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New Iowa State President laying foundation for big-picture goals

AMES — Just four weeks into his tenure, Iowa State University’s new leader, Steven Leath, is still settling into his first presidency.

At a state Board of Regents committee meeting last week, Leath began to introduce himself to the people around the table as “vice president” Leath, referring to his former position with the University of North Carolina system.

But Leath is laying the groundwork on his big-picture goals, which include capitalizing on partnerships with the private sector to further research and economic development, being more demand-driven and responsive to the state’s needs and keeping quality and affordability at the top of the agenda in a time of declining state funding for public universities.

“I’ve probably never worked this hard and never had this much fun,” Leath, 54, said of his first weeks at ISU’s helm. “I think land grants, more than any other university type in this country, get their mission right. They’re based on high-quality education, research to benefit society and then translating that research to effective engagement. That fits me well, that’s the kind of person I am.”

Chosen by the regents in September as ISU’s 15th president, Leath’s first few weeks have been a whirlwind of meetings, traveling and getting to know people on campus and in state government. He said he wants to learn more about ISU and get to know more people before he forms his definitive goals, but Leath expects economic development and a focus on more public-private partnerships will be on that list.

Economic development is “dear to my heart,” Leath said, and an area where ISU has traditionally done well. But he sees room for growth, especially when it comes to partnering with private companies to further scientific research, and to deliver the results of that research to society.

“I think I can have a major impact on being the go-to university for these types of things,” Leath said. “We want to be that one university that is the best place to do public-private partnerships.”

Leath previously served as vice president of research and sponsored programs for the 16-campus University of North Carolina system, where he helped guide the creation of the North Carolina Research Campus in Kannapolis, a public-private venture that promotes advancements in biotechnology, nutrition and health.

While Leath clearly has great expertise in economic development, people on campus don’t expect that will be his only strength, ISU Faculty Senate President Steve Freeman said.

“I think his leadership style is going to be very straightforward,” Freeman said. “What we’ve seen so far is that he’s very open. He’s not afraid to ask questions, he’s not afraid to try and figure out what’s happening in all the small details.”

Leath is comfortable talking to billionaires, bureaucrats, farmers and faculty, said Leslie Boney, vice president for international, community and economic engagement at the University of North Carolina. Boney said Leath is willing to invest the time to listen first to what people want before he starts talking about what he envisions.

“I think he is someone who cares about getting the job done and doesn’t especially care whether he gets credit,” Boney said.

A plant pathologist by training, Leath was the “informal consultant,” in their UNC office who helped co-workers nurse sick office plants back to health, Boney said. In college, Leath worked as a bartender and a ranch hand.

“He’s as smart a person as I’ve known, but it takes a while to figure that out because he comes off as so normal,” Boney said.

Being a university president demands a lot of time, and Leath said in his off hours he likes things that get him out in the woods or allow him to clear his head. He likes hunting and is a pilot, and he owns a Christmas tree farm with his family. Leath’s wife, Janet, will join him full-time in Ames in a few months, after she transitions into retirement from her insurance business in North Carolina. The Leaths have two sons, Eric, 24, and Scott, 21.

Leath said his leadership style has been impacted by past mentors who were studious, thoughtful, strategic and decisive. He enjoys spending time with university donors and supporters to see what parts of the university are important to them, to see what they think is going right, and what advice they have on what needs to be changed.

Iowans should know he feels a kinship to this agricultural state and to ISU’s mission, Leath said.“Iowa State is a great university but sometimes it’s undersold because people have been very humble about it,” he said. “We need to get our reputation at the national and international level.”

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