Our View: Committee itself must center on students

Our View

The presidential search committee currently seeking a replacement for Robert Witt, former University of Alabama president and current UA chancellor, seems to be moving in the right direction, but may soon find itself hitting a roadblock.

Vice Chancellor for System Relations Kellee Reinhart said on Monday that hiring “somebody who is really student-centered is…extremely important.” We could not agree more.

But reading further into the statement raises an important question. On a campus of more than 31,000, where there is a diversity of opinion that rivals the diversity of the issues we collectively face, what does “student-centered” really mean? And how will the search committee, with only one student representative, determine for itself what the presidential search buzzword means?

The committee could define the term several different ways. In fact, Chancellor Witt himself, during his tenure here, exemplified several different interpretations of “student-centered,” and the University benefitted when he did.

At times, Witt was inarguably “centered” on prospective students. The growth in enrollment the University experienced during his tenure illustrates this, as do the accounts published in The Crimson White of prospective students on VIP visits to the Honors College who met with Witt himself privately during their tours.

Witt exemplified his focus on prospective students as, according to former Honors College Dean Robert Halli, he “threw himself right into [recruiting]” like Halli had never seen a president do before. Witt’s efforts brought bright students to campus who have added to the culture of UA in unique, beneficial ways.

Other times, Witt focused on the students already here. When a student displayed his interest in filming a documentary about Foster Auditorium in December 2008, Witt responded with, “However I can help you, I will do that.” The student said Witt did exactly that and had the Auditorium, at that point still dilapidated, unlocked so that the student could go inside. Students who experienced this side of Witt felt empowered – some filmed documentaries, while others helped start initiatives like Creative Campus.

Even though Witt remained student-centered on both prospective students and current students, his interpretation of the term was often also too narrow in its own way. For instance, the students who recounted private meetings with him were often in the Honors College. One could just as easily say Witt was just “Honors College student-centered.” Does the committee think the new University president should be “Honors College student-centered,” “minority student-centered,” “greek student-centered” or “international student-centered?”

The term’s ambiguity leaves too much up to arbitrary decision-making. The committee would do well to find a way to be “student-centered” itself as it attempts to determine how a prospective University president should center on students. Currently, it is not.

Though Reinhart said on Monday that “the Crimson Tide Nation is letting its thoughts be heard about the kind of individual that will succeed Dr. Robert Witt,” the committee has still not reached out formally to a student other than SGA President Matt Calderone for input on criteria for the next University president. The committee simply cannot define what “student-centered” really means until it asks students themselves.

Chancellor Witt did a lot of good for the campus when he tried to find a way to be “student-centered.” If the next president finds a way to be “student-centered” on a campus of 31,000, chances are he or she will do a lot of good.

 

Our View is the consensus of the Crimson White editorial board. Production Editor Stephen Dethrage and Opinion Editor SoRelle Wyckoff did not participate in this editorial.