After serving as Auburn University's president for over a decade, Jay Gogue did the University a favor by coming out of retirement to provide some stability in an interim role when Auburn suddenly split ties with Gogue’s successor, Steven Leath, in the summer of 2019.
Gogue said he never would have imagined that this favor to step out of retirement would eventually turn into a long-term commitment, and no one could have predicted that he would be leading the University through uncharted territory due to the pandemic.
For that, we want to say thank you, Mr. President.
In some ways, the turbulent period caused by the departure of Leath may have been a blessing in disguise, as the rumored tension between him and the Board of Trustees could have led to behind-the-scenes battles over decision making between the board and the president at Auburn.
Thankfully, Gogue provided solid leadership in his first stint as president, giving him the reputation as one of Auburn’s most dependable presidents only to transition into semi-retirement, still serving in roles in the community and teaching leadership courses at the University.
This second term has been much of the same. Although no university can tout a flawless record when it comes to handling the pandemic, Gogue is proud of Auburn’s response.
Gogue began meeting with the president’s cabinet six days a week on Jan. 20 to coordinate responses to the pandemic, much earlier than many other leaders nationwide.
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“We all thought that by summer, this was in January, this would be behind us,” he said with a laugh, humbled by the uncontrollable nature of the pandemic. “Then, by June, we started realizing it was going to affect the fall term. Now, we’re starting to realize it’s going to affect the spring term.”
Regardless of the issues with face-to-face instruction versus online instruction, Gogue said Auburn and its students have made smooth transitions whenever new public health suggestions have called on them to do so.
“It’s been better in some respects than we thought,” he said. “Young guys adapted fairly quickly; some of us older people it took a little longer for us to figure out.”
But as is the case with any responsible university president in the 21st century, Gogue was right on top of the school’s financials and how the pandemic is affecting the University’s sources of income.
All things considered, it would have been a safe bet that tax revenue would be down this year. However, Gogue said that surprisingly that when the state’s fiscal year came to an end on Sept. 30, the general tax fund was up some $150 million or so, and the educational trust fund — which funds higher education and K-12 — was up about $200 million.
As for private donations to the University, Gogue said Auburn had set a $120.5 million goal for the year. Even through the economic downturn that affected millions, they finished the year on Sept. 30 at $126 million.
The University also collects funding through grants and research opportunities. Following the surprisingly optimistic trend, those numbers were up about $60 million, totaling about $23.1 million.
Thankfully, due to this good run in financial stability for the University, Gogue is proud to say Auburn has not had to end any programs, furloughed faculty or staff or instituted pay cuts, unlike many peer institutions.
Unlike many universities that have seen dips in enrollment because of remote instruction outweighing the cost of high tuition rates, the University had the highest summer enrollment to date. Furthermore, Auburn ended up having record enrollment this semester at 30,700.
Gogue said that in this time of uncertainty, he’s reminded of a cartoon that was made over the summer. One character says with everything going on, he’s taking it one day at a time.
“The other character next to him said ‘Nah, I’m going to take it a half day at a time,’” Gogue said with a solid Monday-morning laugh. “So, that’s about where we are.”
Although it has not been without any flaw, Gogue’s leadership during the pandemic has been remarkable. What may be more remarkable than anything, however, may be his propensity to turn the spotlight away from him when so much praise is rightly thrown his way.
In an interview with The Plainsman, Gogue was asked how all this crazy journey has been on him and that it has probably taken on him when he thought he’d be enjoying retirement on The Plains. He acknowledged how unlikely of circumstances brought about where we are, but said he had no hesitation because of his love of Auburn.
He quickly turned the discussion to how gratifying its been to see the response by not just administration, but faculty, staff and the student body.
The pandemic likely put a pause on the Board of Trustees’ timeline to find a more long-term candidate for the position.
No one can know how much longer Gogue will continue in his second stint as Auburn president, but what is certain is that Auburn is much more well-positioned to handle an extremely turbulent time because of Gogue’s leadership.
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