The Wire

  • New tunnel, premium RV section at Talladega Superspeedway on schedule despite weather

    Excerpt:

    Construction of a new oversized vehicle tunnel and premium RV infield parking section at Talladega Superspeedway is still on schedule to be completed in time for the April NASCAR race, despite large amounts of rainfall and unusual groundwater conditions underneath the track.

    Track Chairman Grant Lynch, during a news conference Wednesday at the track, said he’s amazed the general contractor, Taylor Corporation of Oxford, has been able to keep the project on schedule.

    “The amount of water they have pumped out of that and the extra engineering they did from the original design, basically to keep that tunnel from floating up out of the earth, was remarkable,” Lynch said.

  • Alabama workers built 1.6M engines in 2018 to add auto horsepower

    Excerpt:

    Alabama’s auto workers built nearly 1.6 million engines last year, as the state industry continues to carve out a place in global markets with innovative, high-performance parts, systems and finished vehicles.

    Last year also saw major new developments in engine manufacturing among the state’s key players, and more advanced infrastructure is on the way in the coming year.

    Hyundai expects to complete a key addition to its engine operations in Montgomery during the first half of 2019, while Honda continues to reap the benefits of a cutting-edge Alabama engine line installed several years ago.

  • Groundbreaking on Alabama’s newest aerospace plant made possible through key partnerships

    Excerpt:

    Political and business leaders gathered for a groundbreaking at Alabama’s newest aerospace plant gave credit to the formation of the many key partnerships that made it possible.

    Governor Kay Ivey and several other federal, state and local officials attended the event which celebrated the construction of rocket engine builder Blue Origin’s facility in Huntsville.

1 week ago

Auburn University’s Tiger Excellence Scholars Program participants thriving, becoming leaders

((Auburn University/Contributed)

Not only are members of Auburn University’s Tiger Excellence Scholars Program (TESP) enjoying their college experience on the Plains, they are thriving and evolving into leaders.

Nearly 300 students involved with the program – designed to support the persistence and retention of students from historically underrepresented backgrounds, low-income families and first-generation college enrollees – posted a 3.42 cumulative GPA for the fall 2020 semester. Administered through Auburn’s Office of Inclusion and Diversity (OID), in partnership with the Office of the Provost, the scholars program is developing the leaders of tomorrow through its efforts.

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A total of 69 TESP students finished the fall 2020 semester with perfect 4.0 grade-point averages, bolstering the group’s already strong cumulative GPA that routinely eclipses the institutional average. The majority of TESP students are recipients of the Provost Leadership Undergraduate Scholarship.

More than a dozen of the program’s students came to Auburn through the state chapter of Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Programs (GEAR UP), an initiative administered through the Office of University Outreach that is designed to identify potential college students from Alabama middle and high schools and provide a path to higher education. Those students finished the semester with a 3.68 cumulative GPA, further illustrating the program’s success.

“I’m biased, but I think I have the best students on campus,” said Jasmine Prince, OID’s assistant director for Inclusive Excellence Initiatives, who oversees the TESP program. “What our numbers say is that our students understand not only our commitment to ensuring they’re successful academically, but also that they’ve made a personal commitment to ensure their own academic success. We play a role in that, but it’s a lot of individual work on their part.

“It speaks to the way we’re communicating our expectations to them about what excellence looks like and what scholarly behavior is, and it speaks to their own personal commitment to what academic excellence means. It’s a big deal to be in this program.”

Commitment to excellence

The TESP model is focused on the holistic development of all scholars through intentional engagement, supportive resources and community building. In addition to financial support, TESP students are given access to academic help, mentors and other university resources.

Students are encouraged to engage with one another at a variety of social events, from movies or game nights to “success seminars” and athletic activities – often led by upperclassmen in the program. The consistent interaction gives students a sense of community, further deepening their college experience and helping new students become acclimated to college life.

“We want them to spend time together outside of an atmosphere where they have to learn something, like in their regular classes,” said Prince, who has worked with the program since 2016. “We want to give students opportunities to lead and determine how the sessions are run. Creating an environment where they feel like they can thrive is important.”

OID was forced to shift TESP operations online with the COVID-19 outbreak last year, but administrators and students rallied to adjust and overcome the obstacles. They focused on helping students adjust to virtual instruction in the wake of the pandemic.

“The very first thing we did when we all transitioned to a virtual learning environment is that we hosted one or two scholar check-ins,” said Prince, who hopes the program can involve more in-person events as the winter semester progresses. “We wanted to ensure they were transitioning well, they had what they needed at home and were communicating with their faculty members. That was important for them to have an outlet to be able to share their concerns.

“More of our experiences last spring were centered on community building. We were able to check in with them, see what they needed from us and then provide that. Fall semester, our entire program was virtual. Scholars really missed the in-person events, and we did virtual community nights, which I think also was helpful for our team and scholars.”

TESP operates with four “Pillars of Success” in mind: Academic Excellence, Leadership Capacity, Diversity and Inclusion and Future Focus. Students are taught the importance of each pillar throughout their time at Auburn and, in the process, are given a strong foundation from which to build their professional careers after graduation.

“We’re prepping them for the next steps beyond Auburn,” said Prince, who is hosting a TESP Young Alumni Panel later this semester.

To apply for the program – which has grown from 30 to nearly 300 students as it approaches its 15th anniversary – students submit an application and essay that outlines their desire to become a scholar and contribute to the university’s diversity efforts. Essays are scored by a selection committee, and then college deans make the final decisions about who is admitted.

Scholars must maintain a 3.0 cumulative GPA to remain in the program, and students may keep their scholarships for all four years of their collegiate careers by meeting the requirements. OID has partnered with Academic Support to provide academic coaching to any TESP students who need extra help acclimating to college or boosting their GPAs.

An opportunity to thrive

For senior public relations major April Alvarez, TESP helped offer a way for the Montgomery native to become the first person in her family to attend college.

“I didn’t even know if I was going to be able to make it to college,” Alvarez said. “Not only has (the scholarship) given me the opportunity to be here, but it’s given me so much more than that. There’s a community behind it, so I have these mentors I can lean on.

“I just remember when I got here and thinking, ‘Wow, my world is forever changed.’ I really saw everything from a whole new lens once I got to Auburn and realized I can do well and get this degree, but also have all this knowledge of how to be successful in the professional world.”

Alvarez is president of Students for Clean Water – an Auburn group that works with the Birmingham-based Neverthirst clean water ministry to provide water filters to Nepal and raise awareness for the global water crisis that plagues many nations. In addition, she is interning at Lee County Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA) and helping the association promote its efforts to aid abused and neglected children.

Alvarez is one of the TESP Resource Consultants, the student team responsible for leading community night experiences and facilitating success seminars. The professional skills and leadership experience Alvarez has gained during her four years in the TESP program, she said, have been invaluable.

“I definitely feel like I’ve gotten a lot out of it and have grown as a person,” said Alvarez, who will graduate in May. “Looking back, I just never would have thought of myself to be in this position of earning a degree and developing so much professionally. I didn’t even know what a cover letter was when I got to Auburn.

“I think having the access to all kinds of information like that has really made a difference for me and made me into more of a well-rounded person.”

Royce Williams – a freshman mechanical engineering major – followed his sister, Naja, into TESP. In addition to educating him about different facets of campus life and resources available to him as a scholar, the program has helped Royce meet people, despite the pandemic.

“It’s been really helpful in paying for my college experience, and the events they host also have been really helpful,” said Williams, a Birmingham native. “I’m more of an introvert, and with COVID going on and most classes being online, it’s been harder for me to meet new people. The activities they have are really helpful for meeting new people who have the same interests as me.

“Having less opportunities to be out on campus walking around and seeing what’s going on and what’s out there because of COVID, this program has really helped in reaching out and recommending different events and organizations to get involved with.”

Williams is a member of the National Society of Black Engineers (NSBE), the Engineering Academic Excellence Program (EAEP) and the Emerge at Auburn leadership program. He has enjoyed TESP’s success seminars, where he has begun to learn skills that will help him down the road in the workforce.

“One thing I’m really looking forward to getting involved with in college is the co-op programs, because I think it will help me learn a lot about what type of job I want to do and what I want to do outside of college,” Williams said. “So, these programs that help with interview skills and how to make a proper resume and helped me prepare for that experience have been really helpful.”

Prince said the most fulfilling aspects of the program for her and other administrators is seeing firsthand how the students grow and evolve during their time on the Plains.

“Some of the most fulfilling moments come when students have those ‘Aha!’ lightbulb moments and it just clicks,” Prince said. “They’re like, ‘Oh, this is why all that stuff you’ve been telling me matters.’ I love seeing all those things get put together in those moments.

“I always love seeing students graduate – although it also makes me sad when scholars leave – because our scholars are doing some incredible things. We have scholars all over the nation who are in professional or graduate school or working for amazing companies or teaching. It’s exciting to know that I was a part of preparing them to step into whatever their next chapter might be.”

No matter where her career path leads, Alvarez will take with her experiences and memories that would not have been possible without TESP.

“I’ve gotten much more than just a degree, and I feel a lot more confident as a person and in my abilities,” said Alvarez, who would love to work for Delta Air Lines or in the nonprofit or health care sectors after graduating. “I’ve gotten a lot of experience and learned a lot about myself in the process.”

This story originally appeared on Auburn University’s website.

(Courtesy of Alabama NewsCenter)

2 weeks ago

Auburn opens driverless vehicle research facility

(Auburn University/Contributed, YHN) The new autonomous vehicle research facility at Auburn University features a garage with multiple bays and lifts for commercial trucks and passenger vehicles, office space for researchers, a conference room and an observation area overlooking the 1.7-mile oval test track at Auburn's National Center for Asphalt Technology.

Auburn University announced Tuesday that its new autonomous vehicle research facility has begun operations and is set to provide valuable data for the future of automated transport.

The facility will be an outpost of Auburn’s nationally known GPS and Vehicle Dynamics Laboratory (GAVLAB), a project of the university’s Samuel Ginn College of Engineering.

Comprised a garage with multiple bays and lifts, office space for researchers, a conference room, and an observation area, the new facility overlooks a 1.7-mile oval test track that is part of Auburn’s National Center for Asphalt Technology. It will be able to house both commercial trucks and passenger vehicles.

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“The fact that we have our own test track where we can run autonomous vehicles and autonomous testing attached to this facility I think is an unbelievably unique asset,” said David Bevly, a professor of mechanical engineering at Auburn and co-director of the GAVLAB.

Bevly has been the driving force behind GAVLAB since arriving on The Plains in 2001. The lab has worked in conjunction with the Department of Defense, the Federal Highway Administration and many private companies.

An estimate released last summer said the facility was expected to cost $800,000. It was designed by Chambless King Architects, a firm based in Montgomery.

“Auburn is a major player in transportation engineering research in the nation,” asserted Steve Taylor, associate dean for research at the university’s engineering college. “The GAVLAB and our other transportation engineering researchers have brought in nearly $50 million in sponsored research awards over the past three years. This new facility is an exciting development for Auburn, and there will be much more to come.”

Henry Thornton is a staff writer for Yellowhammer News. You can contact him by email: henry@yellowhammernews.com or on Twitter @HenryThornton95.

4 weeks ago

Auburn AD Allen Greene named ‘Champion of Diversity and Inclusion’ by NCAA

(Todd Van Emst/AU Athletics)

The NCAA has announced that its Minority Opportunities and Interests Committee (MOIC), in conjunction with the NCAA office of inclusion, is recognizing Auburn University Director of Athletics Allen Greene and four other individuals as “Champions of Diversity and Inclusion for their work in supporting ethnic minorities and other underrepresented groups and individuals.”

According to a release, this distinction was created in 2015 “to recognize those who have a commitment to advocating for and advancing others in inclusive efforts around athletics.”

“Generally, one individual is honored quarterly, but with the social injustice and inequities seen throughout 2020, the MOIC and office of inclusion chose to honor multiple people,” the NCAA wrote.

Along with leading Auburn Athletics, Greene is co-chair of the Black AD Alliance, which was formed last summer to create more opportunities for ethnic minorities at administrative levels in Division I collegiate athletics.

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“What a tremendous honor to be recognized by the NCAA via the Minority Opportunities and Interests Committee,” Greene said in a statement. “The acknowledgment of an individual’s impact is the result of the impact of many, whereby the desire for change is stronger than the desire for one’s personal gain.”

The honorees were reportedly selected after individuals “were nominated based on how they are influencers in promoting diversity and inclusion; how they are assisting in diversifying pipeline opportunities in their senior or influential position; how they are providing support to underrepresented populations; and their consistency in supporting diversity and inclusion initiatives.”

The NCAA’s release also noted, “Greene met with his Auburn coaches last year following social injustice protests and opened discussions about current issues. He also addressed the turmoil publicly with video messaging focusing on continued efforts to educate, develop and support student-athletes during the unrest and as the country moves into the future.”

“As we move through this challenging time in our country’s history, the committee wanted to recognize five people who lead from different seats within and around college athletics,” commented Dena Freeman-Patton, chair of the NCAA’s MOIC. “They have been champions for diversity and inclusion throughout their careers and continue to do what is right in 2021. They have been inspirations to our student-athletes and administrators in athletics, and they play a big part in molding our industry and our country. MOIC applauds them for their intentions and bravery in such unprecedented times. Leading with conviction and courage moves us all to a better place in athletics and certainly as we look to the future.”

The five latest Champions of Diversity and Inclusion will be formally recognized at the “2021 Inclusion Forum,” which will be held virtually June 2-4.

Sean Ross is the editor of Yellowhammer News. You can follow him on Twitter @sean_yhn

2 months ago

Auburn begins new semester as move to oppose in-person classes sputters out

(Auburn University/YouTube)

Auburn University’s decision to continue in-person learning for the spring semester received affirmation on Tuesday when the school’s faculty failed to take action on a no-confidence vote on Provost Bill Hardgrave.

Faculty member Michael Stern, a professor of economics, had moved for the vote to express his own displeasure at the university’s decision to return to in-person classes.

As provost, Hardgrave serves as the chief academic officer for the institution.

Auburn’s return-to-school plan had been praised by medical professionals, including by White House health official Dr. Deborah Birx during her September visit to the campus.

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Understanding the importance of on-campus learning, Auburn University President Jay Gogue stated during a December interview with the Opelika-Auburn News that his administration will continue consulting with the medical community as part of its academic process.

“Going into the spring term, I think the hope would be that we could do more face-to-face and in-person than we did in the fall,” he explained. “I have said throughout that totally depends on the virus, totally depends on where we are. We are not going to put people in harm’s way to do that. I think Bill [Hardgrave] felt an obligation to get it back to as normal as possible as students and families thought about the spring term.”

Earlier this week, 40 university professors signed onto a statement denouncing the vote. They stated their belief that “a no-confidence vote is inappropriate and will be damaging to our students, our faculty, and our university.”

As many as 1,300 people took part in the virtual meeting, according to participants.

Rules of order took precedent, and the issue died when more than 67% of the participants objected to consideration of Stern’s motion.

Classes for Auburn students began on Monday.

Tim Howe is an owner of Yellowhammer Multimedia

2 months ago

Auburn professors denounce move against administration in battle over in-person classes

(Auburn University, YHN)

At least 40 Auburn University professors have now stated their opposition to a no-confidence vote directed at Provost Bill Hardgrave. The vote had been called by one of the school’s faculty members to express his personal discontent with Auburn’s decision to continue offering in-person classes this year.

While the university’s COVID-19 safety protocols for on-campus activities have been lauded by national health officials, and have mirrored those of other institutions in the state, faculty member Michael Stern chose to voice his disapproval of in-person learning by calling for a no-confidence vote on Hardgrave by the University Senate. As provost, Hardgrave acts as the university’s chief academic officer.

In response to Stern’s move, dozens of university professors have signed onto a statement against the vote.

In a document provided to Yellowhammer News, faculty members from various academic departments stated their belief that “a no-confidence vote is inappropriate and will be damaging to our students, our faculty, and our university.”

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Joining other colleges and universities around the state, Auburn opened up its campus for in-person learning last fall and continued that opportunity for students with the start of classes on Monday.

The school’s efforts to contain the spread of the coronavirus are a product of the guidance the school has received from a wide array of health officials, according to Auburn University President Jay Gogue.

In a December video interview with the Opelika-Auburn News, Gogue outlined that the COVID-19 protocols established by the university resulted from consultations with those health officials, including the Alabama Department of Public Health and the Center for Disease Control.

White House health official Dr. Deborah Birx commended the Auburn administration for its handling of the COVID-19 crisis during a September visit to the campus.

As for the health and safety measures implemented by Auburn, Gogue cited Birx’s endorsement of Auburn’s work as something which would allow students, faculty and parents to have increased confidence.

He recalled Birx telling members of the administration, “’Auburn you planned well, you had contingency plans, and you had contingency plans for your contingency plans.’”

This is not the first time that Stern, a professor in the Department of Economics, has positioned himself as an adversary of Auburn. He sued the university in September 2018 alleging unfair treatment. In November of that year, he amended his lawsuit to include individual members of the Auburn administration, including Hardgrave.

That case is scheduled to go to trial next month.

Understanding the importance of on-campus learning, Gogue stated that his administration will continue consulting with the medical community as part of its academic process.

“Going into the spring term, I think the hope would be that we could do more face-to-face and in-person than we did in the fall,” he explained. “I have said throughout that totally depends on the virus, totally depends on where we are. We are not going to put people in harm’s way to do that. I think Bill [Hardgrave] felt an obligation to get it back to as normal as possible as students and families thought about the spring term.”

“The health and safety will drive whether or not any of that occurs,” he concluded.

Tim Howe is an owner of Yellowhammer Multimedia

2 months ago

Auburn professor opposes in-person classes despite university’s renowned health protocols

(Auburn University/Flickr)

Auburn University has drawn praise in recent months from national health officials for its COVID-19 safety protocols for on-campus activities. But that has not stopped one faculty member from calling for a vote among his colleagues to express opposition to in-person classes.

Last summer, Auburn joined the University of Alabama System (UA System), Troy University and other colleges and universities around Alabama in successfully launching fall semesters with in-person learning.

White House health official Dr. Deborah Birx commended the Auburn administration for its handling of the COVID-19 crisis during a September visit to the campus.

The school’s efforts to contain the spread of the coronavirus, while offering in-person learning for its students, are a product of the guidance the school has received from a wide array of health officials, according to Auburn University President Jay Gogue.

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In a December video interview with the Opelika-Auburn News, Gogue outlined that the COVID-19 protocols established by the university resulted from consultations with those health officials, including the Alabama Department of Public Health and the Center for Disease Control.

However, the health and safety measures taken by the school have fallen below the standards of faculty member Michael Stern.

The Opelika-Auburn News reported that Stern, a professor in the Department of Economics, has voiced his opposition to Auburn’s return to in-person learning by calling for a no-confidence vote by the University Senate on Provost Bill Hardgrave. As provost, Hardgrave acts as the university’s chief academic officer.

This is not the first time Stern has been an adversary of the school for which he works. He sued the university in 2018 alleging unfair treatment by Auburn’s administration. That case is scheduled to go to trial next month.

As for the health and safety measures implemented by Auburn, Gogue cited Birx’s endorsement of Auburn’s work as something which would allow students, faculty and parents to have increased confidence.

He recalled Birx telling members of the administration, “’Auburn you planned well, you had contingency plans, and you had contingency plans for your contingency plans.’”

Bringing students back to class on campus was a challenge shared by other institutions of higher learning in the Yellowhammer State.

Under the guidance of Dr. Selwyn Vickers, dean of the UAB School of Medicine, the UA System successfully executed a return-to-school plan at each of its three institutions.

UA System officials view Auburn’s protocols as being consistent with their own.

Understanding the importance of on-campus learning, Gogue stated that his administration will continue consulting with the medical community as part of its academic process.

“Going into the spring term, I think the hope would be that we could do more face-to-face and in-person than we did in the fall,” he explained. “I have said throughout that totally depends on the virus, totally depends on where we are. We are not going to put people in harm’s way to do that. I think Bill [Hardgrave] felt an obligation to get it back to as normal as possible as students and families thought about the spring term.”

“The health and safety will drive whether or not any of that occurs,” he concluded.

Auburn begins classes Monday.

Tim Howe is an owner of Yellowhammer Multimedia.

2 months ago

Report: Harsin staffs up at Auburn, hires Mike Bobo as offensive coordinator and Derek Mason as defensive coordinator

(@CoachMikeBobo/Twitter, Auburn Athletics, @CoachDerekMason/Twitter, YHN)

Auburn University head football coach Bryan Harsin has reportedly selected his top assistants for his first season on The Plains.

Derek Mason, formerly the head coach of Vanderbilt, will be the Tigers’ new defensive coordinator. Mike Bobo, previously the offensive coordinator for South Carolina, will have that same position at Auburn.

Mason, 51, is coming to Auburn after six years as the head coach of the Commodores; he was previously the defensive coordinator at Stanford.

Bobo, 46, spent five years as the head coach of Colorado State before leading the Gamecocks’ offense in 2020.

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News of Mason’s hiring was first reported by Alabama Media Group, and the website FootballScoop published the first definitive report of Bobo coming to Auburn.

Former Auburn DC Kevin Steele was not retained after Gus Malzahn’s firing, and former OC Chad Morris suffered the same fate.

Derek Mason

Derek Mason is Vanderbilt’s second-winningest coach in the program’s history and produced defenses that earned praise from close observers of the sport.

National outlets reported that multiple high-profile programs had a strong interest in Mason as DC. He was let go during the 2020 season after his team did not secure a win through their first eight games.

Before his time in Nashville, Mason was hired on to Jim Harbaugh’s staff as the defensive backs coach at Stanford. He ascended the ranks among Cardinal coaches to become the defensive coordinator there in 2011.

For his work on the 2012 season, Mason was named a finalist for the Broyles Award, given annually to college football’s best assistant coach. He was hired to lead Vanderbilt’s program in January 2014.

During much of his tenure as the head coach of the Commodores, Mason often assumed many of the responsibilities normally delegated to a defensive coordinator, in many years calling plays himself on Saturdays in the fall.

Mike Bobo

After his dismissal from Colorado State, Bobo was hired under former South Carolina head coach Will Muschamp in 2019.

Bobo was named South Carolina’s interim head coach and led the team for their last three games after the program fired Muschamp. The program ultimately installed Shane Beamer as Muschamp’s replacement.

ESPN reported Thursday that Bobo’s offensive line coach Will Friend will move with Bobo to Auburn, where he will have the same title he did at South Carolina.

Prior to his time at Colorado State, Bobo spent 15 years on the staff at Georgia, ascending to the role of offensive coordinator from 2007 – 2014 under then-head coach Mark Richt.

Bobo was a finalist for the Broyles Award for best college assistant coach in 2012 — the same year as Mason was a finalist for the same honor.

The two men are expected to receive an official announcement from Auburn University officials in the coming days.

Henry Thornton is a staff writer for Yellowhammer News. You can contact him by email: henry@yellowhammernews.com or on Twitter @HenryThornton95.

2 months ago

Auburn announces Jeremy Arthur will be director of Governmental and Economic Development Institute

(Auburn University/Contributed, YHN)

Auburn University announced Monday that Jeremy Arthur will lead the institution’s Governmental and Economic Development Institute (GEDI).

Arthur has served as the president and CEO of the Chamber of Commerce Association of Alabama since 2012. He will begin his role at Auburn in February.

Auburn’s GEDI was created in 1976 and is a unit of the university’s division of outreach. It seeks to promote “effective government policy and management, civic engagement, economic prosperity, and improved quality of life for the State of Alabama and its communities,” per a release from the school.

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“Jeremy Arthur is a highly respected and effective civic professional with extensive experience in promoting community engagement and economic development across Alabama,” said Royrickers Cook, Auburn’s vice president for University Outreach, in a statement.

Arthur’s role at the GEDI will be his third stint at Auburn. He earned two degrees there as a student and then worked at the university in a variety of roles between 1999 and 2004.

Auburn relayed that Arthur was recommended for the job by a search committee that interviewed a number of candidates last fall.

“Working for Auburn as GEDI director is an exciting opportunity to serve my home state and to give back to my alma mater,” he remarked in a statement provided by Auburn.

“I’m looking forward to working with the GEDI and University Outreach teams to promote economic and governmental best practices for public officials and citizen stakeholders all across Alabama as part of Auburn’s great mission of Outreach,” Arthur added.

Henry Thornton is a staff writer for Yellowhammer News. You can contact him by email: henry@yellowhammernews.com or on Twitter @HenryThornton95.

2 months ago

Auburn University professor teams with European scientists seeking to save olive trees from deadly pathogen

(Auburn University/Contributed)

An Auburn University researcher has joined with European scientists in an attempt to decipher the disease process caused by one of the world’s most harmful plant pathogens, Xylella fastidiosa.

The bacterium’s impact has been nothing short of catastrophic in both the U.S. and Europe. Originating in the Americas, Xylella fastidiosa has caused a crisis in the European Union, where the bacterium was first recognized in the southern heel of Italy in 2013. Tens of thousands of gnarled olive trees, some of them hundreds of years old, are withering and dying, destroying the livelihoods of families that have relied on the centuries-old groves for generations.

In California, the disease has evolved into a very serious problem for vintners, causing annual losses of more than $100 million. The European Union has taken a proactive stance to prevent spread of the disease to other regions after seeing the devastation wrought in Italy.

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“This disease’s capacity to devastate is amazing,” said Leonardo De La Fuente, an expert on Xylella and a professor in Auburn’s Department of Entomology and Plant Pathology.

De La Fuente first started studying the plant pathogen in 2005 as a postdoctoral fellow at Cornell University. He said he was fascinated by the bacterium as a “biological problem” and continued his studies when he came to Auburn. Xylella fastidiosa was known for causing Pierce’s disease in California vineyards, and a different subspecies blighted Brazilian citrus trees and coffee bushes.

“At the time, I didn’t know it was going to be a worldwide problem,” De La Fuente recalled.

Xylella had never been seen before in Europe, blindsiding European scientists. They turned to American experts like De La Fuente when their olive trees started dying in 2014. He was asked to teach a course in Spain about emerging plant diseases. In 2015, the focus narrowed to Xylella.

“There was a lot of interest in learning how to work with it, diagnose it, find it and extract it,” De La Fuente said. “Then we started developing research collaborations, and people were coming to my lab from Spain, Italy and France for help jump-starting their research.”

Italy, Greece and Spain produce some 95% of European olive oil, with Italy’s contribution alone worth more than $2 billion each year. Spread of the disease beyond southern Italy would threaten the entire European Union economy. Currently, the only way to completely eliminate the disease is to tear up the trees in the fields and then to aggressively quarantine the area in an attempt to stop the pathogen’s spread.

“I feel like you have to respect this bacterium, because it is very good at causing incurable diseases in plants,” De La Fuente said.

Dying trees and public opinion

Spanish journalists at first nicknamed Xylella fastidiosa the Ebola of the plant world. Since the COVID-19 pandemic, however, coronavirus seems the better human counterpart. Dying trees and devastated groves had a psychological impact on people, with conspiracy theories taking root and growing. Italian prosecutors even opened an investigation into the scientists who first identified Xylella as the cause of the dying trees — in part because they failed to stop the spread of the disease.

“People didn’t believe it was real, and they didn’t want to do anything,” De La Fuente said. “People were going on TV saying it was a hoax, claiming that developers were destroying trees so they could buy cheap land. Some scientists who wanted to be in the spotlight were not methodical in their research, rushing to publish. Everybody seemed to have a solution, and they were belittling other people’s opinions.”

Part of the reason Xylella is so pernicious is that it is capable of attacking such a wide variety of plant species. In addition to causing disease in California grapevines and Brazilian citrus and coffee plants, different subspecies of Xylella cause disease in pecan and almond trees and blueberry bushes.

These high-value crops can take years before they become productive, destroying the livelihoods of farmers and causing massive economic damage. In scenic wine- and olive-producing regions, the financial loss from destruction of the crop is exacerbated by the loss of tourism that fuels local economies.

Central American origin

Genetic analysis suggests a Central American origin for the bacterium, which was introduced to California more than 100 years ago. Infected ornamental coffee plants imported from Central America, possibly decades ago, probably caused the European outbreak. Many plant species harbor the disease but are asymptomatic.

The pathogen is spread by sap-sucking insects such as leafhoppers, spittlebugs and sharpshooters and lives only in the mouths of insects and a plant’s xylem system, the system of tubes that circulates water and nutrients from the roots to the leaves. Basically, the pathogen lives only in flowing water and can’t survive in soil or air. The disease process is not well understood, and that is part of what fascinated De La Fuente.

“People make fun of me and say I like difficult systems,” he said.

De La Fuente’s lab works in two areas. First, his team studies the bacterium’s relationship with the nutrients needed by plants and transported in the xylem system, since the pathogen thrives on the very same nutrients plants need to grow. The team has found, for example, that calcium accumulates in infected plants and increases the virulence of the bacterium. They also have found that the plant’s defense response may worsen the disease, in the same way that our own immune systems cause autoimmune diseases by attacking too aggressively. They have identified additional target proteins that may be involved in colonization of plants by X. fastidiosa, as well.

The lab also studies how the pathogen evolves to adapt to different plants, an important focus because the bacterium was not known to be so aggressive until it colonized olive trees. The team has identified, for example, conditions that lead to exchange of genes among X. fastidiosa cells or even X. fastidiosa and other organisms. Only one other plant-associated bacterium, Ralstonia solanaceraum, is able to acquire DNA from the environment and incorporate the genes into its own genome, De La Fuente said. This horizontal gene transfer — sometimes called “jumping genes” — is known to sometimes make bacteria more virulent as well as more efficient in adapting to a host. De La Fuente’s team has identified genes that have roles in the bacterial fitness and pathogenicity, which will lead to recommendations for disease management.

The importance of management

Management is the key, since eradication of the disease remains an elusive goal. Perhaps someday, resistant cultivars of olive trees and other plants can be developed. But in the meantime, something has to be done to protect farmers and the economy. To that end, De La Fuente has worked with colleagues in Andalusia, in southern Spain, to protect the olive groves that produce 50% of the world’s olive oil.

“They did a great job and worked very fast to educate people,” he said. “They also found a different subspecies in Spanish almond trees and moved fast, removing the almond trees. There was some pushback, but people saw the problem in Italy and said, ‘OK, this is real.’”

In Italy, he said, critical time was lost to denial and argument. In Spain, too, scientists were accused of making people worry for nothing, but De La Fuente insists that raising the alarm was necessary.

“If you’re a scientist raising these alarms, though, you never win,” he admitted. “There’s no way to win.”

De La Fuente’s research is funded by internal Auburn University grants, the USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture, the California Department of Food and Agriculture and European sources. His lab is one of four in the U.S. that are part of the European EuroXanth COST action, initiated to foster training and research collaborations among different labs in Europe.

This story originally appeared on Auburn University’s website.

(Courtesy of Alabama NewsCenter)

2 months ago

Auburn Nursing book featuring alumni stories from the front lines of pandemic available for preorder

(Auburn University/Contributed)

The Auburn University School of Nursing has created a commemorative book featuring stories from some of its alumni who have been on the front lines of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The free book, “Auburn Nursing — Living the Creed During the COVID-19 Pandemic,” can be ordered online at the Auburn University Bookstore. Limited quantities are available. A shipping fee will be applied at checkout. Orders will be mailed after the university reopens on Jan. 4.

The initial idea for the book came about as the school was marking its 40th anniversary during the 2019-20 school year. As nurses around the country were thrust onto the front lines of the COVID-19 response, the school began to hear stories of its alumni facing the unimaginable. They reached out for more, and the book was born.

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Dean Gregg Newschwander writes in the book foreword how “a far-off disease arrived and changed everything for everyone overnight” and Auburn nurses—veteran nurses, new graduates and current students—rose to the challenge, putting themselves in harm’s way to do their jobs.

They “answered the call to serve on the front lines, at the epicenters and in rural communities. They worked in their hometowns, they deployed to where they were needed most. They cared for every patient population—newborns, homeless people, the elderly and inmates. They ensured supply chains. They researched potential vaccines. They were terrified and exhausted; determined and resilient. They became patients themselves. They lost family, friends and coworkers.”

Whitney Burford Bisland, a 2004 alumna, wasn’t one of the health care workers who flew to New York City to help; she already lived there.

“I will always remember …,” she wrote, “the two babies I delivered in front of the hospital because their moms were too scared of COVID to come earlier.”

Cortney Black, a 2016 Auburn alumna, got permission from her emergency room in Anniston, Alabama, to spend 21 days in New York. “I felt a lot of heartache and a lot of sadness, but I also felt more compassion, more unity, more kindness than ever before.”

Ross Nickoley, a 1994 alumnus, doesn’t work or live in New York or anywhere close to a big city. For those people served by the small critical access hospital in rural Winamac, Indiana, “we are the front line. I am the sole CRNA for this community, and my world changed the second week of March,” he said.

Lauren Agee, a 2020 alumna, works as an oncology nurse at Piedmont Atlanta Hospital, one of the major sites treating COVID-19 in Atlanta. She recalled the day she was talking on the phone with the mother of a 20-year-old who had to be emergently intubated, while holding the hand of “a dying elderly woman because you promised her husband of 60-plus years you wouldn’t let her die alone. You secretly are praying she holds out for a few more days until the morgue has more space.”

Newschwander said the stories illustrate the difficulty and harsh reality of an overwhelming situation.

“At Auburn, we often say, we make leaders,” he said. “In this book, you will see how true that is.

“The individual reflections tell the universal story of Auburn nurses living the Auburn Creed during this historic time.”

(Courtesy of Auburn University)

2 months ago

Auburn University professor’s study finds size of urban green spaces determines biodiversity

(Lewis Scharpf Jr./Contributed)

A recent study co-authored by an Auburn University professor, using nearly two decades of data on birds inhabiting New York City parks, answers longstanding questions about how well urban green spaces function to protect biodiversity, particularly the varieties of bird species.

Professor Christopher Lepczyk of Auburn’s School of Forestry and Wildlife Sciences said the study, published in the international journal Landscape and Urban Planning, examined three major aspects of urban green spaces — isolation, shape and area — to determine which provided the strongest support for biodiversity.

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The researchers found the size of an urban green space’s area — not its shape or isolation — most strongly corresponds with the richness of bird species in these spaces, both annually and seasonally.

“A long-running question in conservation has been whether the amount of area that is protected matters more than the protected area’s shape or isolation,” said Lepczyk, professor of wildlife biology and conservation. “To test these ideas, we used parks in New York City in which citizen scientists have collected a treasure trove of bird data, providing a very large number of species and parks for analysis.”

The study used data collected over an 18-year period by the citizen science group eBird.

“What we found was that how isolated a park was relative to other parks, and the park shape, were not important in describing the number of unique birds found in a given park,” he said. “Rather, the total amount of area was the most important aspect of the park.”

Lepczyk said urban green spaces are valuable stopover sites for migrating birds during spring and autumn migrations.

The new research has broad implications in the planning of new green spaces, as growing urbanization leads to increasing habitat loss and the introduction of non-native species.

“Taken as a whole, our work suggests that larger parks contain more unique birds, and thus, greater biodiversity,” he said. “For conservation and management, as we consider increasing urban green spaces, we should invest in larger spaces over smaller ones.”

Lepczyk co-authored the study with Frank A. LaSorte of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Myla F.J. Aronson of the Department of Ecology, Evolution and Natural Resources at Rutgers University and Kyle G. Horton of the Department of Fish, Wildlife and Conservation Biology at Colorado State University.

Janaki Alavalapati, dean of Auburn’s School of Forestry and Wildlife Sciences, said the findings are likely to bring about significant innovation in the development of urban green spaces.

“Dr. Lepczyk and his team have answered questions that are of vital importance to conserving wildlife and maintaining species biodiversity in urban spaces,” Alavalapati said.

This story originally appeared on Auburn University’s website.

(Courtesy of Alabama NewsCenter)

2 months ago

Auburn alumnus, trustee selected to be next Secretary of Defense

(Auburn University/Contributed)

Auburn celebrates a lifetime of achievement by Gen. Lloyd Austin, who provides immeasurable support to our university. We are grateful for his leadership in defending our freedoms and know his best days in serving our nation are still ahead.

Congratulations and thank you! See the full story here.

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2 months ago

Kiffin: College football players ‘should’ be able to be paid, ‘deserve it’

(Ole Miss Football/Facebook)

Ole Miss head football coach Lane Kiffin this week joined 105.5 WERC’s “Alabama Morning News with JT” for a quick but memorable segment.

The interview came after Auburn fired head coach Gus Malzahn this past Sunday. A permanent replacement has yet to be named, but Kiffin’s name has popped up in the rumor mill as a potential candidate.

“Are you speaking to me from a hotel in Auburn, Alabama this morning?” host JT Nysewander jokingly asked to begin the interview.

“I am not. I am [calling in] from Jordan-Hare Stadium, actually,” Kiffin quipped back.

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The former University of Alabama offensive coordinator quickly reinforced, “That’s a joke.”

Asked more seriously if he would be the next head coach on The Plains, Kiffin responded, “No, I’m going to go beat LSU [this Saturday].”

Former Crimson Tide tight end Michael Nysewander, JT’s son, is currently on Kiffin’s staff in Oxford, MS.

Kiffin during the interview also discussed the strength of Ole Miss’ current recruiting class, which is ranked in the top-20 by various national outlets after the early signing day on Wednesday. He explained how recruiting has been a unique challenge during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The host towards the end of the segment asked Kiffin about his thoughts on whether college football players should be allowed to be payed under NCAA rules.

“Well, I think they should,” Kiffin said. “The only issue with it is — well, not the only — but the major issue is, ‘How are you going to manage recruiting?’ If you can start paying players, how do you have boosters not telling players, ‘When you get here, we’ll pay you this amount of money?’ So basically, you’ve just legalized cheating. That’s the concern with it — not that the players don’t deserve it.”

RELATED: Did Auburn really pay a $21.45M buyout just to hire Kevin Steele?

Sean Ross is the editor of Yellowhammer News. You can follow him on Twitter @sean_yhn

3 months ago

Did Auburn really pay a $21.45M buyout just to hire Kevin Steele?

(Auburn Athletics/Contributed, @LibertyFootball/Twitter, YHN)

When Auburn announced the firing of head football coach Gus Malzahn on Sunday, the Tigers fanbase was filled with renewed expectations.

Expectations that — having pulled the trigger on a $21.45 million buyout — Auburn already had Malzahn’s permanent replacement lined up. Expectations that — having made that investment — Auburn was going all-in on a home-run hire. Expectations that there was a plan.

Instead, Monday came and went without any update, bringing Tuesday’s news that Auburn had formed an advisory committee and hired a search firm based in Atlanta.

However, the biggest head-scratcher in the entire situation came when concerted leaks began popping up suggesting that defensive coordinator and interim head coach Kevin Steele is supposedly emerging as the frontrunner for the permanent gig.

That proposition raises several serious questions, chief among them: “Really?”

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However, the absurdity of buying out Malzahn just to make a lateral-at-best hire in Steele aside, SI’s Pat Forde noted, “that also would be the Auburn-est hire imaginable.”

“Would a school pay more than $21 million to buy out a coach only to hire his assistant? A guy who had a 9-36 record as a head coach at Baylor—including a 1-31 conference record? One school might,” Forde continued.

Another key point to note in the pro-Steele leaks is the equally anti-Hugh Freeze bent of the same reports.

Freeze’s Liberty squad impressively went 9-1 this season, putting the former Ole Miss coach back near the top of head coaching searches nationwide.

However, Yellowhammer News has learned that there is a reluctance among at least some key Auburn decision makers to even consider Freeze, despite the likelihood that he would give the program a better chance of winning than ho-hum choices like Steele. And, potentially making matters more complicated, there does not appear to be anyone willing to stick their neck out and strongly advocate for Freeze.

Kirk Herbstreit this week probably said it best when it comes to Freeze:

To me, I think you have to look at Hugh Freeze. I think you have to look at what he went through at Ole Miss, how he’s owned that, how he’s talked about that. You have to come to grips with that. You have to see if you can come to grips with that. And if you can, then you hire him — because he’s got an offense. He’s got a system. I think he is very different than Gus offensively even though they get labeled that they’re from the same coaching tree or coaching branch, as far as offensive style. I think he’s different in the pass game. I think he’s got a way about him. He competes. He’s done very well against (Alabama Crimson Tide head coach) Nick Saban in recruiting and competing against him. I don’t know, man. That’s who I would look at.

Under these circumstances, Auburn has to decide if they can deal with what Hugh has publicly talked about his past — he’s a man that’s, like all of us, flawed. And he’s talked about that. He’s moved on in life. If they can move on with him,  then that’s the direction I would go, personally.

On the opposite end of the equation, sources with direct knowledge of Freeze’s thinking tell Yellowhammer News that he is very much interested in the Auburn position, should the university decision makers be willing to consider him. Freeze has expressed an openness to speaking directly to trustees, boosters and administrators regarding his past and interest in the job.

One source framed it this way: “Hugh could care less about money. He wants to win a national championship. Full stop.”

“Who else on Auburn’s list of candidates has beaten Nick Saban, Kirby Smart and Dan Mullen?” asked another.

Other candidates under consideration reportedly include Oregon head coach Mario Cristobal, ULL head coach Billy Napier, UAB head coach Bill Clark and Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables.

Sean Ross is the editor of Yellowhammer News. You can follow him on Twitter @sean_yhn

3 months ago

Auburn alumnus, trustee selected to be next Secretary of Defense

(Auburn University/Contributed)

Auburn celebrates a lifetime of achievement by Gen. Lloyd Austin, who provides immeasurable support to our university. We are grateful for his leadership in defending our freedoms and know his best days in serving our nation are still ahead.

Congratulations and thank you! See the full story here.

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3 months ago

Auburn announces search firm, advisory group for finding next head football coach

(Todd Van Emst/AU Athletics)

Auburn University Director of Athletics Allen Greene on Tuesday announced a search firm and advisory group that will assist with the search for the program’s next permanent head football coach.

Parker Executive Search Firm, based in Atlanta, Georgia, will assist an eight-member advisory group.

This group includes administrators from the university and its athletics department, along with prominent Auburn alumni and football letterwinners.

Members of the advisory group are as follows:

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Allen Greene; Director of Athletics
Lieutenant General Ron Burgess; Executive Vice President, Auburn University
Dr. Beverly Marshall, Auburn Faculty Athletic Representative
Tim Jackson; Executive Associate AD, Auburn Athletics
Bo Jackson; Auburn Football Letterman, 1985 Heisman Trophy Winner
Quentin Riggins; Auburn Football Letterman, Auburn Board of Trustees
Randy Campbell; Auburn Football Letterman
Michelle McKenna; Chief Information Officer, National Football League

This comes after Auburn on Sunday announced that Gus Malzahn’s contract had been terminated. Defensive coordinator Kevin Steele is serving as interim head coach.

Sean Ross is the editor of Yellowhammer News. You can follow him on Twitter @sean_yhn

3 months ago

Bruce Pearl: Gus Malzahn has ‘awful lot to be proud of’ — ‘Tough day here on campus’

(Auburn Football/Facebook, Auburn Basketball/Twitter)

At a remote press conference on Monday, Auburn University head men’s basketball coach Bruce Pearl reacted to the news from the previous day that head football coach Gus Malzahn’s contract was terminated by the university.

Malzahn had led the Tigers football program since 2013, and Pearl joined him on The Plains in 2014.

“Yesterday was a tough day here on campus,” Pearl acknowledged. “Being an old ball coach, you hate to see another old ball coach leave the program.”

He then gave a nod to Malzahn’s wife, Kristi, whose Facebook post on Sunday graciously reacting to the day’s news went viral.

“I have so much respect for Gus and Kristi, that coaching staff and that family,” Pearl said. “I’ve learned so much from them. I’ve absolutely taken their lead.”

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“Gus has been the leader of our coaches. People don’t give him near enough credit for how he did lead our coaching staff in so many ways. He is a dear friend. I feel fortunate to be his friend,” the basketball coach continued.

Pearl advised that coach Malzahn “understands the job as well as anybody.”

“Nobody had a higher expectation for Auburn football than Gus Malzahn,” he noted. “Nobody. Even our most passionate fans. Gus expected to win championships, compete for national championships, and he held himself to that standard. … He had an understanding that he would’ve liked to have been able to win a little bit more.”

Pearl stressed some positives of the Malzahn-era, which finished with a 68-35 record over eight seasons.

“I think he’s got an awful lot to be proud of for what they accomplished. I always admired how he always had his locker room. Those kids loved him. They played for him,” Pearl explained. “They always had great coaches, great chemistry and culture.”

“I want to wish him the very, very best,” he added. “One of the greatest things about being here at Auburn is being around the amazing people that I’m around. I get to be around coaches like Butch Thompson, have been around Coach Pat Dye and had a chance to earn his respect, Coach Malzahn – we have the greatest soccer coaches, the greatest baseball coaches, the greatest golf coaches, etc. We’re so fortunate, and I’m so fortunate to be a member of this coaching staff.”

He was then asked about his favorite memory of Malzahn’s overlapping tenure at Auburn.

“The timely text messages,” Pearl responded. “The text messages when only another coach would know when you needed to hear that.”

He also shared, “Gus came in and talked to my team my first year. My first year was like varsity and JV. I’m sending my guys out there and they are just outnumbered. He came into my locker room before we went to the SEC Tournament, and he told our guys how much he enjoyed watching them play and compete knowing they were outnumbered. After that talk, we went to Nashville, and we won three games. I think his talk had a lot to do with it — just to have earned his respect.”

“Now, we had some trash-talking events on the golf course that were a lot of fun. More than anything, just to have earned his respect and become a friend,” Pearl concluded.

Sean Ross is the editor of Yellowhammer News. You can follow him on Twitter @sean_yhn

3 months ago

Auburn alumnus, trustee selected to be next Secretary of Defense

(Auburn University/Contributed)

Auburn celebrates a lifetime of achievement by Gen. Lloyd Austin, who provides immeasurable support to our university. We are grateful for his leadership in defending our freedoms and know his best days in serving our nation are still ahead.

Congratulations and thank you! See the full story here.

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3 months ago

Auburn fires Gus Malzahn, names Kevin Steele interim head coach

(Bruce Nix/Alabama NewsCenter)

Auburn Director of Athletics Allen Greene on Sunday announced that Gus Malzahn is no longer the head football coach on The Plains.

Defensive coordinator Kevin Steele has been named interim head coach, and a national search for Malzahn’s permanent replacement will begin immediately.

A release said that Greene recommended the change in the football team’s leadership to Auburn University President Jay Gogue after a “thorough analysis” of the program. Gogue accepted Greene’s recommendation.

Malzahn was terminated and will be paid the remainder of his contract, which was set to run through 2024. The buyout was reportedly $21.45 million.

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In eight years, Malzahn compiled a 68-35 record including a 39-27 mark in SEC play. He led the program to an SEC Championship and BCS National Championship appearance in his first season and an SEC West title in 2017.

This year, Auburn compiled a 6-4 record in an all-conference regular season schedule, although some of the “wins” — including this weekend’s — were also ugly.

Greene said in a statement, “After evaluating the state of the Auburn football program, we’ve decided that it was time to make a change in leadership. We appreciate everything that Gus did for the program over the last eight seasons. We will begin a search immediately for a coach that can help the Auburn program consistently compete at the highest level.”

Gogue added, “Coach Malzahn led the Auburn football program with honor and integrity. We appreciate his service to Auburn Athletics, Auburn University and, in particular, our student-athletes. We wish him and Kristi all the best.”

This is breaking news and may be updated.

Sean Ross is the editor of Yellowhammer News. You can follow him on Twitter @sean_yhn

3 months ago

Auburn trustee, Mobile native named Biden’s secretary of Defense

(Auburn University, Joe Biden/Facebook)

U.S. Army General Lloyd J. Austin (Ret.) has been selected to lead the Department of Defense under a Biden administration, according to Politico.

The report, which has been corroborated by separate reporting from Jake Tapper, says presumed President-elect Joe Biden will make the announcement as soon as Tuesday that Austin will be nominated to serve as secretary of Defense.

Yellowhammer News previously outlined Austin’s deep Alabama ties when it was first reported he had become a late addition to Biden’s shortlist for the important post.

Austin currently serves on the Auburn University board of trustees and was born in Mobile, Alabama.

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After a nearly 41-year decorated military career, Austin retired in 2016 as a four-star general. Some of his former posts include service as the commander of U.S. Central Command, commander of the Combined Forces in Iraq and Syria, and as the 33rd vice chief of staff of the Army.

Austin is a graduate of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point and holds master’s degrees from Auburn and Webster University. He has received the Lifetime Achievement Award from Auburn, and his wife, Charlene, is also an Auburn graduate.

Additionally, the retired general currently serves on the board of directors for Raytheon Technologies and Nucor, both of which have significant Alabama presences.

Austin would be the first Black DoD secretary in American history.

UPDATE 2:45 p.m. 12/8/2020

Wayne Smith, president pro tem of the Auburn University board of trustees, released a statement, saying, “Gen. Austin epitomizes the best Auburn has to offer in character, public service and real-world expertise.”

“If he is ultimately selected and confirmed by the U.S. Senate, I’m confident he will again serve our nation with great distinction,” Smith concluded.

UPDATE 2:55 p.m.

Biden has announced Austin as his selection for Defense secretary. Austin will need to receive a congressional waiver to accept the civilian post; he will also need to be confirmed by the Senate in an up-or-down vote.

Sean Ross is the editor of Yellowhammer News. You can follow him on Twitter @sean_yhn

3 months ago

Auburn unveils student center named in honor of Georgia Supreme Court Chief Justice Harold Melton

(Auburn University/Contributed)

Harold Melton was humbled and thankful during his remarks at the dedication ceremony for the Harold D. Melton Student Center on the Auburn University campus.

Melton – the chief justice of the Georgia Supreme Court and first Black president of the Auburn Student Government Association (SGA) – was joined by his wife, Kimberly, parents, Augustus and Carole, and other family members at the half-hour ceremony. Melton – a 1988 Auburn graduate who studied international business and Spanish – was appreciative while giving remarks in front of the building, which is in the heart of campus near Jordan-Hare Stadium and Haley Center.

“Auburn University owes me nothing, it really doesn’t, and already it has given me all I could ever hope or ask for,” said Melton, who became Auburn SGA president in 1987. “It is a privilege to hear so many great things said about me, many of which I don’t feel like I can even begin to deserve. Thank you to Dr. (AU President Jay) Gogue for his continued leadership of this institution and the members of the Board of Trustees, and special thanks also goes to the Student Government Association itself because this was a student-led initiative.

“When you show up to school, you don’t know what you’re getting into, you don’t know what’s in store and you hope you made the right decision. I never thought I’d get involved with the SGA or certainly become SGA president, never thought I’d be on the supreme court and never imagined this kind of moment. I thank the Lord for leading me to this place, because it was exactly what I needed for spiritual, educational and social growth, and I’m grateful every day this is where I went.”

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Melton, from Marietta, Georgia, went on to graduate from the University of Georgia School of Law in 1991, began serving on the Georgia Supreme Court in 2005 and became its chief justice in 2018. He is a board member of Atlanta Youth Academies and on the national, local and collegiate boards for Young Life Ministries.

Gogue lauded the university’s trustees for voting unanimously in September to name the building in honor of Melton.

“This is a really, really, really great day in the life of Auburn University,” Gogue said. “In 1987, this young kid comes here, gets the whole student body excited, they elect him as student body president and head of the Student Government Association. Then we come to today, and we make real history today. I simply want to say to Chief Justice Melton, you actually honor Auburn by allowing us to honor you today.”

Others attending the ceremony included Alabama state Sen. Vivian Figures, chairwoman of the Alabama Legislative Black Caucus; state Sen. Bobby Singleton, minority leader of the Alabama Senate; state Rep. Anthony Daniels, minority leader of the Alabama House of Representatives; state Sen. Tom Whatley; state Rep. Joe Lovvorn; and state Rep. Jeremy Gray.

Auburn Board of Trustees member Elizabeth Huntley reflected on the decision to honor Melton.

“Today, we celebrate the accomplishments of this esteemed trailblazer who has represented Auburn with such distinction and who has led meaningful change toward progress in the way of diversity and equality,” Huntley said. “The naming will forever serve to remind all Auburn students – past, current and future – that with perseverance through adversity and hard work, anything is possible. On behalf of the Auburn University Board of Trustees and as a proud mother, I personally want to thank Chief Justice Melton for continuing to cultivate the next generation of leaders and for setting a foundation that allows our children to not only dream, but to achieve.

“It’s a privilege to be on this stage with you, and it’s an honor to be part of this moment in time.”

Her daughter, Ada Ruth Huntley, earlier this year became the first Black female to earn the title of SGA president.

“The student center is a cornerstone of the experience of your everyday Auburn student and serves as a safe space for all to gather,” Ada Ruth Huntley said. “This is where student leaders gather to develop their leadership and (work to) leave Auburn better than they found it. You walked so that I could run, and I am incredibly grateful for your contributions to our university.

“I cannot think of any building more fitting to carry the name of Chief Justice Harold D. Melton.”

Constructed in 2008, the three-level Harold D. Melton Student Center is a favorite gathering spot for Auburn’s more than 30,000 students, complete with dining facilities that include a Chick-fil-A and Starbucks, study areas and the James E. Foy Information Desk. With more than 5,000 visitors each day, the 184,000-square-foot center provides student resources, structured activities and a variety of amenities, and houses Student Affairs, The Auburn Plainsman, Greek Life and Auburn Cares offices.

Bobby Woodard, senior vice president for Student Affairs, said naming the building for a former student is the perfect fit.

“It’s hard to imagine a more worthy name for Auburn’s student center than Chief Justice Melton’s,” said Woodard. “Chief Justice Melton is a walking, talking, living, breathing embodiment of the Auburn Creed, an Auburn man through and through, and I can think of no better way to recognize him than by naming this building in his honor. This beautiful building finally has a name on it, and I am proud to work at the Harold D. Melton Student Center.

“It will be a lasting testament to all that he has accomplished and all there is to come.”

Melton, who was born in Washington, D.C., offered some sage advice for Auburn’s current student body.

“I would say, first and foremost, get involved, but do more than just get involved,” said Melton, who ended his speech by leading everyone in a War Eagle cheer. “You really have to leave your mark. If you face adversity in any form, push through anyway and don’t get knocked off course. This university has too much to offer for you to not allow yourself to enjoy it all because of a little adversity.

“Come with the mission to get and to give and be committed to that.”

Naming the student center in Melton’s honor is the first step in the university’s long-term inclusive effort that is headed by Trustees Elizabeth Huntley and James Pratt and the Presidential Task Force for Opportunity and Equity. In addition, the Auburn board in July endorsed a student-led initiative to create a plaza recognizing the legacy of Black Greek organizations and African American culture. The National Pan-Hellenic Council Legacy Plaza will be erected in front of the new Academic Classroom and Laboratory Complex.

“Today’s naming also speaks to the long-term, deliberative work Auburn has committed to in advancing a culture of inclusivity that will serve to further unite our Auburn family,” trustee Huntley said. “We continue to make great strides in our family for celebrating people for their character and not the color of their skin. As I look to the future and all this naming represents, I see a bright horizon of hope – a signal to all in the Auburn family, especially our students, that at Auburn we truly are a family united in purpose and devoted to the ideals of the Auburn Creed.”

(Courtesy of Auburn University)

3 months ago

Alliance created to train, certify workers in the Alabama construction industry

(Pixabay)

A number of statewide groups related to the construction industry have partnered to create the Alabama Construction Workforce Alliance (ACWA) which aims to train employees in the construction industry which often experiences a scarcity of certified, skilled labor.

The inaugural partners in the alliance are the Alabama Associated General Contractors, the Alabama Roadbuilders Association, the Alabama Workforce Council, the Alabama Construction Research Institute and Auburn University.

“ACWA was developed as a response to concerns by the Alabama construction industry about the serious shortage of skilled labor and the need for improvements to the current construction workforce talent pipeline,” said Jorge Rueda, assistant professor in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at Auburn University, in a release.

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Rueda added, “ACWA is poised to integrate recruitment, retention and training efforts into an overall strategic plan tearing down the traditional workforce development silos.”

Members of the ACWA have pledged to partner with the already existing workforce development agencies and programs around the state.

“Coming from the highway construction and roadbuilding business, I am well aware of the incredible need for highly-skilled workers in this sector,” stated Alabama Workforce Council Chairman Tim McCartney, formerly of McCartney Construction.

ACWA will be receiving funds from the $17.8 million grant Alabama’s workforce development efforts received as part of a CARES Act program.

“The collaboration that has already been established and future plans put forth by ACWA is exactly what we need in this moment. This aligns perfectly with Governor Ivey’s attainment goal of adding 500,000 credentialed workers to the workforce by 2025 and our overall workforce development credentialing pipeline efforts,” McCartney advised.

Henry Thornton is a staff writer for Yellowhammer News. You can contact him by email: henry@yellowhammernews.com or on Twitter @HenryThornton95.

3 months ago

Auburn trustee, Alabama native reportedly being considered as Biden’s Defense secretary

(Auburn University, Joe Biden/Facebook)

According to a report, U.S. Army General Lloyd J. Austin (Ret.) is under consideration to lead the Department of Defense under a Biden administration.

Axios on Friday reported that former Vice President Joe Biden has placed Austin on a shortlist to be the next DoD secretary.

This comes after the Trump administration began the formal transition process through the General Services Administration.

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President Donald J. Trump tweeted earlier this week that he still believes he will be found to have won the 2020 general election following ongoing legal challenges.

“I believe we will prevail!” he said. “Nevertheless, in the best interest of our Country, I am recommending that [the GSA head] and her team do what needs to be done with regard to initial protocols, and have told my team to do the same.”

Regardless, Biden is proceeding on the assumption that he is the president-elect, and on Tuesday he unveiled much of his national security team:

Secretary of State: Tony Blinken
National Security adviser: Jake Sullivan
Director of National Intelligence: Avril Haines
Department of Homeland Security Secretary: Alejandro Mayorkas
U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations: Linda Thomas-Greenfield
Special presidential envoy on climate: John Kerry

Notably absent from this list was a secretary of Defense nominee.

Axios on Friday explained that “[Michele] Flournoy had been widely seen as the likely pick, but Axios is told other factors — race, experience, Biden’s comfort level — have come into play.”

This follows U.S. Rep. Jim Clyburn (D-SC), a top Biden ally who was viewed as key in Biden winning the Democratic nomination for president this year, and other prominent Black Democrats already publicly lobbying for Biden to do better when it comes to diversity among cabinet selections.

Austin would be the first Black DoD secretary in American history.

He currently serves on the Auburn University board of trustees and was born in Mobile, Alabama.

After a nearly 41-year decorated military career, Austin retired in 2016 as a four-star general. Some of his former posts include service as the commander of U.S. Central Command, commander of the Combined Forces in Iraq and Syria, and as the 33rd vice chief of staff of the Army.

Austin is a graduate of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point and holds master’s degrees from Auburn and Webster University. He has received the Lifetime Achievement Award from Auburn, and his wife, Charlene, is also an Auburn graduate.

Additionally, the retired general currently serves on the board of directors for Raytheon Technologies and Nucor, both of which have large Alabama presences.

Sean Ross is the editor of Yellowhammer News. You can follow him on Twitter @sean_yhn

3 months ago

‘Rivals’ Tuscaloosa and Auburn are shaping Alabama’s future

(City of Tuscaloosa/Facebook, Josh Hallett/Flickr)

Tuscaloosa and Auburn have a lot in common.

That assessment might give pause to passionate fans on both sides of what has been called college football’s greatest traditional rivalry. But if the subject is small-but-thriving communities that continue to expand their established industrial base while nurturing new businesses in emerging innovation sectors, the two cities – along with Tuscaloosa and Lee counties – offer a similar range of compelling advantages.

Start with the fact that both are home to major universities – the University of Alabama and Auburn University – with all of the attendant impacts on everything from K-12 education to arts and culture to economic development. Add low costs of living and doing business, numerous locational benefits and ample opportunities for outdoor recreation year-round, and the term “quality of life” becomes apparent in all its facets.

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“If you dig deep into quality of life, you’re looking at actual facts,” said Arndt Siepmann, deputy director of economic development for the city of Auburn. “You’re looking at schools, housing, public safety and the ways those things contribute not just to profitability, but to the ability to attract and retain great people. A healthy community and a healthy business climate go hand in hand.”

The same is true in Tuscaloosa, where Danielle Winningham is executive director of the Tuscaloosa County Industrial Development Authority (TCIDA). What Winningham describes as “a small-town feel with the amenities of a bigger city” is reflected in housing options, the availability of parks and the variety of retail options, in addition to a growing population and a dependable, qualified and skilled available workforce.

“It’s that combination of factors that makes this area so vibrant,” Winningham said.

Both communities are situated in the heart of the Southeast, offering convenient access to larger markets. Located near Alabama’s western border, Tuscaloosa is served by Interstate Highway 20/59, one of the nation’s busiest commercial corridors. It is 50 miles from Birmingham, Alabama’s largest city and home to Birmingham-Shuttlesworth International Airport. Across the state, near its eastern border, Auburn is connected by Interstate Highway 85 to Atlanta and its international airport, just over 100 miles away.

Meeting the coming demand

Looking to the future, Tuscaloosa and Auburn have strategically developed assets and partnerships that position them for long-term growth in areas related to technology, innovation and entrepreneurship. The universities are playing increasingly active roles in nurturing, supporting and accelerating a variety of sectors with high-growth potential – including software development, defense and cybersecurity, IT, and medical and other advanced manufacturing – as well as finding new ways to build on long-standing strengths in the automotive sector.

What’s more, both communities are recognized as developing labor markets for computer programmers. Currently, Auburn ranks No. 1 and Tuscaloosa No. 3 among all U.S. metro areas for computer programming cost factors, with that field projected to add well over 500,000 new jobs to the state economy by 2026. Alabama and Auburn have strong computer science programs at undergraduate and graduate levels and are highly attuned to meeting the coming demand.

“We’re putting a real emphasis on diversifying around knowledge-based industries,” said Winningham. “We recognize that both our existing industry base and those sectors that are just beginning to emerge have an important part to play in ensuring that our community continues to prosper in the future.”

One of the results of that strategy, Winningham points out, is The Edge, a 26,300-square-foot incubator and accelerator that provides office space, workstations, conference rooms and wet labs to knowledge-based startups and early-stage ventures. A partnership of the University of Alabama, the city of Tuscaloosa and the Chamber of Commerce of West Alabama, The Edge continues to see steady growth in the number of businesses and individuals it serves, from 28 businesses and 50 people in June 2019 to 39 businesses and 90 people a year later.

In addition, the University of Alabama’s technology incubator, Edge Labs, incubated five university spinoff companies in 2019: 525 Solutions, an R&D company developing liquid technologies for the medical, pharmaceutical and materials fields; ThruPore Technologies, which produces innovative specialty materials for industrial uses; JAQ Energy, a developer of new technologies for power electronic and energy systems; and ForeSense Technologies, which is commercializing technology – developed by University of Alabama researchers, working with U.S. Army scientists – that uses electrical signals to quickly detect hazardous airborne chemicals.

“These companies are great examples of our vision for the future,” said Winningham. “It’s about connecting creators, builders and visionaries with the resources they need to be successful.”

In Auburn, a twofold strategy is accelerating the build-out of what already is a robust innovation infrastructure. The 170-acre Auburn Research Park, a partnership of the city of Auburn and Auburn University managed by the Auburn Research and Technology Foundation, supports development of knowledge-based jobs in a setting adjacent to the university campus, with its fifth new facility – the 100,000-square-foot Research and Innovation Center – having opened this fall. The city and the university are working with local manufacturing companies to optimize collaboration around innovation.

“Manufacturing innovation is happening here,” Siepmann said. “We’re finding the answers to questions like, ‘Where are the best employees?’ and ‘What is the best training?’ Increased automation means increased demand for engineers and technicians from technology-based value-added manufacturing companies. Supporting that also helps drive innovation in other areas.”

Siepmann reels off three companies that exemplify Auburn’s growing success in leveraging and expanding its innovation infrastructure:

  • GE Aviation recently completed a $50 million expansion of its aerospace additive manufacturing operation to incorporate 3D printing technologies; the project created 60 new jobs.
  • RAPA, the U.S headquarters for German-based Rausch & Pausch. The company produces high-precision automotive parts, using Auburn-based R&D.
  • Sio2, a homegrown company that has for many years manufactured glass vials for medical and scientific uses. In July, the company announced a $163 million expansion after receiving a contract to supply the federal government with glass-lined plastic vials to support efforts to develop a vaccine for COVID-19; the project will create 220 jobs.

Siepmann also mentioned Auburn’s additive manufacturing accelerator, funded through the Alabama Department of Economic and Community Affairs. Currently, the program is working with 10 existing companies and three startups.

“We are providing steppingstones for companies and founders to learn about the viability of technology in their operations,” said Siepmann. “Auburn is a great example of how economic developers can leverage the assets of a university and state government to accelerate innovation and business development.”

All of which adds up to one more thing that Auburn and Tuscaloosa have in common: A bright future.

(For more information about innovation and opportunities in Alabama, contact Amendi Stephens)

(Courtesy of Alabama NewsCenter)