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March 31, 1998


Trusteeship: The Crown Jewel of Public Service or Star Chamber for the Exercise of Personal Power?

Ronni Patriquin Clark reporting in the Mobile Register on the March 4th meeting of the Board of Trustees at USA did her best to portray the proceedings of that meeting as a public spectacle where competing factions maneuver for control of the board. Ronni Clark's spin on the meeting pits Whiddon loyalists against "the board leadership." In this ludicrous melodrama, Whiddon loyalists are the evil warlords seeking to topple righteous reformers and their righteous leader, board chairman Mayer Mitchell. I ask you: how can any one who knows anything about Mayer Mitchell and his connection with Mobile's daily -- Bronson is Mitchell's protégé -- believe that Mitchell, in this matter or any other matter reported by the Register, represents a beleaguered leadership of good angels dominated by the bad angel Whiddon? Anything the Register reports about conflicts between Dr. Whiddon and Mayer Mitchell needs always to be sifted carefully to discriminate a few grains of wheat from a huge mound of chaff. One grain hidden in the chaff of Clark's reportage is the fact Mitchell convened an executive session, a secret star-chamber* session, in his latest attempt to undermine Dr. Whiddon.

Aside from the MBI housing-discrimination fiasco, which culminated in $1.8 million settlement against Mitchell Bros. Inc., and which Mobile's daily reported as little as possible about, blabbermeister Clark completely ignores the fact that at this meeting Mitchell violated Alabama's "sunshine laws" and threw out parliamentary procedure when he abruptly cleared the board room of all but members of the board. According to Roberts Rules of Order, before convening an executive or secret session, a motion must be passed by a vote of the board members to convene a secret session and when the secret session is over the regular meeting must resume before it can be officially adjourned. Mitchell simply ordered all but the board members to leave the room. While Ronni Clark may not know Roberts Rules of Order, she surely knows the provisions of "sunshine laws" in Alabama, but made no complaint in her story because it would undercut the Register's partisan blab against Dr. Whiddon. But what can you expect of someone who, we're told, was specifically given the task by her handlers to get rid of Whiddon and write only negative stories about USA?

The Alabama Criminal Code, section 13A-14-2, is very specific about holding executive or secret sessions of board meetings that transact public business. An executive session can be held only "when the character or good name of a woman or man is involved." Reflect on that a moment. Though Mitchell seems to see life as a skybox full of business chocolates, he is still no Forrest Gump. It's preposterous to think that Mitchell would call a secret session to dump on Whiddon's good name and character, especially when just recently the board of trustees put their seal of approval on Dr. Whiddon's good name and character by naming the USA administration Bldg. after him and putting his statue in its lobby, handsomely refurbished at a cost of a quarter of million dollars. Doesn't it seem just a tad odd that Mitchell would call a secret session to discuss Dr. Whiddon's good name and character after all the good that Dr. Whiddon has done as the founder and genius behind USA's success? But that's not the way the cookie crumbled. The gist of the matter is that Mitchell convened the session as a star-chamber court to indict Whiddon for the high crime and misdemeanor of attempting to thwart Mitchell's god-given right to be the bad eminence sitting in the high seat of Chairman pro tempore and decreeing fiats to the entire university. Our sources confirm that the purpose of the secret session was not to discuss the character and good name of Dr. Whiddon, but rather the meeting was called by Mitchell essentially for two reasons: to make the allegation that Dr. Whiddon hired lobbyist Tom Coker to lobby for Mitchell's removal from the board; and to announce that he, Mitchell, would handle the Athletic Problem.

In the matter of lobbyist Tom Coker, we are told that trustee Pat Lindsey, who also happens to be the state senator whose committee reviews gubernatorial appointments, rebutted Mitchell's claim that Dr. Whiddon hired Coker to get Mitchell axed. According to our source, Sen. Lindsey told Mitchell that Tom Coker never lobbied against Mitchell's reappointment and that if he had, Mitchell would not have been confirmed. Our sources tell us that opposition to Mitchell's reappointment to the board comes, not from Whiddon, but from local Republicans dissatisfied with Mitchell who has never supported them. These Republican operatives are the ones who purportedly lobbied Fob James to remove Mitchell. Mitchell was informed about all of these things but stubbornly stuck to his allegation that Dr. Whiddon is out to get him.

The matter of the Athletic Problem has a long history in which a few trustees have vociferously campaigned through the local paper for major commitment of university resources to an athletic program that would include, among other things, a football team. Dr. Whiddon, failing to see eye to eye with them, especially regarding football, is persona non grata with these trustees. There are other aspects to the Athletic Problem, but we must remain mum on them since they may involve very serious charges against Mitchell's good friend, Joe Gottfried, Director of the Athletic Program. The report on that matter is now in the hands of the lawyers and should be made public soon. The point, though, is that Mitchell announced in the secret session that he would handle the Athletic Problem. If there's a delicate personnel problem in the Athletic Department, it's the President's responsibility to bring that matter before the board, and as we understand it, that's exactly what the President is in the process of doing. Apparently Mitchell wants that process stopped.

In any event, the star-chamber session was extremely distasteful to at least three members of the board. New board member, Larry Langford, refused to attend, saying "I don't do executive sessions. The public's business should be done in public." Judge Charles Wood left the meeting during Mitchell's tirade against Dr. Whiddon, and the other new member, Don Langan, has written a letter to the editor of The Harbinger [this issue] which takes umbrage over Ronni Clark's treatment of the board meeting in her March 5th story. Langan specifically rejects Ronni Clark's portrayal of his vote for Jack Brunson as a vote against Dr. Whiddon. Larry Langford, shrewdly smelling a rat but probably not knowing from whence cometh the odor, urged the university to improve its relations with Mobile's daily. At one point during the general meeting he averred that if he couldn't get his views published in the press, he would buy a full-page ad in the paper and tell the story himself. Funny he should mention that. Apparently he doesn't know much about Mobile's daily. That organ and guardian of public information recently refused to publish a full-page ad containing my editorial, "Xmas Eve Media Massacre of Whiddon." (See David Barkley's letter to the editor in this issue of The Harbinger.) Ronni Clark, though, was not shy about reporting Langford's and Mitchell's remarks advising university officials to cooperate with the newspaper. Mitchell said, "We do need to do something to improve our overall public relations with the press; we need to try to get our 'PR' in better shape." Mitchell's idea of getting the university's PR in better shape is to make sure that he alone gets good PR. Ain't money grand! Langford said, "If the news media come asking for information give it. 'No comment' is like taking a gun and sticking it to your head and shooting it." Well, Langford's right about the gun; Mobile's daily has been holding a gun to the head of the university ever since Bronson, with whom Mayer Mitchell is thick as thieves, came to town.

Since only one in every 25,000 citizens serves as a trustee and only about 20 percent of these is privileged to serve as a trustee at a public institution, such volunteerism with its attendant responsibilities, is surely the crown jewel of public service. And in return for the honor and prestige, all trustees carry one overriding obligation: to think and act on behalf of the best interests of the institution and the board as a corporate body, rather than as lone rangers acting out of self-interest or for some particular constituency. Trustees who use their position for personal aggrandizement demean the institution and themselves. As we are seeing now and have seen since Bronson's advent as the CEO of the Mobile Register, some trustees are using their access to the local media monopoly to fulfill personal and political ambitions, and in doing so, are making the President's life and work extremely difficult. What's the motive? Do babies need a motive to suck a lollipop? Do junkies need a motive for dope? Do power jockey's need a motive for a power fix? As long as the tantalizing object of gratification is dazzlingly present, the insatiable desire for it drives them on.

USA's status as a multimillion dollar enterprise and biggest game in town and county makes it a plum pie for every little Jack Horner with a roving thumb in need of plum to suck. Not just at USA, but throughout the nation, in ever-increasing numbers, special-interest constituents and others are using board members to promote their activist agendas. At USA, however, certain demonically ambitious board members are reaching for the whole pie. The basic tactic these overreachers employ is to seek ways to cause the board as a whole to lose confidence in its chief executive, President Whiddon, by encouraging partisan politics among individual board members, apparently caring not at all that the board is the only dependable source of support a chief executive can look to, and apparently caring not at all that creating conflict puts at risk the institution's integrity and reputation -- something more important than any trustee or president, or even the board itself.

In his effort to win friends and influence people, Mitchell sent a memo on February 6 to various members of the administration and faculty to attend a "forum," at which a "committee of trustees," namely Jim Nix, Jack Brunson, and Mayer Mitchell, would field questions about "recent media coverage regarding University affairs in general and, specifically, issues involving the Board of Trustees and President Whiddon." Mitchell later canceled the forum, citing a conflict with another meeting, and instead invited "those who have not already discussed [his] invitation with [him] to feel free to call [him] individually with [their] input." We believe he canceled because he was informed he was overstepping his authority as a member of the board in going directly to constituencies within the university. Obviously, Mayer Mitchell doesn't quite understand that board members have no special authority or legal standing to act unilaterally in their individual capacities. The board as a corporate body never approved Mitchell's "forum."

Now Mitchell is taking another tack. Ain't money wonderful? He has extended invitations to selected members of the faculty and administration to attend a dinner-dance shindig he is throwing at his house on April 18. We have heard that Mitchell himself will give lessons in the latest craze, the "Sky-box Trot": "First you take your right-hand friend out and then you put your left-hand friend in, and that's what it's all about." Those administrators and faculty deselected for invitations to this gala occasion will, I'm sure, join me in wishing that a good time will be had by all, even though, I'm equally sure, they will regret, as I do, missing this opportunity to improve themselves in the arts of genuflecting and fancy-foot work.

The mark of an effective board is its ability to maintain and preserve academic freedom and institutional independence. The mark of an ineffective board is its inability to stop a few of its members from dominating its business. A board in the grip of self-serving members, and it only takes a few, will inevitably transform crown-jewel service into star-chamber politics. That transformation has not yet happened at USA but not for want of trying by some who believe their partisan agendas take precedence over the welfare of the entire university and the community at large. As Clark Kerr noted in his 1984 study of the academic presidency, Presidents Make a Difference, the ultimate test of a board's effectiveness is its ability to attract and keep strong, competent executive leaders. Effective leaders are increasingly difficult to find in all sectors, commercial, governmental, and nonprofit. So when you're blessed with a good one you've gotta love him, and that entails vigorous support from all who have a stake in academic freedom and institutional independence. Those twinned luminaries are always at risk. Passivity in support of freedom is also a kind of thoughtless choosing, a choice to acquiesce and let vultures perch and poach on the crown jewel of public service -- trusteeship.

-- Tom Brennan

*For those with no history, less Latin, and little Greek, star-chamber courts, existing in England from the 15th century until 1641, exercised, in secret, wide civil and criminal jurisdiction under absolutist and oppressive sovereigns. It took centuries of bloody struggle to outlaw star-chamber sessions. The term "star-chamber" in popular use today denotes any executive or secret sessions of city councils and school boards.

The Harbinger, Mobile, AL