Leath prepares for president job


Steven Leath, finalist in ISU’s search for a new president, speaks Friday, Sept. 23, 2011 in Morrill Hall during the presidential finalist forum. Leath is currently vice president for research and sponsored programs for the University of North Carolina system.

Kaleb Warnock

“In hindsight, you should keep an open mind about the future and take advantage of as many opportunities as you can. You really don’t know where your path will lead or what opportunities are going to present themselves in the future.”

Steven Leath, the next president of Iowa State, chuckles as he remembers his early days in college while offering students advice for their own journeys through academia.

“Early in my career, I didn’t necessarily see this,” Leath said. “But I think it’s the right thing for me now, also, it’s the right job and the right place for me now.”

Leath wasn’t always a high-profile administrator; in fact, he spent most of his youth growing up in Minnesota where he “learned to skate almost as soon as he could walk.” He also did a lot of camping, fishing and fostered an early love for agriculture at the Minnesota State Fair.

After moving out East, Leath continued his education at Penn State, a fellow land-grant institution, where his father was an instructor. Although he wasn’t totally sure where he wanted to go in life, he picked up a major in plant science and looked to explore the opportunities a large university could offer him. Did he picture himself as president of a university?

“Absolutely not,” he chuckles. “There’s a lesson in there somewhere for students because it was not something I aspired to or thought about.”

However, he later pursued his master’s degree at the University of Delaware where he met his wife, Janet. The couple then moved to the University of Illinois where earned his Ph.D. Rather than the professional world, he decided to continue a career in academia and research.

“I thought I would be better suited to an academic career at that time than an industry career, although I had a great appreciation for industry,” he said. “I’m a better fit for academia because as much as I love research, I also love the campus culture and being around students.”

He first came upon a leadership position when he was chosen to fill a vacant position, and after a bit of U.S. Department of Agriculture training, he moved to full time.

“It was really a situation where I recognized and seized an opportunity, rather than a long-term strategy,” Leath said.

However, he met immediate success in administration and decided to continue working in administration.

“In administration, you have to take a lot of pleasure in facilitating the success,” Leath said. “If you’re the kind of person who really enjoys making people successful, seeing them grow and seeing them succeed, I think it makes you a good administrator.”

The University of North Carolina system underwent many changes under his leadership and underwent a “cultural” change through his programs in order “to be more sensitive to what research ought to do and come forth through the university to make a difference in society,” he said.

Leath didn’t focus primarily on research. He also made sure that all types of scholarship were better rewarded.

“We changed our culture by recognizing all kinds of scholarship, not just traditional research and stuff,” he said.

What does he have plans to implement here at Iowa State? He hopes to model many of the changes he made in the scholarship at the UNC system, but won’t make any promises yet.

“It’s premature to have had plans when I haven’t really spent a day on the job yet,” he said regarding specific cultural changes, but he plans to get everyone on the university scene involved including donors in his multi-faceted plan.

Vice President of Student Affairs Thomas Hill also sees Leath integrating himself into the system well and being successful as an administrator, but stated that Leath may have a few challenges ahead of him.

“There’s a culture here in Iowa,” said Hill at the announcement ceremony last week. “There are a lot of differences. “You have to pay attention to see what ISU is all about.”

Hill stated that not all land grants are the same, and although Leath has experience in them, he will still need to get to know Iowa State and understand its unique strengths and weaknesses.

That’s just what Leath plans to do. Leath will be on campus several times in the coming months and plans to get to know the university: both where it’s been and how it’s gotten to where it is now. Oh, and of course, to start meeting people.