Much of The University of Alabama is still familiar to the newly-appointed president, Dr. Stuart Bell, who last stepped foot on campus as an engineering professor in 2002. The Ferguson Center still serves as the buzzing epicenter of campus, students still walk through the doors of his familiar AIME building, and Denny Chimes still frames the campus. Only now, Bell hears the chimes ringing through his office windows at Rose Administration Building rather than echoing to his former office across campus.
Familiar, as well, are the thousands of fans who continue their pilgrimage to Bryant-Denny Stadium to cheer the Crimson Tide on fall Saturdays; the number of championships has skyrocketed, however, with four national titles in the last seven years. Not so different, too, are the students, faculty and staff members who still watch the sun rise from Gorgas Library, even as traffic builds up along University Boulevard, and a campus institution, Rama Jama’s, serves up its morning menu of grits and eggs.
Twelve years and an 82 percent increase in student enrollment later, Bell has returned to a campus bustling at every corner with expansion far beyond its former core, and more than ever, a flagship university hailing scholars not only from within the state’s perimeters, but reaching throughout the nation.
Bell welcomes the job eagerly after years of service in administrations at The University of Kansas and Louisiana State University. During an interview with Mosaic Magazine, he exudes a relatable, yet expectant confidence toward all things growth, community, and of course, the Honors College.
TELL US ABOUT YOUR FIRST EXPERIENCES WITHIN THE HONORS COLLEGE.
Well, at the moment, I’m visiting a lot of different groups because I was here before — I was here for a number of years — and coming back, so much has changed in 13 years. I met with lots of student groups, from eating with them at Fresh Market to meeting with them in small groups, and you know, I’ve actually come over to visit with a lot of the Honors College students in small settings
So all that is to say, it’s been a great impression, certainly of the Honors College. I have been to Dothan, I have been to Montgomery, Atlanta, Dallas a couple of times, Mobile, and New Orleans — all these are on recruiting trips for students. So we have some event going on, and I’ll go in and welcome the group and mingle with the students and parents. But at every one of those, there’s always a conversation about, ‘We’ve heard great things about the Honors program. How do we get involved with that?’
First, the Honors program is a great draw to the University. It pulls a lot of pieces together for the University. And so one of the things I’ve seen first hand, again, visiting with potential parents and potential students, is the draw for our university. And I’ve always said this of all universities I’ve been at, but it has just redoubled here: great students want to surround themselves with great students.
WHAT DO YOU THINK IS THE STRONGEST ASSET TO CAPITALIZE?
Hands down, it’s three things. First of all, it’s great students. There are hundreds of students who are in the program, and you guys challenge each other everyday. Then our great faculty who are across the University because the Honors College, as you know, blends what you’re getting in the Honors College, but it also brings in your experience in communication, in journalism, into the Honors College experience. So the idea is that the fertilizer, the seeds that we plant there; it’s not just an Honors College experience. It’s an academic experience, how we’re able to again leverage a great Honors Program but also leverage other great assets. So it’s our students, it’s our faculty and staff, and it’s our great administrative team in the Honors College.
WHAT DO YOU THINK ARE QUALITIES OF STUDENTS THAT ARE ATTRACTED TO THE HONORS COLLEGE?
All of our student body is a great student body at the University, but I think the Honors College certainly does speak to those students that want to have that Honors College experience that maps back to the engagement they’re going to have in the class and that they’re going to have with other students. It’s a way that many of our students get that community feel … being a part of the Honors Program. And you build that community, and you love being with one another and you are going to have these friends for the rest of your life. Students that want to challenge each other and engage in a like-minded way is what students are looking for.
DR. WITT IS ALWAYS TALKING ABOUT WANTING TO EXPAND THE QUANTITY OF STUDENTS — THE GEOGRAPHIC AREAS WE PULLED FROM. DO YOU THINK THIS KIND OF FLOWS INTO A NATURAL PROGRESSION OF A DIFFERENT QUALITY OF STUDENTS? YOU SPAN OUT TO ATTRACT NEW STUDENTS, BUT DO YOU THINK THE HONORS COLLEGE IS A WAY TO HARNESS THE QUALITY OF THAT?
It is, and it’s also just the diversity of thought. If you come in and have as many, if not more, out-of-state students as in state — and that’s not to say we’re not serving our in-state students. We have more in-state students than we did when I moved away to go to the University of Kansas. So we’re serving that in-state population very well but we’ve just had so much growth from the out-of-state population of our campus. And again, that’s not surprising because we had few out-of-state, and the pull is huge from all 50 states, so we have a huge pool of students to begin talking to about the University. And so they came.
But first, let me get back to the strength of that. I mean you (Allison Ingram) grew up in Birmingham, and you knew a lot about Birmingham. But you probably didn’t know that much about Indiana, you probably didn’t know that much about Washington DC or Chicago or LA — again, not Lower Alabama. But as you’ve come in, you’ve had roommates, maybe you’ve had some suitemates, just some really close friends who are from out of state. You are able to go home with them during fall break or spring break or Thanksgiving break and go to their families. That type of interaction — again, one of the pillars: cultural — is that experience of seeing and understanding a different culture, because when you put in what you hold as core values for yourself as an individual, but you’re then able to experience those same values or maybe different values of how another family or a student has had different experiences in a different part of the US or the world, it allows you to put that into your toolbox of experience and it will become part of you.
I had breakfast on Saturday at Rama Jama’s, and of course what you’re going to get is grits with breakfast. And I’ll tell you there are many parts of the U.S. you’re going to go to, and they don’t know what grits are. And the world is OK. The world is still going to be OK. Again, I think it’s just part of the wonderful, great the Honors College has both been apart of but also been a great beneficiary of because the experience has certainly been enhanced by that great diversity we’ve been seeing in our population.
WHAT DO YOU THINK THE HC ADDS TO THE CAMPUS AS A WHOLE?
Well it adds, first and foremost, community. It adds a great community. We just have over 500 student organizations, and some of those are academically based, some of those are sports based, some of those are faith based. We have those great communities that students can be apart of, but in addition to being a part of those, many of our students choose to be a part of the Honors College. And so I think it takes a large university, a great flagship national university, like the U of A, and brings it down to more of a community level and provides a way for our students live out, play out, what they’re learning at a large university.
So while we’re a great research flagship university that has all these wonderful assets, the thing that really makes it hang together and facilitates the success of the individual student is having access to those resources, but then doing it in a small community sense of which the Honors College provides wonderful entrees for those students who see that it’s important through the Honors program.
You know, as kind of a menu guy, I go through cafeterias and say, ‘Oh, I’ll have some of that, and I’ll have some of that.’ And the Honors Program is sort of a plate, if you will, that you have your major on, that you have civic engagement; I’m going to do something research. But it provides that opportunity for you to put all of those things on a single plate, and you’re going to have a great meal experience for your four years here at the University.