Summer 2017- Features

Builder Peacemaker Auburn Man

By March 30, 2018 No Comments
Builder Peacemaker Auburn Man by Alec Harvey; After a decade at the helm of Auburn University, Jay Gogue retires with a deeper love of his alma mater, a remarkable roster of achievements and his wry sense of humor intact. (photo of Gogue with students)

Susie Gogue says she doesn’t often offer her husband advice about his job, but Jay Gogue loves to tell a story about his first weeks as Auburn University’s president. For accreditation purposes, he says, universities often survey their recent graduates, and one question is somewhat akin to this: “If you had it to do all over again, would you come back to your alma mater and major in the same field?” Nationwide, answers to that question are about 80 percent positive, with some Ivy League colleges scoring in the low 90s, according to Gogue.

“When we first came back, Auburn’s number was 96-plus percent,” he recalls. “I went home and was excited and told Susie.”

Her response?

“Try not to mess that number up,” Gogue says his wife told him. “And that’s what we’ve been trying to do ever since.”

A decade later, most would say Gogue succeeded, and he leaves the presidency this summer with a legacy devoid of controversy and filled with successes, including improved academic scores, continued building on Auburn’s campus and a fundraising campaign that surpassed its billion-dollar goal.

Jay and Susie Gogue

Gogue’s success was not a given. When he came to Auburn in July 2007 after a two-year search, he faced a university fighting in most every quarter—the faculty, the board of trustees, the alumni. “No one trusted the other,” says Charles McCrary, the trustee who chaired the search committee that picked Gogue. “We were coming out of a mess.”

McCrary says the search committee’s goals were lofty. “We were looking for a manager, a leader, someone who could deal with people and had experience in higher education, preferably having been a CEO of an institution, really just trying to find management skills coupled with the right personality.”

McCrary and his committee found their man in Gogue, who earned degrees from Auburn in 1969 and 1971, marrying Susie (whom he met growing up in Waycross, Ga.) while both were undergraduates. Gogue received his doctorate in horticulture from Michigan State University, going to work for the National Park Service before starting his academic career at Clemson University. He was provost of Utah State University, president of New Mexico State University and both chancellor of the University of Houston System and president of the University of Houston before returning to his alma mater.

“I always thought I’d stay in each job I had for the rest of my life,” Gogue says. “We jokingly say that we’ve got cemetery plots in seven states because we always thought we’d be there forever.”

Returning to Auburn wasn’t in the Gogues’ grand plan.

“Since he was working at other universities, we didn’t come back for football games or things like that, because we were obligated where we were working on football Saturdays,” Susie Gogue says. “So it wasn’t like we were coming back for football games and thinking, ‘We’ve got to move back.’ It really never entered our mind until the opportunity presented itself.”

National Park Service logo

When he got to Auburn, the first thing Gogue did was start looking ahead rather than backward.

“When I came in, people wanted to tell me about the past, and I said, ‘You know, I wasn’t here. I don’t know anything about it. Everybody’s got a new sheet of paper. Let’s start over,’” he says. “I didn’t really want to know what people thought about this, that and the other.”

The healing began almost immediately, building on the foundation laid by interim president Ed Richardson.

“Jay came in at a time where there had been tremendous issues on the campus,” says Raymond Harbert ’82, who joined the Auburn University Board of Trustees in 2009. “He had to be reactive coming in, but he’s been tremendously proactive during his time here to not allow problems to develop and fester and become bigger deals. I think he’s a really good communicator and reaches out and listens. If you’re not having to spend all your time and energy dealing with problems, it allows you to focus on progress and making the university better.”

For his part, Gogue says he was just trying to treat people with respect.

The first thing Gogue did was start looking ahead rather than backward.

“I don’t know that much about leadership and management, to be honest, but I think you ought to be kind to people,” he says. “If you’re kind to people, even if you can’t help them, they at least sort of think, ‘He’s not terrible.’”

McCrary calls Gogue a “peacemaker.”

“He’s a great listener,” the trustee says. “He’s not a dictator. He’s a facilitator, yet he’s not afraid to make a decision. That’s the best of all worlds.”

Gogue’s tenure at Auburn coincided with an economic downturn that could have meant disaster for the university. State funding over the past 10 years has dropped almost $95 million, yet tuition has remained fairly steady and that funding gap has more than been made up for in other ways.

“I’ll always be really appreciative of the faculty and staff, as well as the donors and board of trustees and other people who stepped up and said, ‘Let’s try to make sure Auburn doesn’t go backward during this downturn,’ ” Gogue says.

“When you think about the people who care about a university…when you look at them all, I think we’ve made some progress in a lot of areas.”

For instance, Gogue says, Auburn stood the chance of losing a lot of faculty when the economic downturn began.

“When you lose those resources, you don’t have as many salary increases or add as many faculty lines to the budget,” he says. “During a two-year period, we set a goal to get 85 endowed professorships, and we got 100. It was phenomenal for me to see what the Auburn family would do in a very short period of time to help the faculty.”

In addition, buildings have been going up all over Auburn’s campus in the past decade to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars in construction and improvements, including groundbreaking in April for a new $40 million facility at the Raymond J. Harbert College of Business.

This is Auburn: A Campaign for Auburn University also has been a rousing success, earning more than its lofty $1 billion goal.

“A billion-dollar campaign was exciting, but the dollar figure wasn’t as important as the ability to get people engaged and interested in coming in and trying to assist and support the university,” Gogue says.

As far as academics go, student test scores are rising,

Gogue says, and Auburn is doing its part to educate Alabamians.

“I’m proud of the fact that we’re certainly not the largest university in the state, but we’ve got more Alabama kids than anybody else in the state,” he says. “If my job is to try to help Alabama, then Auburn’s done a pretty good job.”

Along those lines, Gogue points to VCOM-Auburn, a private medical school that opened in 2015, offering a degree in osteopathic medicine and bringing in research dollars for Auburn.

“If you look at where federal monies go for research, about 52 percent of them go to the human-health areas,” Gogue says. “We had health-related stuff going on in pharmacy, nursing, psychology and veterinary medicine, and we asked them to form a loose confederacy to think of how we could be more competitive. Out of that grew trying to recruit a medical program that’s private and independent. They say from 60 to 70 percent of their graduates are family physicians, and that’s a huge need in Alabama.”

Gogue also expanded international opportunities for students, many at no cost to the university or the student.

“We brought something we did in Houston with us. We bring to campus almost weekly a consul general, an ambassador, someone from the diplomatic corps from another country to speak with students,” Gogue says.

And athletics? Football fans want more national championships, but that area has been a success, too, the president says.

“I’m proud of the fact that we’re certainly not the largest university in the state, but we’ve got more Alabama kids than anyone else in the state.”

“I gave them five goals, and they have hit them over and over again,” Gogue says. “Graduate your kids, live within your budget, be sure your game-day activities are exciting, play within the rules and win your games.

“Last year, we were down in the dumps, but we came in second in the SEC,” Gogue adds. “My view has always been that the athletic director hires and fires coaches. As far as being out there and going to practice, I’m not going to practice. That’s an inappropriate use of my time.”

Work for Jay and Susie Gogue is not limited to business hours. In addition to the day-to-day duties of the presidency, the Gogues are constantly entertaining groups in the stately president’s home they’ve occupied on Mell Street.

“One year, we calculated we had 9,000 people in the fall for meals and in the spring that year we had 7,000 in the house,” Gogue says.

When the Gogues arrived in Auburn, Susie Gogue put together a special events staff similar to one she had in Houston. She still goes over menus and guest lists for events at the president’s home, and she has overseen the addition of an entertaining pavilion to the house’s grounds.

“Susie has been a tremendous addition to the Auburn campus in that she has been incredibly generous with opening up her home and entertaining and supporting Jay in his many, many different forms of outreach that the president has to perform these days,” Harbert says. “I would bet you that Jay and Susie, and sometimes Susie on her own, entertain on campus or at their home four or five nights a week. It’s incredible. It’s a couple of hundred nights a year. It is something the board has said is very important to them, and Jay and Susie set this incredibly high bar in their outreach.”

Much of that outreach has been with Auburn students, whether attending athletic events, scholarship lunches and other affairs, teaching classes or simply talking with students when they took advantage of the approachable president’s welcoming “open-door policy.”

“I was meeting with a student group yesterday, doing a lecture and a class, and they asked what prompted the open-door policy,” Gogue says. “I said I don’t know, I’ve just enjoyed having students come in.”

Jesse Westerhouse

As SGA president in 2016-17, Jesse Westerhouse interacted with Gogue on a weekly basis.

“Early on, I noticed how Dr. Gogue was always willing to listen to me and listen to student leadership,” he says. “He always treated me as any other administrator, and that strengthened the working relationship greatly. I’m grateful to have worked with him.”

Westerhouse recalls a friendly golf match he played with Gogue, development officer Kurt Sasser and Sasser’s brother, John.

“It was a great chance to have an extended period of time with Dr. Gogue in a relaxed setting and hear about his vision for Auburn and how students are at the forefront of it,” Westerhouse says. “He also proved to be a pretty good golfer, hitting a great shot on 18 to win the match for him and Kurt. I’m still a little bitter about that one.”

It’s moments like that golf game and other informal interactions that Gogue will miss most. Ask the Gogues their favorite facet of their years at Auburn, and they answer almost in unison:

“The people.”

“I’ve taught something pretty much every year,” Gogue says. “You get to meet some kids, just a lot of different people, from that prospective student who shows up and sits here with her parents and her whole life’s in front of her, to successful alumni who return to campus.”

Gogue says he didn’t come to Auburn anticipating a presidency for life.

“We came with the idea that as long as you can contribute, you ought to stay, but if you reach the point you can’t, you ought to do something else,” he says. And that time, he says, after neck surgery two years ago and turning 70 this year, is now.

For Gogue, the future means teaching both at Auburn and through a new curriculum for college administrators that he created. A President’s Perspective: A Unique Digital Textbook on Higher Education Administration will hit the marketplace soon.

“I’ve been working on this training for two-and-a-half or three years,” he says.

“Thirty-one of the people I’ve worked with over the years have either become president or provost at other schools, and this tries to incorporate some of those things you try to do.”

The Gogues are already in a new house they’ve built in the South Gay Street area, but first they plan to disappear for a little while to let Steven Leath, Gogue’s newly named successor, settle in.

“We’re going to take a study leave, which is normal,” Gogue says. “I think it’s appropriate for us to be gone for a couple of months. You don’t need the old guy running around when the new one first gets here.”

He’ll offer advice only if asked.

“You’ve got a guy who is an experienced president at a major American university,” he says of Leath, who is leaving Iowa State University to begin his duties as Auburn’s 19th president in mid-July. “He’ll know the things he needs to do.

I’ll be available if he ever has a question, but I certainly wouldn’t come in and say, ‘You need to do this, that or the other.’ ”

The Gogues will spend their time away largely at their “beach house,” as they call it, in Santa Fe, N.M. Retirement from the presidency will mean more time to spend with their three children and grandson, as well as getting reacquainted with many old friends.

He feels as if he’s left “thousands of things” undone, but Gogue is leaving a legacy of relationship-building that the university desperately needed when he came on board 10 years ago, his fans say.

“He was the right person for the right time,” McCrary says. “I couldn’t fathom us finding somebody better. It has been a journey, but we happen to have had a great wagon master.”

Susie & Jay Gogue Dream Team

Ask most anyone about Jay and Susie Gogue, and they’ll echo the thoughts of Charles McCrary, a member of the Auburn University Board of Trustees.

“They’re a team,” he says. “She’s remarkable. She has been phenomenal.”

While Jay Gogue has been running the university, Susie Gogue has helped run things behind the scenes, ensuring the couple’s entertaining at the president’s mansion has gone smoothly and, in at least one particular case, making an impact in the community on her own.

“This was Jay’s third presidency, so I learned a little bit in the first and a little more in the second,” she says. “When we came, I thought about it and said, ‘OK, I’m going to get involved with one board in the community. I’ve been on the Lee County Youth Advisory Board for 10 years.’”

She plans to give that up when her husband leaves his presidency.

“I’m going to have the freedom to travel and do other things,” she says.

Travel for pleasure has not been easy to do during Gogue’s college presidencies, including his 10-year run at Auburn. Days and nights are filled with entertaining various groups and other guests in the president’s home, and other obligations swallow up time elsewhere.

Take sporting events, for instance. If the Gogues attended a men’s basketball game, they tried to also attend a women’s basketball game;
a baseball game is balanced by a softball game.

“There are so many things we never had time to do,” Susie Gogue
says. “It has been fun, though.”

One thing she doesn’t plan to do after stepping down as Auburn’s first lady is a lot of public speaking. In fact, she learned early on not to do that.

“If you speak to one group, then everyone else will ask, and there just isn’t time,” she says. “So I’ve learned to say no to speaking engagements.”

Early on, the Gogues are adapting to their new home not far from campus as the President’s Home undergoes extensive renovations. Even before the current renovations, the Gogues left the house in better shape than they found it.

“What we did was largely cosmetic, in the living room, dining room and garden room, where we entertained,” Susie Gogue says. “We added two handicapped restrooms and an entertaining pavilion. That has worked wonderfully.”

That pavilion has helped Auburn’s first family host thousands of people a year as they walked into the president’s home, often sharinga meal with the Gogues.

“They really are a team,” reiterates board member Raymond Harbert.