In 40 short years the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB) has become known for its innovative and interdisciplinary approach to education, its internationally renowned research, an academic medical center considered one of the nation's elite, and the fact that it is the state's largest employer with some 18,000 employees.
Hundreds of faculty, staff, students, alumni and friends marked those accomplishments and celebrated "UAB: Forty Years of Breakthroughs" in the Alys Stephens Center Jemison Concert Hall Thursday to commemorate the occasion as part of UAB's first University Day.
Malcolm Portera, chancellor of The University of Alabama System, presented remarks at the academic convocation ceremony, led by President Carol Garrison.
Portera said that when the Board of Trustees created UAB 40 years ago, it could not have imagined "the enormity of the impact the institution would have on the citizens of the state of Alabama." Portera lauded the accomplishments of the institutions first four decades, listing five core values UAB possesses that he says will lead to the creation of future successes: innovation, collaboration, entrepreneurship, community and optimism.
"These five core values will shape the future of what I believe is one of this nation's most dynamic institutions of higher education," Portera said. "Guided by these core values, we will create the future. If this 40-year history of UAB has demonstrated one thing to Alabama, it has proven that we can create our future. No matter how great the challenge, there is a culture here that motivates the faculty, staff and students to step up and get it done."
Portera said one of UAB's greatest strengths through its first 40 years is the enveloping sense of optimism shown by the faculty, staff and students.
"There has always been a pervasive and contagious sense of optimism here, and that is truly a good thing these days," Portera said. "It is woven into the fabric of UAB, a decidedly strong attitude of hope. This is a place that specializes in removing obstacles and presenting opportunities. Whether it is in the classroom, the laboratory, the athletic fields or the hospital, this is a place of hope.
"When I think about UAB, my thoughts are of the thousands of human beings who make it their life's work to give hope. To me, on this 40th birthday, this is what UAB is. It has been, it is and it always will be one of this state's greatest sources of hope."
The ceremony featured 40 distinguished UAB alumni representing the graduating classes from 1969 to 2009 and the awarding of the President's Medal - which recognizes individuals who have attained scholarly distinction or who have rendered distinguished service to UAB - to Portera.
Garrison honored UAB faculty, staff and students past and present in her remarks, including former UAB Presidents Charles "Scotty" McCallum and Claude Bennett, both of whom attended the convocation. Garrison also paid tribute to UAB's first president, Joe Volker, for shaping UAB's tradition and character when he became president of the university in 1969.
"President Volker said, 'We don't have any traditions to uphold. This is a new school. We can do anything we want,'" Garrison said. "That is our tradition. UAB has never been fettered by conventional boundaries among disciplines and departments, and consequently our intensely collaborative, interdisciplinary research and academic programs are known and respected the world over.
"We know our partnership with this community will continue, that our tradition will continue, and that greater accomplishments lie ahead as we look forward to a future even more illustrious than our past and present."
One graduate from each decade presented remarks during the ceremony: Tommie Cummings, Class of '75; George Little, Class of '81; Marquita Furness Davis, Class of '98; and Brian Sims, Class of '91, '98 and '00.
Cummings, a 1975 accounting graduate and a partner in the Birmingham accounting firm Frost Cummings LLP, became the first woman executive in the Birmingham office of Ernst & Whitney (now Ernst & Young) when she was hired in 1987. Her experience as a business advisor spans a variety of emerging high-tech businesses to medium-sized companies with complex operations in multiple states. Cummings, a member of the School of Business Dean's Advisory Board and past president of the UAB National Alumni Society, said she is forever grateful for the opportunities UAB provided her personally and professionally.
"For me, UAB was opportunity," Cummings said. "The School of Business faculty showed great concern, provided guidance and delivered an exceptional education. It provided me an opportunity to work with some of the best accountants in the profession. The professors were the foundation. They set the tone and pushed us hard - UAB was not for sissies!
"They saw potential in us and invested their own time in us," she said. "No other college in the state of Alabama could provide an opportunity to work directly with the business leaders in the financial center of the state the way UAB did."
Little, a 1981 electrical engineering graduate, is president and chief operations officer for HDR Engineering Inc. Since he became president in 1997, the Omaha-based company has grown to more than 5,800 employees in 180 offices, earned revenue in excess of $1.1 billion and made numerous acquisitions across the United States and Canada. Little grew up in Hueytown and said UAB's co-op program was instrumental in helping him develop the skills he desired to learn.
"My co-op experience was invaluable because I got to work with a lot of peers in my field," Little said. "I was working and going to school, and when I was in the classroom I would obviously have some real-world experiences I could pull from and know what questions to ask. I learned from so many experiences in all of my work environments when I was in school, and they still apply today.
"I'll always call UAB home."
Davis earned her Ph.D. in early childhood development in 1998 and is the commissioner of the Alabama Department of Children's Affairs - a position appointed by Alabama Gov. Bob Riley. Davis manages Alabama's Children's Policy Councils, Head Start Collaboration Office, Office of School Readiness (Pre-K), Alabama Parent Network, Zero-Five Initiative and the Alabama Resource Management System (ARMS). Davis remembered and thanked many of her instructors and secretary Janice Taylor for their guidance and compassion during her days as a student, saying when she found UAB, she found a family.
"My experience at UAB was one of the best things that could have happened to me," Davis said. "It molded me. It challenged me. I connected to this community and my connection came through this great school. Isn't it amazing how God gives you a family and they become part of your fabric? How family is redefined as an experience through four years?
"Thank you, UAB, for leaving footprints on my heart. Happy Birthday!"
Sims, who earned his M.D./Ph.D. from the School of Medicine in 1998 (Ph.D.) and 2000 (M.D.) and a B.S. in biology in 1991, is an assistant professor of pediatrics at UAB. His research in neonatology focuses on closing racial health disparities, and he is a dedicated mentor of minority students. He was nationally recognized with a Harold Amos Medical Faculty Development Program grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation for research on premature brain injury. Sims, who was born June 5, 1968 - one year to the day before the Board of Trustees signed a proclamation declaring UAB as its own institution - graduated from Ramsay High School and walked eight blocks to continue his education at UAB. He knew as a junior in high school he wanted to pursue children's health research.
"The question that no one answers is, where do you take a dream," Sims said. "For me, I took it eight blocks. I took it to UAB as an undergrad, and that's where I started my dream.
"What I love about UAB is that we don't have anything to prove, but we are trying to prove something because we're capable of it. UAB has always been fertile ground for success. It's always been everything you could want or need right at your fingertips," he said. "This environment has always been nurturing to me. All I have seen from this university is positive thinkers, positive mentors and positive experiences. That's what I'm most thankful about."
The convocation was followed by a joint luncheon of the UAB National Alumni Society and the UAB Leadership Cabinet, during which the ninth annual Alumni Leadership Recognition Awards were presented.
The UAB Student Alumni Society also coordinated a food drive during the 40th anniversary celebration to respond to Birmingham community needs.