The 1901 Alabama Constitution has been rightfully criticized as being archaic; however, it was simply a reflection of the times. The authors were well-educated gentry who 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 Union invasion of the South was to raze the university’s campus. The invaders knew the importance of a state having an exemplary institution of higher learning.
Therefore, the authors of the state constitution chose to place the university above politics and keep the institution in the auspices of high-minded leaders who would be above reproach.
The constitution created a self-appointing, perpetual board of trustees to guide and govern the university, a concept has played out magnificently. The board has been made up of men and women who have been leaders of our state. They have not only been the more distinguished, erudite people in Alabama, but also are known for their integrity and humility.
Thus, it was a unique-yet-brilliant decision to choose someone from the board to head the University of Alabama System. In July 2018, Finis E. St. John IV, who had served 17 years on the university system’s 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 the state’s largest employer, with more than 45,000 workers and an annual economic impact of over $10 billion.
The university system comprises three dynamic institutions: the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa; the University of Alabama at Huntsville; and the University of Alabama at Birmingham, which includes the world-renowned UAB Health System. UAB alone is by far Jefferson County’s largest employer and economic engine; it is the state of Alabama’s No. 1 employer and economic ingredient.
It would have been an easy choice for the board to pick an academic from an Ivy League school to head this prestigious institution. The choice of St. John reflects the collective wisdom of the board. Why not select someone who has been an integral part of spearheading the unparalleled growth of our state’s crown jewel and most significant financial and educational and research institution?
St. John, better known by his colleagues and older acquaintances as “Fess,” is widely respected. He knows Alabama, its history and its attributes. His family settled in the state in 1838 and has been among its leaders throughout its history.
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 Omicron Delta Kappa.
After his undergraduate process at the Capstone, he was accepted at the prestigious University of Virginia School of Law. He graduated at the top of his class in 1982 and clerked for a federal judge before coming home to Cullman to join his family law firm.
The St. John firm is one of Alabama’s older law practices. The 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 lawyer in Cullman, and his great-great-grandfather, who arrived in Cullman in 1838 and was soon elected to the Legislature, then known as the “General Assembly,” was instrumental in creating the state’s public-education system.
St. John understands and knows the history and potential of our state in a unique way. This, coupled with his brilliant intellect, makes him ideal. If anyone was ever born to lead the University of Alabama System, it is him.