Retiring Auburn president: “Little stuff” matters
AUBURN, Ala. (AP) — Less than a month until his departure, Auburn University President Jay Gogue sat at his desk listening to the plea of a student who had overslept and missed his business school interview.
Gogue listened and tried to help, just as he aimed to do 10 years earlier when he returned to the southern land grant university nestled in east Alabama where he earned undergraduate and graduate degrees years before.
It’s “just little stuff” that matters, he said.
Gogue and his wife, Susie, will pass the torch to incoming Auburn president Steven Leath and his wife, Janet, in June, leaving behind a legacy as the 18th president of Auburn University.
Before he was approached about the presidency in Texas, Gogue, a ’69 and ’71 Auburn graduate, didn’t think he would ever return to the university. The move is rare in higher education, Gogue explained.
“Typically schools don’t really hire their own back,” Gogue said. “We lived in 10 different states. . I jokingly tell people we’ve got cemetery plots in seven states because we really thought we’d probably stay in them forever.”
Gogue beat the odds and returned to Auburn in 2007 where he says he “hit the ground listening,” not running. He practiced what he was taught. Auburn had its own set of traditions, culture, values and history, and Gogue took time to hear what students, faculty and other groups wanted before setting his own agenda.
After six months of “formal” listening, things like improving graduation rates, increasing private fundraising and widening Auburn’s global focus emerged as some target areas to work on. Those are some of the successes Gogue highlighted about his tenure.
Auburn’s graduation rate has risen from about 60 to 75 percent since 2007, and the “Because This is Auburn” fundraising campaign made Auburn the first university in the state to raise $1 billion in a comprehensive fundraising campaign last September.
With the increase of foreign-owned companies locating in the United States, Gogue said creating international awareness in graduates is more essential than those who were graduating years ago. He highlighted Auburn’s study abroad programs, in which a fourth of Auburn alumni participate before graduating.
But Gogue was quick to say that “a president doesn’t do much_the campus does the stuff.”
Gogue made an effort quickly to increase shared governance across the university when he came in. He brought in student leaders and faculty and has worked closely with the University Senate to make sure they were represented in decision making.
James Goldstein, English professor and University Senate chair, said Gogue has been successful in his efforts.
“He respects the faculty’s viewpoints,” Goldstein said.
Challenges soon followed Gogue’s advances. Less than a year into his presidency, the cuts came. The university faced a 38 percent budget cut, and the most Gogue had faced at other universities was a 5 percent cut.
Gogue worked with staff to manage the $102 million funding loss, which he said was the toughest challenge he faced at Auburn. He met with faculty and students for input, who asked to not cut class offerings but to raise tuition.
Though the university has gained about $7 million back, Gogue said he sees the lack of funding as a pervading issue for years to come. While state governments previously viewed a college education as a “societal good,” Gogue said the view has shifted to an “individual good,” with states putting the burden of funding on the individual.
Despite these cuts, Goldstein said Gogue’s strategic planning has brought the university far.
“Similar efforts by previous administrations were not nearly as effective as under Dr. Gogue,” Goldstein said. “His knowledge of every facet of the university’s operations is incredible, and he has an impressive command of regional and national trends in higher education.”
But Gogue gave credit to those who came before him, like his predecessors Edward Richardson, William Walker and William Muse.
“They would’ve made good decisions during their time that made it easier during my time,” Gogue said. “It was a lot of fun while I was here.”
Auburn was a good school before he came, Gogue said; he just worked to not mess it up. One of those areas was the partnership between the university and the city of Auburn.
The two have partnered on numerous road work projects and facilities like the Yarbrough Tennis Center and the soon-to-come performing arts center on South College Street. Last week Gogue met with Auburn Mayor Bill Ham to discuss partnering to alleviate downtown parking congestion.
“I think the key is, the city needs the university and the university needs the city,” Gogue said.
One primary challenge he sees for the university’s future is managing growth. Like the city, Gogue said there’s a “huge demand” by students wanting to attend the university.
“I’d say to carefully grow the way you need to grow is going to be something that has to be looked at as you go forward,” Gogue said, adding that he has been in favor of limiting growth and improving the quality of the university.
As he prepares to pass the torch, Gogue left a simple word of advice to incoming president Leath.
“Take care of the kids, and do a great job,” Gogue said.
Information from: Opelika-Auburn News, http://www.oanow.com/