Six reasons to question hiring practices of the UA System

Posted by Dan Whisenhunt May 28, 2013

Editor’s note: I am from Mobile, Ala. I graduated from the University of Alabama in 2005 and married a beautiful Alabama gal. I have roots there and care about its future.

Journalists aren’t asking enough questions about recent changes within the University of Alabama System.

They should be.

There’s precedent for aggressive watchdog coverage of Alabama’s institutions of higher education.

In 2007, the Birmingham News won a Pulitzer for uncovering how the state Legislature turned the two-year college system into a crony kingdom, using it to employ family members for personal gain.

Today there’s a situation within the University of Alabama System that raises questions about families on the public payroll. But who’s going to ask them?

The University System on May 23 announced its latest hire: U.S. Rep. Jo Bonner, R-Mobile. He’ll be the vice chancellor of government relations and economic development, a newly-created position. Bonner’s salary hasn’t been determined. I’ve never heard of anyone switching jobs without knowing what their new salary will be.

Rep. Bonner has been a congressman since 2003. He also happens to be the younger brother of University of Alabama President Judy Bonner.

I am from Mobile, but don’t know much about Rep. Bonner or his service to our community. By all accounts he’s been an effective congressman. That does not entitle him to anything other than a “job well done” from voters.

It certainly doesn’t explain why he’s now a vice chancellor with the system.

The University claims that there is no nepotism in this case, saying that Jo and Judy will be working for different parts of the system and that Judy won’t supervise her brother.

For those of you unfamiliar with the term, nepotism means hiring immediate family members for a job within the same company or institution.

Mobile-based Lagniappe Magazine appears to be the only publication that has asked the university to go on record about concerns of nepotism.

University System spokeswoman Kellee Reinhart told the magazine, “Jo Bonner is not going to work for his sister. This position will be part of the senior management team, employed by the system and not one of the three campuses. Our government relations program is system-wide and the team that represents all three campuses is in Montgomery. This is a new position that will add on the economic development component at the vice chancellor level.”

For the full story, click here.

Government nepotism is as old as government itself. That doesn’t make it right.

The whole situation reeks like a dead rat in a cow pie, but there are a lot of people in Alabama who apparently can’t smell.

Politicians are praising Rep. Bonner. Alabamians are shrugging their shoulders.

The whole state should be asking some tough questions.

Here’s why:

1) Hiring family members for taxpayer-funded jobs isn’t a good idea. It’s even more problematic when that family member is a sitting U.S. Congressman.

Families stick together and that can lead to trouble when they infiltrate a government organization.

Let’s be clear about something. I’m not saying I have a problem with a private company hiring a member of someone’s immediate family. I’m even OK with it at government institutions as long as there aren’t conflicts of interest and the hiring is handled in a transparent, arms-length manner.

But this isn’t some department head hiring Judy Bonner’s brother to teach a political science class. The University System is hiring her brother as a well-paid employee for a job that didn’t previously exist.

Let’s not forget the timing of this announcement, the Thursday before a lengthy holiday weekend and before the summer break. By summer’s end, Alabamians will have gotten over whatever outrage they might have felt. The timing of the announcement is a classic PR move meant to downplay a controversial decision.

Given Rep. Bonner’s position as a U.S. Congressman, I think we should ask why the university hired the congressman but hasn’t determined his salary. I’d also like a more complete job description, preferably one that is in line with other University System job advertisements.

2) We’re still not sure why the last University president left.

The previous university president is still on the UA System payroll and looking for other work.

The Crimson White student newspaper tells us that Guy Bailey resigned as university president last year. Bailey served as president for two months before the abrupt resignation. Bonner was named as Bailey’s replacement. At the time, Bailey said he needed to step down for family health reasons.

Then six months later, Bailey reportedly applied for a job at New Mexico State University. The Crimson White student newspaper reported earlier this month that Bailey didn’t get the job.

Why did he leave for a family health matter, keep his salary and then continue to pursue other opportunities?

3) The university’s nepotism policy doesn’t do much to prevent nepotism.

I did some research prior to writing this article. I visited the University System’s web page, went over to the Human Resources section and attempted to download the HR Policy Manual. This is what I got.

Policy ManualI did find other documents, though, and they don’t make nepotism sound like anything other than a bureaucratic hassle.

Here are some key passages. All text in bold is my emphasis.

From the University System’s employee handbook, Page 34:


Employees who are members of the same immediate family or who are living in the same household may not have the same immediate supervisor or directly supervise one another. Generally, no family member may interpret policy and procedures or make any work-related decisions regarding hiring, promotion, salary compensation level, job assignment, performance evaluation, discipline, termination, or any other issue affecting another member of the employee’s immediate family or another individual living in the same household.

For purposes of this segment of the handbook, immediate family includes one’s spouse, parents, grandparents, children, grandchildren, brothers, sisters, or similar relationships’ in-law, or in step families. Exceptions to this policy require written approval from the Chancellor.

So even if there is a problem, the Chancellor can simply overrule it? How often has that happened?

Then I looked at the rules for the University System Board of Trustees.

Page 45 of the Board Manual:


Neither members of the Board nor any family members of Board members or senior administrators (the definition of administrators includes University Presidents), as defined in Section I above, may be offered employment for compensation in a regular position within the University until approved as follows:

Offers to employ any member of the Board or family members of Board members or senior administrator must be submitted to and approved or disapproved by the President of the campus offering the employment and reported by that President to the Chancellor, who shall inform the President pro tempore of the Board. Offers to employ any family members of the Chancellor shall be submitted to and approved or disapproved by the President pro tempore of the Board, who shall inform the members of the Board.

Offers to employ any family members of a President shall be submitted to and approved or disapproved by the Chancellor, who shall inform the members of the Board.

The members of the Board and senior administrators shall not advocate or attempt to influence the employment of any of their family members.

Any employment in violation of this policy shall be void.

So the board has its own policy outlining the circumstances where hiring the family of a board member, university president or the chancellor, would be permissible.

I believe any government institution should place severe restrictions on hiring family members and those restrictions should be independently enforced. The University of Alabama System’s policy lists more ways to hire relatives of board members than prevent it.

An article on the website of the nonprofit group City Ethics gives several good reasons to be wary of nepotism in government. Please read it.

I looked around for model nepotism polices that I thought placed the most reasonable amount of restrictions on this practice without going overboard. The policy of the U.S. Merit Systems Protection Board would be a good model for all governments to follow.

The policy says agencies under its jurisdiction cannot, “appoint, employ, promote, advance, or advocate for appointment, employment, promotion, or advancement, in or to a civilian position any individual who is a relative [father, mother, son, daughter, brother, sister, uncle, aunt, first cousin, nephew, niece, husband, wife, father-in-law, mother-in-law, son-in-law, daughter-in-law, brother-in-law, sister-in-law, stepfather, stepmother, stepson, stepdaughter, stepbrother, stepsister, half-brother, or half-sister] of such employee if such position is in the agency in which such employee is serving as a public official [an officer (including the President and a Member of Congress), a member of the uniformed service, an employee and any other individual, in whom is vested the authority by law, rule, or regulation, or to whom the authority has been delegated, to appoint, employ, promote, or advance individuals, or to recommend individuals for appointment, employment, promotion, or advancement in connection with employment in an agency or over which such employee exercises jurisdiction or control as such an official.”

That’s a bunch of legalese, but it covers a great deal of ground, doesn’t it?

Why can’t the University of Alabama System Board of Trustees adopt something like this?

4) The University of Alabama places stricter rules on faculty selling football tickets than employing family members.

Check out this ethics Q&A from the University of Alabama’s website:

Q: I have purchased football tickets on the faculty/staff order form. My neighbor would like to purchase my LSU tickets for $100 each. Can I sell them to him at that price?

ANSWER: The Alabama Ethics Act prohibits the use of your University position for personal gain. As a faculty or staff member, you have access to tickets not available to the general public at a discounted price. Selling those tickets for an amount in excess of the face value of the ticket is personal gain and a violation of the Ethics Act.

So University of Alabama faculty members can’t sell a football ticket for market value, because it’s considered unethical. But the University System hiring the President’s brother for a made-up job? Eh, sure, that sounds OK.

5) The media won’t touch this.

I hate to take pot-shots at my fellow journalists, but c’mon people. Can you ask a real question, please?

The only publications digging for answers are the university’s student newspaper and the Lagniappe in Mobile. handled the story like a farewell profile of Rep. Bonner mixed with inside baseball political intrigue. The narrative quickly shifted to who will run to replace Rep. Bonner, as if that isn’t already a foregone conclusion.

Remember, the man who will set the special election, Gov. Robert Bentley, also sits on the University System’s Board of Trustees.

The only thing more annoying than the Alabama media’s cheerful lack of curiosity about this story is its severe case of amnesia. surprises me the most. is the main site for the Birmingham News, the Mobile Register and the Huntsville Times.

As I mentioned, The Birmingham News won a Pulitzer for asking tough questions of officials working in higher education. isn’t the only offender out there, but its lack of inquiry is certainly the most ironic.

6) You know who gets hurt the most in all this? The students.

That’s the most overlooked fact of this generally overlooked story. It harms students in a couple of ways.

I graduated in 2005. My degree was supposed to help me get ahead in life. No one at UA ever taught me that I could depend on my DNA to get by. Now the president of that university will be working with her brother at the upper echelons of the UA power structure.

He’ll have a job that someone invented for him and will receive a salary that’s not yet determined. I will wager that it will be much higher than what most UA graduates are making.

Why wasn’t the job advertised? Why was Rep. Bonner the only one considered?

Students also are seeing their tuition go up like clockwork every year.

Here are the full year in-state tuition rates for the University of Alabama since 2009.

2009-2010: $7,000

2010-2011: $7,900

2011-2012: $8,600

2012-2013: $9,200

Is this why tuition continues to increase, so people like Rep. Bonner and his sister can have jobs? Is this what hopeful Alabama moms and dads are paying for?

The jobs have been scarce recently.

Alabama within the last five years has faced the worst unemployment rate since 1990. The rate is still 7 percent, meaning there are thousands of Alabamians looking for work. Is hiring Rep. Bonner fair to our state’s job seekers?

There’s a bigger story here and one that’s being avoided because it’s too damn hard for people to deal with. Dysfunctional government is often dysfunctional by design. The more difficult interacting with government becomes, the less accountable it becomes.

UA is the king of the world right now. Those BCS Championships keep the bank account full. I believe the national attention carries with it a certain amount of responsibility. We are good at running footballs down fields, but we should also show we are an institution with integrity.

I distinctly remember, during my first years at UA, being impressed as then-President Robert Witt made the hard choice to fire football coach Mike Price before he ever coached a game. Price, as you’ll recall, got into some mischief at a strip club in Pensacola, Fla., and it generated some embarrassing headlines.

Football was and still is king in Alabama. Firing a coach was a tough call, but ultimately the right one.

I wonder if Witt, who is the University of Alabama System Chancellor now, is still the same man that impressed me back in 2003. I wouldn’t have guessed then that Witt would be in favor of hiring the brother of a sitting University President for a made-up job.

But he did it.

Shouldn’t we be asking why?

I encourage anyone who is reading this who agrees with me to stop acting like there’s nothing we can do.

There’s plenty.

Here are two ideas that will get the ball rolling:

I encourage you to call and email the editors of your newspapers and ask them why their reporters aren’t taking a harder look at this. Once the media gets its head out of the sand and starts asking for more information, the truth will come out.

You also need to write and call your state representatives. Tell them you don’t think a University System Chancellor should be able to hire family members of sitting university presidents.

Here is a list of editors at Alabama’s major newspapers and their contact info:

Update: A staffer at reached out to me with better info on how to contact staff at these three papers. Thank you, sir.

The Birmingham News – The Mobile Register – The Huntsville Times

All three of these publications are now under the banner. To contact them, click here. For the department field, select “Content.”

Personal aside: while I appreciate the assist on this, I do miss the charm of being able to reach out to your local newspaper editor. I feel like’s new system puts an unnecessary barrier between the readers and the reporters covering their communities.

The Montgomery Advertiser

Executive Editor Tom Clifford

334-261-1580 (Number for Debbie Goddard, Executive Assistant to Mr. Clifford.)

The Tuscaloosa News

Executive Editor Michael James

Phone: 205-722-0205

Here is a link to the state of Alabama website that will allow you to search for your legislator by Zip code. It was down when I posted this, but will presumably be functional again at some point.

Please remember state Legislators, not federal, have the most control over the University System.

Tell your newspaper editors and elected representatives how you feel. Ask them to dig deeper and set a higher standard for Alabama.

Be polite, please.

About Dan Whisenhunt

Dan Whisenhunt is editor and publisher of

View all posts by Dan Whisenhunt

  • Dan,

    First I’d like to say this is a well-written, well-researched piece. As an employee I thought I’d help you out with your issues with finding contact information. The reason you aren’t able to find editors for the individual newspapers is that our company is no longer structured as separate publications with separate editorial staffs. We are a single company known as Alabama Media Group with offices in Birmingham, Huntsville, Mobile, Montgomery and Tuscaloosa. We are headquartered in Birmingham.

    You can contact the content department for the entire statewide organization at this page:

    Simply choose “Content” in the department field and your email will be sent to our entire editorial staff. Once again, I think you’ve raised some interesting points here and although I’m in the sports department and would thus be out of my element on this story, I do hope you’ll pass this along to our editorial staff.

    • Thank you for your kind words, Matt, and for your assistance with this matter. I will update my post to reflect your comments.

      I hope will ask tough questions. There’s a proud tradition of watchdog journalism there and I admired how they handled the investigation of the incident at the Birmingham airport.

      Thank you again.

  • First off I want to say excellent blog! I had a quick question which I’d like to ask if you don’t mind.
    I was interested to know how you center yourself and clear
    your head prior to writing. I’ve had a difficult time clearing my thoughts in getting my ideas out there. I truly do enjoy writing however it just seems like the first 10 to 15 minutes are generally lost just trying to figure out how to begin. Any suggestions or tips? Appreciate it!

    • Thanks for reading. Honestly the best trick I’ve found? Ear plugs. They completely block out distractions, at least for me. Isolation seems to be the key, which can be frustrating to others. Good luck.

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