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February 10, 1998


Lusting After the Business Fix

The Mobile Register, in its Jan. 21 editorial, exhorts the Mobile County school board to try "something altogether different." And just what does this new idea amount to? Nothing more than the same old plea by Mobile's daily to put corporate executives into any and all leadership positions in the public sector. The editorialist gushes enthusiastically: "just imagine a seasoned executive . . . could address the problems of the school system head- on without concern for his career."

Ah yes, just what the school board needs: a business person in the superintendency colliding head-on with benighted board members who believe that someone trained as an educator is far better qualified for the position than a savior from the business sector. This head-on collision of business savior with educators is the same collision Mobile's daily recently sought to produce through its December 7 editorial calling for the removal of Dr. Whiddon as President of the University of South Alabama. According to the editorialist, Dr. Whiddon's great sin is that he doesn't measure up the way all good CEOs should, never mind that the role of a president of a university is only remotely similar to that of corporate CEO. Their fundamental values and postures are different. The values of an institution of higher education support learning. The values of a business organization revolve around profitability. And in both cases, university presidents and corporate CEOs are given a great deal of latitude in making decisions about how their organizations shall operate. From our perspective, Dr. Whiddon appears to have a very good working relationship with most of the 17 members of the Board of Trustees. The editorialist furnishes no evidence at all that Dr. Whiddon has, as the editorialist claims, arrogantly disregarded his trustees.

Apparently, what the CEO of Mobile's daily wants is a Board of Trustees at USA led and controlled by a few activist trustees who will keep a tight leash on a CEO-President chosen by themselves, and some like-minded cronies, to insure that the university becomes the pawn of privileged business interest in Mobile and elsewhere in the state. Some business elements in the private sector are indefatigable in seeking ways of inserting themselves into the public sector for their own behalf while at the same time loudly proclaiming altruistic, salvational agendas. With clock-work regularity, Mobile's daily calls for the kinds of state-wide reforms in higher education that sound suspiciously similar to the slash-and-burn tactics of Al-Dunlappian business downsizers who masquerade as saviors of the private sector. In its Jan. 8 editorial, the Mobile Register calls for "fundamental structural reform," "budget cuts," "stronger oversight" to make the state's universities "more accountable" to "a single board of trustees or maybe two headed by the flagship universities." Haven't we learned yet that highly centralized authoritarian systems and bureaucracies have proven to be unworkable, including authoritarian corporations faced with meeting the challenges of a global marketplace?

The argument that Dr. Whiddon should manage the USA like a corporate CEO is silly and self-serving, completely ignoring the fact that educational institutions depend for their success on more than just good business sense, though business savvy in a university president is highly desirable and Dr. Whiddon has demonstrated plenty of that. So why all this media hype for CEOs? May not there be one or two trustees with delusions of grandeur who think they are CEO-timber for the Imperial Flagship System that Howard Bronson's editorialist have spent so many words harping on? Who is fooled by all this fine talk? Does the public really swallow the thinly disguised self-aggrandizement of business interest who have, in this state, a long history of exploiting and devastating the public sector for their own emolument? Let me cite a few examples:

1. In Mobile County and contiguous Baldwin and Washington counties there are six superfund sites; they are: Redwing Carrier/Saraland Apartments; Ciba-Gigy; Stauffer Chemical Co.'s Cold Creek plant; Stauffer Chemical Co's LeMoyne plant; Olin Corporation; CSX Transportation.

2. Four chemical companies -- Ciba Corp., Olin Chemical, Zeneca Agricultural Products, and Akzo Chemical -- own wetlands known to be polluted with mercury and DDT, according to the EPA.

3. Corporate extortion -- Mercedes Benz -- has gotten tremendous tax and other concessions from the state and local communities without adequately supporting them with jobs and better schools and without adequately protecting the environment, and now there's a similar deal in the works for Boeing.

4. Corporations pick up their marbles and leave as soon as they smell greener grass somewhere else, as Scott Paper and International Paper have done.

5. The city and county Industrial Development Boards, through legal chicanery, for many years allowed corporations and other businesses to skip out on millions of dollars of sums-in-lieu payments to the Public School System.

6. Runaway growth is outpacing the infrastructures in Baldwin county, especially in Orange Beach. In 1996 raw sewage spilled on to the highways and into backyards. This sort of pollution is connected with the absence of land-use planning and sewage-development policies, which, of course, are anathema to land-developers and real estate interests. Also, in 1996 some of Mobile's accommodating leaders and county officials had plans to dump industrial sewage into Fowl River, "the last clean river in Alabama."

7. Nationally, corporate advertisers are perfectly willing to exploit teenagers to sell their cigarettes and other harmful products. A story in the Mobile Register reports that "series of documents from 1972 point to the Brown and Williamson Co.'s efforts to attract young smokers with sweet- flavored cigarettes, including blending artificial ingredients to produce a cola-like taste." (Feb. 6, 1998)

Of course we don't believe that all businesses and corporations are bad, but Mobile and Alabama have had more than their fair share of bad apples. The proof is in the pudding: the disgraceful condition of the public school system; a dangerously polluted environment; and the safety and welfare of local communities benignly ignored by corporate giants. When business organization finally come to realize that their allegiances must include not just stockholders, but also employees, suppliers, customers, and the local community, then perhaps we can begin to consider CEOs as fit to lead colleges and universities.

-- Tom Brennan

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