Our 1901 Alabama Constitution has been rightfully criticized as being archaic. However, it was simply a reflection of the times. The authors and crafters of our document were well educated gentry. Therefore they appreciated and realized the importance of having a prized capstone university.
The University of Alabama was founded in 1831 and had become one of the premier southern universities by the time of the Civil War. It was not by coincidence that one of the primary missions of the northern Union invasion of the South was to burn and raze the University of Alabama campus. They knew the importance of a state having an exemplary institution of higher learning.
Therefore, when the authors of our Constitution crafted their document, they chose to place the University of Alabama above politics and keep the institution in the auspices of high-minded individuals who would be above reproach and petty politics.
The Constitution created a self-appointing, perpetual Board of Trustees to guide and govern the university. This concept has played out magnificently throughout the years. The Board of Trustees has been made up of men and women over the past two centuries who have been leaders of our state. These board members have not only been the most distinguished, erudite people in Alabama, but also those known for their integrity and humility.
Thus it was a unique and yet brilliant decision to choose someone from the Board of Trustees to head the University of Alabama System. In July 2018, Finis E. St. John IV, who had served 17 years on the University System Board, was named Chancellor.
He became the Chief Executive Officer of what would be comparable to a Fortune 500 company. The University of Alabama System is not only Alabama’s largest higher education enterprise, it is Alabama’s largest employer with over 45,000 employees and an economic impact of over $10 billion per year.
The Alabama System is comprised of three dynamic institutions: The University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa, University of Alabama at Huntsville and the University of Alabama at Birmingham, which comprises our world renowned UAB Health System. UAB alone is by far Jefferson County’s largest employer and economic engine, it is indeed the State of Alabama’s number one employer and economic ingredient.
It would have been an easy choice for the Board to choose to bring in an academician from an Ivy League school to head this prestigious institution. The choice of Finis St. John reflects the collective wisdom of this austere body. Why not select someone who has been an integral part of the governing and spearheading of the unparalleled growth of our state’s crown jewel and most significant financial and educational and research institution.
Finis St. John IV, better known by colleagues and older acquaintances as Fess, is widely respected. He knows Alabama, its history, and its attributes. His family settled in Alabama in 1838 and have been leaders in our state throughout the state’s history.
Chancellor Finis “Fess” St. John was the most outstanding leader on campus during his four years at the University of Alabama in the 1970s. He graduated magna cum laude and was inducted into Phi Beta Kappa and ODK and graduated with honors.
After his undergraduate process at the Capstone, he was accepted and proceeded to the prestigious University of Virginia School of Law. He graduated at the top of his law school class in 1982 and clerked for a federal judge for a while before coming home to Cullman to join his family law firm.
The St. John law firm in Cullman, that Fess joined 36 years ago, is one of Alabama’s oldest law firms. The St. John family has a long and distinguished history of service. His father, grandfather and great grandfather served in the Alabama Legislature. His mother was the first female attorney in Cullman and his great great grandfather, who arrived in Cullman in 1838 and was soon elected to the Alabama General Assembly, was instrumental in creating our state’s public education system.
Chancellor St. John understands and knows the history and potential of our state in a very unique way. This, coupled with his brilliant intellect, makes him ideal. If anyone was ever born to lead the current University of Alabama System, it is Finis “Fess” St. John, IV.
See you next week.
— Steve Flowers is Alabama’s leading political columnist. His weekly column appears in over 60 Alabama newspapers. He served 16 years in the Alabama legislature.