Ken Hare In Depth: Slashing ASU funding not the right solution - WSFA.com: News Weather and Sports for Montgomery, AL.

Ken Hare In Depth: Slashing ASU funding not the right solution

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MONTGOMERY, AL (WSFA) -

The Alabama Senate's action last week to slash almost 25 percent of Alabama State University's funding from the state education budget was the wrong way for the Legislature to attempt to address some serious concerns in the way ASU officials have handled the public's business.

Let me be perfectly clear: Serious changes need to be made in the way the ASU administration handles public funds and in how it is accountable for those decisions. But this is not the proper way to force those changes.

Even the original author of the funding cuts has now had second thoughts about his approach, making it likely that the Legislature eventually will restore most 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 proposed cutting ASU's funding in the proposed state education budget from $41.5 million to $31.5 million. The $10 million reduction instead would have been made a conditional appropriation, which would have to be approved by Gov. Robert Bentley 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,  said he proposed making the $10 million a conditional appropriation that would have to be approved by the governor so that Bentley could use the money as leverage to force changes at ASU.

But Bentley said he did not see that approach as the best way to achieve changes.

Meanwhile, ASU's new president, Gwendolyn Boyd, strongly decried the cuts. She said in a prepared statement: "I unequivocally did not agree to a $10 million cut to Alabama State University's budget! In my meeting with Senator Pittman, he informed me there would be reductions across the board in the education budget. At no time did he inform me there would be a $10 million cut to ASU's budget.

"This cut is an attack on the students, faculty and staff of our University. I am grateful that Gov. Bentley has publicly supported me, Alabama State University and most importantly, our students by agreeing to reinstate the $10 million back into ASU's budget."

So faced with opposition from Bentley and Boyd, both of whom he had said he was trying to help,  Pittman has now backed away from his proposal. He said late last week that he would work with the chairman of the House budget committee to try to have the funding for ASU restored.

Again, I believe that changes do need to be made at ASU to ensure more accountability in the handling of public funds and in governance of the university. That became clear after ASU trustees forced out its former president -- along with a hefty buyout using public funds -- after he raised questions about contracts and other issues. Then, when the governor hired a forensic auditing firm to look into such issues, ASU officials stalled the audit with delaying tactics.

All that came on the heels of ASU losing a sexual harassment lawsuit involving top administrators that resulted in the loss of millions in public funds.

Meanwhile, ASU has seen its bond rating lowered because of issues surrounding funding.

The university's new president has promised more accountability, but it remains to be seen whether she can deliver on those promises.

So why is the Legislature wrong to try to use  funding as a hammer to batter ASU's board and administrators into greater accountability? There are several reasons.

Perhaps the most serious is that the potential loss of funding wouldn't hurt the ASU trustees or administrators who were involved in bad decisions, but students and faculty members who have no culpability for those decisions.         

The Legislature's attempt to use funding to force the board to act a certain way also could be seen by the university's accrediting agency as a governance issue. The Southern Association of Colleges and Schools already has raised questions about issues at ASU that could affect accreditation. Any loss of accreditation at ASU would dramatically damage how potential employers would view the quality of an ASU degree, which could hurt the chances of ASU graduates to find jobs.

Similarly, the rating agency that determines the creditworthiness of ASU bonds already has raised the question of the reliability of ASU's funding from the state. By proposing such a huge reduction in state funding, the Alabama Senate has underscored just how easily ASU's funding could be cut. That is only going to make it more difficult for ASU officials to persuade the rating agency to restore its former bond rating. That in turn means it could cost ASU -- and ultimately Alabama taxpayers -- more to borrow money in the future.

The proposal to use funding as leverage to force a state university to take certain actions is also a bad precedent for the Legislature. Now the issue is accountability at ASU. But in the future the tactic could be used by some powerful legislators against other institutions, and for less benign reasons.

But ASU officials need to learn a lesson from this episode even if full funding is restored, and that lesson is that poor handling of the public's money can have consequences. There is no excuse for ASU's stonewalling of the governor's office when officials were trying to investigate serious allegations, for instance, and such actions don't win the university friends in the Legislature or the public.

Perhaps just as significantly, the university's lackadaisical response to the courts' findings of sexual harassment involving top officials at ASU is also troubling 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 she has to prove she can make it happen. She deserves a chance to do so before the Legislature gets involved.

For now, the House needs to restore the ASU funding that the Senate cut.

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Ken Hare was a longtime Alabama newspaper editorial writer and editorial page editor who now writes a regular column for WSFA's web site. Email him at khare@wsfa.com.

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