ISU president seeking greener runways

Iowa State University President Steven Leath resigned today, effective later this spring, in order to lead Auburn University. Impressed by Leath’s land-grant university experience, Auburn’s trustees hired him following a controversial closed search. In a message to ISU supporters, Leath said he and his wife had “expected to retire here.”

However, we now realize our destiny is in Alabama and leading one of the nation’s great Land-grant universities to even greater prominence.

I leave with a promise fulfilled, and that was to leave the university better than I inherited it. I leave with Iowa State achieving record enrollment, retention rates, graduation rates, job placement rates as well as records in fundraising and research funding, and numerous other metrics. I am proud of the many accomplishments that we achieved in economic development and community engagement.

A brief statement from Board of Regents President Bruce Rastetter thanked Leath for his service and noted, “ISU has made great strides during his tenure, including achieving record enrollment.”

The terms of Leath’s contract at Auburn have not been finalized, but it’s a safe bet he will be paid substantially more than the $525,000 base salary he has received since the summer of 2015. The previous Auburn president earned $2.5 million a year, mostly in deferred compensation. Ryan Foley reported for the Associated Press that Leath “will be forfeiting deferred compensation of $625,000 that would have accrued had he remained [ISU] president in June 2020.”

Leath had several good reasons to jump ship.

ISU’s current-year budget was slashed by nearly $9 million in February, and the bleak outlook for state revenues in fiscal year 2018 will force hard choices on university administrators.

ISU’s enrollment boomed during a time when the Board of Regents was pushing for a “performance-based” funding model, which would have diverted millions of dollars from the University of Iowa to ISU and the University of Northern Iowa. When state legislators didn’t get with the program, ISU didn’t get the windfall its leaders thought would come with record student numbers.

ISU’s tight budget aside, a new job would be an appealing option for Leath with Rastetter’s term on the Board of Regents ending on April 30. During his first three years in Ames, Leath mostly escaped scrutiny. That changed when news broke last summer that he had purchased a rural acreage through one of Rastetter’s companies. Leath sought to conceal the highly irregular land deal by buying the property through a newly-created LLC.

Challenged to explain the apparent conflict of interest, Leath told the Des Moines Register, “My personal life, and my wife’s personal life, are nobody else’s business. […] If I addressed every concern of every single uninformed person that was brought to me, I wouldn’t have time to run the university.” I have yet to find anyone from the non-profit world who considers it appropriate for a university president to buy real estate through a company controlled by his governing board’s leader.

Leath’s dependence on Rastetter went way beyond the land deal. Since Foley’s report on an undisclosed hard landing set off a wide-ranging scandal six months ago, the Regents president has continually run interference for Leath. Rastetter sought talking points from Leath’s staff in the early days of “planegate.” A few months later, he declared all was forgiven and asserted that the ISU president “deserves our continued trust and support,” despite an internal audit indicating serious misconduct.

The extent of Leath’s personal travel on ISU aircraft will probably never be known, since no one with investigative power did a thorough accounting of his personal pilot log. ISU and the Board of Regents have sought to avoid releasing further details about flights attributed to “training” or “donor relations.” I don’t believe the president fully reimbursed for his personal medical travel either.

While we’re on the subject of airplanes: Auburn has its own Air Transportation Department staffed by professional pilots, and even a regional airport. Talk about a match made in heaven. The future of ISU’s Flight Service is uncertain pending a review of its costs and benefits.

The political culture at Auburn should be a good fit for Leath. Ames may be a more conservative college town than Iowa City, but it’s nothing like Auburn. Remember when Leath caused an uproar by walking Donald Trump across the football field at Jack Trice stadium in September 2015? He put out a statement assuring the ISU community that he was not endorsing Trump for president, but was merely seizing “any opportunity to discuss higher education policy, promote Iowa State University, and advance our mission of providing an affordable, accessible, high quality education.”

In Alabama, Leath will never feel compelled to distance himself from Trump. On the contrary, being on good terms with Donald Trump, Jr.–a friend through hunting circles–was probably another mark in Leath’s favor with Auburn’s trustees.

Speaking of the younger Trump, two months ago I put in a records request seeking information on people who received tickets from Leath to attend post-season basketball games. Leath was photographed sitting with Donald Trump, Jr. during ISU’s 2014 “Sweet Sixteen” game in Madison Square Garden.

My impression was that complimentary tickets from the president are supposed to go to big athletics boosters, not to heirs of billionaire families with no ISU connection.

So as not to tip my hand by asking directly about the 2014 tournament, I requested the names of everyone who had gotten tickets from Leath or his predecessor to attend Cyclones NCAA basketball games.

The Iowa Public Information Board has said “Access to an open record shall be provided promptly upon request.” I hoped that a request sent on January 19 would produce some material by the time March Madness rolled around.

More than a month later, I’d heard nothing from ISU’s Public Records Office. When it comes to stonewalling, these people always bring their A game.

A week after receiving my follow-up e-mail, the university’s public information officer told me, “After reasonable search, no documents responsive to your request #885 regarding post-season tournament games were located.”

For the record, I don’t believe ISU can’t find any e-mail or memo listing those who received basketball tickets from Leath. Donor relations occupy a large amount of the president’s time. Surely someone keeps track of his schmoozing during big games.

In any event, after coming up empty on the records request, I sent Leath’s communications assistant Megan Landolt a few questions: how many tickets does the president get for post-season basketball tournament games? Does Leath give preference to ISU donors when allocating tickets to Cyclones games in the tournament? How many members of the Trump family received complimentary tickets to attend the March 2014 “Sweet Sixteen” game in Madison Square Garden?

You know how this story ends. Two and a half weeks later, no reply.

Auburn’s trustees probably don’t need to worry about Leath using one of the university’s airplanes to pick up his relatives en route to an NCAA tournament game. The Tigers haven’t made it to the Big Dance in fourteen years.

UPDATE: Leath’s departure was the talk of many Iowa social media feeds on Monday. Some observed that Auburn previously hired the ethically-challenged football coach Gene Chizik away from ISU.

Leath leaving ISU photo LeathleavingISU_zpsuxsnkh8a.jpeg

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