William Van Muse

Jim Martyka

Auburn University President William Van Muse confronted many of the same problems currently facing the University of Minnesota when he began his four-year career at the Alabama college.
Muse came to Auburn during a time of huge budget cuts from the state government and dissension between faculty and administration.
But in just a few years, Muse has turned Auburn around and helped it become one of the state’s elite institutions by solving problems within the university and dealing with those over which he had little control.
“I’ve worked with three presidents at this university, and Muse is by far the best of the three,” said David Wilson, associate provost and vice president for academic affairs at Auburn. “He has been nothing but an asset to Auburn and the state of Alabama. He is exactly the 21st-century president that I think higher education needs.”
But some University community members want to know if Muse is capable of fixing similar problems on a scale as large as the University of Minnesota.
Auburn’s current enrollment, combining its main campus in Auburn and its Montgomery campus, is about 27,700 while the University of Minnesota’s total enrollment is about 48,000. Furthermore, Auburn’s budget is less than half of the University’s.
Faculty at Auburn said Muse’s experience proves he can handle big challenges.
Muse received his bachelor of science degree from Northwestern State University of Louisiana and a master’s of business degree and doctorate from the University of Arkansas. In his academic career he has worked as dean of business schools at both Appalachian State University and the University of Nebraska, as well as Texas A&M University, where he also served as vice chancellor. Muse then became president of the University of Akron in Ohio before coming to Auburn in 1992.
Since his arrival, Muse has dealt with several problems. Perhaps the largest is the school’s problems with state funding.
In the past two years, Alabama’s state government cut 7.5 percent of its higher education funding. Neighboring states, such as Georgia, have increased funding by up to 12 percent over that same period.
In his “State of the University” speech in early October, Muse said that because of his struggle for funding, “the past two years has been one of the most frustrating periods in my professional career.”
Auburn administrators have said this conflict might be one reason Muse would consider leaving.
But Wilson said Muse has dealt with the budget cuts as well as he could. “He realized that he couldn’t get the increase in financial support we needed, so he looked at how could Auburn continue to keep its outstanding reputation without this help.”
Muse has increased tuition and offered early retirement to faculty members to deal with the budget crunch. He has also trimmed Auburn’s student health unit. “With the cuts he has been forced to make, he made sure that the unit still continued to serve the needs of the students,” Wilson said.
“When downsizing you are dealing with a lot of pain,” said Auburn’s Vice President for Student Affairs Bettye Burkhalter. While restructuring the student affairs department, Muse was forced to cut about 70 employee positions, a difficult task. “There is no way I could’ve done a job like that without a supporting, strong president like him,” Burkhalter said.
Muse has continued to push the state legislature and the governor for more state funding.
During his time at Auburn, Muse has also improved relations between the administration and faculty, which were tense before he arrived.
“Auburn was on the (American Association of University Professors) censure list,” said Auburn botany professor Curt Peterson. This stemmed from an incident in which an Auburn faculty member was not granted tenure even though, under AAUP’s guidelines, the person had earned it, Peterson said.
At Minnesota, tenure is an issue that has torn apart the faculty and administration in recent months.
Peterson, who is the former president of the AAUP – Auburn chapter, said that shortly after Muse was appointed president, he worked with the AAUP to resolve the issue of the faculty member’s tenure. The school was soon lifted from the censure list.
“He’s done a very good job with the faculty,” said Peterson. “He meets with faculty leadership regularly and he also attends AAUP meetings.”
But there is some concern among the Auburn faculty about Muse’s management style. “There is a perception that he’s into a management style that could be similar to that of a corporation,” Peterson said.
Corporate management, which means running a university like a business, is an issue that several faculty at Minnesota have addressed as a major concern.
However, Wilson said that Muse works very well with faculty. “He has a good relationship with individual faculty members,” he said. “He understands the way a university operates.”
Wilson also said that Muse is well liked by students at Auburn. Muse commonly eats lunch with students and walks them to class. “He encourages them to do their very best and they respect him,” Wilson said.
Auburn Director of Student Life C. Grant Davis said Muse has also worked extensively to integrate minority students into Auburn.
Davis said there was recently a federal ruling in Alabama that listed steps that state schools must follow to increase diversity in the universities. “Muse has worked hard to take the steps to enhance cultural diversity,” he said.
Muse also overruled Auburn student government’s decision to deny a gay student group official recognition.
Davis said Muse is very focused. “He has a very positive image as a visionary and a change agent,” he said.
Auburn’s football program also changed under Muse’s leadership. When he arrived, the program, a proud tradition at Auburn, was in shambles because of a recent National Collegiate Athletic Association suspension caused by payoffs to players. Muse eventually took control of the athletic department and appointed a director who focused on academics as well as athletics. Now, Muse has helped rebuild the image of the Tigers as an elite college team.
Some of Muse’s colleagues said his accomplishments at Auburn could be attributed to his strong leadership. “He’s a good find and Minnesota would be lucky to have him as a president,” Burkhalter said.
But Wilson, Davis and Burkhalter all said Auburn would be sad to see him go. “We’re going to do everything we can to convince him to stay,” Burkhalter said.