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Leath, Steven

Published onJul 30, 2021
Leath, Steven

(July 9, 1957 -)

Quick Facts

Fifteenth president of Iowa State University, serving from February 1, 2012- May 8, 2017.

Steven Leath, Iowa State University President 2012-2017”, 2017 by Ying-He Lui (Chinese-American, born 1952). Oil on canvas. Commissioned by the University Museums with funding from the ISU Foundation. In the Presidential Portrait Collection, Art on Campus, University Museums, Iowa State University, Ames, Iowa. U2018.142

Location: Iowa State University, Parks Library, Periodical Room

Born in Providence, Rhode Island, Leath’s family moved to St. Paul, Minnesota, when he was two years old. Later, the family moved to central Pennsylvania where Leath acquired an interest in hunting and fishing. In 1979, Leath obtained a BS in plant science from Penn State University. He subsequently earned his master’s degree in plant science at the University of Delaware. That’s also where he met his wife, Janet, a fellow student. The two would eventually marry and have two sons, Eric and Scott. Leath went on to earn his PhD in plant pathology from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in 1984 and then worked for one year as an Extension Plant Pathologist for the university.

Over the next two decades, Leath was an active researcher and program leader primarily for the USDA’s Agricultural Research Center in North Carolina and Washington, D.C. He was also a professor and associate dean at North Carolina State University. In 2007, Leath was recruited by newly named President Erskine Bowles to serve as vice president for research and sponsored programs for the University of North Carolina System and contribute to the development of the North Carolina Research Triangle. Four years later, Leath left UNC to become the 15th president of Iowa State University.

In his installation address, Leath outlined his strategic priorities to:

  1. Maintain and improve the university’s high quality student educational experience,

  2. Strengthen the university's scholarly reputation,

  3. Broaden its research enterprise,

  4. Expand its economic development programs and activities for the state of Iowa, and

  5. Increase diversity among students, faculty, and staff.

He also has 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 US 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 $93 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.[1]

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, turning the reins over to Interim President Benjamin Allen. Leath resigned from his position at Auburn in 2019.

In January 2021, the Council to Advance Hunting and the Shooting Sports announced that Dr. Steven Leath will serve as the next Executive Director for the organization.[2]

Selected Sources

ISU Digital Scholarship:

Numerous articles in the Des Moines Register, Ames Tribune, and Iowa State Daily.

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