New Year, New President: An Interview with Jo Bonner

By: Amelia Rose Zimlich | Editor-In-Chief | arz1722@jagmail.southalabama.edu

Photo credit: President’s Office homepage

Jo Bonner, president of the University of South Alabama, sat down with Amelia Rose Zimlich, Editor-In-Chief of The Vanguard, on Jan. 7 to answer questions on his new position, his initiatives for the university and what he hopes to bring to South.

Amelia Rose Zimlich: First of all, I know you never planned on being the president of a university, but what attracted you to apply for the position at South Alabama?

Jo Bonner: Well, you are exactly right. I had no idea this opportunity would come about and never worked or prepared for an opportunity like this. I spent my life in a different arena, but that arena was always intertwined and worked closely with this arena. When I was with Congressman Callahan, I worked closely with Dr. Whiddon and President Moulton, and then when I was working in the Governor’s office, I worked with Dr. Waldrop, so I’ve been very fortunate to be associated with the university during its growth.

If you look at that book on the 50-year history [of the university], my picture is in a lot of the pages, probably undeservingly, but when I was in Congress, we were supportive…of getting money for the Mitchell Cancer Institute [and] helping to get money for the Shelby building. I remember going to the Mitchell Center for the first game and they were still putting the seats in, so I’ve seen a lot of the transformation of this university, especially that which President Moulton and his beautiful, wonderful wife Geri helped lead effort on.

So, when Dr. Waldrop announced his plans to retire, I think it was in April, the very last thing I thought would be, “I’m just going to put my name in the hat and see if I can become president,” but that day, I had three phone calls from alumni. One was a faculty member and he said, “You know, Jo, you’re what South needs,” and I laughed, and I was flattered that they would say that. But the more people I heard from – and then I saw the direction the board wanted to go in by not requiring that you have a Ph.D. or that you have a traditional higher education administration ladder climb like most university presidents do– the more I realized that there might be an opportunity to take a hard, close look at this.

And so, my wife and I talked about it and we decided that if other people thought this was something that I could do, even though this was not my path that I’d prepared for, a university president is a leader, and I have been fortunate to be in leadership positions really all of my life. I thought, “Well, let’s just see what happens. No harm in trying.”

So, actually, I was nominated by three or four different people and I found out there were about 145 people, more or less, who had either applied or were nominated. I had to put a resume together because…I don’t really have the traditional resume. I’ve not applied for that many jobs. And I was working with the governor and I had talked with her about it. I wanted to make sure I had her blessings because if by chance, I got this job, the last thing I wanted to do was to have her unhappy with me and then come down and say, “You know, here I am, the president, I can’t even go to Montgomery and try to be an advocate.” And she was totally supportive.

And then we got down to the shortlist of eight people. They traditionally do airport interviews with people, they fly in and they meet out at a hotel near the airport, and because of [COVID], we did Zoom interviews. Each of the candidates was asked the same questions, about 13, I think, and I evidently did well enough to make it to the final shortlist. And then we had on-campus interviews, and the rest is kind of history.

What would make me want to do this? This is my home: this region, Mobile, South Alabama. I live in Baldwin County now, but this has always been my home. It’s where I’ve put 99% of my life…I did live in D.C. for a few years. And it’s not only my home, it’s where my heart is. I’m in love with my family, but I’m passionate about this area of the state, and this university is such an integral part of the growth of the Gulf Coast, so we’re having meetings with the academic office about their student recruitment office, financial affairs, advancement, how we raise more money. I’m getting inundated with a lot of meetings, a lot of data and a lot of information, but one of the things that is apparent to me is that the University of South Alabama can and should be the flagship of the Gulf Coast.

There’s really an area much bigger than Mobile and Baldwin counties that we can serve and extend our reach to, all the way from Tallahassee at Florida State to New Orleans with Tulane and UNO [University of New Orleans]. So, we’ve got a lot of opportunity in front of us, and my job is to work with this incredible team of faculty and staff and students and alumni and take all the great things that are going on and try to put them in a place where we can build on the success of those who’ve come before us.

One of the things that is apparent to me is that the University of South Alabama can and should be the flagship of the Gulf Coast.

ARZ: You’ve previously mentioned building on the success of the past presidents and everyone who has come before you. Why is that important to you and how do you plan on doing that?

JB: It’s important to me because that’s what I’ve done successfully in my prior life. I was only the fourth– I’m the fourth president at South –but I was only the fourth congressman when I was elected since the early 1900s to represent this area in the United States Congress. So, while I didn’t know Congressman John McDuffie or Congressman Frank Boykin personally, I knew what they had done, paved the way so that when Jack Edwards became our congressman in ‘64…he built on the success of those who came before him. And then, congressman Callahan, who I worked with even more closely, we built on what Jack Edwards had done.

One of the first things I did when I became the governor’s chief of staff was to invite the chiefs of staff for all the living governors before to come in. And I asked him this question: I said, “If you had one more day in office working with the governor, your governor or Gov. Ivey, what would you like to see accomplished for the state?” It was amazing, the question generated a lot of different answers…Some focused on education, some focused on mental health, but they all quickly talked about what they would like to get done.

I want to give total acknowledgment to the vision of Fred Whiddon, who had the audacity in the 1960s to think that Mobile needed its own university. We had Tuscaloosa, we had Auburn. Why did Mobile need a university that was ours? And Dr. Whiddon was bold enough to believe that we not only could do it, but we could be successful with it. So here we are in a building named for him. This was the first building on the campus.

I was talking…to one of the first graduates, he called to congratulate me, and he said, “Jo,…your office was probably my math classroom.” He said that because everything was in that building, and he said the parking lot was red clay. He said, “We got stuck, it was miserable…The last time I drove through there…I couldn’t believe how beautiful that place is.” And it is.

And so, what Dr. Whiddon did was put the foundation down, and what President Moulton did was to–it’s kind of like Eugenia Foster’s painting of the stadium down there. She took a blank canvas and she put color on it and next thing you know, she’s captured that beautiful new stadium. There are bigger stadiums in Alabama but there’s not any nicer, there’s not any more user-friendly.

And then what Dr. Waldrop did…I didn’t work with him that closely when I was at the University of Alabama System because I was working for a different place, but I knew the good work he was doing, I knew the research reputation he had, and I had the pleasure of working with him when he was president and we got $50 million for the new medical school that we’re going to be building.

So, to me, it’s easy for me to talk about doing this because I’ve done it all my life. And it also, I think, gives credit to the fact that no one person deserves credit for everything good going on any more than one person deserves blame for all the bad that might happen. It takes a team, and we’ve had an amazing group of men and women who have helped not only the presidents but the faculty, the vice presidents…

I went to the [basketball] game last night…but I went and met with some of the alumni presidents and they are so incredibly proud of what their diploma means to them and to their careers. So just as you will receive…your diploma in a few months, we want to make certain that that diploma is like a share of stock in the most important investment you will ever make. And we want to make sure that it continues to grow in value and grow in purpose, so that as you go out and do whatever you’re meant to do in your life, that South Alabama, that educational experience here, was a part of the foundation of your future.

ARZ: In your press conference, when you were introduced by the Board of Trustees, you said that you would spend the first several months in office getting on campus meeting many different people and many different groups. So, what is your plan for this and, again, why is it important and what do you hope to achieve?

JB: Well, what I hope to achieve is to learn from people like you. Why did you choose South? You had other options but why did you choose the University of South Alabama? And what attracted you here? What are some of the challenges of being a student with COVID? You know, we’re wearing masks today, but there are other challenges. What are some of the things that, if you had a blank canvas, you’d like to see us do? Part of leadership is being able to listen and learn from other people.

When I was a college freshman, I was crazy enough to invite the University of Alabama president to go to dinner with me. And he said yes, and I couldn’t believe he said yes, and then I had to go to this fancy restaurant. He and his wife went, and I took a buddy of mine. And I’ll tell you, I think the first couple of minutes seemed like hours. What did he have in common with an 18-year-old boy from Camden, Alabama? He’d been secretary of Health Education and Welfare for President Ford, and I’m sure he was looking at his wife kicking her under the table saying, “What have we done?”

So, Dr. Matthews was trying to open one of those little milk creamer things for his coffee, so he was pushing on the plastic and opening the tab. And it went all on his blue blazer, and that kind of released the tension in the air. We ended up having a delightful dinner and became really good friends. I’ve just got a letter from him a couple of days ago congratulating me, wishing me well. He’s retired now, obviously, but…I don’t know for you, but it would be intimidating for me to go into the president’s office and, sometimes when you get an invitation from the president’s office, it’s not a good thing, you got in trouble…This door will always be open to students, but I don’t want anyone to think that they’ve got to come to me.

I want to go to the dorms, I’ve been in some of them already, I want to go have lunch…Dr. Smith did, I think, pasta and pizza with the president, and so I’m looking forward to doing that. We’ll do a lot of entertaining at the home when we move in there. Dr. Smith is still there for a few more weeks. My wife, Janeé, loves this university like I do. Even though neither of us went here, our children grew up here, they went to St. Paul’s…Robins, my son who’s 23, played youth soccer on what’s now the band practice field, you know, we didn’t have a band back then. [My daughter] Lee and Robins both went to basketball games back when he played the Civic Center…we had two season tickets and they would fight [about] who got to go to the Jags game. So, when Miss Paula came up last night…Lee, after she left, said, “Daddy, I was, I think, four the first time I got my picture made with her.”

So, it’s this is an important part of our life and I want to give every ounce of energy and creativity and passion to this university because I think that Mobile and Baldwin counties–the Gulf Coast region–need a university like South Alabama to help us move into the next decade of opportunity and we’ve got one. Our job is to help make it even better and to build on the success of others that came before us.

ARZ: So, you mentioned that you would like students to meet you halfway, and I would like to know what ways would you like them to do that, and also, how do you plan to meet them?

JB: Well, I plan to meet them by accepting every opportunity I can, inviting them to come in and have conversation and dialogue, bring me their ideas, bring us their goals and aspirations and wishes and see how we can help them develop them. And look, you’re never going to be able to tell everybody yes. You’re never going to be able to make everybody happy with everything you do. I know that from life but also certainly know it from Congress, but one of the things that I’ve always prided myself on is being a consensus-builder and being someone who is a bridge-builder…

One of the very first things after my election in 2002 was the realization that I had lost Washington County. I won one of the other five counties and had lost parts of Mobile County, namely Prichard and some other areas that traditionally vote Democrat. So, the very first town hall meeting I had was in Prichard, Alabama, and the first county I went to outside of Mobile was Washington County. I never ended up carrying Prichard in the boxes, but I never lost Washington County again. And throughout my time in Congress…even though I might not have always voted the way that some people had wanted me to, I always served everybody the same way.

I always lived by the Golden Rule, tried to treat people the way I want to be treated, and one of the hallmarks about time in Congress–I don’t want to spend a lot of time talking about that because that’s a different chapter, this is a new chapter. But it’s an important chapter because if you want to look at where I’m going to try to lead the university, you can look at where I tried to serve the people of South Alabama during that time in public life.

I’m real proud of the fact…I was asked to chair the Ethics Committee, which is the most thankless job you can get in Congress because it’s the one committee that has to stand in judgment of your colleagues. And it’s the only committee that’s evenly divided, there are five Democrats and five Republicans. It doesn’t matter how the political ratios are, most committees are based on what your majority and your minority status is. But in the Ethics Committee, there’s five and five, always. And during my time as chairman, we never had anything but a unanimous vote.

Now, think about Washington, D.C. today. Think about how divided our nation is where we…have debates about whether we’re going to stand for the Pledge of Allegiance or put our hand over our heart. I mean, we’re that divided as a nation. And just a few years ago, I was able to get five Democrats and five Republicans to vote the same way on every issue that we dispensed with. That doesn’t happen by accident. It happens by respecting the fact that am I not always going to agree with my liberal Democrat friend from California or they may not always agree with their…conservative Republican friend from Texas. But the key to it is that we have the same goal of trying to get something done, and, to me, that’s what meeting halfway is.

Someone asked me yesterday, would I meet with one of the groups that came to the town hall meeting, and…I would say they were not the head of my fan club. I said absolutely. I want to learn…I guarantee you that 99% of what they want to accomplish in life, every other group wants to accomplish the same thing. But they may well have some background experiences, some discrimination, some challenges that we’re not familiar with, and the best way to understand why they see things the way they do is to try to put yourself in their shoes.

One of the things I’ve always tried to do is put myself in someone else’s position to better understand why they feel the way they do, and so that’s what I mean when I say let’s meet halfway. Let’s sit down and have a conversation, let’s dialogue, let’s discuss, but let’s do it in a respectful way that, even if we disagree, at the end of the conversation, I can appreciate your views and maybe you can appreciate mine. And to me, that’s what a university campus is all about, is the diversity of ideas, culture, background experiences. But at the end of the day, we probably want the same thing.

ARZ: Along with forming relationships with students at South, an initiative that you mentioned in your forum was to create a more proactive relationship with community colleges. Why is this a focus for you?

JB: Well, because a lot of students start out at a community college. I did. I took my first two classes when I was still in high school at the community college in my hometown. One, to get them out of the way and two, because I believe that I could make better grades in world history and math at the community college, and I did. Maybe I would have made the same grades at Alabama, but it was also good for me from a small school– we had 31 people in my high school graduating class–and I thought it was important for me to go to college…with a little bit of the experience of being in college behind me.

But I think a lot of our students today get their start at a community college because they don’t quite know yet what they want to do, and they realize they need more than just a high school diploma in the economy we’re living in but they’re also looking at a career path that may not include college…I was told yesterday that we’ve got a great relationship with several of the colleges in this area [such as] Bishop State [and] Coastal Alabama. But we want to make sure that we continue to build those relationships and we expand them beyond, even into the community colleges in Florida and Mississippi so that if a student goes to a two-year school but realizes [they] want to be a nurse or [they] want to be an engineer or [they] want to go beyond…an associate’s degree.

We don’t want to ever just look like we are under-appreciating or undervaluing your degree or even your classes. We want students that see the value of getting a four-year degree to know that this is a good place to take those first years of experience in college and finish them here with a degree. And hopefully, they’ll want to go on to get a graduate degree and continue their education journey here at South.

To me, that’s what a university campus is all about, is the diversity of ideas, culture, background experiences. But at the end of the day, we probably want the same thing.

ARZ: Another thing that you mentioned is student retention, so how do you plan on addressing that?

JB: Well, I think that’s going to be one of the keys to addressing our enrollment challenges as well as making sure that students who come to South see that we’re committed to helping them graduate with a degree.

This week, I’ve met with Student Affairs, Academic Affairs, Financial Affairs, [the] athletic department and about 25 other different places in between. But one of the things that they are preparing for me…is to understand why we’ve got students who are leaving. And I don’t have that answer right now…but sometimes they’re leaving because there’s financial stress. How do we measure in scholarships with our sister institutions? It could be that their family is having some financial difficulties, or some personal difficulties, or mom and dad might be getting a divorce and helping Johnny go to college might not be something they can afford to do. So, what more can we do to be helping on that front?

The COVID economy, I mean, COVID has changed everything…I mean, everything has changed. So, we need to understand why our students are coming and not staying or why they’re not finishing.

I’ve already been calling prospective students this week. I met a young lady on my last day in Montgomery in December and she came up to me and she said, “Aren’t you going to be the new president of South?” I said, “Yes, I am,” and she said, “Well,…I’ve got five girlfriends of mine, and we want to come to South Alabama and visit the campus.” I said, “When are you coming?” She said, “Well, I don’t know.” I said, “Give me your names.” I called the admissions office, they followed up with her Johnny-on-the-spot and I called her Tuesday night and said, “I hear you’re coming in January, please come by and see me.”

I want to be the recruiter-in-chief for new students, but also want to, getting back to your earlier question, I want to get out and understand why a young lady like yourself chose South Alabama and what can we do to get other young people like yourself to make South their first choice. This campus at one time was known as a commuter campus, you know. [It] didn’t have dorms, didn’t have the nice sorority houses and fraternity houses, didn’t have some of the things that we’ve got today. We’re a different place than we were 30 years ago. And we’ve got a lot more amenities to offer [like]the Student Rec Center. I mean, my gracious, it is really nice.

ARZ: 2022 is an especially important year for South. Not only are you starting your tenure as president, but also, the university is on track to approve and implement a new strategic plan. So how has your input, if you’ve given input, shaped the new plan?

JB: It hasn’t shaped it one bit yet because I haven’t even seen the draft. But I was grateful when I was in the interview phase, I asked that very question: would I have a chance to see it before it’s implemented? They said, “Yes, we’re going to slow down, let the new president have input into it,” so I met with our Interim Provost Dr. Kent several times and we’re going to be taking a look at the preview of it.

I can’t help but believe that there’s going to be a lot of things that are going to be exciting, a lot of things we’re going to want to embrace. There may be one or two things I’d like to make a suggestion on, what if we do it this way or that way, but I know a lot of people who have put in a lot of hard work on it and I cannot wait to see where they want to take South, because, to me, that’s kind of the overarching opportunity we’ve got.

If you ask our 90,000 alumni, “What would you like to see South Alabama become in the next 10 years?” and you ask our 7,000 faculty and staff, “Where would you like to see university South Alabama go? What would you like to see us being in the next 10 years?” and you ask our 14,000 students and go on down the list, hearing a lot of different answers. A strategic plan is like a blueprint for a house; it doesn’t mean you can’t make changes to it. You can move a wall here or you can add a room there, but you’ve got to have a blueprint or a road map to know where you’re going to go. And so, I’m looking forward to it, but I have not seen it. I’ve had no input thus far.

ARZ: What is something that you think that South Alabama is doing well and that you would like to…build on?

JB: I can’t tell you one thing, I can tell you about 25 things. At the risk of offending programs that I’m not going to mention, and there are a lot of really good things we’re doing…I was stuck on the Bayway, I’m still living in Baldwin County, driving over every morning. And on Wednesday, there was a wreck in the tunnel. I had a 7:30 meeting and I was going to be 7:40 getting here…I was kind of having a pity party for myself because I like to be early, I don’t like to be late…and I was thinking, “How can I allow myself to do this?” because I got up early and I got on the road in plenty of time except for the wreck.

There was an ad on the radio for USA Health, and all I can think about was…there’s probably a family–there is a family–in the neonatal ward at Children’s and Women’s and because we’ve got a world-class Children’s and Women’s Hospital with amazing, dedicated, talented, trained professionals, nurses and doctors…I remember going in there as a congressman and watching people holding these babies that were the size of that little Jaguar statue [on the table] or smaller and I’ve met many of them who have grown up to be beautiful, smart, bright, handsome young men and women. But for Children’s and Women’s, they may have never had that chance.

So, I think of our incredible health system. I think of the amazing research. I love seafood and I think about what [director of the School of Marine and Environmental Sciences] Sean Powers has done, Dr. Bob Shipp before him, in the area of Red Snapper and amberjack. A photographer came in a few minutes ago, and he’s from Bayou La Batre, and I asked him where his favorite seafood restaurant is. We live on the Gulf Coast and we take it for granted that we can go get fresh seafood, but [couldn’t] if we didn’t have an outstanding marine sciences program that was doing research to make sure that we don’t overfish or do anything to destroy our oysters, our shrimp, our crab.

I think about our humanities programs. I think about our Department of Education. I mean, we’ve got a shortage of teachers around this country, and if we can spark a passion of a young person who wants to go into a classroom, there’s no more noble calling than being a pastor or a preacher or a priest or rabbi–or a teacher. And to go in and be an elementary school teacher and teach a group of third-graders or first-graders or kindergarten, you have to have a lot of patience to do that. We’ve got so many great programs. It’s such a diverse, talented team of faculty, and so we’ve got a lot to offer and we’re providing a lot and…my job is to learn as much as I can about all the different talents we’ve got and try to find a way to use them all.

ARZ: What is your overall hope or your biggest hope for South Alabama under your leadership?

JB: That we continue moving in a positive direction. That we do it with integrity, that we do it with transparency and that we get people around this community–and I’m not talking about just Mobile but the community at large–that are excited about what we’re doing and want to be part of it. You don’t have to be a student. You don’t even have to be an alum or graduate to want this university to be successful.

I had a lady who didn’t go to school here and didn’t have any family members who went to school here, but had been a longtime friend of my family, [and] when I got this appointment, she wrote a check for $3,000. She’d never given a penny to the university. I called her this morning to thank her and she said, “Jo, I know that you’re going to put your heart and soul and give everything you’ve got to take South to the next level and…I want to be there with you.” It meant a lot to me that she did it, I don’t know that she’s got $3,000 to give, it’s a very generous gift. But I want people to believe as I do that for Mobile and South Alabama–the region– to continue to grow and prosper, that…we need the University of South Alabama to continue to grow and prosper as well. I think that there is that opportunity, that very real opportunity, to do that.

We’ve got so many great programs. It’s such a diverse, talented team of faculty, and so we’ve got a lot to offer and we’re providing a lot and…my job is to learn as much as I can about all the different talents we’ve got and try to find a way to use them all.

I was fortunate in my prior life to be a part of bringing some of the new companies to town. I don’t have the picture of Austal or Airbus or some of this other stuff here to remind me that I was in Congress at one time. I have it as a reminder of what we’re able to do, we collectively, to help change the economic landscape and the opportunities…so that if you choose to go to New York or Nashville or Los Angeles, that’s fine, but so that you got opportunities here at home that your parents didn’t have. And that’s, to me, one of the exciting opportunities we’ve got. I want to get out and talk with our business and company leaders. What do they need in terms of a future workforce that we can tailor degrees at the University of South Alabama to help them build leaders for their companies, for their plants and really for this great region that we have?

I’ve lived in D.C., I’ve lived in Tuscaloosa and there are a lot of nice places to live, there are a lot of great places you can be. There’s no place that’s more special than this place that we live in and call home. And this university can be a catalyst, and is, [and] we can continue to be a catalyst for positive change, for growth and development that continues to prioritize one of the nicest things we’ve got: the quality of life, the Bay, the Gulf, the Delta, that a lot of places would give their right arm to have.

I cannot tell you how excited I am to be sitting in this office meeting with you and getting ready to get on the road to this journey. And I can’t tell you for sure, you know, people want to know, what do [I] want to see happen in the first year or first 100 days? I can’t promise you where we’re going to go, but I can promise you that it’s going to be fun, it’s going to be rewarding and it’s going to be beneficial if we do it together.