Higher education

Iowa State President Leath forfeits $1.2 million by leaving

Regent believes plane controversy 'didn't help' keep him in Iowa

Steven Leath, Iowa State University President, sits in the back during a town hall forum at the Iowa State University Memorial Union in Ames on Tuesday, Nov. 29, 2016. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)
Steven Leath, Iowa State University President, sits in the back during a town hall forum at the Iowa State University Memorial Union in Ames on Tuesday, Nov. 29, 2016. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)

As Auburn University finalizes details of outgoing Iowa State University President Steven Leath’s new contract, Iowa’s Board of Regents confirms he’s forfeiting $1.2 million in deferred compensation by leaving.

Leath, hired at Iowa State five years ago, had two deferred compensation payouts coming. A 2014 plan would have paid him $550,000 on June 30, 2019, and a 2015 plan would have netted $625,000 on June 30, 2020, according to Board of Regents spokesman Josh Lehman.

“As President Leath resigned voluntarily, he will not receive any money from his deferred compensation plans,” Lehman told The Gazette.

Auburn’s board of trustees, which voted unanimously Monday to hire Leath as the school’s 19th president, will finalize a contract with Leath at its next meeting April 7, according to Brian Keeter, Auburn public affairs director.

Auburn’s outgoing president Jay Gogue’s current base salary is $541,600, according to Keeter. Gogue made news in 2013 by earning $2.5 million — making him the second-highest paid U.S. public college president. That total included a $482,070 base pay and $1.8 million in deferred compensation.

Leath’s current salary at Iowa State is $525,000.

After Monday’s announcement, Leath told students in an email he had not been looking to leave. But Auburn approached him, and Leath said he couldn’t pass up the chance.

On Tuesday, some regents reported being surprised by news of Leath’s departure. They also are coming around to the new reality that the board — for the third time in two years — must launch a costly and time-consuming university president search.

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“I have no trouble saying that it was my feeling when we got done hiring at (University of Northern Iowa) that we were well situated for my last two years,” said regent Larry McKibben, whose term on the board expires in 2019. “I thought, this is great, now we can have two settled years.”

The board on Dec. 6 hired Mark Nook to succeed Bill Ruud as UNI president after a monthslong process facilitated by AGB Search. The board’s contract with AGB included an $85,000 fixed fee, not including expenses — which, according to the firm’s proposal, could bring costs to $110,000.

The board has not reported a final breakdown of the exact costs.

In November 2015, the board wrapped a high-profile hunt for a new University of Iowa president by hiring former IBM businessman Bruce Harreld to take over for Sally Mason. That process also took months and cost $309,608 — including more than $282,000 for consultant services and more than $20,700 in expenses.

In a statement Monday, outgoing board President Bruce Rastetter — whose term expires April 30 — said regents will meet soon to discuss a process for hiring a new ISU president. No new details were released Tuesday on a potential timeline.

McKibben said he “absolutely” has concerns about incurring additional costs at a time when lawmakers are slashing university budgets. In December and January, as part of a $117.8 million statewide de-appropriation, lawmakers took back $20.8 million from the board’s current-year budgets.

Leath, who oversaw record growth of the ISU student body during his five years, has been pleading for more state resources to support the demand at his institution. But lawmakers in recent sessions have fallen short of the regents’ funding requests — although McKibben said he doesn’t necessarily think that led to Leath’s departure.

One thing that “certainly didn’t help” keep Leath at Iowa State, McKibben said, was a recent controversy involving the president’s use of ISU-owned airplanes. News broke in September that Leath hadn’t reported to full board a hard landing the prior summer that cost the university $17,373.

Details also emerged around Leath’s questionable use of planes, at times using them for trips involving personal business. That prompted public reprimand from regents, including Rastetter, an internal audit of ISU Flight Services specific to Leath’s plane use, and private discussions about his future at Iowa State.

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Following a December audit report that found Leath might have violated board policy at times, Leath vowed to sell the smaller school plane, consider the possibility of eliminating ISU Flight Services and repay the ISU Foundation for personal trips.

But the board didn’t reprimand him further, thanked him for his service and vowed to move forward.

McKibben told The Gazette on Tuesday he thinks the media coverage of Leath’s plane use was “overdone.”

“Good Lord, planes landing in windy conditions have problems,” McKibben said, referencing Leath’s hard landing and praising him for using the plane to be more efficient. “He was a president that, as I observed him, he was working seven days a week, out raising money and trying to grow the university and be efficient with the time used.”

McKibben said the board could have done a better job when hiring Leath to work into his contract details about his use of university aircraft.

“It certainly had to have some impact on him being interested — but I’m sure Auburn came after him,” McKibben said.

Nancy Boettger, one of two new regents appointed by Gov. Terry Branstad earlier this month — in addition to incumbent Sherry Bates — said she also wasn’t expecting to launch a presidential search so soon into her tenure. But she said she’s up to the task.

“It’s clearly one of the most important things that the Board of Regents do,” said Boettger, who has yet to be confirmed by two-thirds of the Iowa Senate. “So orientation will be quick, and we’ll begin digging into one of our most important tasks.”

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

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