Orange Beach, Ala., June 25, 2007 -- Dr. Paul Hubbert, the Alabama Education Association's executive secretary, told a gathering of presidents from the two-year college system Sunday night the "big story tonight is our economy" and the two-year college system "is the economic engine driving the state."
He told the presidents that Alabama is "trying to come into its own" by "seeking, recruiting and finding high quality, high paying jobs" and told the audience not to let troubles in the system "divert your attention."
Hubbert called the state's economy a "Cinderella type economy" and says it "looks like growth into the future."
He told the educators the two-year system was graduating more young, and not so young people and that job and workforce development was "a major part of the future...more and more technicians are needed, fewer academicians."
He says there are "plenty of opportunities in the technical areas" and the "growth of economic activity and the fast pace of growth gives us a great deal of opportunity in education." He told the presidents the two-year system would be "called upon to do more and more....which will have a positive impact on the state."
Hubbert told his audience that technical, vocational courses are key to more and better paying jobs. "The two-year college system will continue to grow. Job development is demanded by the new type of economy." He says business has been "brought into the state by opportunity. Other states have not been able to offer the quality of training programs" Alabama has been able to offer employers. The Alabama Industrial Development Training program along with what colleges are doing at the local level was praised by Hubbert.
Hubbert told me later that employers were looking "for programs for their employees from programs for people who need to upgrade their skills, to those needing to get a basic education."
"I think the economic development part of the two-year college system has really taken off and come into its own in the last three or four years and has really become a key component in our effort to recruit higher paying jobs into the state." Hubbert told the audience that "Alabama is going to be a serious industry state."
"A lot of these manufacturing jobs are really driven by technology and the opportunity I think of a lot of employees to get the kind of training they need, job specific type training, from AIDT or the local two year college, is critical to their decision to come here. And I think a lot of the CEOs in this state really appreciate what the two-year college system is doing for their employees."
But, Hubbert told his audience, more can be done and the economic growth is not even across the state. He cited Huntsville and Mobile as areas where things are "booming," but says "many communities are commuter communities with people traveling 100 miles to go to work...Sixty percent of our population is in small towns. They're not enjoying the prosperity. We need to bring jobs to them...There are areas where the labor force needs to be trained."
Hubbert told the leaders of the state's two-year institutions they needed to "work with the Chamber of Commerce and the Alabama Development Office in your area. Spin off industries are a very good place to start."
And, Hubbert says, the two-year colleges are ideally situated to do that because they are generally thought well of by their local communities and they have advantages over the four-year colleges which may be putting themselves out of the price range of many students and parents.
He told the presidents students at their institutions were receiving a quality education at "much less cost and closer to home" than what most four-year schools could offer. "If you can operate with fewer dollars, chances are good you'll pick up students...Keep education affordable to rank and file parents."
He cited another advantage for students going to two-year colleges - they can continue making a living while improving the skills they have already or as they go about learning new skills for better paying jobs.
Chancellor Byrne said of Hubbert's first half remarks, "The first half of his talk, could have been a speech I might have given myself about the importance of the economy and how it is spinning off so many great opportunities for us and also how the two-year college system plays a significant role in it."
Hubbert went on to tell the assembly of two-year college presidents that "most of what has happened (in the system) has been good." But, Hubbert did address the nagging issue of ongoing investigations.
"Much has happened in the last 12 months...(It has) created lots of instability. Fear is prevalent right now. There is a certain amount of demoralization; trepidation created by activities and failure of some who have violated the public trust."
"Set that aside, if you are not guilty , you need not worry about it - educate Alabama's youth. Most of this audience ought to be about education and less worried about headlines. The two-year college system transcends any chancellor or president. The system has matured and is here to stay and is not in any danger of going out of business."
"You need to get on with your business," says Hubbert. (The problems) are not going to go away...Be about the education of students...All of this will pass...The problems will be dealt with in the proper course of time."
State Board of Education member Dr. Ethel Hall said about Hubbert's remarks dealing with the problems. "I was so pleased with his speech tonight. I thought he did a good job. He let us know - sure, in every profession you have a few bad apples who might be doing some things wrong, but that doesn't mean that we are all spoilt because of that."
Hubbert also talked to the presidents about the double-dipping policy under review by the chancellor.
He says one way to help with the problem - "We need to do a better job monitoring. Anybody not doing their job, whether or not they're in the Legislature should no be in that job." But, Hubbert says, it's a "slippery slope to start disqualifying people for what they do for a living."
He later told me, "We don't support anybody who's not doing their job. What we do is if they've been employed for the fourth year, after three years of having been evaluated as a temporary employee, probationary employee, if the state confers upon them a right to a job...If somebody tries to take that job from them they have a right to be heard and we guarantee them the right to be heard, to be represented by competent counsel, beyond that it's up to them."
Chancellor Bradley Byrne said following Hubbert's speech, "I wish that the whole problem with double dipping was as simple as he stated it but it's not and we can't treat it as if it's something that just goes away because we're going to make sure everybody works . That's probably a noble idea; but, in practicality, I don't think it's going to work that way."
Byrne says he and his staff are still working on what they will recommend to the State Board at a meeting in early August.
The head of the two-year college system says Hubbert made another point Byrne found interesting. "He made some allusion to the chancellor's powers, then never really came to a conclusion on that so I'm not really sure what to make of that - maybe it was a shot across the bow, maybe it wasn't."
Hubbert had said at one point the "State Board of Education gave the chancellor a great deal of discretion which may not have been properly used." Hubbert was discussing issues related to past budgets at the time. He did go on to say about money appropriated by the Legislature in the budgets, "The chancellor has less discretion...There won't be any shell games played in the future. If I know him, he'll want it that way."
Hubbert also talked about stability in the system and I asked him afterwards what impact the lawsuit filed to stop Byrne from taking his seat as chancellor and alleging violations of the Open Meetings Act could have on that stability.
"Well it has nothing to do with the individual. It has to do with the process. We expect when there is a position of any kind available within the system that it be posted and that people who feel they are qualified have a right to at least apply. Alabama has a history of a good old boy system and federal courts, on various occasions, the Shuford case in the two-year colleges, have said that that system is wrong and needs to be stopped and two-year colleges for several years have tried to get out from under that suit and then the first opportunity it seems that they had to appoint a permanent chancellor, the State Board kind of ignored it. And we felt like it should have been advertised."
"Now that's not to say they wouldn't have chosen the same person. It's just to say that other people ought to be given the right to apply and we don't need to revert back to the good old boy system."
And what if the lawsuit is successful. "Well, if we're successful then the State Board will have to advertise the position and they may come to the same conclusion they came to previously. I would assume that he would continue acting as chancellor until they appointed a permanent person, but I assume they would have to go through the proper process to get to the point where they made that appointment official."
Byrne who drew a laugh early in the evening when he introduced Hubbert as "one of my closest political supporters," says he believes Hubbert when Hubbert says it's not personal.
"He told me that too. I don't believe it is personal, I really don't. I meant what I said when I was up there that he and I have never had anything less than an amiable conversation, even when we disagree. I don't think he's a guy that does things for a personal reason. I don't take any of the activities, any of the actions that he and his organization are taking with regard to me as a personal thing."
Byrne says he doesn't anticipate not being in place to do the job. "I don't anticipate the court is going to change things so that I will not be able to continue in my position, but even if the court rules some way in their favor, the board can still keep me on as interim chancellor so what have you gained? And so, that's the point I made with him, the day that the lawsuit was filed. "
Byrne says, "So long as the Board wants me to be chancellor, I can be chancellor."
The Alabama College System's Presidents' Association began it's summer conference on Sunday in Orange Beach. The meetings will continue through noon, Tuesday. On Monday, there will be a lot of talk about legal issues and ethics and the presidents get to hear extended remarks from the chancellor at lunch and in planning sessions. On Tuesday, the chancellor and vice chancellors will brief the presidents giving updates in their areas.