Iowa State University President Steven Leath, who has led ISU through unprecedented growth the past five years, is leaving the school to become president at Auburn University in Alabama. The Auburn board of trustees voted last week to choose Leath as the 19th president of Auburn, succeeding their retiring president Jay Gogue. Leath’s last day at ISU will come between May 8 and June 2, according to his resignation letter he sent to the Iowa Board of Regents.
“As promised, I am turning over the university to the next president better than I inherited it, with records in enrollment, retention rates, graduation rates, job placement numbers, as well as records in research funding, private fundraising and numerous other metrics,” Leath wrote in the letter dated March 20. “I am proud of my many accomplishments that we achieved in economic development and community engagement.”
The 59-year-old Leath came under criticism this past year as his presidency was clouded by his use of university aircraft and questions about his purchase of land through a company owned by the president of the Iowa Board of Regents. Student and campus leaders at Ames described Leath’s pending departure as both a loss for ISU, as well as an opportunity for a fresh start.
Record ISU enrollment
The Iowa Board of Regents named Leath ISU president in January 2012. Since then, he’s overseen an enrollment increase from 31,000 in fall 2012 to 36,660 at the start of this academic year. He heads 6,300 faculty and staff at the state’s largest public university. Leath has struggled to persuade state legislators to increase funding to support ISU’s growing student body. Earlier in 2017, in appealing to lawmakers for more money, he told them Iowa State is in a “very, very difficult position” and he’s “really, really concerned about where we’re going.”
Lawmakers have questioned Leath about his use of state funds, along with his hiring practices and use of the school’s airplanes. Late last year he was reprimanded by the board of regents for his use of school planes, taking them on trips involving personal business. In the summer of 2015 while piloting the university’s smaller plane, he experienced a hard landing that cost the university $17,373 to repair the damaged plane. Leath didn’t report the incident to the full board immediately. After news reports disclosed the hard landing and his use of the plane, he paid the ISU Foundation for the costs the university incurred.
In an email message to students last week explaining his decision to accept the Auburn offer, Leath said he wasn’t looking to leave ISU. When he was first approached by Auburn, he said he responded, “I love Iowa State, and Iowa State students, faculty, staff and the Cyclone family are wonderful. I’m not looking to leave.” However, he added, “After much thought, Janet and I decided to look at the opportunity at Auburn and realized it was one we couldn’t pass up.”
Thanking the president for his service
Board President Bruce Rastetter thanked Leath for his service. “ISU has made great strides during his tenure, including achieving record enrollment,” said Rastetter. Leath said he will work with the regents to identify an interim president and start the search for a permanent replacement. After the March 20 announcement, Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad said Iowa State, under Leath’s leadership, “grew in academic fields like agriculture, engineering and biotechnology. In addition, Steven Leath oversaw record enrollment and the largest fundraising campaign ever at ISU.”
Auburn, like Iowa State, is a land-grant university with a slightly smaller enrollment — just under 28,300 for the current academic year. Auburn, in the most recent U.S. News and World Report rankings, came in at No. 99 among national universities and No. 43 among public universities. Iowa State ranked No. 111 among national schools and No. 51 among public universities.
Leath has said in public speeches in recent weeks that he is concerned the quality of an Iowa State education could be jeopardized by weakening state financial support. The Iowa Legislature in recent years has come up short of the regents’ funding requests and it slashed $20.8 million from the board’s current budget, taking back nearly $9 million from Iowa State.
In summer of 2015, Leath got a 5% pay raise, bringing his salary to $525,000. The regents also approved a five-year deferred compensation plan for Leath that would have given him $125,000 annually through 2020. He asked for no pay raise last summer as the board was increasing tuition fees to make up for declining state financial support for the university.
Source: ISU, Iowa Board of Regents