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State Senate approves Harbert as Auburn trustee

MONTGOMERY — Birmingham businessman Raymond J. Harbert has been appointed as an Auburn University trustee after a key Alabama senator blocked the nomination for one year out of concern for a lack of diversity on the board.

The Senate voted 27-1 Tuesday for Harbert’s selection, allowing him to begin a seven-year term on the board of his alma mater.

“I’m absolutely honored and thrilled to have the opportunity,” Harbert said after watching the vote.

Auburn’s trustee selection committee, headed by Gov. Bob Riley, nominated Harbert last year. But the chairman of the Senate’s Confirmations Committee, Sen. Myron Penn, D-Union Springs, who is black, never brought it to a vote because of the lack of diversity on the board, which is dominated by white men.

The Confirmations Committee got a new white chairman in February, Sen. Hinton Mitchem, D-Albertville. The selection committee then renominated the white business executive, and Mitchem pushed for his approval.

The Confirmations Committee approved Harbert 13-0 Tuesday and encouraged the Senate to act.

Penn cast the lone vote against Harbert Tuesday. He praised Harbert as a “fine gentleman,” but said Auburn’s 14-member board has one black man, two white women and 11 white men.

“We need to be more reflective of the population at Auburn University,” he said.

Democratic Sen. Lowell Barron of Fyffe, a former Auburn trustee, said one black trustee out of 14 accurately reflects the black percentage of Auburn’s enrollment, but he said the number of women on Auburn’s board does not represent the enrollment.

Barron said changing the chairman of the Confirmations Committee helped get Harbert approved, and Harbert got overwhelming support in the Senate because he would be a valued addition to any university’s board.

“This is not about helping Raymond Harbert. This is about Raymond Harbert helping Auburn,” Barron said.

Harbert graduated from Auburn in 1982 with a bachelor’s degree in industrial management. He is now chairman and chief executive officer of the Birmingham investment management company Harbert Management Co. His role includes managing the fortune built by his late father, construction magnate John Harbert.

Last year, John Harbert’s wife, Marguerite Harbert, was the only Alabamian to make Forbes magazine’s list of the 400 wealthiest Americans. She ranked 301st with $1.6 billion due to her family’s business success.

Auburn has another trustee position, currently held by Paul Spina of Pelham, coming open in September. Some senators said they had encouraged Auburn officials to use that seat to address diversity issues.