Building the future: Auburn’s Holley using real-world experience to teach builders of tomorrow at alma mater

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Paul Holley never expected to end up in academia.

A longtime construction industry manager and executive, Holley was looking for a change of pace in 2002 when friend and emeritus Auburn University faculty member Steve Williams told him about a teaching job at his alma mater. He took the plunge, and now nearly 20 years later, Holley has built a career as an educator that has evolved into one of the more impressive tenures on campus.

Holley spent 15 years in the construction industry, helping oversee the construction of hospitals, high-rises and office buildings throughout the country for the likes of Birmingham-based conglomerates Robins & Morton and BL Harbert International. Along the way, he also earned an MBA from the University of Alabama at Birmingham, as well as a doctorate in education from Auburn—where he also had received his bachelor’s degree in building construction—before transitioning to the role of professor in 2002.

Holley teaches contracting business, construction surveying and layout and project scheduling to both undergrads and graduate students and serves as director of the Center for Construction Innovation and Collaboration, or CCIC. Most recently, he was named as one of two winners of the prestigious 2021 Gerald and Emily Leischuck Endowed Presidential Award for Excellence in Teaching, a high honor he does not take lightly.

“It’s very flattering, and I’m very happy to represent the McWhorter School of Building Science and the College of Architecture, Design and Construction,” said Holley, a five-time recipient of CADC’s Outstanding Teaching Award. “Whatever small successes I might have personally, I’m glad for them to be able to illuminate the good things going on in our school and our college. I just want to do a good job, and it provides validation as a reason to continue to work hard.

“There’s a lot of people in our school who work hard and work behind the scenes who make the faculty look good. I was really humbled to read the support letters, and it does make me happy to know that I’ve had at least some small influence on somebody’s career or life.”

Using concrete examples from his experiences in the construction sector as ways to illustrate the principles and concepts of the curriculum he teaches, Holley focuses on the practicality of building science. Always considering what is best for the students, he concentrates on two basic priorities in his teaching: 1. Creating an environment and culture where students are challenged and motivated to succeed, willing to be wrong and learn from experience and help transition from college to the professional world; and 2. Leveraging the students’ growing expertise of technology and world awareness to maximize their success both in and out of the classroom.

“I think the students need to not be afraid to fail, but I think the teachers also be the ones learning,” said Holley, who has completed a Management Development Program certification program at Harvard University. “Students will stretch, they are resilient and they are smart.

“As an educator, if you just say, ‘All right, I’m just going to keep doing the same thing. This works pretty well,’ you’re going to get outdated pretty quickly. You’ve got to be willing to evolve, try new things and look at things from different angles.”

Holley believes his real-world experience is a great boost to his teaching and enables him to communicate with and educate his students more effectively.

“Oh, I think it makes all the difference in the world,” he said. “I think it enables me to approach things a certain way and to bring certain things to the table. Our faculty, we’re pretty demanding, but quite frankly, our students are demanding and are not going through the easiest curriculum on campus.

“They expect to get their money’s worth, so to speak, and so our being able to not just be a passive dispenser of information, but rather somebody who can engage and enlighten and bring real-world experiences and cases to the table I think is a real benefit for both faculty and students.”

A second-generation Auburn graduate, Holley has a deep connection with the university that inspired his return to the Plains and fuels his commitment to his career as an educator.

“I grew up in Alex City, about 40 miles from here, and my father [Don] graduated from Auburn in 1958,” Holley said. “As a kid who grew up coming to Auburn for games and had a Pat Sullivan poster on my wall, I’ve always had a real strong connection to Auburn. I went to school here and then went out into my professional career with precisely zero intention or even thought of coming back to teach. But plans change, and things happen.

“I had an opportunity to come back, and I’m not sure I would’ve done that just anywhere else. It wasn’t like I was anxious to go into academia. It was like, ‘Would you be interested in teaching?’ ‘Ah, maybe, maybe not.’ ‘Would you be interested in teaching at the college level?’ ‘Maybe, maybe not.’ ‘Would you be interested in teaching at Auburn in the School of Building Science?’ ‘Well, OK, now we’re getting somewhere.’”

Inspiring students and helping them navigate their way through college and into their professional careers, Holley says, provides plenty of fulfillment for him as a professor.

“I certainly have moments of pride and satisfaction, maybe in a classroom where you see the proverbial light bulb come on,” said Holley, a past Willborn Senior and Bob Aderholt Endowed Professor. “Or maybe it’s something more tangible about one of your students who’s been recognized, received an award or got a really amazing job, something like that.”

On a personal level, Holley stays inspired by the ever-changing nature of his profession and the always-evolving contingent of students who make their way to Auburn.

“Selfishly, I find great satisfaction in seeking new ways to engage,” he said. “Every year, I get a year older, but the student body does not. That means that I’ve got to be the one who changes. Of all the things I might be accused of, I don’t want to be accused of being stale, boring and unwilling to bend and look for new ways to do things.”

Holley’s work with the CCIC brings together faculty, students and industry representatives to focus on innovative and collaborative problem-solving, while also developing approaches to real problems related to construction products and processes by integrating technology, expertise and cutting-edge ideas. He has coached more than 20 competition teams of students in national and international competitions as well.

Holley and his colleagues do their best to prepare students for life after college, and mentoring plays a big role in that development.

“We talk about this idea of a professional program, and to go into a particular profession, it’s more than just formulas, codes and software or whatever,” he said. “It’s how do you navigate tough choices? How do you handle communication with a wide range of folks?

“As a builder, it’s not unusual that in one day you might have a conversation with a construction laborer who is pushing wheelbarrows full of rocks—which is a very important task—and then 30 minutes later, you may be talking to the CEO of a hospital. So, it’s all those things in addition to coursework and the curriculum-based activities, and students are eager to learn and ask questions about it all.”

Providing that real-world insight and preparing the industry’s leaders of tomorrow provides tangible and noticeable results for Holley and other Auburn educators.

“Personally, I really get inspired by these students who can see their professional career on the horizon,” Holley said. “To me, that’s really motivating to see how these guys and gals, almost before your eyes, go from wearing shorts and a T-shirt and flip flops to a suit and putting a multimillion-dollar budget in front of a client. So, I get energized by that because those students are on the edge of their careers, and they’re just demanding about learning.”

Given the never-ending demand for construction professionals and the strength of the industry, Holley knows Auburn graduates will hit the ground running as they embark on their post-Plains journeys.

“The construction industry is exceptionally strong right now, and we’re very fortunate to have a strong demand for our students,” he said. “It’s a good problem to have. We produce people who manage and take risks to produce the built environment.

“Construction’s the largest industry in the world, maybe other than government, and it isn’t going anywhere.”

Holley doesn’t plan on going anywhere either any time soon. He and his wife, Jacque, who also works at Auburn, have two children, Lee Chapman, a senior at the University of Alabama, and Yates, a junior at Auburn High School.

In May, he will celebrate 20 years as an Auburn educator.

“I thought it was the dumbest idea I had ever heard,” Holley said of Williams’ suggestion to join the Auburn faculty. “The next thing you know, I’ve been here 20 years. Wow!”

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