Guest Opinion: Birmingham-Southern College and Alabama need each other

This is a guest opinion column

There’s a song from the musical RENT that begins with “Everybody’s a little bit racist.” I think that’s true.

I taught political science at Birmingham-Southern College for 45 years and I’m sure I’ve encountered many people who were likely to be racist. But I can tell you that Birmingham-Southern College is not. Roy S. Johnson’s column (January 23) concludes that the college is “just a little bit racist,” though he never says so. He focuses on “the fence”.

In 1976, one of our students, Quenette Shehane, was murdered in a neighborhood supermarket. We were all shocked. The parents clung to an answer. We feared that prospective students and parents would be put off. A fence was erected to increase security on campus. It’s a very nice fence. Somehow, Johnson equates erecting the fence with racial intent. After all, the murder victim was white and the killers were black. He didn’t consider a second interpretation – perhaps the college wanted to reassure the BSC community and others that the campus was safe.

OK, I’m biased, but the conclusion of racism is a hard pill to swallow. And that goes for faculty and staff, current and former students, and those who know us well. You know the role college has played in the life of our city and state. examples? For many years, then-President Neal Berte would invite hundreds of neighborhood leaders and others, black and white, to a quarterly meeting at the President’s house just to get to know each other. He also officially introduced “Service Learning” into the BSC curriculum. This program has two goals: first, to provide students (and faculty) opportunities to connect with the larger community through internships, structured projects, and volunteer activities such as tutoring neighborhood children; Second, work-based learning exposes students to the needs of the community, which hopefully leads to personal growth and development.

Johnson quotes local residents praising the college: “Anytime we had something to do in the neighborhood, we could go to Birmingham-Southern and their kids would help us.” “They were a good neighborhood partner.” “…a solid one partners for us. …anything we ask them to do…they go back and sort it out for us.”

On April 24, 2013, President Krulak canceled classes to commemorate the 50th anniversary of a white BSC student who walked from the downtown campus to sit in at Woolworth’s. Students, faculty and staff marched to Kelly Ingram Park to honor their bravery. For students who knew relatively little about Birmingham history, this was a significant lesson moment.

The college prides itself on recruiting first-generation college students, one of many ways we reach out to Black people and other marginalized groups. To that end, President Linda Flaherty-Goldsmith made arrangements with community colleges to allow credit for virtually any academic subject (although we did not teach those courses). The aim was to attract students who would not otherwise consider Birmingham-Southern.

Johnson concludes that something is wrong when BSC’s surrounding community is 69% black, but their enrollment is only 15%. Kyle Whitmire points out that the University of Tuscaloosa is at 9%; Maroon at 6%. (UAB is much better at 21%.) In terms of the schools we compete with, virtually all are in the single digits: Sewanee (5%), Rhodes (9%); Samford (6%). Millsaps has a 13% black enrollment. BSC is not a community college. We are a national liberal arts college where minority enrollment is vital to our reputation.

Birmingham-Southern has always lived on the brink financially. When I accepted the job offer in 1972, the college had 750 enrollments. When I arrived four months later to start my career, enrollment had dropped to 725. They also talked about faculty cuts; We had just bought a house! We’ve had ups and downs for as long as I can remember. That is different. It’s different because of a perfect storm – terrible, inept, irresponsible leadership exercised by David Pollick (who succeeded Berte), a recession and COVID. To top it off, Pollick built a lake on a campus where there is no water. Forget the lake – we were in the ditch. Bad management in the past? YES SIR. But now good management? YES SIR. President Daniel Coleman understands financial responsibility. His previous professional experience shows that he understands challenging finance. He has a plan to position the college to prepare students for the jobs of THIS century, not last. The college needs bridging funding to get there. From what I understand he asked about $30 million from the state, $5 million from the city of Birmingham, and $2.5 million from Jefferson County. Governor Kay Ivey can make that happen. The Covid Rescue Fund has provided over $2 billion to the state of Alabama.

Write to Governor Ivey and ask her to help uphold a tradition – a tradition of academic excellence and service – that dates back to 1856. Birmingham-Southern College has contributed to this community, this state and this nation. Our graduates are leaders. They are lawyers, doctors, ministers, business leaders, artists, mothers, fathers and, yes, teachers. As citizens, we should take care of the college as much as we take care of ourselves.

Birmingham is a better place because Birmingham-Southern College is here. Please help us keep doing what we have always done. “Forward, always“ is our motto. Let’s do this.

Natalie Davis is Howell T. Heflin Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Birmingham-Southern College