Leath Named 19th President of Auburn University

Reached by phone Saturday afternoon, Leath declined comment then hung up

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John Pemble/Flickr

Update, 3/20: By a unanimous vote, Auburn University trustees approved Iowa State University President Steven Leath as the university’s 19th president. In accepting the offer, Leath pledged to be an accessible and transparent president. The Iowa Board of Regents plans to hold a special meeting soon to discuss the presidential transition.

After the news broke, Leath sent this email to members of the ISU community:

Dear Cyclones:

I write today to inform the Iowa State Community that I have resigned my position as President of Iowa State University in order to pursue an outstanding opportunity at Auburn University. When first called about this opportunity, I responded truthfully, as I always had done since my arrival in Iowa, by saying, “I love Iowa State, and the Iowa State students, faculty, staff and Cyclone family are wonderful; I am not looking to leave.” However, after much thought, Janet and I decided to look at the opportunity at Auburn and realized the opportunity was one we could not pass up. When we arrived in Ames, we had no idea how much we would fall in love with Iowa and the Cyclone family. In fact, it was not long ago we bought a farm here and expected to retire here. However, we now realize our destiny is in Alabama and leading one of the nation’s great Land-grant universities to even greater prominence.

I leave with a promise fulfilled, and that was to leave the university better than I inherited it. I leave with Iowa State achieving record enrollment, retention rates, graduation rates, job placement rates as well as records in fundraising and research funding, and numerous other metrics. I am proud of the many accomplishments that we achieved in economic development and community engagement.

I have volunteered to work closely with the Regents to identify an interim President and start a search for a permanent President. In addition, I will keep you updated during this time of change.

Janet and I have made lifelong friends here in Iowa and have had many great experiences. We will always consider ourselves Cyclones and have great affection for this university and its beautiful campus; it is a very special place. Our appreciation for the Cyclone family is beyond words, and we found this extended family of students, faculty, staff, alumni and friends to be the greatest joy of our time at Iowa State.

Sincerely,

Steven and Janet A. Leath
President and First Lady

Original post: Embattled Iowa State University President Steven Leath is reportedly on the shortlist to be the next president of Auburn University, according to a report today in the Opelika-Auburn News, a daily newspaper in Alabama that covers the school, but he refused to comment on the report when contacted by the Informer this afternoon.

The report, which adds that AU trustees are prepared to vote Monday to choose the successor to current university President Jay Gogue and scrutinizes the opaque selection process, cites “multiple sources” telling the paper that Leath is among the candidates on the secretive shortlist. Leath’s “experience in agriculture and leadership at a land-grant university,” the report says, “could make him an attractive pick for Auburn.”

Reached for comment about his reported inclusion on the AU shortlist, Leath told the Informer, “I’m not going to be discussing this with you,” then promptly hung up.

Leath has faced multiple controversies since his arrival at ISU in January 2012, the most prominent of which, about his use of two university-owned airplanes in potential violation of ISU policy and state law, broke with an Associated Press report last September on how Leath damaged one of the planes in the summer of 2015 while botching a landing at an Illinois airport.

Weeks after the incident, which the university did not immediately nor ever fully disclose, the Iowa Board of Regents voted to extend Leath’s contract with ISU through 2020 with an annual salary of $525,000, making him the eighth highest-paid college president by the following year. (Relatedly, ISU’s decision to keep confidential the names of prospective donors who went on flights with Leath was recently the subject of a complaint filed with the Iowa Public Information Board.)

Leath succeeded ISU President Greg Geoffroy, who announced he would step down in 2011, the same year current Board of Regents President Bruce Rastetter — a Leath hunting partner whose agribusiness company facilitated a land deal with the ISU president in apparent violation of conflict-of-interest rules — was appointed by Gov. Terry Branstad to the board, which oversees the state’s three public universities. Rastetter became the board’s president in 2013, the year after Leath was hired as ISU’s new president. Earlier this year, Rastetter announced he would step down from the board when his current term expires at the end of April.

Before coming to ISU, Leath received a doctorate in plant pathology and served as vice president for research of the University of North Carolina system.

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Gavin Aronsen is an editor and reporter for and founding member of the Iowa Informer. He previously worked as a city reporter for the Ames Tribune, research assistant to investigative journalist Wayne Barrett at the Village Voice, and in various roles at Mother Jones, where his work contributed to a National Magazine Award nomination for the magazine's digital media coverage of the Occupy Wall Street movement. Email: garonsen [at] iowainformer [dot] com.