USA Holds First Public Forum for Jo Bonner

By: Amelia Rose Zimlich | Managing Editor |

Image by: Brandon Clark | Staff Writer |

Jo Bonner kicked off the first public forum of the presidential finalists for South Alabama on Oct. 12 in the Mitchell Center.

The forum began with an introduction by Alexis Atkins, President of the Presidential Search Committee, followed by a speech from Bonner, in which he told the USA community about his past career experience and his vision for the university if chosen as South Alabama president.

“It’s early mornings, long days and late evenings,” said Bonner of the position. “But quite frankly, that’s what this university deserves.”

Bonner talked about his living in the Gulf Coast region of Alabama and his connection to South Alabama in particular, including watching his daughter graduate high school in the Mitchell Center, watching Jaguar basketball games and attending student forum meetings held on campus while in Congress. Bonner noted that he has known all three of South’s previous presidents and called the position an “awesome responsibility.”

“In my letter of interest, I talked about how this is our university, and this is our time and our community,” said Bonner. “And I heard that someone took offense at that, but this is my home. This is where I spent a majority of my life dedicated to making this region a better place.”

Bonner also addressed his unusual credentials for the position and his decision to submit himself as a candidate. He said the faculty senate had “fair questions” about his ability to lead an academic research university without having grown up in the academy. He said he talked to friends who serve as university presidents, in particular, one who has similar credentials and encouraged him to apply.

“The question really came down to ‘did I think that I could provide the leadership, the vision, the passion, to work with an incredible faculty and staff and a wonderful student body to help advance the initiative of the University of South Alabama?’” said Bonner. “If I didn’t think I could, I wouldn’t be standing here today.”

Bonner said if he is chosen as president, South Alabama would be getting “two for the price of one”, referring to his wife, Janeé Bonner, who will play an active role alongside him if he is chosen as the next South Alabama president.

Bonner discussed the importance of student recruitment and building relationships with the community college system in the next few years, emphasizing a “proactive relationship” to offer those students opportunities at South. He mentioned the relationship between South Alabama and the Alabama School of Math and Science (ASMS) that has been ongoing for more than 30 years, saying, “there’s no university that provides more support for them…than USA.”

“Give me an opportunity to help lead and work with you 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,” said Bonner. “I think we can do that. I know we can do that.”

After his speech, Bonner answered questions from attendees, many of which concerned his voting record. 

“There were times when I voted for my constituents because that’s what they expected me to do,” said Bonner in response to a question about his voting record concerning LGBT issues. “There were many times, in fact, there were votes that, quite frankly, I was uncomfortable with.” He voted no on prohibiting job discrimination based on sexual orientation in 2007 and voted yes on constitutionally defining marriage as one-man-one-woman in 2006. Bonner also said that he has seen the diversity among the USA community and that he would work to make South Alabama an inclusive campus.

His voting record concerning specific bills, such as his vote against the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act in 2013, was addressed in questions from students. The Violence Against Women Act concerns protecting women from domestic violence, sexual assault, stalking and other forms of abuse and the amendment would add or expand the definitions of terms included in the Act, according to On the Issues.

In response, Bonner said, “Just because a bill in Congress has a name that makes it sound more inclusive and more competitive does not necessarily mean that’s what that legislation is…With all due respect, I would bet that most of the people who ask that have never read the bill and don’t understand that there is a reason that very likely my entire party voted against that, just like there was legislation that has been introduced this year in Congress that the entire Democratic Party voted against because we are in such a partisan time.”

Another question addressed the graduation rates of minority students. Bonner noted that South Alabama has a high rate of minority students, but the retention of those students is weak, calling it “a very real problem.” He attributed affordability and insufficient high school preparation as possible factors of declining retention.

“We’ve got a lot of high schools in Alabama that have not done a good enough job preparing students to go to college,” said Bonner. Although he did not know the exact situation at South, he mentioned that 7 out of 10 freshmen at another university in Alabama, which he did not name, had to take remedial math and science to be able to enroll. “I will give you my word that I will work with our academic advising team, I’ll work with our recruiters, we will work together to make sure that our minority students and all of our students have a chance to succeed.”

As the hour for the forum ended, students with questions were instructed to bring them to the Board of Trustees. Bonner thanked all the attendees and requested to see the remaining questions submitted by students, saying, “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.”

The next public forum will host Dr. Damon Andrew and will be held on Friday, Oct. 15 at 11 a.m. in the Mitchell Center. Dr. Michael Tidwell will have his public forum on Oct. 26 at 11 a.m. in the Mitchell Center.