Students, Faculty React to President Bonner

By: Amelia Rose Zimlich | Managing Editor | arz1722@jagmail.southalabama.edu

Photo credit: South Alabama website

Reaction has been mixed to South’s newly announced president Jo Bonner, a longtime Mobile Republican and chief of staff to Gov. Kay Ivey, after a Wednesday vote by the USA Board of Trustees selecting the former congressman to succeed Tony Waldrop.

Faculty and students interviewed after the 11-2 vote recognized that Bonner’s installment could transform South.

“As someone who represents the voice for all students,” SGA President Grace Sekaya said in a prepared statement, “I recognize that there is a worry about the announcement from earlier today and some who are happy for Mr. Bonner. From the student perspective, there is concern on which direction campus life will head in.”

During his forum on Oct. 12, Bonner, 61, described himself if he were to be appointed as “a president that believes in shared governance, that respects academic freedom and that will help ensure that South Alabama’s best days are still in front of us.” He said he would like to be a president who builds on the success of others and stressed the importance of student retention and having a proactive relationship with community colleges.

Some have voiced concerns about Bonner’s qualifications for president and lack of an advanced degree, although Gordon Moulton, South’s second president, also did not have a Ph.D.  Bonner’s highest degree is a B.A. in journalism from the University of Alabama.

Another concern has been Bonner’s voting record along Republican party lines during his career as a congressman representing Alabama’s 1st District, which includes Mobile. According to a 2013 archive of Open Congress, Bonner voted with the Republican party 97.2% of the time, the same rate as the average Republican, and while in office gained a reputation as a moderate. In his forum, Bonner answered questions from students about his voting record on LGBT and women’s issues.

“As everyone knows, Alabama’s a pretty conservative state and southwest Alabama is a really conservative district,” Bonner, a native of Selma, said during the campus forum. “So, there were times when I voted for my constituents because that’s what they expected me to do.”

Some observers pointed out that the campus community is removed from the world of politics.

 “One: whenever a new president comes in, you want to welcome him and give him a chance,” said Frye Gaillard, who made public his retirement as USA’s writer in residence shortly after Bonner’s selection was announced. “Second is that when the new president has devoted his life to partisan politics, then for some of us that’s a cause for concern. I mean, that’s not what a university is about…The point is that we need to be able to have a full and civil dialogue about competing points of view on campus, and if President Bonner understands that, then that will be great.”

The SGA president emphasized the core mission of the university.

“The University of South Alabama boasts to be an institution that values diversity,” said Sekaya. “I hope that with the new incoming President, that value remains forefront in all decisions. The students are what makes the University. So, I hope Mr. Bonner is prepared to truly hear not only some, but all students who make up USA.”

During his campus visit, Bonner sought to reassure the community that he would listen, and considers diversity a strength.

 “The best way to learn is to listen to people and sometimes you don’t always share the same views. The best way to make your view more worldly is to hear from others,” he said, while pledging to make the campus “inclusive.”  

“I think it already is,” he said. “I have seen the diversity in the faculty and in the student body. We’re in a different day today in 2021 than we were even ten years ago when I was in Congress. Some of the issues we’re dealing with today are different because our society has become more open-minded, and that’s a good thing.”

The chairman of the trustees, who selected Bonner over two other finalists, a past university president at the University of Texas-Tyler and a dean of education at Florida State, wrote that Bonner was selected for his administrative skills and statewide reputation.

“He is a proven innovator, a skilled administrator and a respected, admired and influential leader in our state,” trustees chair pro tempore Jimmy Shumock wrote Wednesday in an email to the campus. “With his leadership, we look forward to the continued elevation of the University of South Alabama’s reputation as a leading academic, research and healthcare institution.”

Gaillard, the writer-in-residence, expressed hope for South’s future.

“I hope that (Bonner) can translate his political connections into resources that enable the university to broaden its mission, to pursue its mission,” Gaillard said. “And there are so many parts to its mission…So I hope he helps make it possible for us to do that even better.”

Bonner will be formally introduced to the South Alabama community at the next Board of Trustees meeting Dec. 2.