Most of our Birmingham readers are aware of the efforts by leaders in Alabama’s education, business, and government sectors to resolve the financial crisis facing Birmingham-Southern College. If you are new to Birmingham, you may not be aware that BSC has been part of the city’s landscape for more than a hundred years, and the college has a reputation for producing graduates who excel in business, law, medicine, ministry, education, the performing arts, and nonprofit leadership in communities all across Alabama. BSC has strong advocates, including the Vice Chair of its Board of Trustees, Joelle Phillips.
We profiled Joelle for our Nashville readers when she was named President of AT&T Tennessee — the first woman to serve in that role. In the 10 years since, she has been routinely recognized in the South as a key influencer, newsmaker, and “power player” by government officials, business leaders, and the press.
We asked Joelle to share her perspective on BSC.
I am an Auburn girl. My late father taught electrical engineering at Auburn University for more than 35 years. I was born at Lee County Hospital and grew up on Green Street in Auburn. My family loves Auburn.
But when it was time for me to select a college, Auburn was not an option for me. My father had a strict rule — you had to go to college at least two hours away from our home on Green Street. It had nothing to do with how he felt about Auburn University. (He was deeply proud of Auburn.) Instead, it was a rule he adopted for my sister and me because he believed that students struggle to “launch” when it’s too easy to run home to do laundry or too tempting to stick closely to high school friends.
Lucky for me, Birmingham-Southern College was exactly two hours and 13 minutes from Green Street and had offered me a scholarship to study theatre. My parents made that two-hour, 13-minute drive every time I took the stage at BSC’s College Theatre. After graduation, I joined the touring cast of a children’s theatre production and spent months traveling with the play. As much as I loved acting, I quickly grew road-weary and began to wonder whether acting was the career for me.
I went home to Green Street, took a lot of standardized tests, and ultimately found myself in law school. Waiting for my first contracts class to start, I wondered whether I was prepared. How would a BSC theatre major fare on this new path? As it turned out, I was surprisingly well-prepared for law school.
Reading cases and discerning the principle of law was a lot like reading plays and looking for the theme. After years of line learning, memorization was nothing new. And while many students sat frozen in fear of being called on to answer a professor’s question in class, answering a question was clearly not going to be the most embarrassing thing I’d ever done in front of an audience.
Fast forward past 20 years of practicing law, and I found myself at another turn in the career path when I was offered the chance to leave AT&T’s Legal Department and take on the role I serve in today. Again, I wondered whether my experience and education had prepared me to step out of the courtroom and into the c-suite [executive level] and whether I would be able to transition from arguing cases about how to apply the law to negotiating changes to the law. But again, I found that I could evolve and learn new things.
AT&T Tennessee is one of the state’s largest employers, and I am often asked about the skills we look for as we fill jobs in the constantly changing technology sector. Digital literacy and data science skills are important, but from my perspective, the most critical skills are those that enable workers to evolve with the changes in our industry. We need people with the courage and curiosity to learn new things.
No job today stays static for an entire career, so I am always looking for people with the foundational reasoning, communication, and creative problem-solving skills that enable them to take turns in their career paths in stride. That’s exactly what Birmingham-Southern College taught me to do.
I want to see Birmingham-Southern continue doing that for students, but today, its future is uncertain. Birmingham-Southern has been working to re-establish sound financial footing for many years. Around 2005, BSC embarked on a well-intentioned but poorly timed plan to add to its campus. The cost of building projects exceeded plans, and the college drew from its endowment. When the 2008 downturn occurred, the already-reduced endowment suffered further losses.
Since that time, BSC’s presidents have worked tirelessly to raise funds to cover yearly operating costs. Still, the only financial model that really works for high-caliber liberal arts colleges requires an endowment robust enough to provide yearly earnings that can offset the college’s annual budget by 20%. For BSC, that means a $200 million endowment.
Fortunately, BSC’s current president, Daniel Coleman, has already raised nearly $46 million in pledges to restore the endowment. But the college needs more time to complete this fundraising. So a group of Alabama legislators is proposing a $30 million investment of state funds to give BSC the time it needs to restore the endowment.
Whenever a private entity seeks public support, constituents understandably ask questions. Is this an investment that serves the state? Considering BSC’s history and graduates, I am confident that this investment will serve Alabama well.
Birmingham-Southern’s graduates overwhelmingly stay in Alabama (55% of BSC’s living alumni live in Alabama today.), where they contribute mightily to the state’s economy. BSC has been recognized as one of the best colleges in the nation for preparing students for graduate studies, and it is not unusual for 80% of a BSC graduating class to attain advanced graduate degrees, enabling them to serve their communities as doctors, dentists, lawyers, special needs teachers, and ministers. In these and other professions, BSC graduates make an impact well beyond Birmingham. (BSC alumni live in every one of Alabama’s 67 counties.) Preserving this proven talent pipeline for Alabama is well worth a one-time investment of public funds.
Just like its graduates, BSC is also able to learn new things and adapt to stay relevant. In the years since I was at BSC, the college has added programs in computer science and a new accelerated program in data science, enabling students to earn a minor or certificate in an intensive 12-week program.
Birmingham-Southern produces the kind of graduates who are ready to travel a career path, even when it takes unexpected turns. Alabama needs those graduates.
I live in Nashville today, but I still think of Alabama as home. That’s probably why my mother and I can’t seem to bring ourselves to sell that house on Green Street. My heartstrings are tied to that place. So much of what made me who I am today happened there.
Likewise, it’s heartbreaking for me to imagine Alabama without Birmingham-Southern College. I feel the same Green Street tug on my heartstrings when I reflect on all that BSC has done for me. I know that the college can continue doing that for students in Alabama — preparing them for lives, unexpected turns and all, for generations to come.
You can learn more about BSC’s plans and how to take action to help secure its future by visiting bsc.edu.
Our ‘Southern Voices’ is a reader-submitted platform for stories from the heart. If you have a story to tell, see our guidelines for submission here.