Face the challenge of UA's contradictionsBy Andy McWhorter | 04/21/2015 10:17pm
Four years ago, I drove from my hometown of Birmingham to Tuscaloosa, a place that, on reflection, I still don’t think I fully understand. The student body of The University of Alabama, like that of all four-year colleges, has the memory of a goldfish. Every four years or so, a whole new population rotates through campus, usually forgetting all of the lessons those who came before them learned.
The effect of this is a vicious cycle, where progress is made and then, just a few years later, promptly reversed. Remember Autherine Lucy, who became the first black student to enroll at The University of Alabama, seven years before the Stand in the Schoolhouse Door, and was driven from campus by an angry mob. Remember Cleo Thomas, the first black president of the Student Government Association. It would take 40 years for his accomplishment to be repeated. Remember Carla Ferguson, who became the first black woman to join a Panhellenic sorority in 2003. It took a decade before that barrier would be crossed again. Every time something improves, it seems to take years for that improvement to stick.
For me, The University of Alabama is a mixed bag, filled with hypocrisy and sincerity, greed and selflessness, honesty and obfuscation. These contradictions do not lend themselves to a neat little quip about the meaning of this place, but they do offer something simple, something I’ve found more valuable than anything else here: a challenge.
There are still terrible, systemic problems at the University, each of which demands a response. We continue to have an administration that is almost always quick to circle the wagons and attempt to protect the University’s image rather than address some of the systemic issues on campus or provide a free, open forum for students to make their voices heard. We have an opaque law enforcement agency that has very little accountability and a great deal of power. Most frustrating of all, students continue to maintain pointless, petty divisions amongst themselves, whether it be out in the open on the floor of the SGA Senate or behind closed doors in the childish meetings of secret societies.
It’s tempting to think that these and other problems at The University of Alabama will never be fixed, but time and time again my pessimism has been proven wrong during my four years here. Up against the kind of broad, systemic failures that exist on this campus, I’ve learned that individuals who meet the challenge can make a difference. When under Mazie Bryant’s leadership The Crimson White published Matt Ford and Abbey Crain’s investigation into segregation in Panhellenic sororities, I didn’t think it would make a difference. I was wrong. When Elliot Spillers ran for the SGA presidency as an independent, I thought he had the best chance to win in years, but I didn’t think he would take the election. I was wrong.
The challenges that The University of Alabama presents are not insurmountable. People who do what they think is right – because it’s the right thing to do and not because it would make a good line on a resume – can stand on the other side of that contradiction and force this campus to move in the right direction.
This is not the right university for people who want to coast for four years, knock a few soft pitches out of the park and walk away with a degree in hand. The University of Alabama presents many challenges, but they’re the kind worth facing. If I could go back to that drive from Birmingham four years ago, I wouldn’t do anything differently. I’d still want to face the challenge.
Andy McWhorter was the Editor-in-Chief of The Crimson White.