In former Iowa State University President Steven Leath’s unexpected departure from Auburn, he likely leaves on the table a $1.25 million deferred compensation package that would have paid out in 2022 — an offer that was supposed to make him whole for leaving ISU early.
Leath, who served as ISU president from 2012 until being recruited away to the Auburn University presidency in March 2017, is parting ways with the Alabama institution just two years into his five-year contract.
The announcement came last week after Leath and an Auburn Board of Trustees’ presidential assessment working group “mutually decided to part ways after extensive discussions about the university’s leadership.”
“Dr. Leath arrived with vision and enthusiasm to take Auburn to the next level,” Wayne T. Smith, president pro tempore of the Auburn board, said in a Friday news release. “We’re grateful for his dedication and commitment as Auburn made strides as a world-class public university.”
Auburn did not provide details about why Leath is leaving before his contract ends and also didn’t answer specific questions about his compensation.
In a release Sunday, the school reported the executive committee of the Auburn trustees voted by telephone to accept Leath’s resignation. The committee also agreed to recommend as interim president former Auburn President Jay Gogue, who retired in 2017 and preceded Leath. The full board will consider that recommendation in a special meeting July 8.
In a statement, Leath said, “Serving as Auburn’s president has been the highlight of my career.”
“I’m confident we leave Auburn stronger than when we arrived,” he said.
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In the Auburn news release, the school touts achievements under Leath’s leadership, including earning the Carnegie R1 designation, placing it among the top 100 research universities in the country. It also notes Leath initiated interdisciplinary research awards and graduate research fellowships, and propelled growth at the Auburn Research Park with the addition of a new child care facility and plans for a new Innovation and Research Center and health sciences facility.
Last year, less than one year into the new job, Leath announced Auburn would hire 500 tenure-track faculty members by 2022, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education.
Upon joining the administration in July 2017, Leath landed a five-year contract paying him a base annual salary of $625,000 — more than $83,000 above the $541,600 of his predecessor. Leath’s salary was $100,000 more than the $525,000 he was making at Iowa State, where he forfeited about $1.2 million in deferred compensation by leaving before his contract was up.
In an effort to incentivize Leath to stay for a full five years, Auburn set up his contract with three years of $250,000 annual payments — seeded with a $500,000 addition “in order to offset the funds he would have received under his prior contract if he had completed the full term of the contract with his previous employer.”
Leath brought in $220,214 from Auburn in his work in the second half of 2017, according to an Alabama state salary database. He made $661,584 in all of 2018.
In setting his salary, Leath’s Auburn contract reports trustees considered several factors, including other presidents’ pay, his duties and qualifications, and “the need to offer competitive remuneration to attract an individual such as Leath who is currently successfully employed in a high position at another university of significant size and national standing.”
In the months preceding Leath’s departure from Iowa State, he came under fire for misuse of an ISU-owned aircraft. Audits of the ISU flight operation prompted public reprimand from the Iowa Board of Regents, an apology from Leath — along with payments back to the university — and changes to ISU Flight Services.
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