Education

Former ISU President Steven Leath boasted of fundraising prowess at Auburn

Its trustees urged him to be mindful of Auburn's 'trademark humility'

Iowa State University President Steven Leath gives a report during a Board of Regents meeting at the Iowa Memorial Union on the University of Iowa campus in Iowa City on Wednesday, Mar. 11, 2015. (Gazette photo)
Iowa State University President Steven Leath gives a report during a Board of Regents meeting at the Iowa Memorial Union on the University of Iowa campus in Iowa City on Wednesday, Mar. 11, 2015. (Gazette photo)

Weeks before officially starting as the new leader of Auburn University, former Iowa State University President Steven Leath hopped a plane to Washington to meet with U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue on behalf of his new institution.

The trip presaged how Leath would make meeting dignitaries, donors and decision-makers a top priority in his early tenure at the Alabama institution — a tactic he boasted propelled an Auburn fundraising campaign to more than $1.2 billion and generated $140 million in his first year, “surpassing the university’s annual goal by more than 29 percent, which is unusual during a leadership change.”

While congratulating him in September 2018 on “an excellent year of fundraising,” Auburn trustees juxtaposed Leath’s braggadocio in raising the school’s national profile with its “trademark humility.”

Nine months later, on June 21, Leath abruptly resigned from Auburn just two years into a five-year contract.

His expense records during his truncated tenure, which Auburn provided The Gazette in response to a request, show that besides meeting with Perdue, Leath met with NBA great Charles Barkley; professional golfer Jason Dufner; and Apple Chief Executive Officer Tim Cook, all Auburn alumni whose company in 2017 was awarded more than $200 million in incentives to build a facility in Iowa.

The records show Leath left May 30, 2017, from Auburn’s Airport to meet Perdue, who days earlier announced funding cuts for agricultural research and programs benefiting rural towns, striking at the heart of the land-grant schools Leath was between.

The next day, Leath again took a flight from Auburn to Florida for the Southeastern Conference spring meeting. He made several more trips on behalf of Auburn before officially assuming the helm July 16, 2017, and continued afterward.

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“It was great pleasure to meet with top individual corporate donors,” Leath wrote in a self-assessment he submitted to Auburn trustees.

Noting the Southern university’s typical humility, the board responded that “we are hopeful that your bold confidence will complement that humility in a way that preserves Auburn’s tradition but showcases its ability.”

Skips question

Dogged while at ISU by misuse of university aircraft, misspending of ISU resources and poor communication with board members, Leath skipped a question on his Auburn assessment about “problems the president is facing,” instead focusing on challenges and opportunities for the university.

But trustees highlighted communication “with all constituencies under your leadership, as well as the board itself” as an area he could improve.

“The explicitly delineated duties of our board differ substantially from models in other states where a central authority (such as a state board of regents …) oversees all higher education activities,” the board wrote to Leath. “While we respect and reiterate your day-to-day administrative control over the affairs of Auburn University, we encourage you to continue to work directly with us or through the board office to keep this board informed of higher-level plans and activities.”

Those activities, according to the assessment, should include major expenditures, key hires “and any other matters which could have significant bearing on the operation, reputation, and/or good standing of the university.”

Trustees noted Leath passed up the question seeking self-reflection and instead highlighted enrollment, faculty and philanthropic recruitment challenges.

”The board would be interested to know how, specifically, you believe we might work with you to address these problems,” according to the assessment, which urged Leath to focus on “positive morale and collaboration among Auburn administrators and faculty.”

Leath never made a full year after that assessment, resigning later without explanation — but with the board paying him $4.5 million.

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The Gazette was not able to reach Leath for comment.

has ITS own planes

Trips and meals Leath expensed in his two years at Auburn show his efforts to fundraise, collaborate with lawmakers and board members, and elevate Auburn’s reputation — logging at least seven trips before his official start date July 16, 2017, according to expense records.

As Auburn has its own aircraft within the Air Transportation Department, Leath’s travel expenses largely involved ground transportation, food, and lodging — although he expensed a $2,225 flight to Maui in November for a men’s basketball tournament.

Other noteworthy trips included meetings with Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey, who also serves as president of the Auburn Board of Trustees; lawmakers; former Alabama Superintendent of Education Ed Richardson; and high-profile alumni and donors.

Leath’s travel records show numerous sporting events, including a $3,700 trip to Nashville for a conference tournament three months before his resignation, and two trips to Iowa, including one to meet with donors.

Auburn did not respond to questions about how often Leath used the university’s aircraft and how his use compared with past presidents.

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

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