On a recent winter night, I was standing with a friend on Red Mountain, admiring the glory of the Magic City at my feet. I could see all the places I treasure from my vantage point: Five Points South, historic Ramsay High School, Sloss Furnace, The University of Alabama at Birmingham and its world-class medical center, Children’s Hospital, and my favorite, City Federal building, lit up in the distance.
I remarked absentmindedly, “If only this city would love itself more,” to which my companion responded sadly, “This whole state needs to love itself more.”
In the days since that bittersweet exchange of words, I have meditated on what Alabama stands to gain by learning to love itself and on the question of who it could learn this from. Then clear as the ring of Denny Chimes, it hit me: The University of Alabama. What entity in this state loves itself more than the one with fifteen rings on its fingers?
Without a doubt, my home sweet Capstone loves itself. That love is evident in our TV ads, our mail outs to donors and prospective students alike, and our fans’ joy in shaking Bryant-Denny to the tune of “Dixieland Delight.” The students and alumni of another major university in this state may debate me endlessly over whether or not our self-love is merited. It does not change the myriad of ways Alabama could learn from its original University. Here are four.
1. Embrace Outsiders (They Might Bring Money!)
The University has made millions in revenue from the new business model developed under then president, now UA Chancellor Dr. Robert Witt and continued under President Judy Bonner. That model is to leverage the University’s storied sports tradition, its spacious suite-style dorms, its top-notch Honors College, and its lovely, greenery-covered campus to lure out-of state students and the higher tuition prices they pay to Title Town. Alabama has already reaped some of the benefits in the form of outside investment from Honda, Hyundai and Mercedes, but if we could look to the contributions of “transplants” with excitement instead of xenophobia, we might see the benefits of further outside investment.
2. Celebrate Your Own Achievements (Loudly)
Denny Chimes’s new song “Celebrating Achievement” frequently elicits giggles from cynical students; however, it serves a useful purpose. Whenever the University has something to celebrate, President Bonner emails the entire campus community to announce that “Celebrating Achievement” will be played from Denny Chimes in honor of the achieving party. This sometimes funny ritual reminds the campus that we do have achievements to be proud of and highlights our strengths rather than our shortcomings. While I am not suggesting that the State House be outfitted with a bell tower — though I am not suggesting that it should not be — Montgomery would be well served by politicians willing to celebrate and tout our state’s rising educational rankings and falling obesity rankings to its citizens.
3. If a Space is Empty, Throw a Greek Revival Façade on it
Everyone loves Doric columns (seriously, everyone), which is why the Capstone has made a cornerstone of its new business model the face-lifting of its more outdated buildings with new looks on the outside and new uses within. Alumni who are absent between football seasons, come back to their alma mater each fall and see our hallmark architectural style stamped on yet another building. This suggestion particularly applies to downtown Birmingham — which seems to be taking the hint — to invest in spaces. This means more than just building Regions Park and the new Westin Hotel. Invest in the minor details, such as maintaining and revitalizing downtown storefronts to attract new businesses, residents, and consumers to the area.
4. Knowledge is Power
Like it or not, most of our unskilled jobs have moved elsewhere. The University of Alabama and other universities are doing their part in providing Alabama with the workforce of tomorrow. They are investing time, energy, and money in expanding their research, co-op, and course opportunities, but all of this will provide little boost to the state if there are not enough high-skill and knowledge-intensive jobs to receive them. If the “Yankees” we bring to higher education in the Yellowhammer State cannot find employment here after graduation, then we are continuing a Southern tragedy worthy of Faulkner. This is a lesson for everyone from Gov. Bentley to local chambers of commerce. Let your memories of the textile and steel-supported South go. Embrace the knowledge economy through investment in career and technical education at the secondary school level, expanded skills training in our two year college system, and corporate recruiting and retention programs aimed at higher quality jobs for the Alabama workforce of the 21st century.
Perhaps our state legislators should take a break from debating whether or not to approve a constitutional amendment allowing the Ten Commandments in government buildings and instead devote their attention to this unofficial commandment: “First, love thyself.” If Alabama learns to love itself for the right reasons, others will follow.