Editor's note: This article has been updated to include comments from Leath.
Soon-to-be Auburn President Steven Leath has devoted nearly the last four decades of his life to academics: He studied plant science at Penn State University, University of Delaware and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Before his 2012–17 presidency at Iowa State, Leath was vice president for research at the University of North Carolina.
During his career, Leath has experienced many successes — but he's also endured his share of controversies.
Highs and lows
Leath leaves Iowa State with a record-high enrollment, a greatly expanded state research park, and he led a fundraising initiative that brought in more than $1 billion.
As Iowa State president, Leath said he "put student issues first."
"Now are at record levels not only for enrollment but more importantly for first year retention and graduation rates," Leath wrote in an email to The Plainsman. "In addition our overall placement rate across all majors is now at 95 percent for the last three years. We also have raised over $200 million in new scholarship money in the last five years. It is important to note we are not recruiting more students. They are coming because this is a great place."
Student enrollment at the university has increased nearly 44 percent in the past decade, according to Iowa State Daily, with fall 2016 seeing a record enrollment of 36,660 students. Its student body has grown nearly 2 percent since fall 2015 alone.
The Iowa State Research Park is something Leath has worked to expand during his time at Iowa State, according to another Iowa State Daily report. The park was established in 1987 as a not-for-profit. It has since become a hub for start-up companies and entrepreneurial ventures.
Leath has been influential in doubling the size of park, and it is expected to employ approximately 5,000 people by 2025.
He's also been a strong fundraiser during his time at Iowa State.
"Fundraising is an interesting experience, and it's not, as many people think, you know like task-orientated," Leath said in an interview with the Iowa State Daily in October. "I don’t walk up to you and say, ‘Hi, I’m Steve Leath, I’m from Iowa State. I’d like you to give me a million dollars.’ And if I did, you’d think, ‘What is the matter with this guy?’
"It’s about relationships and trust. Donors and people that want to support you have to believe that you are going to use the money the way they want it used."
Despite his accomplishments, Leath's legacy at Iowa State has been marred by controversy.
His use of a university aircraft for personal engagements — or "planegate," as it has been referred to in the Iowa press — was Leath's most public debacle.
A hard landing in 2014 that damaged Iowa State's single-engine Cirrus jet resulted in roughly $14,000 in damages.
After the plane was damaged, the Board of Regents conducted an internal audit investigating his use of the aircraft — including using the university’s planes to attend doctor visits and picking up relatives on one of Iowa State’s planes while on the way to an NCAA basketball tournament.
The issue sparked a debate about the ethics associated with his use of the aircraft and the lack of transparency with the process.
Within the audit, it was decided that while Leath’s use of the aircraft entered “several shades of gray,” “the [plane] use did not violate existing board policy,” and that the regents “agree with President Leath that we can and must do better.”
Leath believes the issue was blown out of proportion.
"The plane issue was poorly reported and taken to an extreme level," Leath wrote in the email. "Two audits showed no policies were broken and as it turned out some of the flights questioned had been paid for by me."
Leath also appointed Jim Kurtenbach, a former Republican lawmaker, to the more than $250,000 salaried position of interim chief information officer without a search. The appointment was made around the same time Kurtenbach gave Leath personal flight lessons, according to an Associated Press report.
However, Leath said he believes coverage of Kurtenbach's appointment is "inaccurate."
"Jim Kurtenbach is and was a tenured faculty member at Iowa State long before I was ever hired here," Leath wrote in another email to The Plainsman. "He served in the Iowa Legislature before I ever came to Iowa State and never served while I was at Iowa State. Then he was asked to serve as interim CIO by the Provost, not me, and he reported to the Provost. I had a professional flight instructor although Jim did give me some lessons to finish up some training but was not my primary instructor."
Leath announced in September that he will no longer fly university-owned aircraft.
“I learned a great deal from this experience, and I believe it will make me a much better president and a much more conscientious president,” Leath said in a December meeting.Auburn’s newly named president also made headlines last summer after purchasing land with help from Summit Farms, which is a private company run by Iowa Board of Regents President Bruce Rastetter.
He defended the purchase, though, and said there was nothing improper about the transaction. He also said it is “unfortunate that someone created a story where one didn’t exist.”
"My wife and I bought a farm with our own money from a larger farming operation that bought the other portion," Leath wrote in the email. "We wanted the woods and they wanted the tillable ground. There was nothing improper. It was much to-do about nothing."
Leath was also involved in a lawsuit regarding the First and 14th amendments during his time at the university. Iowa State student Robert Dunn, through the Alliance Defending Freedom, sued the university and several administrators, including Leath, over what he believes are policies that “punish student speech” and is a violation to his First and 14th amendments.
According to the complaint filed, public universities serve as a marketplace of ideas, “where the young adults who are tomorrow’s leaders are exposed to differing opinions.”
Dunn feels, though, that the marketplace cannot function if students fear punishment, including expulsion from the university, according to his complaint.
"The lawsuit was over free speech and when it was filed we were well into revising our policies as we saw ways to improve also," Leath wrote in the email. "The lawsuit is already settled."
Transparency and the transition to Auburn
Leath’s name was on a lot of lips after the Auburn University Board of Trustees abruptly announced last Thursday, March 16, it would vote on its next president in four days.
Though Leath was a rumored finalist, no candidates’ names were ever made public.
Many students and faculty members were disturbed by the search team’s lack of transparency throughout the process.
“Some faculty members, myself included, wish that the process could have been more open and transparent,” said University Senate Chair James Goldstein. “Many faculty members wish that a short list of finalists had been invited to campus to give presentations and that faculty and other groups had been consulted before the final selection was made.”
Goldstein acknowledged that, “for better or for worse,” sitting presidents have become increasingly reluctant to publicly announce that they have applied for other jobs.
“I wish that before agreeing to keep confidentiality in force until the selection is named, university governing boards would be sensitive to the reasons why faculty, staff and students may become suspicious when there is a sudden announcement that a president is about to be chosen,” Goldstein said to members of the University Senate on Monday. “It is unfortunate that the University community was not given an opportunity to learn the identities of the finalists or to ask questions of even the one final candidate in an open forum.”
However, Goldstein said he is grateful the University’s next president has a “strong academic background.”
“The Senate leadership had an opportunity to meet with Dr. Leath yesterday morning,” Goldstein said. “I believe he has a strong record of supporting shared governance and is always willing to listen to the faculty’s concerns. I hope that the faculty will join me in welcoming him to Auburn University and support his efforts to advance the university in the coming years.”
In the meeting, Leath discussed how he will regularly meet with students in “dining halls” to discuss student concerns, Goldstein said.
“In short, I think that he is an experienced and highly capable university president who will be an asset to Auburn University,” Goldstein said.
Editor's note, at time of publication: The Plainsman has contacted Leath’s current office at Iowa State for comment. We will update this article online accordingly.