Faculty and adminstration react to Leath’s departure


ISU President Steven Leath meets with Vice President for Student Affairs Martino Harmon, ISU Dining Director Mohammad Ali and Dean of College of Agriculture and Life Sciences Wendy Wintersteen Nov. 7. 

Michael Heckle

When Iowa State University President Steven Leath announced Monday his departure from Iowa State to serve as university president for Auburn University, the news came not only as a surprise to students but to Iowa State faculty and administrators as well.

Since his inauguration in 2012, Leath, along with his wife Janet, worked with some of the best and brightest at Iowa State to improve fundraising, increase enrollment and continue the mission of a land-grant university. 

In his five years as president, Leath expanded enrollment to record levels, spearheaded campus-defining construction projects and helped raise millions of dollars for Iowa State University. 

Kate Gregory, senior vice president of University Services, said Leath’s excitement and willingness to be involved in the university at every level helped to make a mark on the community, and leaves Leath with a legacy of his own. 

“I think that President Leath really cared about everything that happens at Iowa State,” Gregory said. “Whether it’s getting more research dollars or his passion for the mission of land grant, which I think is pretty remarkable, or the student experience.”

She also recalled a time early in her role at Iowa State when she and Leath were visiting with students in the parking lot before an Iowa State football game.

“You could really see how excited he was for the new academic year and for the opportunity of these students to have this experience kicked off …,” Gregory said. “I think that that level of excitement was something really almost contagious for everybody.”

Gregory said that although his departure came as a surprise, she wishes Leath and his wife the best in their new challenge. She also hopes that whoever becomes the next university president will put their own mark on the position while continuing Iowa State’s “legacy of strength.”

However, this kind of sudden announcement isn’t anything new when hiring such high-level administrators. Jonathan Sturm, president of Faculty Senate who has served on similar search committees for Iowa State, said these decisions are often kept close to the vest in order to protect potential hires.

“[Search committees are] sworn to confidence because of potential repercussion to a person’s career back at their current job if they’re not successful in winning the new position,” Sturm said. 

Sturm also cited Auburn as a natural fit for the university president, as the school has a history of recruiting staff and athletes from Iowa State. 

Sturm hopes that the next university president will have a holistic vision for the school, focusing not only on the university’s mission as a land-grant institution, but also on the full spectrum of arts, humanities and sciences here at Iowa State. He also wants the next president to be dedicated to creating an inclusive campus. 

“I would hope that [Iowa State] would look at applications from a wide spectrum of viable candidates from different genders, different ethnic backgrounds, different perspectives that all bring their expertise and their integrity to our campus to lead us forward,” Sturm said. 

Despite his achievements, Leath’s tenure as president has not gone unmarred. Recent allegations about the mishandling of university planes and his role in permanently canceling the Iowa State institution Veishea did little to earn him support. 

Jeff Johnson, president of the Alumni Association, said the infamous “planegate” allegations could have played a part in Leath’s departure.

“It became a very, very tough situation with the press that was going on relative to the plane,” Johnson said. “In the minds of [alumni], it became almost like he was being badgered. This news really feels as though he was attacked.”

On the other hand, Johnson believes that Leath made the right move in choosing to cancel Veishea after it became a threat to student safety.

“It’s very hard to make hard decisions. Easy decisions are easy to make. Hard decisions are tough to make,” Johnson said. “I sat through a number of meetings where President Leath really struggled with the reality that somehow Veishea had been redefined.”

That redefinition made Veishea synonymous with alcohol, party and destruction, rather than the student recruitment and Cyclone pride that defined its inception, Johnson said. 

“If we had really stopped and put ourselves in his shoes, when he spoke of student safety and the reputation of the university, he meant that,” Johnson said.

Despite the controversy, administrator after administrator spoke of one thing that seemed to guide Leath during his time at Iowa State: Student success.

Martino Harmon, vice president for student affairs, recalled a time when he and Leath traveled to Washington, D.C., to attend a discussion panel that Leath was a part of. 

During the panel, Leath spoke of his vision to improve student success, setting a retention rate of 90 percent as what seemed to many to be an impossible goal. Iowa State’s retention rate is now at 88 percent. 

Harmon said that he was “definitely surprised” at Leath’s departure. And although he and other administrators are sad to see him go, Harmon said he is excited for the new opportunities that face the university president.