ISU students call for probe into president's use of school airplane

Steven Leath: I am remorseful about some things

Iowa State University President Steven Leath speaks during a Gazette editorial board meeting at the Gazette and KCRG building in Cedar Rapids on Wednesday, March 04, 2015. (Michael Noble Jr./The Gazette)
Iowa State University President Steven Leath speaks during a Gazette editorial board meeting at the Gazette and KCRG building in Cedar Rapids on Wednesday, March 04, 2015. (Michael Noble Jr./The Gazette)

AMES — Iowa State University student leaders on Wednesday passed a resolution calling for a full investigation of President Steven Leath’s use of a university-owned plane after Leath addressed the students, saying, “I am remorseful about some things.”

Leath has come under fire for his use of Iowa State’s Cirrus SR22, which he damaged to the tune $12,591 in July 2015. He’s disclosed flying that plane on four occasions for trips involving both personal and university business.

Those trips cost the university $4,637, and Leath said he reimbursed the university at a rate based on a predetermined formula developed by ISU Flight Service. Since news broke recently of the 2015 accident, Leath made a $15,000 donation to the ISU Foundation to cover the cost of the repairs.

And he’s vowed to never pilot an ISU plane again.

“This is my first presidency,” Leath said to a packed room of student senators during a regularly scheduled student government meeting. “You learn as you go. With 20-20 hindsight, would I do things different? Absolutely. Would I have not done some things? Would I have changed some things? Absolutely. Will I behave different in the future? Yes.”

The student government resolution calls on the Board of Regents to investigate Leath’s use of the plane, the cost to the university, and whether he violated any university or state policies. Board of Regents Executive Director Robert Donley earlier in the day announced a “compliance review into policies regarding use of equipment and travel at each of the three regent universities.”

The review is to ensure policies are “clear and consistent” and that they are followed. But student leaders said they want the investigation to be more specific to Leath’s use.


Leath urged the students not to pass the resolution, asking them to consider the board’s limited resources and time to spend on something like this.

Before passing the resolution, students peppered Leath with questions including how often he used the plane.

“I don’t know,” Leath said. “I use them a lot. But let me put that in perspective. I have 63,000 miles on American Airlines this year. So most of my miles are commercial miles, sitting right next to you folks.”

The student inquiries prompted Leath to lay out a handful of things he would do differently if he had the chance. For starters, he wouldn’t have used the private planes when public options were available, and he wouldn’t have picked up family members, as was reported by the Associated Press.

“For some of these things, it was convenient to go on a university plane,” Leath said. “I wish now I hadn’t, quite frankly.”

Leath said he also would have reported the crash sooner and to more officials. And he wouldn’t have underestimated the news cycle on the issue.

“I guess I was a little naive about this event,” he said.

In talking to reporters Wednesday, Leath confirmed he received flight training from multiple instructors, including Jim Kurtenbach, an associate professor who was promoted in January 2015 to serve as interim chief information officer. Without using a formal job search, Leath permanently hired Kurtenbach into the post — which pays $252,794 — in June.

Kurtenbach provided Leath with the final training he needed to receive a specific certification. Leath said he flew his last required hours with Kurtenbach on Jan. 10, 2015 — after appointing Kurtenbach to the interim CIO position.


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Board of Regents President Bruce Rastetter previously said he knew of Leath’s use of the plane and the accident. And the board said it does not believe Leath violated any policies.

But at least one regent, Subhash Sahai, has told reporters he wasn’t informed about Leath’s flying and the crash, and Leath on Wednesday said he doesn’t know how that fell through the cracks.

Leath during Wednesday’s meeting vowed to be transparent about his use of the planes and said university officials plan to release more records, ISU policies and flight logs for the planes involved. He also said he’ll be more careful about when he chooses to be a passenger in the planes.

Leath said he has more Cirrus flight hours than any of the school’s other three certified pilots combined and losing his ability to personally pilot the Cirrus leaves him with less time to work and forces him to be creative in finding ways to maintain efficiency.

“Maybe I’ll try to get donors to fly me more,” he said. “But that is another ask to donors, as opposed to them giving to scholarships.”

Leath told reporters, the regents have expressed disappointment in the recent negative attention on his university.

“They are disappointed that this is negative, they are very supportive, they trust in me that I want to lead the university to greater things,” he said. “They realize I took it seriously. I’ve learned from it. We’re going to do things differently.”

Leath repeated those promises to students Wednesday, saying, “You’ll get a better president out of this.”


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