A New Tune For Auburn

A New Tune For Auburn

Christopher B. Roberts started his new role as Auburn president on May 16, 2022, after 29 years as an engineering professor, department chair and dean at Auburn. He recently sat down with Auburn Magazine and revealed his love of ’80s music, his perfect day away from work and why the university “has earned the right to dream the biggest dreams.”

Auburn Magazine: Apple or Android?

CHRISTOPHER B. ROBERTS: Apple. Remarkable products. Great designs.

The Beatles or The Stones?

Beatles. My dad ran a music store when I was a kid, so music was a big part of our life. He was a huge Beatles fan. I inherited that, honestly. I was always fascinated with how the Beatles could take on different musical genres while creating unique Beatles songs that were clearly their own. The mark of genius in my opinion.

Most used emoji?

I don’t know that I’ve used emojis.

Favorite food?

Pretty straightforward for me. St. Louis-style pizza at Rich and Charlie’s restaurant in South County, St. Louis. My grandparents took us there as kids and we loved it.

Watching a movie or reading a book?

Both. I tend to do both at the same time. My attention span’s not long enough for a movie.

Favorite book?

“Introduction to Chemical Engineering Thermodynamics” by Smith and Van Ness, 4th Edition. A classic!

Favorite saying or slogan?

“People don’t do what they don’t want to do, and they do amazing things when they’re motivated.”

Favorite decade and why?

The ’80s. It was the decade where I was coming into adulthood, experiencing college life and figuring out that I had aspirations of my own. During this time, I learned to appreciate the development of real friendships and the importance of quality working relationships (both personal and professional). Also, while some people didn’t care for it, I also really dug the music. I’m feeling nostalgic just thinking about it.

Favorite ’80s band?

Either Tears for Fears or The Cars. Or maybe The Police. Or Van Halen. Or U2. Or ZZ Top. Or Dio. Or The Psychedelic Furs. Or Rush. Or Triumph. Or Pink Floyd…and countless others. Frankly, I couldn’t decide if I had to. So, please don’t ask me.

“The Auburn Family, the spirit that we have on this campus, is the differentiator for Auburn.”

How does being a chemical engineer help you with being a dean and now as president?

As chemical engineers, we’re taught to take very complex systems, decouple those into individual elements or units, and apply a series of engineering and science fundamentals to optimize that particular unit. At the same time, we look at how those units integrate and we then optimize against that broader objective. I think it’s a wonderful training ground for whatever operation you find yourself in. Whatever the system is. In this case, it’s a university. The university is made up of multiple units, all of which want to be locally optimized with an eye toward global optimization as well. I think engineering’s a wonderful training for roles like this.

Did you worry when you became dean that your engineering training would serve you? Or did you always suspect it would help? 

I don’t know that I really thought about it in that way. I think that when I was asked to serve as department chair, before I was dean, I found that my skill set matched what we were trying to accomplish in the department. I was deriving joy and living vicariously through the successes of my colleagues more than my own. That was a pretty good indicator that I like serving people that way. I like using my organizational skills and my background and training in what turned out to be not necessarily the solution of engineering problems, but the application of that training to advance our academic, research and outreach programs through systems-oriented thinking. Then as dean, I think it was just a natural evolution of this process.  

My point is that having served as a department chair for 10 years and then taking what I learned there to a larger scale in the Samuel Ginn College of Engineering, I learned to appreciate that every department has its individual character and opportunities for continuous advancement. Now, to be able do this at the university level, recognizing that Auburn is made up of an amazing collection of programs that all have strengths and weaknesses, is a real honor and pleasure. Brought together, our colleges and programs create the lovely tapestry that we call Auburn University.  The strength of the university comes from its breadth and depth. Overall, I think this was a natural progression in my career here at Auburn and I feel fortunate to be along for the ride. 

What is the biggest difference so far from being a dean at Auburn to being the president?

The sheer breadth of the university is different. It’s something that I’m working very hard to make sure that I understand and appreciate and, as such I am taking the time to learn more about the university and the areas that I haven’t been as familiar with previously. What’s been reassuring to me through this, is that having been here for 29 years, I’m realizing I have developed rich relationships across campus. I think this initial familiarity is making the learning process more seamless.

Maybe on the more humorous side, I used to be able to walk away from the engineering side of campus and enjoy a little stroll on the other side of campus, a little bit incognito. That’s been a little more challenging here lately. That’s an adjustment, though it’s awesome. It’s been great to see the response that people have provided to what our future holds and represents. I’m in a really interesting position to be able to experience this with a level of Auburn knowledge while engaging with people that I haven’t worked with as much. I think we share the same hopes and dreams for Auburn. I’m enjoying being their cheerleader for that.  

If you had a perfect personal day away from work, what would you be doing?

Truth be told, I don’t take a lot of them. My wife tells me all the time that I’m not very good at down-time. It would probably involve a round of golf, a nice musical concert, an Auburn sporting event and time with my family. Those would be included in the things that I would want to do.

We hear a lot about the term “Auburn Family.” What does that term mean to you?

Sitting here in this seat, this new role I find myself in as president, and being asked the question about “Auburn Family,” what does it mean to me? It means everything. It means everything. The Auburn Family, the spirit that we have on this campus, is the differentiator for Auburn. I’ve said this before, it’s not about the content—the academic content that we provide to our students—it’s about the academic content coupled with the extraordinary experiences that we provide to our students inside and outside of the classroom. The fact that we have a sense of community, that’s unparalleled by other universities, is really what differentiates Auburn from other institutions. People who aren’t familiar with Auburn just can’t grip the concept of the Auburn Family. You almost have to live it and experience it. What’s the Auburn family mean to me? Everything.

President Roberts marvels at how Auburn has “retained a community culture and shared a vision for excellence for Auburn that we refer to as the ‘Auburn Family.’”

Your wife, Tracy, is very accomplished in her own right. How would you describe what she brings to your family and to your work?

Tracy’s a remarkable person who brings a sense of calm and peace that I, or my other family members, don’t always have. She’s remarkable that way. Tracy’s inner calm gives me and our family a great deal of confidence. To know that we support each other in every way. I think it all stems from her.

How does she hope to use her current role to help support veterans? 

As a veteran of the Air Force, she’s very proud of her service and very proud of what the Air Force provided to her in her life and her path forward. As a result, she wants to make sure that she uses her new role as Auburn’s first lady, if you will, to help other veterans or students who are pursuing military service. She’s going to make sure that Auburn is able to provide the right environments for those students to succeed and feel supported. I know that’s something she really cares about.

You have a piece of paper with your wife’s phone number on it from the day you met. What does that mean to you that you’re still carrying it all these years later?

It’s a reminder to me as to just how lucky I am. It’s a reminder of that happenstance meeting that occurred between us and how it changed my life. That’s a very personal thing and I don’t show it to a whole lot of people. Now I guess the whole Auburn Family is going to know that [President] Roberts carries around a piece of paper that signifies that life-changing moment.

Do you take that lesson with you when you’re meeting somebody new? To never take for granted when you’re meeting somebody what that association might lead to?

While folks might not think that an engineer would be so reflective on personal relationships, I am wired that way. When I would travel as dean and would be returning from meeting alumni, I would begin to reflect on who we just met and the amazing trajectory that we heard about from these people’s lives and what the Auburn experience meant to them. In some cases, those alumni were students who were involved in leadership positions. Sometimes those alumni were students that struggled academically and needed tutoring along the way. Sometimes those alumni were students that benefitted from a particular major that Auburn offered that provided a unique experience.  

Whatever I was told by those alumni on those trips, allowed me to learn about the vast array of experiences that our students and alumni experience. This would then allow me to turn my thinking to the concept that the next generation of that person is on our campus right now. Do we have in place the experiences necessary for the next generation of those amazing alumni to thrive on this campus? Frankly, the relationships that I get to develop with members of the Auburn Family are wonderful interpersonal relationships that I cherish deeply. They’re also a great vehicle for us to reflect on. Are we providing what we need on campus for our students to become those amazing alumni in the future?  

“Having seen those profound effects and our successes, I think that we have earned the right to dream the biggest dreams.”

What’s the biggest difference you’ve noticed at Auburn from when you started in 1994 until now?

I’m going to give you an answer to a slightly different question. I have thoroughly enjoyed watching Auburn advance academically with its amazing facilities, and the campus has never been more beautiful than it is today. All the wonderful experiences that we’ve had through our athletics programs through the years that I’ve been here. It’s all wonderful. It’s an amazing university with, I like to say, tremendous potential for greatness. 

The part that is the most astounding to me over the 29 years is the fact that we have retained a community culture and shared a vision for excellence for Auburn that we refer to as the Auburn Family. I believe that a lot of that is rooted in the fact that we have a stated set of values that we reflect on periodically through the Auburn Creed, that I believe sets Auburn apart from so many other institutions. Particularly public land-grant institutions. It helps us to identify our expectations. 

To me, that’s been the most remarkable part of my journey here for 29 years. To see that while we’ve changed, while we’ve advanced in so many areas, while we’ve brought in leading scholars from around the world that are doing some of the most amazing research that’s improving people’s lives every day, that we’ve done it in a uniquely Auburn way. That’s allowed us to keep an environment that we all love to be a part of.  

Favorite sport to watch?

I would say all the Auburn sports. You can’t win with any other answer.

Did you play any sports growing up? 

I was on our high school football team, basketball team and I played in a baseball league as a kid. I played a lot of sports as a kid. While I was not particularly good at any of these sports, I always enjoyed being involved and I loved the teamwork.   

Do you believe that being on sports teams helped you in your professional life?

I think being involved in sports teams definitely helped me in my professional life. I also think that being involved in other activities that I was probably even more involved in helped as well. The rock band that I had in college and in high school, particularly in high school, represented a very influential experience. Where a small group of friends would all go off and learn our individual parts, come back together, learn how to work together, put together enough songs that we could go out and play for some people and be proud of what we did together. I think we learned a lot about responsibility that way. We learned a lot about accountability to each other. We learned how working hard to achieve something can also be very rewarding and a lot of fun. I think that sports did the same thing for me. For me personally, I probably found my involvement with my friends with music was even more formative.

What were the years you were in a band?

We started when we were early teenagers. I was involved with different friends and bands all through high school, college and through graduate school. I just had a great time with that. It will remain a very important part of my life. When I do need a little stress relief, I still like to pick up one of my guitars. You were asking before about what’s a perfect day? What do I like to do to clear my head a little bit? I love picking up my guitar and immersing myself in a little bit of music for a few minutes. That’s about all the escape I really need.

What was the name of your first band?

The Allies.

What type of music did you play?

Eighties pop music. Eighties rock music. We played everything from the Cars to Loverboy, to the Romantics. You name it.

 If you were not in academia, what do you think you would’ve done for a career?

What would I like to have done or what was realistic? Can we go with what I would’ve liked to have done? Guitar player for Steely Dan.

Beautiful. You’d have to put up with [Steely Dan founder] Donald Fagan though.

I could learn a lot from that guy. 

What’s your favorite spot on campus? 

In the early years that I was here at Auburn, when I was trying to establish my career, I did a lot of laps out here in Ross Square. Given that my first office was in Ross Hall, when I think about campus, I often think of that space out there. 

You were walking and thinking?

My graduate students and I would take a little stroll when we were struggling with something. We just had to get up and get out of the office for a minute. We’d just take a little stroll around Ross Square and talk for a minute. All of a sudden something would come to us. My colleagues and I spent a lot of time standing out there in Ross Square, brainstorming on something. Then we’d go back into Ross Hall and roll our sleeves up. Somehow or another it seemed to be clearer to us after that. I think there’s a magical spot there in Ross Square.

Do you have a hidden or useless talent? 

I’m a less than average musician. I guess that’s useless at this point. 

If you could pick a song to describe your life, what would it be? 

I don’t really have a song that describes my life, but I have always considered “A Song for You” by Leon Russell as one of my favorites. 

Favorite instrument?  

Guitar

When you travel around the country representing Auburn, what’s the one thing you want them to know about the university?

The one thing I want someone to know is how impactful Auburn is in affecting people’s lives. The research and outreach and extension that we perform, and all that we undertake on campus, has a significant effect in improving people’s lives and advancing our society. Having seen those profound effects and our successes, I think that we have earned the right to dream the biggest dreams. 

That’s what I’d really like to get across to our alumni—that their alma mater is an amazing institution that can have tremendous impact going forward. That we’ve earned the right to dream the biggest dreams and that we need all of Auburn’s constituents, our students, our faculty, our staff and our alumni and friends to support and help us maximize our impact.

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The Shot Maker

The Shot Maker

Viral video maker goes from trick shots to slow-motion masterpieces

In slow motion, fresh fruit falls through the blades of a string trimmer. A raw egg splats an unfortunate face. A basketball is “shot” through a hoop from the rafters of an arena. Then from 50 yards away using a catapult. Then dropped from a helicopter.

Welcome to Legendary Shots, the viral video sensation started by 2015 marketing graduate Carson Stalnaker and his friends. Stalnaker started filming sports trick shots in seventh grade just for laughs, but by high school the videos were gaining eyeballs and providing revenue. After college they added slow-motion explosions and experiments to the repertoire, revealing the alien shape a water balloon makes when it meets a power drill, for example. With more than 824,000 Instagram followers and 769,000 YouTube subscribers, Stalnaker said that early on they “figured out what we thought was fun and what people would want to watch.”

Auburn Magazine: What was your first big trick?

Stalnaker: I’m from Birmingham, and we got to go to the Vulcan statue that overlooks downtown Birmingham. And we were able to throw a basketball off the observation deck and we made that shot. That led us to shooting at a theme park a week after that, and suddenly, we were on YouTube getting millions of views. So it just kind of became a job by accident.

What makes for a good slow-motion video?

We need it to be something that pops, so we like when there’s a lot of color. We need direct sunlight to basically be able to see things with high frame rate, so we can’t shoot inside. As far as what’s blowing up, we always like when you see something small, and it suddenly fills up the whole frame. And you want to keep the background simple. A brick wall works.

Tell us about doing your video with Bruce Pearl.

Bruce had just gotten hired at Auburn. In July of 2014, we drove to Auburn and shot with him in Auburn Arena. We had him throw me a ball and I hit it in with the trampoline. And then we had him throw from the stands and make it straight in. That was a very stressful shot because there were a lot of times where he’d go to throw it and he would pump fake, and our camera guy would always miss it. So the one he made he didn’t pump fake and the camera just followed it completely.

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Minecraft

Minecraft

The Plainsmen of Pixels

Two alumni build Auburn’s campus in Minecraft

There are times when it’s just so funny.

When the absurdity of trying to do this crazy, stupid project that no one would do just bubbles over. That’s one thing Chris Smith ’09 loves about it. The nostalgia and the newness. The grunt work and the glitches. The confusion that comes from straddling two worlds at once.

Like the day he flew above an empty Auburn campus to a concession stand in the upper West deck of Jordan-Hare Stadium, only to find a random villager and two llamas.

Smith screenshotted the invaders and posted the picture on his @MCAubie Instagram page. He asked his followers what they thought they were doing there.

“Selling Dippin’ Dots for $10” came a reply.

Welcome to the Minecraft Auburn Project.

There are times when it’s the only thing that matters.

In 2011, Trey Long ’19 was a junior in high school when he first played Minecraft. It was two years after the release of the game and its popularity was obvious. Minecraft was started by a Swedish programmer named Markus “Notch” Persson. The game is a 3-D pixelated sandbox world where players can easily build, destroy and create using Minecraft’s basic currency, the building block.

The game has several modes, but Long immediately chose the creative mode, which gives you the full array of blocks and no enemies to battle. Although Minecraft allows you to build with others, he preferred building solo. He created replicas of his childhood Birmingham home and his church. He built train stations and skyscrapers. Even with Minecraft’s basic tools, Trey found he was skilled at recreating what he saw in real life.

So when he arrived at Auburn in fall 2012 with an ROTC scholarship and an electrical engineering degree mapped out, he looked at Samford Hall and saw nothing but digital building blocks.

Long created a single-player Minecraft map named “Auburn” on his computer. Using the Google Earth tool, he was able to get the dimensions of any structure in the world. With this information he created 10 campus buildings, including Samford, Langdon, Hargis, Biggin, Davis and Cater halls.

He posted videos of his progress on YouTube.

With his brother Jared Long ’19, he made a replica of Jordan-Hare Stadium, complete with :01 seconds on the scoreboard. He was nervous when he built it and the proudest when they finished.

“For weeks we worked on that stadium together,” Long said. “While we were working on it, we knew it would be cool.”

Then a funny thing happened to Long. Life. The real one. Between ROTC and the classes and homework and the time it takes to build all those buildings, he got burned out. Around 2015, he put the Auburn Minecraft Project down. Auburn’s campus remained a computerized construction site.

There are times when it seems all too perfect.

Like the timing of the phone call. Trey was burned out. Done, finished with the whole thing. Hadn’t touched it in a year? Two? Who knows?

While Long had forgotten Minecraft, the world had not. By 2015, it had exploded in popularity, in part through people like him posting videos of their builds on YouTube (to date, Minecraft-themed videos on YouTube have been viewed more than 1 trillion times). It crossed the threshold from game to phenomenon. Kids started wearing Minecraft Halloween costumes. There were toys and plush dolls and phone cases and a cartoon. The whole country of Denmark was recreated using the game! In 2014, Minecraft was purchased by Microsoft for $2.5 billion.

Meanwhile, Chris Smith had graduated from Auburn in graphic design, and even went to graduate school in 2005 to study game development. But he had no interest in Minecraft. His daughter Gianna did, however, and around 2016, they start playing on their own server, bonding over the building and discovery that’s baked into Minecraft’s digital DNA. And then she showed him some of Long’s videos and he decided he wants to be a part of this. He had to be a part of this. And so he called.

“Before Chris reached out, I wasn’t looking for help,” Long said. “But he had a vision of where we could take this and how we could finish. That was so energizing to me.”

One of the first big projects that Smith took on was not even a building. It was the Minecraft Auburn Project terrain. It was not like the real experience of walking Auburn’s rolling campus. Smith used GIS (Geographic Information System) servers to get accurate topography of the campus, built it out and then placed it in the world. At one point he pasted more than 1.2 million blocks into the file.

“I held my breath for about 30 minutes while it pasted,” he said.

There are times when it seems all too real.

Over the last three years, Smith has run the project and put the map on a server, which enables Long to help with construction. Smith built out the Twitter and Instagram accounts and gives their followers regular building updates.

Their recent projects have included Plainsman Park and the soon-tobe-demolished Hill dorms. They are opening the project to some selective builders. They want people to eventually be able to tour a 3-D replica of campus from anywhere in the world.

Could the two imagine building anything else? The answer is unequivocal.

“It’s Auburn or nothing,” said Smith. “I mean, I’m not going to spend this much time building my hometown. Neither is Trey. Auburn just means everything to everybody who’s ever been there. We wanted people who went to Auburn and loved it to be able to tour and not have to leave their house. You can get it on your Xbox. Or any PC or game console. That’s the dream.”

The Auburn world that Long and Smith have created is becoming so consistent and fleshed out that sometimes you can almost taste the tart lemons in the Toomer’s lemonade.

“We’re both very detail oriented. We want this to be ‘this is real, but it’s Minecraft,’” laughs Smith. “I was recently in the game taking some screenshots of the old art building. I’m [using the] zoom tool, which makes for real good pictures. So I back up into the street at Toomer’s Corner, and I literally take my finger off the zoom tool to look around and see if cars are coming.”

There are times when it just all works out.

For Long, the effect of Minecraft and Auburn on his life is hard to measure. This hits him full force when I ask what he’s doing these days for work.

“I am now a construction manager for a company out here in Atlanta building apartments,” Long said, laughing. “And I’m really happy. I wouldn’t have done it any other way. But yeah, it’s interesting that I built them virtually and now I’m doing it in real life.”

How To Make A Building in Minecraft

Using Google Earth Pro, get the dimensions of the outside of the building.

Put down a corner block. This is your cornerstone.

Start down one exterior wall. Note that each Minecraft block is a meter. Create a one- or two-block-high perimeter wall that matches the outline of the building.

Build all the way up to the roofline, wall by wall.

Note the location of any windows and doors and use blocks to recreate them.

Create the roof and roofline (Long uses stair blocks).

Put the floors down (Long says most floors are 5 Minecraft blocks high).

Put torches out for the lighting.

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Free Your Mind

Free Your Mind

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A mix of educational innovation and counterculture zeal, Auburn’s Free University Movement empowered students and infuriated administrators

Lady standing in doorway
Talking with Miriam Saxon ’72 is as pleasant an experience as you’ll have. She is soft spoken and thoughtful and measures her words when she speaks. It’s disarming when she says, “In a few minutes’ time, I have to go take our rooster… we got busted for having a rooster in town, so I have found a new home for him. Yeah, we had somebody rat us out.”

You see, Miriam Saxon is many things. An Auburn native. Daughter of two Auburn faculty members. An Auburn alumna. An Episcopal priest. And a bit of an undercover radical, even in her pet choices.

Fifty years ago, Saxon (then Miriam Scarsbrook), along with friend Marion Cox ’71, led one of the most experimental and fun educational movements in Auburn’s history: the Extra-Curricular Studies Program (ESP).

On its face, ESP was simply an attempt to offer free classes to students on topics the faculty were unable or reluctant to cover. With no tuition, no grades and no set meeting place, the classes quickly became boom-or-bust litmus tests for the interests of the student body, many of whom loved Auburn but were dissatisfied with its conservative nature and resistance to change.

“I think it was just starting it to do something fun and a little bit off the track for the rest of the university. I think Marion and I and John (Saxon, now Miriam’s husband) and some others were looking for something that wasn’t just the standard state university stuff, maybe in a tiny bit of poking-a-finger-in-an-eye way, to be honest. Just a little bit,” Saxon said.

Free The University
ESP was part of a larger free school movement that was born in early 1968. That year, A.S. Neill’s “Summerhill,” a small book about an alternative education school in England, sold a million copies. Soon, progressive writers like Jonathan Kozol, Nat Hentoff and John Holt were arguing for more open
and participatory education that lived alongside or outside of the public education system. This meant giving more power, control and access to students.

Winter quarter of 1969, a group of Auburn students launched a “Free University” program, announcing in the “Deserted Village” underground newspaper that Auburn students today were “less frivolous, better informed and chronologically older” than their counterparts from 50 or 60 years ago. The movement offered a range of supplementary courses in religion, law and even “Sgt. Pepper & other Bands.” The movement’s reasoning was made clear in the preamble to their announcement.

“Undergraduates across the country are seeking to realize their dreams of what education ought to be: not only should teachers be free to teach what they want, but students should also be free to learn what they want.”

At the start, the Free University Program was not funded by the university, and Jean Ford ’69, a student organizer at the time, made clear that the program should not concern administrators.

“We are stressing that this program will be optional and is in no way an attempt to overthrow the university,” Ford said in the Auburn Plainsman.

“Undergraduates across the country are seeking to realize their dreams of what education ought to be: not only should teachers be free to teach what they want, but students should also be free to learn what they want.”

Early returns looked promising as more than 400 students met in classrooms, restaurants and bars to discuss topics such as “Field Work Archaeology,” “Kite Flying” and “Problems of Communism in Asia.”

By late 1969, SGA was providing some funds for the Free University (causing the Plainsman to run several editorials bemoaning its lack of autonomy), and the program suffered from waning interest because of its idealistic courses and difficulty finding meeting spaces. The program changed the courses to shorter seminars and installed more practical classes, but without consistent student support, the one-year experiment ended.

Seeing The Future
Enter Saxon and Cox.

In late 1971, the Kappa Delta sorority sisters bonded over their love of Auburn and willingness to shake things up a bit. Looking around at schools like UNC Chapel Hill and University of California, Berkeley, they decided to create a better version of the Free University that had failed at Auburn before. That included coming up with a title whose acronym would double for extrasensory perception. “We thought we were so clever,” Saxon says with an eye roll.

“She was a little bit different than the norm; she had more of a progressive outlook on the world. I was beginning to develop a more progressive outlook, and we became fast friends,” Cox said of Saxon.

ESP’s mix of student empowerment, ’60s cultural idealism and innovative educational thinking was evident right from the start. The forward to their spring 1972 brochure questioned many educational assumptions in a direct appeal to students.

“Ask yourself why you are caught up in a maze of university red tape, boring classes, staying up all night to get a degree. In a university concentrating on highly specialized skills, ESP is an attempt to relieve the monotony of the classroom, to stimulate students to widen their scope, to motivate students to think and explore, to provide students with a creative outlet for their expressions, and to create an experiment in education at Auburn.”

Miriam Saxon posing for headshot

Miriam Saxon around 1972

“Ask yourself why you are caught up in a maze of university red tape, boring classes, staying up all night to get a degree.”

ESP’s inaugural six offerings in January 1972 were a mix of the practical and idealistic. Courses on photography, macrame and first aid were offered alongside “Women’s Lib,” “Radical Educational Change” and “Encounter Marathon.” Sixteen courses were offered in the spring quarter, with an increased emphasis on hands-on learning and more faculty involvement. But the relaxed atmosphere, no cost and no grades remained.

But after two quarters where almost 500 people participated, getting continued support proved difficult. Poorly attended courses were dropped, and Cox and Saxon worked tirelessly to get the word out and keep the students and teachers (some of whom were Auburn faculty, students
and members of the community) engaged and committed.

Speaking Of Controversy
ESP’s influence extended beyond the classes. A series of invited speakers roiled campus in 1971-72. National luminaries like feminist Gloria Steinem and consumer protection advocate Ralph Nader were among those who spoke to packed houses on the Plains.

This was on the heels of Yale chaplain and anti-war speaker William Sloane Coffin’s controversial appearance in February 1969. Auburn President Harry M. Philpott vetoed funds that had been set aside for him to appear. A lawsuit was filed and a ruling against the university was made by judge Frank M. Johnson in Montgomery. The lawsuit, and Coffin’s appearance, caused an uproar for a year over censorship and the university’s role in bringing new ideas to campus.

Nader, author of the 1965 book “Unsafe At Any Speed,” exposed the automobile industry’s safety issues (particularly in the Chevrolet Corvair), and had become a force in the growing consumer rights area. Cox and a group of students picked up the perennially disheveled Nader at the Columbus, Ga. Airport—in a Chevy Corvair.

“We promised that he wasn’t going to die in the car before we could get into Auburn. He was a good sport about it, but boy, that really threw him for a loop,” Cox said, laughing as she recalled the incident.

Unlike the previous Free University, ESP had quickly become part of the SGA infrastructure.

girls learning about auto mechanics

In ESP’s free auto mechanics course, you could learn how a motor works.

In a glowing feature in the Plainsman in February 1972, SGA president Jimmy Tucker cited it as one of his administration’s best achievements. After all, it was about improving access to ideas and education, something that aligned with Auburn’s land-grant mission.

And then the “General Bullshit” controversy hit. Saxon had sent their spring of 1972 class schedule to be printed at University Duplicating Services. A worker had balked at the title of one of the classes and notified J.H. White, director of university relations. Called into White’s office, Saxon explained that the class would feature Frisbee throwing and creek banking and would discuss other ways to have fun. White told her the word would offend students and alumni. Saxon asked where in university policy that word was forbidden. White couldn’t directly cite any source.

“We thought it was, again, a funny title, that it would catch a lot of students’ attention, never thinking we’d catch unwanted attention. I remember being really surprised that they wouldn’t publish it,” Saxon said. She eventually changed the word to “Bulls&^%” and got it published. 

Both Cox and Saxon recall getting called into administrators’ offices several times, a by-product of their participation in the culture wars. Cox recalls the feeling after getting called into Dean of Women Katherine Cooper Cater’s office in 1972, after Gloria Steinem visited campus and critiqued many of the rules governing women students on campus.

“I think when we walked into the office, probably our knees were trembling a little bit. When we left the office, we were probably doing high fives because, I mean, we didn’t break any rules. We thought we had pulled off the coup of the century,” Cox said.

“I think that college has always been a time when folks are trying to figure out who they are and where they are in the world. That’s always been true. I think it was especially true in the late ’60s and early ’70s,” John Saxon ’72, Miriam’s husband added.

Final Exam
Like its predecessor, ESP eventually burned out. In fall 1972 it was renamed the Free University Program, with the old name labeled confusing and worn out by new leadership. What is old is new again.

Saxon and Cox had graduated. The program was gone by the following fall. But the significance of those classes and the movement is all too obvious today. Things like the massive open online course (MOOCs) movement which provides free classes online, is animated by the same impulses that Cox and Saxon made real in Haley Center more than 50 years ago. Even Auburn’s own Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (one of 122 nationwide) provides alternative courses outside the norms of traditional classrooms.

While Miriam Saxon and Marion Cox both know that ESP, the black armbands on campus and the fiery speakers all challenged the mainstream at the time, they did so out of a love of Auburn and a feeling that it could be better. That it had to be better.

For Cox, the radical ecology class offered by ESP was the beginning of her love of the environment, something she has spent 40 years protecting as an environmental planner, consultant and mediator. For John and Miriam, now both clergy, their time at Auburn provided opportunities for them to stand up for what they believe is right, something that has continued throughout their lives.

“We all loved Auburn. We loved the community. We loved the people,” Cox said. “We loved the institution, but it wasn’t serving everything we were at that university to get out of it. We decided to do something about it. It was exciting to us. We thought it was important.”

John Saxon headshot from 1972

John Saxon circa 1972

“I think that college has always been a time when folks are trying to figure out who they are and where they are in the world. That’s always been true.”

The Great Mind Connector

The Great Mind Connector

Connecting students to jobs, companies to Auburn and research to real-world problems drove the rebranding of Auburn’s Research Park

DRIVING TOWARD AUBURN UNIVERSITY from I-85, you’ll see many of the usual fast-food restaurants and gas stations along College Street. But just south of campus, you’ve probably noticed a series of large buildings that dot an increasingly busy greenway inside Shug Jordan Parkway. It’s the Auburn Research Park.

The park recently rebranded, changing its name to simply “The Park at Auburn” in part to avoid market confusion with other Auburn entities like City of Auburn’s Technology Park. But the change also reflects a renewed plan to improve research and collaboration at the university, attract companies to Auburn, provide students meaningful internships, and nurture faculty and student startups.

Cary Chandler, senior director of the Auburn Research and Technology Foundation (ARTF, which operates The Park), said the rebranding was about better telling the park’s story. “This place is really a doorway for partnerships and opportunity, because this is where corporate America ought to be meeting with the bright minds evolving from the university, whether those minds are our faculty or students,” Chandler said. Started with a combined $15 million commitment from the state of Alabama and Auburn, the 170-acre research park broke ground on Nov. 17, 2005. Billed as the “front door” to the university, it has easy access to I-85 and is a key link to the evolving technology corridor stretching from Atlanta to Montgomery.

A new strategic plan created by Bill Dean, executive director of the ARTF, outlines the blueprint to fully integrate The Park into the campus and community. Dean, who has successfully run research parks in Huntsville and North Carolina, crafted a plan that stresses interaction and access to resources.

“The new ARTF Strategic Plan provides partnerships, teams and support services through touchpoints within a streamlined and proactive framework to take advantage of research strengths that are totally unique to Auburn University,” said Dean. He noted that the bold plan is built on interdisciplinary team building, commercialization and
entrepreneurship among people and business who desire

“We’re kind of driven to make a difference in the world. And with the support that’s here, you can do that.”

Recent buildings reflect this integration with the main campus and the community. The Research And Innovation Center (RAIC) opened in 2020 and features the New Venture Accelerator, an event center and Amsterdam Café among its amenities. There’s childcare available at the Big Blue Marble Academy, and the under-construction East Alabama Medical Center Health Sciences Facility will feature not only clinical research internships but an emergency room and ambulatory center that will be open to the public. Employees of all businesses in the research park get access to university amenities like the Recreation Center, Tiger Transit and the library.

Jim Weyhenmeyer, vice president for research and economic development, said the timing couldn’t be better, as the 2018 elevation of Auburn as an R1 research university by the Carnegie Classification of Institutions has “changed the conversation about Auburn.”

“The Park is quickly becoming a whole ecosystem of innovation, collaboration and business development,” he said. Weyhenmeyer believes The Park can provide meaningful internships for students, as well as a pipeline of tested talent for companies that move here.

“You’ll see more companies moving to this area, because it’s about access,” Weyhenmeyer said.

He also believes The Park will stand out for its investment in early-stage business development.

One of the best examples of this is the New Venture Accelerator—roughly 7,000 square feet of office space within the RAIC staffed with a team of resident experts—which guides startups on how to create business models and pitch to investors. The space is jointly managed by the Harbert College of Business and the ARTF and features 10 current startups, including SwiftSku, which in January finished third in the Amazon Web Services U.S. University Startup Competition.

SwiftSku’s achievement comes just after fellow New Venture Accelerator tenant Zac Young’s first-place finish at the SEC Student Pitch Competition in October 2020. Young, a senior in mechanical engineering and founder of Vulcan Line Tools, created the Wave Timer—a device that measures the sag, tension and temperature of power lines.

Chandler and Weyhenmeyer said that The Park can also be a force for helping to recruit star students and faculty who are looking for a university with a culture of innovation. Faculty like Mark Liles. For Liles, The Park is perfectly set up for the whole lifecycle of research, from discovery to taking a product to market. Liles is a microbiologist who has been trying to solve the problem of a deadly pathogen that has decimated farm-raised catfish in states like Alabama and Mississippi.

The Park provides Liles much-needed office and lab space. More importantly, it offers him the expertise to help turn his research into products that solve real-world problems. Mentors like the staff in the Office of Innovation Advancement & Commercialization helped him navigate the byzantine world of patents, copyrights, licenses and other programs. Liles works with faculty in other disciplines like pharmacy, crop sciences and fisheries, and says this interdisciplinary mindset is baked into The Park.

“It’s been a transformative experience,” Liles said. “Even though we might be in different departments and colleges, a lot of faculty here do very applied research. We’re kind of driven to make a difference in the world. And with the support that’s here, you can do that.”

Talk to anyone associated with The Park and they stress one thing: it’s not about the buildings, but the people. Dean’s slogan of “Connecting great minds” resonates with everyone.

Chandler said The Park’s updated mission is simple. “Everyone we’re talking to—student, faculty or company— we’re asking them the same thing: How can we help you develop the next generation of great?”