Director, Office of Public Service
Ralph Foster is director of public service in University Outreach where he focuses on developing community partnerships and civic engagement initiatives, as well as strategic planning for the division. A third generation alumnus, he graduated from Auburn in 1979. Foster joined University Outreach in 1989 and was named a unit director in 1993. His professional activities include service on several nonprofit boards and civic committees in Alabama and also with several national academic organizations. Foster is currently a board officer for Alabama Possible, a nonprofit organization focused on poverty issues in the state. He serves on the executive committee of the Gulf-South Summit, an engagement coalition of 14 universities, and chaired its national conference in Auburn this year. He is past president and director emeritus of the Society for the Advancement of Management International and holds its title of Fellow, the highest professional designation awarded by the organization. His publications include a number of journal articles and book chapters on ethics, education, management and civic engagement. Foster and his wife Lesley share many personal interests including hunting and fishing, culinary arts, gardening – pretty much all things Southern – and, of course, the Auburn Tigers.
1. What led you to a career in the area of public service and outreach?
I guess you could say fate. Most of my family were in some form of civic or public service, primarily education, government work or in health care. Thus, I was somewhat immersed in the service ethic early on. My high school guidance counselor encouraged me to look into the public service fields or education. However, I had some interest in banking and finance at the time, so I decided to major in business administration. I never found the business arena all that fulfilling and eventually returned to graduate school to refocus on the public sector. After finishing my master's, I applied for a project manager position in Auburn's outreach division. I was lucky enough to get that job, and more than 25 years later, I am still at what you could say was my true calling.
2. What are some of the projects in which you've been involved that have been the most rewarding to you personally?
Over 25 years, there's been a lot. Early in my career at Auburn, I was part of a joint Outreach and Extension strategic planning team that organized seven public forums around the state. I gained so much from that experience traveling the state and learning about our communities. I'm very proud to be part of some great engagement projects and collaborations, such as AuburnServes, the House United Habitat for Humanity build, and the nationally recognized Campus Kitchens and Blessings in a Backpack food security programs. I'm honored to have served on some key university initiatives such as Auburn's Sesquicentennial Committee in 2006 and the current Integration Commemoration committee. These projects, great and small, have allowed me to work with inspiring and dedicated people across campus, especially my own wonderful staff. If I had to pick my one most rewarding initiative to date, and perhaps the most significant in the context of the university, I'd have to say it was acquiring the Carnegie Foundation engagement designation in 2010. It was a tough application process, but it resulted in Auburn receiving the most prestigious national recognition available in higher education for its outreach mission.
3. What is your favorite Auburn memory or experience?
Which time around? There are three distinct Auburn periods to my life. When I was in middle school, my mother was working on her master's degree in entomology. For three summers, I would accompany her to campus, assist her and the other grad students with their field work, clean up the lab, mount specimens and roam about the university. I was acquainted with all the professors, who often sent me on errands – some official, some not – including daily Dr. Pepper runs to what is now the Barbecue House. I must have been the youngest graduate assistant on record. Those summers ingrained in me a sense of university life.
Of course, I was at Auburn for four years as an undergraduate. After a couple of years I decided to get engaged in campus activities and ran for SGA as an at-large senator. I can't say we accomplished a lot that term, but the experience did give me the opportunity to work with President Harry Philpot and Dean Jim Foy, two of Auburn's greatest leaders. I am proud to have become quite good friends with Dean Foy through Rotary Club after I returned to Auburn. Campus was always a busy place, but I recall the peacefulness atop the Haley Center Eagle's Nest, especially at night. It was always open back then.
In all these years as an employee, one of my favorite recollections is of the first Auburn vs. Alabama game played on campus in 1989; the atmosphere on campus was electric that day. During the Sesquicentennial celebrations, our committee was invited to climb the clock tower. It was so exciting to ring the bell and add my name to the century-long collection of initials on the inside of the clock face. On a university trip to Belize, I had my photo taken at a "Ralph Works" bus stop in a rural area; very cool, until we learned from the guide that "Ralph" was a corrupt local official who used public funds to build the bus stop as a campaign promotion for himself.
Recently, I discovered my grandfather as a student actually lived in Smith Hall, where my office is currently located. We found in some family letters a postcard with a photo of Smith Hall. It bore the notation "X -- My room: 1909." The "X" was coincidentally marking one of the rooms in our office suite. It is a very unique and meaningful connection to my family's Auburn past.
4. Why do you think it's important for faculty, students and staff to become engaged in the community?
Engagement in outreach and public service is one of Auburn's core values. The Auburn Creed calls us to "believe in the human touch" and to promote "mutual helpfulness." As a land-grant university, it's one of our three cornerstone missions – "research, instruction, extension." It's a priority in our current strategic plan to "enhance public engagement." Aside from these institutional commitments, we know that the Auburn family is already very engaged and committed to serving beyond campus. It's a very strong ethic here, particularly among students. Most importantly, engagement is not just feel-good missionary service delivery; it is an opportunity to build relationships in the community so we can learn and grow as citizens as well as teachers and students. You have to realize that Auburn University is part of "the community" which we endeavor to serve. We are impacted by the same conditions faced by our town, our state and even the world. So we should always look at the community, however you define it, as our partners. These partners are on the front line of the issues we face, and there is a lot we can learn from them that we can apply in the classroom, our research as well as our outreach responses. In the end, we all benefit from engagement – faculty, students, staff and our fellow residents in the community.
5. How do you spend your time when you aren't working?
In our off time, my wife Lesley and I are into all things Southern. We are truly a "Garden and Gun" (magazine) household. We hunt and fish together and love exploring Alabama's remote and beautiful countryside. We love cooking the great Southern game dishes and very much are into the garden-to-table thing. We do some gardening at home and enjoy our yard. We've gotten quite into culinary arts these last few years. Lesley is an accomplished baker; I've been studying blending wines. We're involved in the community and chair an annual fundraiser for the Cancer Society. We're active in our church, and I'm writing a history for its 185th anniversary this year. Of course we keep up with the Tigers. We're pals; we pretty much do everything together. At home, it's just us and a sweet old speckled cat named Tina. But things don't get much better than that.