, segregation still exists,” in which members of four UA sororities accused alumnae and advisors of deliberately blocking the recruitment of at least two black students. While the University celebrated 50 years of integration, it also faced new challenges in moving the campus forward.
In a movement following the article, students and faculty alike took to all platforms to encourage integration within the greek system, prompting the initiation of “continuous open bidding,” a plan Bonner said was an opportunity for the organizations to increase diversity within their chapters.
“With the opportunity that continuous open bidding provided, tremendous progress has been made, and I am so proud of what the sorority presidents and the sorority members have done,” Bonner said. “It’s clearly important for The University of Alabama to be characterized as an institution that is welcoming and inclusive of all students.”
On Oct. 15, Bonner announced that 23 minority women, including 14 black women, had accepted bids into the traditionally all-white Panhellenic sorority system.
“I am so proud of everything that has been accomplished since formal requirement ended in August,” she said. “The sorority presidents and the sorority members were clearly ready to increase the diversity of their chapters.”
With an ever-changing campus, Bonner said she is used to long hours, but not many positions could fully prepare her for the time commitment necessary for the role of president at the University.
“The role of president is really a 24 hours a day, 7 days a week job – the hours are long, but it’s exciting because the University is making so much progress,” Bonner said.
Rushing from alumni events to Board of Trustees meetings, the president’s schedule is usually set up to six months in advance. And while this year has marked an extensive amount of growth for the University, as well as a period of transition into a new era, Bonner made it a point to address the many achievements as a team effort, not actions performed by simply one person.
“I think the biggest accomplishment is we have maintained the momentum and continued to build on the progress that the University has experienced in recent years,” she said.
Although her role is a 24/7 time commitment, the position does allow for a slight bit of down time.
“I love to travel; I enjoy photography, and I love being with my family,” Bonner said. “I have a beautiful Cavalier King Charles spaniel that I absolutely adore. Maggie loves to run and play on the lawn of the President’s Mansion. She’s particularly excited about all the squirrels and chipmunks that are there. And she’s confident she’s going to catch one.”