Following a turbulent tenure at Iowa State, Steven Leath was probably hoping that Auburn would be a soft place to land — it wasn’t.
Leath, Auburn’s former president, resigned his position over the summer, only two years into the five-year contract he signed in 2017.
The University announced Leath’s resignation near the end of the workday on Friday, June 21.
He and the Board of Trustees “mutually decided to part ways after extensive discussions about the University’s leadership.”
The vagueness of that statement hides any facts about how or why Leath left.
Of course, Leath was not fired, and he didn’t quit either — powerful people are above those simplistic terms.
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In July, it was also announced that Leath would collect a total of $4.5 million from the University in three annual installments in exchange for not disparaging the school or discussing the details of his resignation.
Given the Board’s vague language about their discussions and decisions regarding the president, there are still a lot of questions that need to be answered about Leath’s hiring, tenure and resignation. Since that resignation cost Auburn $4.5 million, the students, faculty and alumni deserve answers.
To start, many of these questions were raised before Leath was even hired.
His time at Iowa State University was under scrutiny as early as September 2016. Specifically, Leath caught a lot of flack for his use — or misuse — of ISU’s plane.
In one particular incident, Leath, a certified pilot, made a hard landing on a return trip from his home in North Carolina and caused $12,000 in damages to the plane.
The main concern arising from the incident was not even the damage to the plane, since that was ascribed to a simple error made by an inexperienced pilot.
Rather, an ISU administrator, who oversaw the flight program, said he was not informed of the damage to the plane; records regarding the incident disappeared from the university’s website and rumors of an attempted cover-up started to circulate.
Leath was ultimately cleared of any wrongdoing, but he reimbursed the university for the cost of four of his flights.
Much of this was public knowledge prior to the Board’s decision to hire Leath, and they unanimously voted to hire him despite it.
There was never a statement from the Board acknowledging these controversies, so Auburn students, faculty and alumni were left guessing.
Even if Leath had gone on to have a lengthy and stable tenure at Auburn, the opaqueness surrounding his hiring would be disgraceful.
However, given his hasty resignation and $4.5 million farewell gift, that opaqueness is untenable.
Worse, the student body and broader Auburn community have less information regarding Leath’s resignation than they did about his hiring.
The Board mentioned discussions about the University’s leadership, but they gave no specifics regarding points where they disagreed with Leath.
There was no mention about how early any disagreements appeared or what concessions either side made, and the three $1.5 million payments were only discovered after the Opelika-Auburn News filed a Freedom of Information request.
To put $4.5 million in perspective, it is enough money to cover a full year of tuition for 410 Auburn students or buy 1.3 million chicken sandwiches at Chick-fil-A.
To be clear, the University should not spend $4.5 million dollars on chicken sandwiches, but it also shouldn’t have to spend that much money to get rid of a president three years before his contract is up.
The current Board of Trustees system is inherently undemocratic but that is understandable given the rapid turnover rate of students graduating every four years.
However the system only works if students, faculty and alumni can trust that their interests are at least being considered if not put first.
That trust can’t exist when Auburn is governed by a Board of Trustees that insists on hiring and firing presidents in the shadows.
Of course, since Auburn is currently without a permanent president, there is a committee dedicated to finding a new one.
They have a chance to do it right this time.
Since their deliberations and decision process won’t be democratic, the committee at least owes it to Auburn students to make the process transparent.
As the Board looks for and considers Leath’s permanent replacement, the wider Auburn community deserves to be regularly informed as to whom is being considered for the job.
A two-year presidency that ends in a $4.5 million dollar non-disclosure agreement isn’t a success story, but it should be a lesson — albeit, an expensive one — in the importance of honesty and transparency.
This editorial is the majority opinion of the Editorial Board and is the official opinion of the newspaper.
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