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Dr. Robert Exley Headshot

A Historical Day at the University of Alabama

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I applaud the board of trustees for its appointment of Dr. Judy Bonner as the president of The University of Alabama. I had the honor of having lunch with her months back when I, along with my chief academic officer and a member of my Foundation Board (at Snead State Community College) visited the university's Culverhouse College of Commerce to explore opportunities for closer ties between our two institutions.

I looked forward to time with the Dean of College of Commerce and its various academic leaders. I did not expect to be treated to lunch at the University Club with the university's provost and vice president of academic affairs -- Dr. Bonner.

Do not get me wrong -- I am not saying that community colleges leaders are not respected within the Academy of Higher Education in Alabama. No, I am saying that at a University of the size and prestige of any flagship institution like the UA, the executive leaders have many people asking for time with them. Yet, she graciously gave us time and she was thoroughly genuine and impressive in her awareness of the contributions our transfer students make to her university. Snead State Community provides more than 7 percent of the transfer students from community college across the state even though our student enrollment is less than 2,500. Community college transfer students throughout the nation consistently perform well in the institutions to which they transfer and I believe that Dr. Bonner's example of valuing of our students sets the stage for their success.

We spoke candidly of the connections between Snead State and the University of Alabama. Mr. Chitwood, my Foundation Board member and an alumnus of both Snead State Community College and the university, shared his experiences and memories. We discussed rich and varied topics, ranging from mundane academic issues like the articulation agreement between our institutions regarding nursing, through which our nursing program graduates who receive their RN license are able to complete the coursework online to obtain their BSN from UA. We also discussed our shared devotion to excellence and to our belief that today's college students represent great promise for our future. In a very real sense it was a conversation filled with optimism and mutual excitement about possibilities. I sensed in Dr. Bonner a kindred spirit that believes we are fortunate in that our career is really the fulfillment of our calling.

Have you ever met someone and left the meeting knowing your ideas matter in the world? Left with a feeling of being affirmed in your work? Simply left feeling really good?

Well, that is exactly how I left our lunch together that day.

She is an inspiring leader who is quick to listen and yet eager to converse. She did not dominate the conversation nor did she sit passively waiting for the time to be over as happens from time-to-time with very busy people -- nay, very important people is more accurate for she was then and is now very important.

By chance, I was in Tuscaloosa last week. I heard the news on the radio as I traveled to the university from Snead State. I had the pleasure of hearing an interview with her. What struck me most from her comments was when she spoke of drawing inspiration from the Women's National Championship teams at UA during her tenure as interim president; she stated that she is delighted to serve as a role model for them.

I am excited because she stands as a woman of strength, persistence and courage and success as president. She is a role model with no qualms about accepting the mantle of leadership with the accompanying responsibility. I am excited because I can point to her with the young women at my college as an example of what is possible for them one day.

I know that she has the skills, experience and knowledge of an exceptional academic leader and will use them effectively for years to come. Furthermore, I have no doubts at all in her passion for the Academy of Higher Education. She is a proven scholar and faculty member. She possesses the devotion to our shared calling that translates into exceptional academic experiences for the students of higher education.

The only question that I have is: "What took the University of Alabama so long to choose a woman president?"

We have many examples of outstanding women presidents in our community colleges. Effective and influential female presidents like Dr. Judy Merritt at Jefferson State Community College, like Dr. Helen McAlpine at Drake State Technical College, like Dr. Vicki Hawsey at Wallace-Hanceville, like Dr. Linda Young at Wallace Dothan or Dr. Marilyn Beck at Calhoun Community College and others. These are women of character and integrity who lead their institutions effectively and serve as examples of what is possible for the women students of their institutions just as Dr. Bonner now does for the University of Alabama.

The difference is that these presidents have been doing so for many years already. In short, while I am excited about Dr. Bonner's appointment, I also wonder what took so long.