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Records: AU trustees advised Leath on communication, morale

By KIM CHANDLER Associated Press

MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) — Auburn University trustees advised then-President Steven Leath to focus on communication, collaboration and morale several months before his sudden departure from the university, according to university records.

A performance assessment obtained by The Associated Press through an open records request sheds light on trustees’ potential concerns in September 2018 after Leath had been on the job for a year. The 2018 review was positive. Trustees thanked him for his efforts to improve Auburn, and made no direct criticisms. But trustees repeatedly suggested Leath focus on communication with the board and others on campus, including listening to the “Auburn family.”

Leath left the university in June under a separation agreement with the university that paid him $4.5 million.

“As you continue to remove bureaucratic barriers, we further suggest that you approach the inevitable changes with clear communication and attention to morale. Retirements, new hires and organizational alterations are capable of causing unrest among faculty and staff,” the 2018 assessment submitted by five trustees of the board read.

The trustees also suggested that he “continue to listen to and learn from the Auburn family.”

“With a continued focus on urgency … but also on collegiality, communication and project completion … we feel certain that Auburn’s statewide prominence and reputation for accomplishment can be further advanced,” the assessment read.

The trustees also said while they respected his day-to-day control of the university, they requested that he work to “keep the board informed of higher-level plans and activities, such as major expenditures, the hiring of principal officials, and any other matters which could have significant bearing on the operation, reputation and /or good standing of the University.”

A brief section of the assessment discussed efforts to raise Auburn’s national profile and what trustees called the school’s trademark humility and Leath’s “bold confidence.”

“We are hopeful that your bold confidence will complement that humility in a way that preserves Auburn’s tradition but showcases its ability,” the assessment read.

The university described Leath’s departure as a mutual decision. The university agreed to pay Leath $4.5 million. He was to receive $1.5 million around the time of his departure and $1.5 million installments in 2020 and 2021, according to terms of the separation agreement.

The separation agreement also forbids Leath and Auburn University from making disparaging comments against each other.

They also agreed to respond to all inquiries about his resignation with statements similar to the statement issued when Leath departed the university.

In that June press release, Leath said serving as Auburn’s president “has been the highlight of my career.” Board President Pro Tempore Wayne T. Smith said they were, “grateful for his dedication and commitment.”

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