Hail to the Chief: Jay Gogue Takes Office… Again

Many surprising things have been known to emerge from the moss hung kingdom known as the Okefenokee Swamp in rural, southern Georgia. The swamp is home to white lily-decked and dark waters that reflect the mossy green jungle above. The swamp is also home to the small town of Waycross, whose population is ever decreasing since the construction of the interstate through Georgia in the 1970s.

Long before the interstate, Waycross was so named because of the railroad lines that met there and shot out in six different directions. Since its founding at this junction, Waycross was the type of town that people were only ever passing through. However, if its citizens ever wanted to go somewhere, they need only board the next train at the red brick train depot.

Growing up in Waycross, Jay Gogue spent most of his early life there except when his family would visit relatives in Arkansas. It was on those journeys from one end of the South to the other that he began his love affair with Auburn University.

“I lived in that town until I came to Auburn,” said Gogue, “and Auburn was really the only college I had ever seen, as a kid growing up, as we’d travel to Arkansas.”

After graduating from Ware County High School, Gogue did something no one in his family had ever done before. Gogue left the green and wet marshlands of Waycross to attend Auburn University as a first-generation college student.

“When I came to Auburn, I was a weak student. Faculty at Auburn were always encouraging when you had a tough class or bad grades, but my goal was just to survive and graduate, I never thought about being president of Auburn,” Gogue said.

When Gogue strolled across Auburn’s rolling plains as a freshmen student, he never imagined he would one day be living in the president’s white house on the hill studded with rich green oak trees and blossoming pink Japanese magnolias.

“I remember a discussion with a faculty member that said I ought to work on a master’s degree. I did not know what a master’s degree was at that time. I thought I had already been working on that as a baccalaureate student. But I stayed at Auburn and got a master’s degree and then went to Michigan State for a PhD in plant science,” Gogue said.

Even as a doctorate recipient, the road to serving as president of a university is a long one. Gogue began his path to the presidency serving with the federal government, the United States military during the Vietnam War, and eventually universities.

Gogue served as vice president for research at Clemson, where he worked for almost ten years. However, after his first few years at Clemson, Gogue developed a good relationship with the president there.

“The president called me into his office one day and he said, ‘one of the obligations of being president of a university, is that you should prepare the next generation of people to become presidents.’ He really became my mentor, if you will, and I spent about a year meeting with him every week where he would explain how a university works,” Gogue said.

From Clemson, Gogue traveled across the country to take a position as provost of Utah State University, then to New Mexico State as president of the university, and then to the University of Houston as president and chancellor. For Gogue, there were no more ladders to climb, that is until he was contacted by several trustees from his alma mater.

“In higher ed, there is a tendency in a lot of universities to not hire their own graduates. Many universities have rules that once you graduate from there you cannot be hired by their institution, so I had never really thought about coming to Auburn and serving as president. It was exciting to think about and when I was selected, it was quite interesting and certainly exciting,” Gogue said.

The opportunity was like a dream come true for the Auburn graduate. He retired as president emeritus in 2017 and went back to engaging in some of his some of his relaxing hobbies he picked up as a boy in Waycross, fishing in the Okefenokee Swamp.

“I retired and I was out fishing when my cell phone rang. It was the board-chair. He said, ‘We are about to make a change at Auburn. Are you willing to come back for a while?’ and so you say, sure. That’s how I came to Auburn twice,” Gogue said.

In 2007 Gogue was sworn in as the 18th president of Auburn University and in 2020, after a brief retirement, was appointed the university’s 20th president and is back at work.

“60% of my time is spent in private fundraising, or development; 20% is spent in Montgomery, or Washington D.C. trying to get federal money. Another 10% is spent in ceremonial work actually on campus and then the final 10% is actually making decisions and running the university, what people actually would think I am doing,” Gogue said.

His busy schedule is not common for most 73-year-olds. His assistant, Janie Boles, works side by side with President Gogue everyday assisting him in various tasks but refers to the pair as a team.

“President Gogue is very down to earth. He is wise, humble and is not about drawing attention to himself.  He holds high standards for his team and himself, working together to be the best they can be.  This gives leadership freedom to lead their areas without fear of making mistakes,” Boles said.

In addition to his busy schedule, President Gogue teaches a class called “Introduction to Higher Education Administration.” Boles believes his work in this class is his most important contribution to the university, citing his work ethic as evidence.

“President Gogue has a strong work ethic.  He leads with integrity and intelligence and is genuine, committed and focused and that is very empowering,” Boles said.            

President Gogue does not know as of right now when or if he will retire from his position and leave his mahogany clad office. For now, he plans to go on preparing the next generation of presidents, as he was instructed to do and as he has done for the past 35 years.