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ISU President Leath leaving for Auburn

Alabama university offers opportunity 'we could not pass up'

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AMES — Steven Leath, who has led Iowa State University through unprecedented growth the past five years but recently came under fire for his use of university airplanes, is leaving the school to become president at Auburn University in Alabama.

Leath, 59, sent a resignation letter Monday to Iowa’s Board of Regents after the Auburn board of trustees unanimously approved him to succeed retiring Auburn President Jay Gogue.

In the letter, Leath said his last day as ISU president is to be sometime between May 8 and June 2.

The Board of Regents named Leath as Iowa State president in January 2012, and he’s since overseen an enrollment spike from 31,040 in fall 2012 to 36,660 at the start of this academic year. He also heads 6,300 faculty and staff members employed at state’s largest public university.

But Leath has struggled to convince state lawmakers to increase funding in support of the growing student body. And earlier this year, in appealing for more money, Leath told legislators Iowa State is in a “very, very difficult position” and he’s “really, really concerned about where we’re going.”

At that same meeting, lawmakers drilled Leath about his use of state funds — questioning his hiring practices and his use of the school’s planes.

Leath late last year was investigated, audited and reprimanded by the Board of Regents for his use of the planes, including taking them on trips involving personal business. On one of those trips, in summer 2015, Leath — while flying the university’s smaller plane — experienced a hard landing that cost the university $17,373.

He didn’t immediately report it to the full board, and only after news reports disclosed the plane use and hard landing did Leath pay the ISU Foundation for the costs the institution incurred. In the wake of that, Leath vowed not to fly the planes again and he committed to sell the smaller aircraft and possibly cut the ISU Flight Services program.

Those plans and a review of the Flight Services program are ongoing.

‘I am not looking to leave’

Leath did not mention the recent controversy or struggle to increase state financial support in his resignation letter to the board.

“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,” he wrote.

In a letter to students, also sent Monday, Leath said he wasn’t looking to leave. In fact, when first approached about the Auburn opportunity, Leath said he responded, “I love Iowa State, and the Iowa State students, faculty, staff and Cyclone family are wonderful; I am not looking to leave.”

“However,” he added, “after much thought, Janet and I decided to look at the opportunity at Auburn and realized the opportunity was one we could not pass up.”

Leath in the message reminded students he recently bought a farm in Iowa “and expected to retire here.” That purchase drew criticism and conflict-of-interest questions because it was brokered by Board of Regents President Bruce Rastetter’s company, Summit Agricultural Group.

In a statement, Rastetter thanked Leath for his service.

“ISU has made great strides during his tenure, including achieving record enrollment,” Rastetter said, adding the board plans to hold a special meeting soon to discuss the presidential transition at Iowa State. Leath said he’ll work with regents to identify an interim president and start the search for a permanent replacement.

The board just wrapped a presidential search at the University of Northern Iowa — hiring Mark Nook to succeed Bill Ruud, after Ruud left last July for Marietta College in Ohio.

After Monday’s announcement, Gov. Terry Branstad said in a statement that Iowa State, under Leath’s leadership, “grew in academic fields like agriculture, engineering and biotechnology. In addition, Steven oversaw record enrollment and the largest fundraising campaign in the history of Iowa State University.”

Lt. Gov. Kim Reynolds added, “Auburn is gaining a motivated and driven leader.”

Comparisons

Auburn, like Iowa State, is a land-grant university with a slightly smaller enrollment — coming in just shy of 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 schools. Iowa State ranked No. 111 among national schools and No. 51 among publics.

Leath has said the quality of an Iowa State education could be jeopardized by weakening state support. The Iowa Legislature in recent years has fallen 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.

Alabama advocates also have called on lawmakers to increase support for higher education in that state — the legislature upped funding by 3 percent from the 2016 to 2017 budget year, but the governor proposed no increase this year, according to The Plainsman — Auburn’s student newspaper.

Leath’s Auburn predecessor Gogue in 2013 made headlines when he reportedly earned $2.5 million — making him the second-highest paid U.S. public college president. That $2.5 million included his $482,070 base pay and $1.8 million in deferred compensation.

Leath in summer 2015 received a 5 percent pay raise, bringing his salary to $525,000. The regents at that time 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 upping tuition fees to account for floundering state support.

Auburn officials on Monday told The Gazette Leath’s new contract will be finalized at the next board of trustees meeting on April 7.

‘War eagle’

During a recorded news conference at Auburn announcing Leath’s hire, board of trustees President Pro Tempore Charles McCrary highlighted his impressions of Leath “in our discussions with you over the past several weeks.”

“It is apparent how student focused you are and how faculty focused you are,” McCrary said. “You recognize that Auburn is here for the students.”

When asked to make a statement, Leath first said, “War eagle,” which is Auburn’s famed battle cry.

“I’m going to enjoy getting to say that on a regular basis,” he said, continuing with the same promise he made Iowa State when arriving — to leave it better when he departs than when he arrived.

“And to the students of Auburn, you are always first,” he said. “And you need to be.”

ISU Student Government President Cole Staudt on Monday said he was surprised by the news of Leath’s departure.

“Just because when the president’s contract was renewed not very long ago, he said he had no intention of leaving,” Staudt told The Gazette. “But I think it’s a good career move for him, and I wish him the best of luck down there.”

As to whether any of this last year’s controversies could have contributed to Leath’s departure, Staudt didn’t speculate.

“The last year has been challenging for the president and for the university in general,” he said. “That’s all I can say.”

The following is text of a letter sent Monday by Iowa State University President Steven Leath to the Iowa Board of Regents announcing his resignation:

Dear Regents Rastetter, Mulholland, Bates, Cownie, Dakovich, Johnson, McKibben, Richards and Sahai and Executive Director Donley:

I write to you in my official capacity as president of Iowa State University to inform you that I am resigning my position as president of the university. I do not wish to invoke my tenure rights, but instead choose to leave the university to pursue another opportunity. My last day of employment will be between May 8 and June 2, 2017; and I will coordinate with Dr. Donley as to the date I need to vacate the Knoll.

My time here at Iowa State has been exciting and rewarding. 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. I am proud of the many accomplishments that we achieved in economic development and community engagement.

Janet and I have made lifelong friends here in Iowa and have had many great experiences. We will always consider ourselves Cyclones and have great affection for this university and its beautiful campus; it is a very special place. Our appreciation for the Cyclone family is beyond words, and we found this extended family of students, faculty, staff, alumni and friends to be the greatest joy of our time at Iowa State

Sincerely,

Steven Leath President and Professor of Plant Pathology

The following is text of a letter sent Monday by Iowa State University President Steven Leath to the student body announcing his resignation and acceptance of a job as president at Auburn University in Alabama:

Dear Cyclones,

I write today to inform the Iowa State Community that I have resigned my position as president of Iowa State University in order to pursue an outstanding opportunity at Auburn University. When first called about this opportunity, I responded truthfully, as I always had done since my arrival in Iowa, by saying, “I love Iowa State, and the Iowa State students, faculty, staff and Cyclone family are wonderful; I am not looking to leave.” However, after much thought, Janet and I decided to look at the opportunity at Auburn and realized the opportunity was one we could not pass up. When we arrived in Ames, we had no idea how much we would fall in love with Iowa and the Cyclone family. In fact, it was not long ago we bought a farm here and expected to retire here. However, we now realize our destiny is in Alabama and leading one of the nation’s great land-grant universities to even greater prominence.

I leave with a promise fulfilled, and that was to leave the university better than I inherited it. I leave with Iowa State achieving record enrollment, retention rates, graduation rates, job placement rates, as well as records in fundraising and research funding and numerous other metrics. I am proud of the many accomplishments that we achieved in economic development and community engagement.

I have volunteered to work closely with the Regents to identify an interim president and start a search for a permanent president. In addition, I will keep you updated during this time of change.

Janet and I have made lifelong friends here in Iowa and have had many great experiences. We will always consider ourselves Cyclones and have great affection for this university and its beautiful campus; it is a very special place. Our appreciation for the Cyclone family is beyond words, and we found this extended family of students, faculty, staff, alumni and friends to be the greatest joy of our time at Iowa State.

Sincerely,

Steven and Janet A. Leath

President and First Lady

l Comments: (319) 339-3158; vanessa.miller@thegazette.com

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