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After decades on campus, retiring Bonner reflects on years as president at Alabama

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TUSCALOOSA, Alabama — University of Alabama President Judy Bonner sat on the porch of the campus' antebellum president's mansion on a muggy afternoon in late spring. Joggers made their way around the Quad, and the heat and humidity gradually rose after a brief afternoon shower.

The porch is one of Bonner's favorite places and one of the things she will miss about the presidency, a post she will leave in mid-July.

"I will miss graduation, I will miss the first day of school, everyone is so excited when they come back for a new academic year ... I will miss the students who want to do selfies," Bonner said.

She announced plans to retire from the presidency in December during the winter break. The University of Alabama System announced Louisiana State University Provost Stuart Bell as the nominee to succeed her. If approved by trustees at a meeting scheduled for Thursday, Bell will become president July 15.

As the system prepares for the fall, Bonner, 67, considers a life ahead without the university at its center. An Alabama graduate, Bonner began teaching there in 1981.

"The first thing I have got to do is become a recovering workaholic," Bonner said, adding she is happiest juggling multiple tasks. "And I think I can handle that. In order to do that, I am going to spend some time away."

Bonner plans to go on her "first real vacation in 35 years" with family and also spend a couple of months at a place rented in the North Carolina mountains. It will be time to unwind and refocus.

She hopes to return in 2016 to teach, possibly in the Honors College after her sabbatical. The presidency was likely her last administrative role at Alabama, though she has not excluded the possibility of a post elsewhere.

Reflecting on nearly three years in office, Bonner said she is proud of the way the campus is working together.

"We shouldn't take for granted that this just happens. It takes a lot of hard work. And a lot of effective communication and a lot of shared values to have everyone working together to move the university forward," Bonner said.

She came into the office as the university's first female president in November 2012 with the goal of continuing the momentum begun under her predecessor, current Chancellor Robert Witt, during his nine years leading the university. The enrollment increased by more than 10,000 students under Witt. The university continued to add students under Bonner's leadership and now has more out-of-state students enrolled than Alabamians.

Bonner said she is pleased with the progress, but would have liked to have seen greater gains in the six-year graduation rate among students and more scholarship fundraising during her presidency.

The university's six-year graduation rate has inched up but has not increased dramatically, though the university has added services to help students stay on track. For the last cohort with complete data, the six-year rate was 66 percent.

"I would have liked to have seen it go up dramatically," Bonner said.

During the last three years, fundraising efforts collected $277 million in realized gifts, including $100 million for scholarships, Bonner said.

"I would have liked to have raised more because I think it is so important," she said.

Bonner also reflected on the fall of 2013 when reports by the student newspaper that traditionally white sororities on campus did not offer black students bids during formal recruitment because of their race drew national attention and criticism.

The allegations of racial bias during sorority recruitment prompted Bonner to mandate opening bidding to increase diversity among the sororities.

"As president, I was provided the opportunity to address an injustice in our Greek system. I seized the opportunity and empowered our students to take the steps necessary to ensure that the University of Alabama is truly a welcoming and inclusive environment for every student choosing to enroll in the Capstone," Bonner said.

Nearly two years later, Bonner continued to frame the events as driven by students' call for change and a change that needed to be led by students.

"I am enormously proud of what our students have accomplished," she said. "While I realize we have more to do to truly be a welcoming and inclusive campus for all of our students and for our faculty and staff, I am so proud of the progress we have made."

Professor Steve Miller, a library and information studies faculty member who served as Faculty Senate president during Bonner's presidency, praised her leadership when "things got really rough."

"She did all of this, she navigated through all of this with tremendous poise and with the university first in mind," Miller said.

Looking ahead, Bonner believes the university will continue to grow during the next decade but not as quickly as it did during the previous 10 years. Tuition increases will also likely continue to be a regular part of the university's fiscal planning. The university currently has more than 36,000 students enrolled. In 2005, its enrollment was less than 22,000.

The university's most important role for the state remains producing college graduates to fill the workforce needs, Bonner said. It's most important role for students is helping them graduate with a degree that allows them to purse the jobs. The enrollment growth has also allowed the university to mitigate the cost of cuts in state appropriations, she said.

"Without the enrollment growth, we would have to increase tuition by substantially more than we did, and we would have to close programs," Bonner said.

Universities in the state have increasingly relied on tuition as a controllable revenue source with cuts to state funding and increasing operating costs.

"We have implemented many initiatives to control or reduce costs. But, each year that passes, a larger percentage of our budget is, out of necessity, coming from tuition," Bonner said.

Controlling costs will also remain a priority.

"I think we have to look constantly for ways to be more efficient and be more effective, and we have done that on so many levels," Bonner said, using the example of programs to make buildings on campus more energy efficient.

Mitigating costs for students through scholarships and work-study is important, but Bonner said the most effective way to save students money on the cost of the education is to help them graduate on time.

"We need to help students complete their degrees on time," she said. "The best way to save money on the cost of an education is completing a degree in four years."


Information from: The Tuscaloosa News, http://www.tuscaloosanews.com

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