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Stream of Consciousness - The Installation of President Leath

What’s the vision for Auburn’s future?

Jim Little - Opelika-Auburn News

Steven Leath was installed as President of Auburn University earlier today, and here’s a running tally of his comments along with some immediate reaction as he discussed the future of the University and his vision as he leads the school.

After the requisite thanks, Leath begins talking about what he sees moving forward for Auburn. He wants to start with the answer to the question of “Why are we here?”

He wants to be crystal clear about his bold vision for Auburn -- to become a world-class academic research university, a go-to place for special students from around the state, the country and the world. To achieve that, we need to identify where we stand today, and it begins with what it means to be a land-grant university.

Auburn’s there to prepare our students for life, hone their abilities, and empower them to be the best they can be. Broad strokes so far. Strong work ethic, character, etc. Allow them to become citizens able to affect meaningful change.

Also, Auburn needs to drive scholarship and drive partners to innovate new technologies and sciences to improve the world around us, and to engage the students and alumni to transform the fruits of our labor to help our community improve in real world ways.

He says that most land-grants typically perform well in one or two areas, but he wants Auburn to perform well in all of these facets. Now we get to the question of “How do we do that?”

Leath mentions that the Auburn student experience is fantastic, thanks to an on-campus environment that’s especially good. I agree with him on this. Anyone that’s walked the campus on a beautiful spring day, or felt that first fall nip in the air knows that.

We get to how Auburn graduates have been extremely successful in their post-graduate endeavors, and how researchers and scientists are working well in their areas of study. He mentions that there’s room for growth in research outreach. We already collaborate with local communities, but we can expand. We do all of this with a small skeleton crew, and Leath says that’s the most impressive thing about how these things are accomplished.

He says that we’re strong, but that strong isn’t enough to take us to the next level. We have to improve with efficiency and have an appetite for urgency. He wants to increase faculty, and give the new hires the full resources they need to succeed. He wants to transform Auburn by hiring more than 500 tenure-track faculty and researchers in the next four years. All on board.

There’s going to be a new assessment for needed facilities and resources, as well as the best process for onboarding these new hires. There will be a new performing arts center as well to bring in new artistic talent. That means new buildings on campus, more construction, more expansion. Auburn’s definitely growing.

He wants to have enough beds for all freshmen on campus, adding new dining options, etc. And he brings in the question of “How do we pay for all of this?”

For starters, Auburn just completed the most successful fund-raising campaign in the state’s history, and it was done way ahead of schedule. Leath’s been known for his ability in that regard, and he accomplished it.

Now he talks about raising the awareness of Auburn on a national stage. He wants Auburn to be more visible to everyone across the country, and now we get to how we raise the profile of the university nationally. He brings in a challenge to those in attendance to promote Auburn -- it’s a responsibility for every member of the Auburn Family.

He closes with JFK’s comments about going to the moon when he spoke of that goal more than 50 years ago. “We choose to go to the moon, not because it’s easy, but because it’s hard”. He likens that goal to what we’re going to accomplish in becoming one of the premier schools in the country. I’m on board with that as well.

With the emphasis on raising Auburn’s national profile, I wish he’d addressed a marketing plan far more effective than the Auburn Family “telling your friends about the cool things we’re doing”. College athletics are by far the way to make a school as visible as possible. That’s the number one marketing tool available to Auburn, and we need to use it accordingly.

I hate to compare our situation to that of the evil empire across the state, but the numbers don’t lie. In terms of visibility and national reach, check out the figures regarding Alabama’s enrollment. In 1980, enrollment in Tuscaloosa was 17,918. In the ensuing years that included Bear Bryant’s retirement and Alabama’s relative football decline, Alabama’s enrollment decreased to 15,619 in 1985 before finally starting to tick up again.

From 1985 to 2006, enrollment increased to 23,878, a fairly steady increase of several hundred students every year. Then it exploded in 2007 and hasn’t stopped since. Since Nick Saban’s arrival, Alabama’s enrollment has increased to 38,563. That’s in barely over a decade, and you know the reason that Alabama’s getting so many applicants and so many eyes on the school itself.

Athletics.

Auburn’s enrollment has increased by roughly 5,000 students in the time that Gus Malzahn has been head football coach, and that’s no coincidence. Sports, especially football, are seen by more people than any research initiative or special project that a university can offer.

Consider the number of people that watch championship-level football games on TV. Even on cable networks like ESPN, you get some of the most watched broadcasts ever. Auburn’s win over Oregon was, at the time, the most-watched cable broadcast ever with higher than 27 million viewers. As of now, the first CFP championship game between Oregon and Ohio State holds the highest viewership with over 33 million pairs of eyes.

That’s who knows how many prospective students, investors, employees, donors, etc. watching your school in a four-hour time span. Comparing it to potential Twitter or Facebook impressions with a banner ad is absurd, because it’s so much more effective. What successful athletic programs market is the college experience that Leath talked about. Auburn gives a fantastic experience, and I wouldn’t trade it for the world, but I grew up an Auburn fan and an Auburn legacy.

Think about some kid in California -- great grades, extra-curriculars, etc. — who might consider Auburn. What’s the best way to ensure that we get in front of his or her eyes? By appearing on appointment television in the biggest sporting events of the year.

This kind of news is encouraging. It’s necessary. Auburn will retain one of its biggest supporters and marketers in Bruce Pearl by keeping him around. Don’t be afraid. It’s the same way with Gus Malzahn. While he’s not nearly as charismatic as Pearl, beating #1 teams in the country is a good way to expose outsiders to what your school can offer.

Dancing works too.

Look, honestly there’s not going to be much difference between going to the absolute upper crust of engineering schools like MIT, Cal Tech, Harvard if you want to get a good engineering degree. They’re all going to cost about $50,000 and they’re all going to give you a great, recognizable degree.

But, damnit, you can’t properly swag surf a polo match or a rowing meet!

The above is what a ton of kids want in a college experience. Auburn needs to keep investing in the things that make the school the most visible. Attract the great minds and the great teachers. Cultivate artists and academics. Just get your name out there through the best recruiting tool we’ve got. Invest in athletics and Auburn will grow according to Dr. Leath’s plan. We’re on a good track, just keep it going.