Room 331 in Tichenor Hall is not just another room in the building — it is the office for the dean of liberal arts, and it is where Joe Aistrup has been serving Auburn students for eight years.
“You can see my boxes,” Aistrup said Friday afternoon, glancing at an unused stack in the corner of his office. “I'm getting ready to pack.”
The road to Auburn
Aistrup grew up in Kansas in a small town called Wytheville. After graduating high school, he attended college at Fort Hays State University. He graduated, receiving a degree in communications and political science.
“I thought, initially, I wanted to be a high school teacher,” Aistrup said. “And I drove a school bus as a senior in college.”
It did not take long for Aistrup to realize that teaching high schoolers was no longer his calling.
“At that point, I decided I was going to graduate school,” Aistrup said. “I thought, initially, I was going to be a city manager, and I went to Virginia Tech, which has a good public administration program. And there I decided that I actually wanted to get a Ph.D. in political science.”
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This led Aistrup to Indiana University Bloomington, where he received his doctorate in 1989. His story came full circle when he went back to Virginia Tech; Aistrup said he was “a little bit of a boomerang.” At Virginia Tech, Aistrup began his first job as an assistant professor.
Not long after, Aistrup “boomeranged” back to Fort Hays State University to help in public affairs. For nine years, Aistrup led a research institution there.
“We looked at issues dealing with labor basins; we looked at issues dealing with ... what we thought was a governmental or not-for-profit concern,” Aistrup said. “We worked for hospitals, we worked for city governments, we worked for county government, we worked for economic development organizations, we worked for water districts. … It was just everything.”
After his success in public affairs, Kansas State University called his name. Aistrup soon packed up his bags to become a department chair for the university. It was not long before he assumed the role as associate dean of academic affairs at the College of Arts and Sciences at Kansas State.
One day, he received a call suggesting he apply for a new faculty position opening at Auburn. Without hesitation, Aistrup applied and went on to become the dean of the College of Liberal Arts at Auburn University in 2013.
Looking back on eight years of leadership
After eight years, Aistrup has finally decided to step down, take a year leave and then resume his work as a political science teacher. As he reminisced on his time as dean, Aistrup said he is extremely proud of the programs the College of Liberal Arts has been able to implement and create during his time here.
“We established a master of social work, which I thought was really critical for a land-grant institution in Alabama,” he said. “That’s a very important profession that helps people and is on the frontlines of a lot of public health and other types of public issues."
The college also established new undergraduate programs while he was dean.
"We started thinking about the outcomes that our students experienced once they graduate," Aistrup said. "I kind of felt like it was very important that every student here at Auburn have a clue as to how to get a job or how to go to graduate school and what to do to do after that.”
The college of liberal arts, under Aistrup’s supervision, was therefore able to institute a class to be taken sophomore year that introduced ideas on what to do in a post-graduate phase of life. In addition, Aistrup headed up the creation of the Career Services Center, which helps students land internships, holds job fairs, conducts interviews and connects students with Auburn alumni.
“I always say to people, ‘The time to prepare for the next step is right now,’” Aistrup said. "If you've haven't done an internship, get one … We know that students who do internships, they have a much better chance of getting the job than those who don't ... Then, the second thing I think is important is to make sure that you're doing all the things right in your classes. Get good grades; it really does matter.”
Aistrup recalled finding a teacher he really loved and taking all of their classes. He encouraged Auburn students to do the same.
Another unique aspect of the college of liberal arts that Aistrup wanted to harp on was the size of the classes. Aistrup said that the college understood that if they wanted to be able to compete against other liberal arts institutes, they had to set themselves apart as a truly great liberal arts college. They did this by providing Auburn liberal arts students with smaller class sizes, allowing for intimate discussions and deeper connections with faculty.
“I think the thing I'm gonna miss the most about being a dean is really interacting; I love interacting with students,” Aistrup said. “Our students, they come and they interact with me, they tell me things that they think are important. And I enjoy working on those things that they think are important."
Aistrup also said he loves interacting with alumni.
Finally, Aistrup said he will miss interacting with “all the good folks” that make up the faculty in the liberal arts building.
“We have a fantastic leadership group here in the college,” Aistrup said. “We have a group of people who are dedicated to teaching students, who are dedicated to the mission of the University and want to make sure that we do the best job we can, efficiently as possible, to achieve those goals. And so, I will miss my interaction with those good people, because they were the heart and soul.”
Aistrup said he is excited to pick up his research and teach again and get back in the classroom. That is where “the rubber meets the road,” he said — right there in the classroom.
“You know, as a dean, I'm engaging with students on a very broad level," he said. "But, you know, when you're a faculty member, your job is to make sure the students learn the topic that you're teaching them in that class. It’s a different concern, but it's an equally important concern. So, I look forward to that.”
After eight years, Joe Aistrup still loves Auburn. He and his wife also love the warmer climate and the sweet Auburn community. Though Aistrup admitted that finding friends when you are the dean can be difficult, he said that he and his family were ultimately able to find a “very nice group of friends” and a church. Aistrup said this has kept them around for eight years, and will continue to keep them around for the foreseeable future.
“I plan to acclimate myself to becoming a faculty member next year,” said Aistrup. “I would anticipate that once I get into political science, I'll work with the department chair and we'll figure out where I fit in … That is, what classes he sees me teaching on the basis of the rotation, and how I can basically contribute to the department in the best way possible.”
After leading Auburn University’s College of Liberal Arts for eight years, and serving for 28 years in various administrative positions across three different colleges, Joe Aistrup will return to the faculty in the Department of Political Science effective July 1.
“It's gonna be a little sad, but change is good,” Aistrup said, revisiting the boxes on his floor. “Like I said, I've been an administrator for more than 20 years … I think I'm ready to do something different.”
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