Education

Auburn paying former ISU President Steve Leath $4.5M to leave

Leath unexpectedly quit last month after only two years on the job

Steven Leath, then the president of Iowa State University, gives his final condition of the university report during an April 20, 2017, Board of Regents meeting in Council Bluffs. He went on to become president of Auburn University in Alabama, but was ousted from that job after holding it only about two years. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)
Steven Leath, then the president of Iowa State University, gives his final condition of the university report during an April 20, 2017, Board of Regents meeting in Council Bluffs. He went on to become president of Auburn University in Alabama, but was ousted from that job after holding it only about two years. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)

Former Iowa State University President Steven Leath spent just two years leading Auburn University until unexpectedly resigning last month, but the institution is paying him $4.5 million to leave — topping what he would have earned had he stayed on the job under the terms of his original deal.

The Alabama university is paying Leath the amount in three equal installments of $1.5 million, according to documents newly released to The Gazette in response to a public records request.

Auburn paid the first one shortly after Leath signed a separation agreement June 28. The second will come July 1, 2020, and the final one will be made July 1, 2021.

Leath’s original five-year contract with Auburn went from July 16, 2017, through July 15, 2022, at a base salary of $625,000 a year — more than $83,000 above the $541,600 his predecessor Jay Gogue earned there. It also was $100,000 a year more than the $525,000 he earned at ISU in Ames, where he was president from January 2012 to May 2017.

In leaving ISU, Leath forfeited $1.25 million in deferred compensation. To make him whole for that loss, Auburn seeded his contract with a matching $1.25 million “as an incentive for Leath to remain at Auburn for the full five year term of this agreement.”

Five years of his base pay at Auburn, plus the incentive, would have netted Leath $4.375 million. But his $4.5 million separation payout comes in addition to the two years of pay Leath already earned — meaning Auburn will have compensated Leath $5.75 million despite him serving only two years.

“Employee will be paid his regular salary and benefits through the resignation date,” identified as June 21, the agreement stated.

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That’s the day the Auburn Board of Trustees announced it and Leath had “mutually decided to part ways after extensive discussions about the university’s leadership.”

Leath submitted a two-line resignation letter June 21, according to a public document provided to The Gazette.

“Janet and I have appreciated the opportunity to serve as Auburn University’s 19th president and first lady. While I look forward to future opportunities, I am grateful for the time I shared with the Auburn family,” Leath wrote. “As we discussed, I will work closely with the Auburn administration to ensure a smooth transition.”

Leath couldn’t be reached for comment for the article.

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The separation agreement stipulates he will not make adverse or disparaging statements about Auburn, nor it about him. Separation negotiations, according to the deal, are to remain confidential.

Auburn’s selection of Leath to succeed Gogue as president followed a private search process, with trustees introducing Leath to the Auburn community for the first upon hiring him.

Only then did the public there learn of Leath’s rocky past at ISU, where he came under fire for misusing university-owned aircraft.

Audits of the ISU flight operation prompted public reprimand from the Iowa Board of Regents, an apology from Leath and a shake-up of ISU Flight Services — including a sale of the plane Leath used, at times, for personal trips.

Upon revelations he had damaged the plane and flew it for purposes outside university business, Leath paid back thousands to ISU.

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In his short time at Auburn, according to a news release announcing his departure, Leath earned for the school a Carnegie R1 designation, putting it among the top 100 research universities in the country. He also initiated presidential research awards and graduate fellowships and grew the Auburn Research Park “substantially.”

Media reports indicate he also faced public criticism while at Auburn, where shortly after arriving he found himself caught up in a scandal within the basketball program, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education. Then-assistant coach Chuck Person was charged in connection with an FBI corruption investigation, eventually pleading guilty to taking money for steering players toward a financial adviser, according to the Chronicle.

A June 26 editorial in the Opelika-Auburn News reported that “Leath rubbed a lot of folks the wrong way with his sometimes blunt and abrasive approach, and with his dogmatic ownership of matters including in sports.”

But no details have emerged about why Leath resigned following discussions with Auburn trustees’ presidential assessment working group.

The separation agreement doesn’t solve the mystery, though it offers an array of stipulations — including that Leath “shall cooperate in any potential or pending litigation or other administrative proceeding (including but not limited to internal university investigation and/or grievance proceedings, investigations, by state of federal agencies, including the Department of Education, Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, etc.)”

The agreement committed Leath to cooperating in Auburn’s leadership transition, and it stripped him of the faculty tenure status he was granted when hired.

By the end of this month, the deal called for Leath to be out of Auburn’s presidential house, which recently underwent a $16.9 million renovation.

Following Leath’s departure, Auburn named former president Gogue as the interim leader.

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