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Alumni, Students Rally to Save Auburn University Aviation Program

May 9, 2013

Aviation has become a significant economic contributor to the state of Alabama. European plane maker Airbus broke ground last month on a final assembly line for its A320 airliner family in Mobile, and Gov. Robert Bentley recently declared Alabama to be an “aviation state” in recognition of the industry’s importance.

Despite those encouraging developments, however, Alabama’s only four-year aviation education program may soon disappear.

Founded in 1941, the aviation management program at Auburn University is the nation's oldest continuously operated aviation program, and many of its approximately 3,800 graduates have gone on to have careers in business aviation, including employees of NBAA Member Companies and several members of NBAA's staff. However, a 2012 review by Aviation Accreditation Board International (AABI), determined the program was at risk due to a lack of qualified tenured professors.

That problem escalated further when the program's senior tenured faculty member passed away last February; the only other tenured aviation program professor has since announced his departure at the end of this semester. Once part of the school’s aerospace engineering department, the aviation program moved to the College of Business in 1999. While current and former students believe the program curricula fits that department well, they also expressed concern that aviation has not received proper support since that change.

NBAA Northwest Regional Representative – and Auburn aviation program graduate – Kristi Ivey has been actively involved in efforts to preserve the program.

"We need the support of the business aviation community to keep these vital aviation degree programs alive and thriving,” she noted, “and we need to be thinking about our next generation of aviation professionals.”

Formal recognition by AABI is vital to the school’s ability to offer internship opportunities and post-graduate job placement programs to students. While university leaders have pledged to maintain the program for current students, accreditation is another matter.

"When I came here four years ago, there were four full-time faculty in the program," noted Bennett Nast, president of the Auburn chapter of the aviation fraternal organization Alpha Eta Rho. "By the end of last year that had dropped to two [faculty], although the number of students remained relatively the same.

"AABI made it clear that we needed three to four full-time faculty members in order to maintain our accreditation," Nast continued. "There hasn't been a lot of support for it, which I think stems from a lack of understanding about aviation by the people running the department. Some students are already considering other universities. They won't switch majors if we lose accreditation; they'll leave Auburn.”

Current and past students, including NBAA Member employees, have come together in a grassroots effort to save the program, with informal rallies held on the Auburn campus to educate others about the aviation program. Supporters have also written to Bentley, Auburn President Jay Gogue and Provost Timothy Boosinger.

Bentley, who also serves as president of the school’s board of trustees, has promised to investigate Auburn’s handling of the aviation program.

"This program could be two to three times its current size, and the present personnel shortage would only be a bump in the road had the school heeded earlier calls to resolve understaffing,” said alumnus and United Airlines pilot Jason Mohrman.

The school’s aviation advisory board met May 6 with Bill Hardgrave, dean of the College of Business, to discuss the program's future – one day after JetBlue Airways’ CEO Rob Maruster spoke at the school’s spring commencement ceremony. Auburn is one of only four national universities invited by the airline to participate in its Gateway Program to place qualified pilot candidates.

"We plan to offer the dean assistance in mapping out a program that preserves accreditation for existing students," said Allen Thames, vice chair of the advisory board. "To date, no one has really expressed a commitment to preserving accreditation, but if that goes away, then [the arrangement with] JetBlue goes away, as would a lot of internship programs available from other airlines and manufacturers."

NBAA Members are encouraged to visit www.flyauburn.org or contact Ivey at kivey@nbaa.org for more information and to learn how to join the grassroots effort to save the program.