Steven Leath was named the new president of Iowa State University last week. He was unanimously selected by the Iowa Board of Regents to become ISU's 15th president and will start his new job February 1, 2012. He will replace outgoing ISU president Gregory Geoffroy who is retiring.
The announcement was made September 27 at a press conference at ISU. Leath, 54, is currently vice president for research and sponsored programs at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Leath's extensive work in economic development and fundraising allowed the Iowa Board of Regents to choose a candidate with a nontraditional resume. Most new university presidents are either provosts or are already university presidents.
"Dr. Leath has demonstrated extensive expertise in all areas that are critical to leading Iowa State University," says Craig Lang, president of the Iowa Board of Regents. "His specific experience with university research and technology transfer, and their application to economic development, will be an invaluable resource in leading Iowa State and its many contributions to the state of Iowa, particularly for Iowa's bioeconomy industry."
Leath is a plant pathologist by training, and has held agriculture positions
Leath has been vice president for research and sponsored programs for the University of North Carolina system since 2007. He's also interim vice president for academic planning. Prior to that he spent 20 years working at North Carolina State University.
At North Carolina State, he held several positions, including associate dean of the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences and director of the NC Agricultural Research Service. He also was a research leader and plant pathologist with the USDA's Agricultural Research Service, and an extension plant pathologist at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
Leath helped develop the North Carolina Research Campus, a private-public venture that fosters advancements in biotechnology, nutrition and health.
He received three plant sciences degrees: a bachelor's (1979) from The Pennsylvania State University, University Park; a master's (1981) from the University of Delaware, Newark; and a doctorate in plant pathology (1984) from the University of Illinois.
Board says time is right for a nontraditional pick as ISU's next president
Leath will be paid an annual salary of $440,000 as president of ISU. He will receive another $225,000 in deferred compensation if he stays for three years. The other one of the two finalists for the ISU position was Kumble Subbaswamy, 60, a provost at the University of Kentucky.
Regents president Craig Lang, who is president of the Iowa Farm Bureau and is a dairy farmer from east central Iowa, says the 9-member Iowa Board of Regents weighed the risks as well as the benefits of choosing someone without a more traditional background, such as a university president or a provost. When ISU factulty and student leaders told the regents that they could support either finalist, Lang said that gave him confidence Leath would be a good fit at ISU.
"We're not adverse to risk," says Lang. "We thought this might be a time to present a different kind of candidate to the ISU campus because we're short on appropriations and the fundraising issues have become very important."
Retiring ISU president Greg Geoffroy was, who is paid $440,248 a year, guided ISU to record highs in fundraising, enrollment and student performance during his decade-long tenure. Throughout the inverview process and in public meetings, Leath emphasized his fundraising work in developing a research park in North Carolina that revitalized the local economy of a struggling mill town.
Leath has the edge in fundraising and development achievements
Leath said he would work to spur economic development at ISU by focusing on ISU's land-grant mission to deliver science and technology research to Iowa residents. He also said improved communication with students, citizens, legislators and business leaders is essential for ISU to thrive in coming decades.
Lang said the board of regents had extensive discussions with Leath about the importance of fostering diversity and staying in contact with the student body. Students and faculty at a public forum earlier in September expressed concerns about Leath's understanding of diversity issues, and of academic disciplines in the humanities. Some Iowa officials, however, said Leath possesses a strong academic background and should be considered a prime choice for the job.
ISU Provost Elizabeth Hoffman said the nine semifinalists for the ISU position were all provosts or vice presidents for research. Hoffman called Leath a "distinguished scientist" and noted that he worked in Extension and as an associate dean during his 20 years at North Carolina State University. This year, Leath was named interim vice president of academic planning for the 16-campus University of North Carolina system. Hoffman also highlighted Leath's work in economic development as a strength.
ISU needs leader who can raise funds to help support the university
Hoffman added, "As state funding goes down in Iowa, we need to be able to broaden our funding base at ISU. We need more public-private partnerships and Dr. Leath has a lot of experience in that."
Roger Underwood, co-chair of the ISU presidential search committee, said the group tried to follow the request from the board of regents and others to recruit nontraditional candidates. The committee thought it fulfilled that request by making Leath one of the finalists. Underwood said he was impressed by Leath's record and commitment to speeding up the transfer of technology from the research phase into the practical world that can benefit society, whether through public or private partnerships. The committee was also impreased by Leath's attitude toward challenges facing ISU in terms of the decline in state funding and the continued trend of rising tuition in recent years.
"Those two issues didn't seem to phase Dr. Leath," says Underwood. "He is a man of 'get it done.' We were impressed by that. We did not get the impression that there's any task too difficult for Dr. Leath to tackle."