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Ray told Corts Alabama needed a ‘white knight’

By M.J. Ellington
mjellington@decaturdaily.com· (334) 279-6445

MONTGOMERY — The president pro tem of the state Board of Education said the state needed outside eyes at the time it hired silver-haired Thomas Corts to head the two-year college system.

“I think it was the direness of the situation,” Sandra Ray said, of the time in July when the board removed its former chancellor, Roy Johnson, from the position after questions about nepotism practices and contracts that bypassed the state’s bidding system. “I told Dr. Corts we needed a white knight.”

Ray, D-Tuscaloosa, said the board’s role is to set policy, not get involved in day-to-day management of the system.

Her district includes part of Lawrence County. She said in conversations with other board members, including David Byers, R-Birmingham, and Mary Jane Caylor, D-Huntsville, they came to believe that Corts was the right person. She doubted he would take the job. “We are fortunate to have someone of his caliber in this job,” Ray said.

Corts has the ability to make system operations transparent, something that the public requires because of recent scandals and something that gives a sense of purpose as the system tries to work out its problems, Ray said. Board members do not always agree and some discussions in board meetings reflect that disagreement, but Ray said Corts gives stability that is important.

Caylor, whose district includes Limestone and Madison Counties, believes Corts is an exemplary leader.

“Unfortunately in this part of his tenure, he’s had to handle so many legal issues,” Caylor said. “It takes a lot of his time, but in the long run, I do not believe it will be a detriment.” Caylor admits that she gets impatient with the length of time it takes to get board business done, but she said Corts has a vision to make the system the best it can be.

The legal issues must be addressed and people who are guilty “need to pay their penalty,” Caylor said.

“I only hope that people will give Dr. Corts the benefit of time.”

One cautious critic of Corts early on was board member Stephanie Bell, R-Montgomery, who also praised his ethics and reputation for leadership as president of Samford University. Bell said Corts also brings experiences that the past chancellor did not have in dealing with the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, the region’s higher education accrediting agency.

Four months into Corts’ tenure, Bell said she believes the chancellor has always had a vision of what the two-year system should be and that his decisions show a firm grasp of that mission. She wishes Corts moved faster on some issues, including personnel matters, especially at Bishop State Community College in Mobile and at Shelton State Community College in Tuscaloosa.

“But this is all new to him and he wants to understand the whole picture,” Bell said. “I understand his hesitancy.”

Bell said she is encouraged that Corts is addressing two primary issues that affect operation of the system, nepotism and hiring practices with members of the Legislature.

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