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November 3, 1998


Brother, Can You Spare $32 Million?

The Harbinger is Mobile's alternative newspaper, not a college paper.

However, when an issue involving the University of South Alabama has community-wide importance, we write about it. The fight between the USA Foundation and the university's Board of Trustees is such an issue.

During his last years as university president, Frederick Whiddon faced growing challenges from Board members with their own egos and agendas. Whiddon now heads the USA Foundation, which controls a $340 million endowment, and the challenges continue.

USA has taken hard hits since Fob James became governor. Desperate for funds and unwilling to raise taxes, James cut the appropriations to state universities. Soon after he was elected James slashed USA's funds by 7.5 percent. The State Articulation and General Studies Committee added to USA's woes by demanding that the university make it easier for students to transfer course credit to and from other state universities. USA answered those demands by switching from the quarter to the semester system. The subsequent drop in enrollment will cost the school more than $2 million this year.

Last month Mr. V. Gordon Moulton, the interim university president, proposed that the Foundation fund a large number of projects, some more worthy than others, with a total price tag of $32 million. The Foundation tabled the proposal for at least a year.

A major propaganda blitz is now in progress. The Mobile Register, unabashedly opposed to Whiddon, is running stories about the Foundation on its front page. The Foundation is enriching the U.S. Postal Service with its mailings of "new releases.''

Both sides are pigheaded and wrong. University endowments around the nation are currently loosening their belts, willing to spend more after an unprecedented bull market. Some, like Williams College, are using the funds to lower tuition. Others, like M.I.T., are dipping into their reserves to make up lost Federal research funds.

The USA Foundation needs to realize that Mobile's largest employer has suffered grievously under Fob James. It is in a position to help the university now and it should do so.

At the same time, USA's administration should stop treating the Foundation like an rich and stupid uncle. The Foundation had no choice but to table a proposal that included plans to resurface a running track at a time when core academic programs are threatened. The administration should return to the Foundation with a responsible request.

-- Daniel Silver

Life Forms by Dan Silver

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