The Alabama Senate's action last week to slash almost 25 percent of AlabamaState University's funding from the state education budget was the wrong wayfor the Legislature to attempt to address some serious concerns in the way ASUofficials have handled the public's business.
Let me be perfectly clear: Serious changes need to be made in the way the ASUadministration handles public funds and in how it is accountable for thosedecisions. But this is not the proper way to force those changes.
Even the original author of the funding cuts has now had second thoughts abouthis approach, making it likely that the Legislature eventually will restoremost of the cuts in ASU's state funding.
But some damage already may have been done even if the funding is restored.
Sen. Trip Pittman, a Republican from Baldwin County, originally proposedcutting ASU's funding in the proposed state education budget from $41.5 millionto $31.5 million. The $10 million reduction instead would have been made aconditional appropriation, which would have to be approved by Gov. RobertBentley before it could be released to ASU.
That version of the education budget was passed last week by the Senate.
Pittman, who is chairman of the Senate education budget committee, saidhe proposed making the $10 million a conditional appropriation that would haveto be approved by the governor so that Bentley could use the money as leverageto force changes at ASU.
But Bentley said he did not see that approach as the best way to achievechanges.
Meanwhile, ASU's new president, Gwendolyn Boyd, strongly decried the cuts. Shesaid in a prepared statement: "I unequivocally did not agree to a $10 millioncut to Alabama State University's budget! In my meeting with Senator Pittman,he informed me there would be reductions across the board in the educationbudget. At no time did he inform me there would be a $10 million cut to ASU'sbudget.
"This cut is an attack on the students, faculty and staff of ourUniversity. I am grateful that Gov. Bentley has publicly supported me, AlabamaState University and most importantly, our students by agreeing to reinstatethe $10 million back into ASU's budget."
So faced with opposition from Bentley and Boyd, both of whom he had said he wastrying to help, Pittman has now backed away from his proposal. He saidlate last week that he would work with the chairman of the House budgetcommittee to try to have the funding for ASU restored.
Again, I believe that changes do need to be made at ASU to ensure moreaccountability in the handling of public funds and in governance of theuniversity. That became clear after ASU trustees forced out its formerpresident -- along with a hefty buyout using public funds -- after he raisedquestions about contracts and other issues. Then, when the governor hired aforensic auditing firm to look into such issues, ASU officials stalled theaudit with delaying tactics.
All that came on the heels of ASU losing a sexual harassment lawsuit involvingtop administrators that resulted in the loss of millions in public funds.
Meanwhile, ASU has seen its bond rating lowered because of issues surroundingfunding.
The university's new president has promised more accountability, but it remainsto be seen whether she can deliver on those promises.
So why is the Legislature wrong to try to use funding as a hammer to batterASU's board and administrators into greater accountability? There are severalreasons.
Perhaps the most serious is that the potential loss of funding wouldn't hurtthe ASU trustees or administrators who were involved in bad decisions, but studentsand faculty members who have no culpability for those decisions.
The Legislature's attempt to use funding to force the board to act a certainway also could be seen by the university's accrediting agency as a governanceissue. The Southern Association of Colleges and Schools already has raisedquestions about issues at ASU that could affect accreditation. Any loss ofaccreditation at ASU would dramatically damage how potential employers wouldview the quality of an ASU degree, which could hurt the chances of ASUgraduates to find jobs.
Similarly, the rating agency that determines the creditworthiness of ASU bondsalready has raised the question of the reliability of ASU's funding from thestate. By proposing such a huge reduction in state funding, the Alabama Senatehas underscored just how easily ASU's funding could be cut. That is only goingto make it more difficult for ASU officials to persuade the rating agency torestore its former bond rating. That in turn means it could cost ASU -- andultimately Alabama taxpayers -- more to borrow money in the future.
The proposal to use funding as leverage to force a state university to takecertain actions is also a bad precedent for the Legislature. Now the issue isaccountability at ASU. But in the future the tactic could be used by somepowerful legislators against other institutions, and for less benign reasons.
But ASU officials need to learn a lesson from this episode even if full fundingis restored, and that lesson is that poor handling of the public's money canhave consequences. There is no excuse for ASU's stonewalling of the governor'soffice when officials were trying to investigate serious allegations, forinstance, and such actions don't win the university friends in the Legislatureor the public.
Perhaps just as significantly, the university's lackadaisical response to thecourts' findings of sexual harassment involving top officials at ASU is alsotroubling and raises questions about trustee leadership.
ASU's new president has said all the right things about "accountability"and "transparency," but talking about it is the easy part. Now shehas to prove she can make it happen. She deserves a chance to do so before theLegislature gets involved.
For now, the House needs to restore the ASU funding that the Senate cut.
Ken Hare was alongtime Alabama newspaper editorial writer and editorial page editor who nowwrites a regular column for WSFA's web site. Email him at email@example.com.
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