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Biggest Gift in Auburn History Christens New Engineering Center

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Auburn University tomorrow dedicates a new, $44 million academic building for engineering students, the Brown-Kopel Engineering Student Achievement Center.

Construction of the center was made possible by a $30 million gift from John and Rosemary Brown, which was announced as part of an overall $57 million gift — the largest in university history — in April 2015.

The new facility, comprising 142,000 square feet of space to support engineering studies, creates greater opportunities for collaboration among students and faculty. Located in the heart of campus, it is designed to serve students from all engineering disciplines and incorporates high-contact initiatives through student recruitment, scholarships, curriculum advising, tutoring, career development, corporate relations and international experiences.

Site preparation for the project began in December 2016 with the demolition of the Engineering Shops and L Building. This project completes the third phase of more than $85 million in new construction and renovations for the College of Engineering.

The dedication ceremony will take place Friday, Sept. 13, at 3:15 p.m.

Auburn Finance Prof Weighs Chance of Recession

Albert Wang, the Synovus Fellow and associate professor of finance in the Auburn University Harbert College of Business

In the last two weeks, if you turn on the television all the news shows are talking about the possibility of a recession. Many of them are citing the U.S.-China tariff escalation and the slowing growth in the United States as two precursors, as well as slowing economies abroad and the uncertainty of Britain’s future as it leaves the EU. All of this has led to jitters on Wall Street.

Albert Wang, the Synovus Fellow and associate professor of finance in the Auburn University Harbert College of Business, recently shared his thoughts on the possibility of a recession in the U.S. Wang researches empirical corporate finance, corporate governance, mutual funds and behavioral finance. His research has been published in the Journal of Financial EconomicsReview of Financial StudiesJournal of Financial and Quantitative AnalysisReview of Corporate Financial Studies and Financial Management. 

What do the financial indicators reveal?
Let’s first take a look at some financial indicators that may point to the recession. Those include gross domestic product growth, consumer spending, commodity prices, interest rates, the yield curve, unemployment data, confidence index, house prices, house sales, etc.

GDP grew 2.1 percent in the second quarter. Through July, retail sales have increased by 0.7 percent, after 0.3 percent in June. Commodity prices are growing: The oil price is up over 50 percent, and aluminum and copper are both up over 30 percent since 2016. The unemployment rate remained at an exceptionally low 3.7 percent in July. U.S. existing-home sales rose 2.5 percent in July and marked the year-over-year uptick in 17 months. All those numbers indicate the economy remains strong so far, but there are some other indicators listed below that raise some concerns. 

What is the inverted yield curve and what does it indicate about the economy?
On Aug. 14, the 10-year treasury yield briefly fell below the two-year yield, prompting a wide selloff in stocks, with the Dow Jones Industrial Average falling 3 percent. An inverted yield curve, most commonly defined as the 10-year treasury minus the two-year treasury, has preceded each U.S. recession since 1955. The yield curve inversion does not explicitly indicate a recession, but is instead a predictor of interest rate cuts. Because the Federal Reserve cuts rates in response to harsh economic times, the yield curve inversion is typically followed by a recession.

However, in a period of historically low interest rates, the yield curve may not be as good of an indicator as it once was. “An inverted yield curve has preceded recessions in part because inflation was allowed to get out of control, and the Fed had to tighten, and that put the economy into recession,” said Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell at a news conference. “It’s really not the situation we’re in now.”

What about consumer confidence?
A survey by the University of Michigan shows that U.S. consumer sentiment plummeted to a seven-month low in August on growing concerns about the economy. This represents the biggest drop in confidence since January, which underscores the growing odds of a recession. The consumer confidence will have a significant impact on economic growth, because cautious consumers may reduce their spending in anticipation of a potential recession. Less spending will lead to lower sales, followed by less corporate investment and more layoffs.

How does the trade war with China and the Fed’s monetary policy affect the U.S. economy?
In my opinion, even though most of economic and financial indicators in the U.S. are strong, the risk of recession is highly correlated with two factors: (1) the trade war with China, and (2) the Fed’s monetary and fiscal policy to sustain economic growth. Not only does the U.S. economy suffer adversely from China’s counter-tariffs, the uncertainty about whether the trade war between the two largest economies in the world is going to be escalated in the future imposes a huge dent on investor confidence, which is evidenced by recent enormous volatility in the stock market. The recent interest rate cut by the Fed is also taken negatively by investors who believe that the rate cut is a result of the Fed’s growing concern on lower than expected inflation and potential recession.

Is it a matter of whether or when regarding a recession?
It has been 10 years since the last recession. Considering the fact that any economy follows a boom-recession cycle, the real question is not whether but when the recession is going to hit us.

UA, Auburn Team Up for Traffic Safety

Alabama’s top sports rivals are working together with the state to make Alabama’s highways safer.

Governor Kay Ivey awarded Auburn University, the University of Alabama and the Alabama Department of Public Health a $3.3 million grant to compile data, develop media campaigns and conduct a safety campaign toward properly securing children in child safety seats.

The University of Alabama’s Center for Advanced Public Safety was awarded $1.9 million to develop programs and compile data on crashes, seatbelt use and other statistical information that will help the Alabama Law Enforcement Agency and other agencies pinpoint where crashes often occur, leading to more patrols and checkpoints in those areas.

Auburn University’s Media Production Group was awarded a total of $1.1 million for media campaigns to warn motorists of the dangers of driving while texting and/or impaired and not wearing seatbelts.

The Alabama Department of Public Health will use a $60,000 grant to maintain a database involving the types of injuries suffered by people involved in automobile crashes and their health statuses. The federally required information is added to a nationwide database. Additionally, a $200,000 grant will provide a three-day training course for child safety seat certification and will enable the department to conduct programs throughout the state to teach motorists the proper techniques for installing child safety seats and fastening children in the seats.

The Alabama Department of Economic and Community Affairs is administering the grants from funds made available through the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and the state Traffic Safety Trust Fund.

Soybean Innovation in Wood Product Manufacturing

Auburn University Regions Professor of Forest Products Brian Via holds a piece of orient strand board, or OSB, a material commonly used in the manufacturing of indoor furniture. Via leads a research team that has obtained a patent to allow for the practical application of soy flour, a more cost effective and ecofriendly alternative, to replace petroleum-based adhesives traditionally utilized to manufacture particleboard.

The soybean is a widely edible bean with numerous food uses, from soy milk to soy sauce. For people with allergies, it often is used as a dairy substitute. And fat-free soybean meal is a cheap source of protein for animal feeds and packaged meals.

But soy’s newest use, say Auburn researchers, lies outside of nutrition.

Soy flour could be used as an adhesive, replacing petroleum-based adhesives traditionally utilized to manufacture wood components in particleboard, says Brian Via, a professor at the Auburn University School of Forestry and Wildlife Sciences.

The soy-based adhesive would provide a more cost-effective and ecofriendly alternative to petroleum-based products, as well as lowering the amount of formaldehyde released to form formaldehyde-based adhesives, says Via.

Via, who recently obtained a patent for this product, worked on the research with William Head, research and development manager at Georgia-Pacific, and Sujit Banerjee, professor emeritus at the Georgia Tech School of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering.

The glue used in manufacturing wood components comprises a large portion of the manufacturing price, so substituting a less expensive component such as soy flour could significantly reduce the product’s cost.

Soy flour-based adhesives have been tried before and been found lacking, with the soy thickening too quickly for wood component manufacturing. Via and his team found that heating the soy-adhesive mixture prior to application resulted in an adequate replacement for the petroleum-based adhesives.

The United Soybean Board sponsored the research that helped collect the data for the patent, which was filed in March 2016 and issued in April 2019.

The new patent could result in a shift in the wood manufacturing sector, says Auburn School of Forestry and Wildlife Sciences Dean Janaki Alavalapati. “It has the potential to cut manufacturing costs, improve air quality and boost the region’s soybean industry. It is a breakthrough that provides major improvements on multiple fronts.”

High Fashion Homecoming at the CoHo

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Former Auburn basketball star Elizabeth (Younger) Purpich returns to her alma mater on August 15 to show off her new line of luxury leather handbags, the WDE Collection.

Purpich, who graduated from Auburn in ’98, went on to a professional basketball career in Australia but is far better known as a top-of-the-line fashion designer.

Purpich, a member of Auburn’s 1997 SEC Tournament Championship basketball team, has been designing handbags under her namesake label since 2013 and has been featured at New York Fashion Week four times.

On Toomer’s Corner, on the rooftop patio of the Collegiate Hotel — offering an eagle-eye view of Samford Hall and other campus landmarks — will be the place to be for a first look at the new handbag collection. The trunk show atop the CoHo is just in advance of the official launch during New York Fashion Week on September 10.

“After designing collections for both the Texas Longhorns and the Texas A&M Aggies, the Auburn family, especially my Mom, have been encouraging me to design an Auburn-themed collection,” said Purpich, who now lives Houston, headquarters for her company, Elizabeth Purpich Collection.

Purpich, who goes by Beth, is a self-taught designer who learned from experience working with mentors in the fashion industry. She started her business in 2007 as JulieBeth Handbags. She earned an MBA in strategy and marketing from The Weatherhead School of Management at Case Western Reserve University.

Purpich’s mother, Melanie (Moore) Younger, class of ’74, played on Auburn’s inaugural women’s basketball team while earning her doctorate of veterinary medicine degree.

“I’m really excited to team up with The Collegiate Hotel at Auburn for trunk shows that champion the Auburn football experience,” said Purpich. “The CoHo location and atmosphere, combined with the support from the Tiger faithful, is a perfect fit with our vision for the new Collection. I can’t wait to meet the customers who have followed me online for the past six years, as well as introduce my brand to a wider market.”

The Collegiate Hotel — a luxury 40-room boutique hotel — will host trunk shows of the collection on select home game weekends.

Built to house an expanded women’s enrollment following World War II, the former Wittel Dormitory building was converted in 2016 into Auburn’s first boutique hotel.

Auburn’s New MBA Certificate in Cybersecurity

Ransomeware attacks are up 195 percent in the first quarter of 2019 as compared to the fourth quarter of 2018. Data breaches are another ongoing concern for all businesses, with the 2018 Cost of a Data Breach Study citing the average cost for a data breach in the U.S. at $7.9 million with costs rising into the hundreds of millions or even billions of dollars in the most serious cases.

Due to these risks facing businesses of all sizes, Auburn University’s Harbert College of Business has launched a graduate certificate in cybersecurity management designed with business professionals in mind.

The new program builds upon the university’s cybersecurity policy and engineering research, including extensive work being conducted at the Auburn Cyber Research Center, McCrary Institute for Cyber and Critical Infrastructure Security and its Washington, D.C.-based Center for Cyber and Homeland Security.

The new graduate certificate enables IT professionals and other business managers to evaluate security measures, assess organizational threat exposure and develop effective contingency plans for mitigating risk across all business operations. It is offered online and on campus.

The curriculum is designed to prepare for three critical professional certification exams: the Certified Information Systems Security Professional, the Certified in Risk and Information Systems Control and the Certified Information Systems Auditor. Certificate credits earned through the graduate certificate could be later applied to graduate business degrees at Auburn or other universities. In addition, current full-time, online and executive MBA students can pursue both a concentration and a certificate in cybersecurity management.

“A company’s IT/cyber team should not be in the fight alone,” said Frank Cilluffo, director of the McCrary Institute for Cyber and Critical Infrastructure Security. “Adopting good practices and striving to comply with pertinent regulations is important, but it is crucial to consistently assess the potential risks and adjust those policies and practices accordingly. Genuine security will never be achieved by a ‘check-the-box’ mentality, which loses sight of this bigger picture, and wrongly assumes that fulfillment of a checklist alone will protect you.”

Auburn, Tuskegee at the Forefront of Supply Chain Management

Tuskegee University students Ashley McCain (left) and Ashley Parks, as Parks scans RFID tags on apparel products in the RFID Lab’s demonstration retail space.

In today’s technological world, moving raw materials or goods between locations has become easier with radio frequency identification (RFID). A partnership between Tuskegee University’s Brimmer College of Business and Information Science and Auburn University’s RFID Lab is giving supply chain management students hands-on experience managing real-world data for some of the retail and apparel industry’s most well-known companies.

“RFID comes in many different flavors and has become a catch-all term for several hundred different technologies that fall under that umbrella and that trace back several decades,” says Justin Patton, director of Auburn’s RFID Lab. “The technology offers the retail sector greater efficiency and more precise inventory control, tracking and product safety beyond the barcode’s capacity.”

Started in 2015, Auburn’s RFID Lab has focused on developing and integrating RFID and other emerging technologies in retail, aviation, supply chain and manufacturing applications.

So far, six Tuskegee students have rotated through the RFID Lab as data analysts, where they helped evaluate and verify the accuracy of RFID data collected through the supply chain for the lab’s corporate partners.

“When you have a group of students like this who are learning this technology as it develops, the sky’s the limit for them,” says Jack Crumbly, associate professor in Tuskegee’s Brimmer College. “Professional opportunities abound for these graduates with suppliers, manufacturers, distribution centers and retailers. The entire industry is looking for data solutions to reduce costs, so a group of students with hands-on experience like this certainly has a tremendous employment advantage when they graduate.”

Companies who partner with the lab are in contact with the students as they do data analysis.

“Our experience certainly helped me understand concepts in the classroom more,” says Brittany Parks, who graduated in May with a degree in supply chain management. “Understanding those concepts better helped us have deeper conversations with corporate representatives and about the troubles they’re having — that helped us connect better with them and those we’ll interview with for jobs.”

And the students aren’t the only ones benefitting from the experience. Crumbly notes that Tuskegee possessed unique partnerships with corporations it was able to introduce to RFID Lab leaders. Likewise, through his and his students’ involvement, other corporate partners are becoming more familiar with Tuskegee, a historically black university. That dovetails, Crumbly says, into these companies’ objectives to cultivate a diverse workforce.

Tuskegee University students Brittany Parks (left) and Ashley McCain with Auburn RFID Lab Director Justin Patton

The partnership expanded this past spring to include student and faculty involvement in Chain Integration Pilot or CHIP. CHIP is the first supply chain project integrating item-level data streams — information pulled from attached RFID tags — from various stakeholders into a blockchain network. As part of the project, the RFID Lab is working with industry partners to develop new ways to efficiently move products through the supply chain to consumers.

The lab’s soon-to-be-implemented CHIP Project will be a way for retail and apparel companies to communicate by better connecting the digital dots between global suppliers and their product inventories through a common record of information. It will be a blockchain — data collected through the flow of products through the supply chain and maintained across several computers linked in a peer-to-peer network.

“By conducting the CHIP project and incorporating industry stakeholders around the globe, the Auburn University RFID Lab aims to encourage the adoption of serialized data and blockchain technologies and usher in the next generation of supply chain innovation,” Patton says.

Tuskegee joins a growing list of more than 20 educational, retail, apparel and supply chain partners that will participate directly in the proof-of-concept and support the project as a collective working group. These include well-known commercial brands like Under Armor and Spanx, and technology solution providers like Avery Dennison, IBM and Zebra Technologies. Together, the partners’ contributions will range from supporting data capture systems and other Internet of Things (IoT) infrastructure, developing blockchain solutions, ensuring compliance with global standards and experienced project leadership.

A recent addition includes a partnership with Hyperledger, a global collaboration hosted by the Linux Foundation that aims to advance cross-industry blockchain technologies. Hyperledger is a multi-venture, multi-stakeholder effort that includes various enterprise blockchain and distributed ledger technologies. As a new member, Auburn’s RFID Lab joins industry leaders in finance, banking, IoT, supply chain, manufacturing and technology, and will be positioned to inform and influence the direction and application of blockchain technologies across the globe.

Due to the sophistication of current supply chains, data exchange between partners can be challenging. The CHIP project aims to address this by connecting the digital dots on a global scale. By capturing and contributing item-level data streams into a blockchain solution, an item-level record of product information will be created for goods flowing from one supply chain stakeholder to the next.

For more information on the RFID Lab, visit rfid.auburn.edu.

Master of Accountancy CPA Pass Rates at Auburn Far Exceed National Averages

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The Master of Accountancy (MAcc) Class of 2019 produced one of the highest pass rates of any MAcc class at Auburn University since 2005. The overall pass rate for each exam section was 94 percent compared to a national average of 54 percent.

The Auburn MAcc curriculum is designed to enable students to sit for all four parts of the CPA Exam before graduation. The 2019 results on the CPA Exam were exceptional with 95 percent on Financial (FAR), 94 percent on Audit (AUD), 92 percent on Regulation (REG), and 93 percent on Business Environment & Concepts (BEC), compared to the national percent passing rates of 44 percent, 55 percent, 59 percent, and 58 percent, respectively.

Since 2005, the Auburn MAcc program has included a reduced course load in the spring semester while completing the Becker CPA Review and sitting for all four parts of the exam prior to graduation. Auburn MAcc students have had tremendous results, with an average of 85 percent pass rates on all four parts over the past 15 years.

“The MAcc Class of 2019 has shown what can be achieved with hard work and dedication,” said Andee Hodo, director of Accounting Graduate and Online Programs. “In addition, the proven success of our MAcc students on the CPA Exam is due to both our outstanding faculty who provide our students with an excellent educational background and our exceptionally supportive employers, who hire our students and provide the Becker CPA Review course as an employee benefit.”

“We know that the MAcc Class of 2019 will be very successful as they begin their careers and will represent Auburn University and the Harbert College of Business well.”

For more information about the Auburn MAcc Program, contact Andee Hodo at andee.hodo@auburn.edu.

Auburn Presidential Shakeup Continues as Expected

Jay Gogue

The Auburn University Board of Trustees have unanimously voted to confirm Jay Gogue as interim president, effective immediately. Gogue previously served as Auburn’s 18th president from 2007 to 2017.

University officials will soon launch a national presidential search, according to Wayne Smith, president pro tempore of the Auburn University Board of Trustees. The board accepted the resignation of President Steven Leath on June 21, and released a statement saying that the decision for Leath to leave was “mutually decided.”

At the time of his departure Leath said, “As I’ve said many times, serving as Auburn’s president has been the highlight of my career. I’m confident we leave Auburn stronger than when we arrived.”

While Auburn officials have not publicly stated why Leath left, local newspaper articles have stated that Leath’s micro-management style did not fit within the Auburn University culture and was seen as an intrusion into the domain of athletics.

Leath had served just two years of a five-year contract.

Upon appointment as interim president, Gogue said, “Susie and I love Auburn, and we’re honored to again serve the Auburn Family.” He will spend the next several days connecting with the student, faculty, staff and alumni leadership.

A Closer Look at the Ultimate Influencer

The many faces of General Mills’ Betty Crocker — an early incarnation of the virtual influencer.

How common are virtual influencers?
We have this amazing technology that allows us to completely invent and imitate someone, or create this new creature, but the idea is not new. Betty Crocker was a composition who was drawn — makeup, expression, wardrobe — to appeal to the target audience to keep her up to date. They have manufactured many iterations of her. The initial Betty Crocker character was created in 1921.

We have been dealing with virtual assistants for years. Remember the Microsoft Office Paperclip guy? We now have Siri. If you call airlines, your bank, just about any service organization, you are already interacting with a virtual assistant. They’re getting better at solving our problems.

Are there any negative effects with customers?
There will be a point with some products where a fake thing won’t cut it. Makeup is a form of trickery, so it’s okay because everybody knows it. We accept that. But for something like financial help or insurance, we need a little more evidence of someone’s expertise.

For some product categories, they might not be as believable. You want to give your audience credit for being intelligent. The danger would be if you had an audience that felt cheated in some way, or felt deceived in some way when they found out it wasn’t real. If advertisers presented such a spokesperson as being a real person, and then the audience found out that’s not the case, that would ruin the credibility of the imitation person and the firm.

A good marketing campaign will give its audience credit for being intelligent and not try to fool them. Marketers should give good information with a positive view of the product and brand in a way that is ethical and a way that is credible with respect to its audience.

What is influential to you or to me is based on that influencer’s credibility, their relatability and how much we trust them. If I’m going to be influenced by somebody I have to trust them at some level.

Dr. Karen Hopkins

What are the advantages of using computer-generated personalities?
It can be a big money-saver to create one, because it is expensive to spend hours trying to figure out who the good existing social media influencers would be for their products—identifying and recruiting them, and then they have to give them incentives. Companies might do that for themselves, or they hire marketing firms to recruit real influencers for them. It’s an expensive and ongoing activity. Why not just create the ultimate influencer and be done with it?

Virtual personalities don’t get old. They don’t have a bad hair day. They don’t go out and get drunk or say offensive things. They’re not going to get arrested. They’re not going to develop a bad reputation for things they say or do on social media or anywhere else. You’re not going to have their high school sweetheart come out and talk about something they did in their youth. There’s no risk. They have no history.

It can also boil down to the type of product that you are talking about. For some things, how “real” does a source have to be, as long as the consumer is getting what they need? When you create through artificial intelligence, you don’t have to worry if that human is fake. It’s really the opposite: Can you tell that the fake person is not human? It’s all about believability, credibility and human connection. If this artificial intelligence-created person is providing them with information that they need to know and can use, that creates trust and helps build the brand. And for a generation of digital natives, who have grown up with this kind of technology, it may be even less important whether someone is human or not.

If you have a virtual person, you don’t have to pay them anything. They are not going to come back and renegotiate their contract with you. They are not going to mess up your reputation.

What do you expect will be the next trend in social media advertising?
That’s the million-dollar question. I do think artificial intelligence will continue to get better, and it’s going to get more responsive. We have the incredible ability to process qualitative data on social media now—to identify trends. If someone is posting on social media certain keywords and phrases, we now have the analysis ability to identify trends in those. Through an algorithm, you can feed that user information that they might be interested in. You might already see it a little bit. If these influencers can be developed, we might even have our own personal influencer developed just for us—like our buddy. It’s not Siri. Siri is for everybody. We might have customized, individualized artificially intelligent people to help us out in our daily everything. If the technology continues to multiply, it might not be too far out in the future.

Dr. Karen Hopkins, a visiting assistant professor of marketing in Auburn University’s Harbert College of Business, has 15 years of industry experience in marketing and public relations in professional services, non-profit and corporate retail environments. In addition to teaching, she engages in research about marketing and public health and in business and marketing teaching and learning. She is an experienced on-camera and voiceover talent for commercial and industrial audio/visual productions, and has applied these talents to computer-based and distance learning from instructional design to delivery.

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