Dr. Steven Leath was the 15th president of Iowa State University, serving from February 1, 2012-May 8, 2017.
In his installation address, Leath outlined his strategic priorities to:
- Maintain and improve the university’s high quality student educational experience,
- Strengthen the university's scholarly reputation,
- Broaden its research enterprise,
- Expand its economic development programs and activities for the state of Iowa, and
- Increase diversity among students, faculty, and staff.
He also placed major emphasis on enhancing the university's nationally recognized 1,700-acre central campus and its public art collection, which is one of the largest among U.S. public universities.
During his five-year tenure, the university experienced a 23 percent spike in enrollment, growing from fewer than 30,000 students to nearly 37,000 in the fall of 2016. In 2013, Iowa State officially became the largest university in the state of Iowa. Student success also reached unprecedented levels, including a record high first-year retention rate (88.1%), six-year graduation rate (74.4%), and three consecutive years of a 95 percent post-graduation placement rate. Research expenditures increased by more than 20 percent to a record $252.5 million, in part, because of Leath’s focus on large-scale, interdisciplinary, and multi-organizational research programs. Faculty numbers also grew as a result of Leath’s initiative to focus on hires in high-impact and high-enrollment programs, with the addition of nearly 450 tenure or tenure-track faculty. He also expanded the university’s focus on diversity by creating the first-ever, cabinet-level vice president for diversity and inclusion position.
Between fall 2012 and fall 2015, the university froze tuition for resident undergraduates for an unprecedented five consecutive semesters. However, between FY12 and FY17 the university’s state appropriation per resident student continued to fall, prompting subsequent across-the-board tuition increases beginning in spring 2016. Despite these increases, throughout Leath’s tenure, Iowa State’s tuition and fees remained the lowest of the university’s peer land-grant institutions. Leath also raised more than $200 million solely for student scholarships and support.
Leath was a talented fundraiser, launching the university’s most ambitious comprehensive capital campaign, Forever True, For Iowa State, with a goal of $1.1 billion. He helped attract the largest private gift ever for an academic building, $20 million for the Student Innovation Center, and the largest cash gift ever, an equity stake representing majority ownership of an education innovation company valued at $145 million. In just five years, he raised more than $720 million.
Leath’s emphasis on efficiency and economic development prompted an administrative reorganization, which included splitting the Office of Research and Economic Development into two separate but collaborative units. He also split the Office of Business and Finance into two separate units, following the retirement of long-time senior administrator, Warren Madden. Leath led the visioning and launch of a major expansion and transformation of the ISU Research Park, including the opening of the Economic Development Core Facility, which houses all of the university’s economic development assistance programs; and for the first time, the development of commercial amenities at the Park: a restaurant, fitness center, daycare, and health care clinic. Leath was also co-founder of the Cultivation Corridor, an economic development initiative to leverage Iowa State’s expertise and innovation to establish Central Iowa as a global center for excellence and innovation in agbiosciences, biotech, biorenewables, and advanced manufacturing.
Across campus, Leath oversaw major construction and renovation projects including Troxel Hall, the Jeff and Deb Hansen Agriculture Student Learning Center, Elings Hall, Sukup Hall, Geoffroy Residence Hall, the expansion of Jack Trice Stadium including the Sukup End Zone Club, Campustown revitalization, Reiman Gardens expansion, several campus beautification projects, and renovations to Curtiss Hall, MacKay Hall, Lagomarcino Hall, and Marston Hall. He also initiated construction on the Advanced Teaching and Research Facility, Bessey Hall addition, and the Student Innovation Center.
Despite his success, Leath’s tenure was not without controversy. In August 2014, he announced the permanent end of Veishea, following a violent riot that resulted in the serious injury of a student during the spring 2014 celebration. The 90-year tradition had been plagued by more than a dozen violent and destructive incidents over the better part of three decades. Leath also faced criticism for his use of university-owned aircraft. A trained pilot, Leath was involved in a hard landing in July 2015 that resulted in damage to a university plane but no injuries.
In March 2017, Leath was announced as the 19th president of Auburn University in Auburn, Alabama. He left Iowa State in May of that year, and Benjamin Allen was appointed interim president.
President Leath holds a B.S. in plant science from Pennsylvania State University, M.S. in plant science from the University of Delaware, and Ph.D. in plant pathology from the University of Illinois.
Postions, projects, research
He spent one year as an Extension Plant Pathologist in Illinois before joining the faculty of North Carolina State University's College of Agriculture and Life Sciences as a plant pathologist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Agricultural Research Service (USDA-ARS) unit based at NC State. He focused on disease control and genetics of disease resistance in cereal crops. In 1998, he was named professor and research leader of the unit, then spent time as acting national grain crops program leader for the USDA-ARS in Washington, DC. He returned to NC State in 2001 as a professor and assistant director of the North Carolina Agricultural Research Service (NCARS), was promoted to associate director in 2003, and was named NCARS director and associate dean of the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences in 2005.
From 2007 to 2012, Leath was Vice President for Research for the University of North Carolina (UNC) General Administration, where he oversaw $1.4 billion in competitive research grants and contracts and promoted research and sponsored programs across the full spectrum of academic disciplines and interdisciplinary activities carried out by UNC's 16 university campuses. He also oversaw UNC's inter-institutional centers and was one of the leaders in such highly successful public-private partnerships as the North Carolina Research Campus and the David H. Murdock Research Institute, which he helped establish and led as chief executive officer. He also had active roles in the North Carolina State University Centennial Campus and the Research Triangle Park.
During his research career, Leath published nearly 100 scientific articles in plant disease resistance, plant pathology, plant breeding, and related fields.
- Transparent Inclusive Efficiency Review (TIER), conducted by the Board of Regents (2014-2016)
- Presidential High Impact Hiring Initiative
- Presidential Research Initiative (2012)
- Student Experience Enhancement Council (2012-2015)
- Enhancing institutional excellence
- Diversity audit (2013-2014)
- Destination 2050