Auburn vs. Arkansas

Former Attorney General Jeff Sessions (left) smiles for a photo with former Auburn University President Steven Leath during a break in the first half of the 2018 Auburn vs. Arkansas game at Jordan-Hare Stadium in Auburn. (O-A News file photo)

Imagine having a job that pays $625,000 a year and you’re considered so bad at it that your boss gives you a raise almost three times that much just to leave.

That’s right, $1.5 million a year to move out and keep quiet about it.

And go ahead… take the office jet with you.

More than numbers

Hold on, now. We know he’s a pilot, but that’s the HP Office Jet printer we’re talking about.

And yes, that is indeed part of the walloping package former Auburn University President Steven Leath has in his severance agreement with the school.

Listen close and you’ll hear that obnoxious television commercial voice-over guy in countless ads who says: Wait! That’s not all!

Right he’d be. That official Dear Steven letter has more than numbers in it.

Such as, in its words to Leath translated from the actual separation agreement to here in more layman-like terms:

Dear Steven:

--You will have Christmas in July the next two years, as you will receive a $4.5 million buyout in segments, with one already in pocket, and $1.5 million coming to you on July 1 each of the next two years.

--Not enough to cover your last expense report? No worries. Any university-related expenses still outstanding through June 21, your day of resignation, just send the school a bill.

--Speaking of June 21, after that, the access codes and key cards no longer work.

--That calendar of events including private meetings with high-profile sources already lined up? The bosses said hand it over by June 28, the date this love note was signed.

--That nice, big, beautiful president’s mansion that we just spent nearly $20-something-million to spruce up… be out of it by July 31.

The private quarters, that is. As of June 28, the public portions of the mansion are up for grabs if the school needs ‘em, so keep to your side.

--You can keep your favorite IT devices; your two Smartphones, your iPad, and that aforementioned printer.

--This deal includes an agreement that both parties will honor the age-old advice that if you can’t say something nice… shut up. There will be no public bad-mouthing of one another.

At least, not in public.

--Likewise, no spying. By that, the bosses mean all those secret deals you know about, the classified research Auburn University folks are doing that you know about, the confidential deal-making, the school’s security strengths and weaknesses, the long-range strategic plans, the personnel files… all of that remains secret and can’t be shared, or else no Christmases in July.

Hard to imagine

Leath signed a five-year contract with Auburn and his compensation plan became effective June 19, 2017.

Leath’s letter of resignation is dated June 21, 2019.

His separation agreement with the university was signed by both parties and dated June 28. It was released, after a public records request, on July 13.

We may never know all of what led to the parting of ways, but clearly the man deserves more credit than most of us realize for his negotiating skills.

Take, for example, the raise he secured in his move from Iowa State to Auburn.

Leath made a base salary of $525,000 a year at Iowa State.

His beginning annual salary of $625,000 at Auburn was a $100,000 increase right off the bat.

And then there was this bit of revelry from the head-hunters who played match-maker soon after Leath’s hire was announced:

“It is hard to imagine that someone so perfectly met the board’s specifications,” said Bill Funk, president of R. William Funk and Associates, the executive search firm based in Dallas selected to conduct the previous presidential search.

It looks like the board has broadened its imagination.

It might not matter

Auburn announced that Leath and the university board of trustees’ presidential assessment working group “mutually decided to part ways.”

No one is explaining why Leath is seemingly being overpaid to leave, and of course they all feel there is a shield of silence because of the legaleeze in the severance agreement calling for discretion.

It might not matter if they did. Regardless of what perfume you put on this skunk, it stinks.

This ordeal costs too many dollars that have too many destinations at Auburn University where they could better serve.

The board most recently voted to bring back former school president Jay Gogue to serve as the school’s interim president.

Gogue, by the way, when he retired from Auburn in 2017, was making $647,711 in the final fiscal year of his full-time role; quite the bargain up against Leath’s $1.5 million-a-year payout.

The university has not announced any details yet regarding specifics on the search for a new president. We intend to keep asking about it, and we once again call on the board of trustees and all involved to make the process inclusive and transparent.

Perhaps, in addition to a more thorough Google search, someone might be bold enough to even ask for others’ opinions beyond those of the search firm and search committee, and the Athletic Department, of course.

The Family’s mood

Now, on to the next question… Has anyone said anything about a tuition hike anytime soon?

Probably wouldn’t be a good idea right now.

Troy Turner is editor of the Opelika-Auburn News. He can be contacted at and followed on Twitter @troyturnernews.

Troy Turner is editor of the Opelika-Auburn News. He previously served as the news editor in New York for the nation's second largest newspaper company, and as the senior editor at several other news entities around the nation. He is an Auburn alum.

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