Institution Cultivator

From ag to academia — Jay Gogue bookends his career at Auburn.

Auburn University President Jay Gogue has a calming presence that some say helped him pull the school back together. Photo by Robert Fouts

When Jay Gogue finished his first year at Auburn University in the mid-1960s, the registrar told him he wouldn’t be invited back if he didn’t attend summer school and get his grades up.

Four decades later in 2007, the fledging freshman was “invited back” to serve as Auburn University’s 18th president.

Gogue credits his dramatic rise in academia to the many mentors who helped him along the way. But not everyone has the wherewithal to seize such opportunities and take advantage of them so fully.

Once serious about his studies, he stayed at Auburn University to earn two degrees in horticulture — a bachelor’s in 1969 and a master’s in 1970. Then he was off to Michigan State University for a doctorate in horticulture.

Horticulture was a natural choice, since Gogue’s family ran a nursery in his hometown of Waycross, a southeast Georgia town bordering the Okefenokee Swamp.

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“Horticulture teaches you two traits that are important for management. Grass, because it must be mowed and tended to often, requires persistence. Trees, like the slow-growing oak, teach you patience, ” observes Gogue, settling his 6-foot-2-inch frame into a chair in the wood-paneled conference room in AU’s historic Samford Hall.

In this conference room Gogue held his first meeting as the university’s newly appointed president, with student leaders — not trustees, faculty, administrators, alumni, donors or industry partners to whom he would soon turn his attention.

His next priority was to meet with the faculty in every department, school and college within the university — no easy task for such a large campus. With Auburn University’s many stakeholders, his approach is to first listen.

Charles McCrary, Auburn University trustee, believes that paying close attention to what others have to say is among Gogue’s greatest strengths.

“Dr. Gogue is a level-headed, extremely intelligent and very intuitive listener. He understands the higher education system, having participated as a professor and administrator. And he’s so good with people and has such a calming influence. He brings people together.”

McCrary describes Auburn University as “not a very pretty sight” when Gogue took over as president. A lack of trust prevailed, whether real or perceived, among the various factions within the university.

Much of the credit for uniting the “Auburn family” goes to Gogue’s wife, Susan, McCrary says.  “She’s a big part of Auburn, so approachable and a delight but not a pushover. She has her own opinions. They’re a remarkable team.”

The Gogues met in eighth grade in Waycross and married in 1968 as undergraduates at Auburn University. “Susie, ” as she’s often called, earned a bachelor’s in sociology in 1969 and a master’s in family and child development in 1970. They have three children and one grandchild.

Many people long associated with Auburn University say they’ve never seen the president’s house open as much as it is with the Gogues in residence.

Mary Helen Brown, recently retired from her position as associate professor, after teaching more than 30 years in AU’s School of Communication and Journalism, praises Gogue for his openness and accessibility — which isn’t a given with university presidents.

“The Gogues have always been welcoming, ” Brown notes. “The president’s house has become the Auburn family home. Dr. Gogue always greets me by name and seems pleased to visit whenever and wherever I see him.”

Gogue’s leadership skills also come from ROTC — two years as an undergraduate at Auburn and then advanced ROTC at Michigan State. “This is where I learned, early on, the important lesson to find people who are better than you and get them involved, ” says Gogue, who served as a second lieutenant in the Army.

With three horticulture degrees, it seems Gogue would have stayed in this field, and he did for a while, before holding administrative positions at several universities that led to AU’s presidency.

His career started with the National Park Service, where he rose to chief administrative scientist. His first academic position was assistant professor at Texas A&M, followed by roles as vice president for research and vice president/vice provost for agriculture and natural resources at Clemson University and provost at Utah State University. In 2000, he became president of New Mexico State University and in 2003 was named president of the University of Houston and chancellor of the University of Houston System.

When asked to name his greatest achievement, it isn’t the forward-thinking strategic plan to guide Auburn University into the future. Or opening the Auburn University Huntsville Research Center in 2010 or smoothing the Auburn family’s ruffled feathers.

Each graduation day is his greatest achievement, he says, “to see the kids walk through the line knowing I helped them achieve their hopes and dreams.” 

Helping students, faculty, administrators and employees reach their fullest potential is at the heart of his job, as is listening closely to those who need to be heard. 

For instance, when Gogue recently met with AU’s Black Student Union, he recalls telling members: “I’ll give you one night a week during the entire spring semester and I’ll listen to what you have to say.”

Says Tracy Awino, a journalism major and BSU member, “It means so much that the president is willing to actively tear down the prejudices and discrimination against minority students that often go unnoticed or unheard by the higher-ups. For him to be at our meetings shows that he’s dedicated to making minority students feel important and fit into the Auburn family.”

Thomas Gossom, chair of the Auburn University Foundation, calls Gogue a visionary with an entrepreneurial mentality, a necessary trait since Auburn University is now responsible for most of its funding. The state once provided 75 to 80 percent of AU’s operating costs, but that has gradually decreased until it now hovers around 25 percent. 

“He took the job when things weren’t running so smoothly and he got us all moving in the same direction, ” says Gossom. 

As president he must engage with many diverse groups on a daily basis — from trustees to freshmen — and each group perceives Auburn University’s success in a different way.

“At New Mexico, I learned that you have to make decisions that will satisfy the moment and also decisions that are tough to take today but will be beneficial years from now, ” Gogue says.

AU’s board of trustees extended Gogue’s 2017 contract to 2020.  When asked what he plans to do after stepping down as president, without hesitation he says “teach, ” which he finds time for even as president.

Gogue co-teaches a graduate course in higher education administration. Students learn about university governance, leadership, budgeting and the many other responsibilities needed to govern in higher education.

He is also developing a comprehensive digital course containing about 14 sections, each one focusing on a broad topic often faced by higher education leaders.

Gogue wants to impress upon the next generation of university leaders that success can happen with small, mapped-out steps. 

“The University operates with strategic plans, ” he explains, “a complex, multifaceted approach that boils down to ‘How do we make Auburn University better in a whole variety of ways?’ The little things add up, and at the end of each day we want to say we made the university a little better.”

Jessica Armstrong and Robert Fouts are freelance contributors to Business Alabama. She is based in Auburn and he in Montgomery.

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