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New USA President: First 100 Days to be Spent ‘Listening and Learning’

Business View – February 2022 / Cover Story

 

For only the fourth time in its 58-year history, the University of South Alabama (USA) named a new president. Former Congressman Jo Bonner recently took the reins as the new president of USA following the resignation of Dr. Tony Waldrop. No stranger to the Mobile area, Bonner served in Congress, representing Alabama’s First District in the U.S. House of Representatives for six terms. Most recently, he served as chief of staff to Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey.

 

Serving as a congressman for southwest Alabama worked to Bonner’s advantage in moving forward when he was a candidate for the position at USA. “It clearly gave me a tremendous advantage going into this in the sense that I know south Alabama,” he said. “I know the region. I know the university; it’s my home. And this university has really been an important part of mine and Janée’s lives. I gave my congressional papers here when I left Congress, having no idea I would one day be coming back here as president. When I was so fortunate to work with Congressman (Sonny) Callahan for those 18 years, and then the 10 years I worked for the people of Alabama, this university was ground zero of what we were doing. It was the center of our focus, and I knew in my heart this would be an easy place to love.”

 

The relationships he’s built over the years will make his transition an easy one, he said. “I hope to use it as an advantage, as I won’t have to introduce myself to our governor and our senators or congressman and tell them about me, but I can tell them about what we are doing at South Alabama and how we are making an impact in the lives of our community and the lives in our state and our nation. We have so many good stories to tell, and I want to focus on those stories.”

 

Working in the University of Alabama system also played a role in helping Bonner develop the confidence and skills he plans to lean on in the future. “My five years working with Dr. Robert Witt, and then with Ray Hayes, gave me the opportunity to look behind the curtain at a major economic player and a major educational institution and how they managed things like enrollment and student retention and faculty diversity and other issues.”

 

“One of the commitments I made early on is, even though I know this university and I know this community, and it is my home; I promised the students and faculty and all the groups I met with that I was going to do a lot of listening and learning. My first 100 days, I intend to get out on this campus in a very visible way. I want to go where the students are, and Janée will be an incredible part of our success. She’s already planning on how she can get involved in the community. We promised we wanted to get out there into the classrooms with the faculty. I want to get to know them and find out what their needs are and how we can work together to advance their goals.”

 

One of the commitments I made early on is… I promised the students and faculty and all the groups I met with that I was going to do a lot of listening and learning. My first 100 days, I intend to get out there on this campus in a very visible way.”

Jo Bonner, president, University of South Alabama

 

Bonner says the groundwork laid by his predecessors will be key to building on his success as president. “My job will be to build on the success of those three presidents who helped give birth to the university, enhance the university and help take the academic and research mission to a new level. Our job will be to build on that success and continue to take this university to new heights,” he said.

 

Bringing USA to the center of attention will be easy, Bonner said. He compared it to walking into an organization that already has a top-notch faculty of some of the world’s leading scientists and researchers. “USA has a tremendously dedicated staff and one of the most impressive boards I’ve been around, and this is a group of South graduates who continue to give back. They love the community, and they love this university. They make tremendous sacrifice to help give a direction for the university that has gotten us where we are today. And then you have almost 90,000 alumni, and there’s a real Jaguar pride in what South has become.”

 

“One of the things I want to do in the coming months and years, is to make it very comfortable for people to love Auburn, Alabama and South Alabama. This is south Alabama’s university. It’s Mobile’s university and, quite frankly, we’ve got an opportunity to fill a void between Tallahassee and New Orleans to make this the Gulf Coast’s university.”

 

We’ve got an opportunity to fill a void between Tallahassee and New Orleans to make this the Gulf Coast’s university.”

Jo Bonner, president, University of South Alabama

 

Just like businesses in the community and other colleges and universities, USA also was impacted by the COVID pandemic. But Bonner has been impressed by the faculty and healthcare staff forming partnerships in the community, from testing and vaccination sites to playing a major leadership role in getting our community and economy running again.

 

“The role of the university is multifaceted,” he explained. “The effects on our classes and students going virtual and the financial aspect of COVID, has had a profound impact everywhere, but my observation is that the leadership team in place did a good job of trying to keep things steady. The focus was always on making sure our students got what they need because it is a challenging time. The heart of any university is always about the student and making sure they have the pathway to success.”

 

Regarding workforce development in the community, Bonner says the work he and his colleagues were doing in Washington, D.C., planted seeds that are now bearing fruit. Those companies that were recruited to south Alabama know we have a pipeline of talent, whether it be an engineer, information technology specialist or someone who could one day be their president.

 

“We want to become the academic center of excellence for the Austals, the Airbuses, the AM/NS Calverts and the SSABs and all the other great companies here in the area,” he said. “We have faculty, students and resources and so many talented people that I want to meet so I can be their ambassador for their good work.”

 

The heart of any university is always about the student and making sure they have the pathway to success.”
Jo Bonner, president, University of South Alabama

 

When asked about how workforce issues could affect USA’s academic offerings, Bonner said he recognizes some people would fare better with a certification or a two-year degree and that USA has many existing partnerships with local two-year education systems in the area. He said while some companies may only require certain educational levels in their positions, more are looking for the extra advantages they can get from students who do obtain a degree. He says he wants USA to be known as a jobs university so that if students come to USA they will find a career path that is best for them and their family.

 

In addition, Bonner believes the USA healthcare system plays a major role in workforce and economic development. “USA Health allows us to help recruit companies here and address workforce issues because we have a Level 1 trauma center,” he said. “Our burn center is one of the best in the nation. We have so many things that we can brag and focus on. Strong leadership and the growing campuses are a sign of progress related to our business.”

 

I have been given an incredible opportunity and blessing to be part of a university that is

58 years young, but the best is in front of us and not behind us.”

Jo Bonner, president, University of South Alabama

 

Bonner sees a lot to build on and a lot of opportunity for growth. “I have been given an incredible opportunity and blessing to be a part of a university that is 58 years young, but the best is in front of us and not behind us,“ he said.

 

Click here to read the Business View – February 2022

 

Additional information is on the Mobile Area Chamber of Commerce’s website at mobilechamber.com, on Facebook at @MobileChamber, Instagram at @mobile-area-chamber and Twitter at @MobileChamber.