By Chip Brownlee
Alabama Political Reporter
AUBURN — The Auburn University Board of Trustees has appointed the next president of the University: an experienced higher-ed administrator who was previously under a six-week criminal investigation for possible misuse of Iowa State University aircraft.
On Monday, the Board appointed Steven Leath, 59, who has served as president of Iowa State University since 2012 and previously held an administrative role at the University of North Carolina. Leath, who has had a turbulent past at Iowa State, will assume the post in July when President Jay Gogue is expected to step down.
Leath’s tenure at Iowa State was tarnished with a string of controversies that resulted from his mingling of professional and personal interests, the Associated Press reported.
Auburn’s next president is perhaps best known for his use of university-owned planes for a variety of questionable reasons. The controversy, dubbed “planegate” by the Iowa press, revolved around Leath’s use of a university aircraft to attend medical appointments, visit his North Carolina vacation home and pick up his relatives on the way to NCAA sporting events.
The questions around his use of the aircraft resulted from an internal audit conducted by the Iowa State University Board of Regents in late 2015 that began after Leath, a private pilot, damaged the university’s $498,000 single-engine Cirrus jet during a hard landing earlier that year.
Leath, who had previously been cleared to fly the plane solo, was flying home from his North Carolina vacation home with his wife, according to a report from The Des Moines Register, when the pair made a hard landing because of “gusty winds.”
The landing caused more than $12,000 in damages to the Cirrus SR22 plane, and Leath later paid the University more than $17,000 in reimbursements. He promised never to fly university planes again and expressed regret, but he denied any legal wrongdoing, the Register report states.
The criminal investigation of Leath later began to determine if he violated State laws that prohibited using State resources for private or personal purposes or gains, but it ended last month. Leath said he paid the university back for any personal use of the planes.
Story County, Iowa, Attorney Jessica Reynolds declined to charge Leath on Feb. 3. Reynolds said “there was no cause to substantiate a violation of Iowa law,” according to The Register.
Before Leath was cleared in the criminal investigation, a 14-member advisory committee from Auburn began their search for Auburn’s next president after Gogue announced his retirement in September 2016. Auburn Trustee and Birmingham businessman Raymond J. Harbert led the search.
After months of silence, the committee announced late last week that they would vote four days later on their final choice for who would be the next president. No final candidates were named, and it was all held under wrap.
On Monday, the Board appointed Leath with little fanfare at a 15-minute meeting — one of the only public meetings throughout the entire process. Board members told reporters Monday that confidentiality was essential not to demoralize students and faculty at the universities of those who were under consideration.
Chairman pro tem Charles McCrary said confidentiality had become common practice in high-profile administrative searches. Some university faculty members weren’t happy with the secretive process.
“Some faculty members, myself included, wish that the process could have been more open and transparent,” said University Senate Chair James Goldstein, according to The Auburn Plainsman. “Many faculty members wish that a short list of finalists had been invited to campus to give presentations and that faculty and other groups had been consulted before the final selection was made.”
The Board of Trustees praised Leath’s experience as Iowa State University, which, like Auburn, is a land-grant public university that emphasizes agriculture and research. The experience at a land-grant university in combination with his history of supporting research and fundraising made him a strong pick, according to those who had knowledge of the selection.
Leath has been president at Iowa State for about five years, leading the university to an increase in both student enrollment and fundraising success along with a decrease in average student debt. The university also achieved its highest student graduation rate and increased research expenditures, according to a release announcing Leath’s appointment.
“Now we are at record levels not only for enrollment but more importantly for first year retention and graduation rates,” Leath told The Plainsman, Auburn’s student-run newspaper, in an email. “In addition, our overall placement rate across all majors is now at 95 percent for the last three years. We also have raised over $200 million in new scholarship money in the last five years. It is important to note we are not recruiting more students. They are coming because this is a great place.”
Before moving to Iowa State in 2012, Leath spent much of his career as the vice president for research at the University of North Carolina System. Before that, he was an accomplished plant pathologist at the University of Illinois, Urbana.
Leath’s controversial past has followed him to Auburn, where many students and faculty members are concerned about both his history and his appointment. Leath said the coverage of his controversies have been inaccurate and blown out of proportion.
“The plane issue was poorly reported and taken to an extreme level,” Leath also told The Plainsman. “Two audits showed no policies were broken and as it turned out some of the flights questioned had been paid for by me.”
Leath has also been accused of showing favoritism and awarding positions and contracts without proper searches.
Last year, Leath chose the Des Moines law firm of Belin McCormick to help him form an LLC to buy land in Iowa for a retirement home. The company from which Leath’s LLC bought the land was owned by the president of Iowa State’s Board of Regents, Bruce Rastetter, who was supposed to provide oversight for Leath.
“My wife and I bought a farm with our own money from a larger farming operation that bought the other portion,” Leath wrote to The Plainsman. “We wanted the woods and they wanted the tillable ground. There was nothing improper. It was much to-do about nothing.”
Later, the same law firm was hired to represent ISU in a legal case that would have normally been handled by attorneys from the Iowa Attorney General’s Office, which provides lawyers for State universities. A Belin McCormick partner, Steve Zumbach, who helped Leath organize his LLC and was also chosen as honorary co-chair of a large fundraising campaign Leath launched in 2016, billed Iowa State more than $550-per-hour in the case.
Under Leath’s leadership, the University paid Belin’s firm $27,000 before getting approval to hire any outside counsel, the AP reported. Five other attorneys were also hired and billed up to $390 an hour. The AGO’s office later said the hiring practice was justified due to Belin’s expertise in intellectual property.
That isn’t the only instance for which Leath has been accused of favoritism. Leath also oversaw the appointment of former Iowa GOP lawmaker Jim Kurtenbach, who also happened to be his personal flight instructor for a period, to the high-paying position of interim chief information office. The appointment was made without a search, according to the Associated Press.
Kurtenbach had been a tenured faculty member at Iowa State before Leath was hired there, Leath told The Plainsman.
“He was asked to serve as interim CIO by the Provost, not me, and he reported to the Provost,” Leath said. “I had a professional flight instructor although Jim did give me some lessons to finish up some training but was not my primary instructor.”
Leath will begin his time at Auburn on July 15, when Gogue will relegate himself to teaching a higher education administration course and conducting special projects at the University.
Gogue served as Auburn’s president since 2007 and had a remarkably quiet career as president, rarely making waves in the press, but overseeing nearly a decade of enrollment growth and fundraising success at the university.
Last year, the university completed its “This is Auburn” $1 billion fundraising campaign, becoming the first in the state to reach $1 billion from a single fundraising campaign. It took little more than a year and reached its goal more than a year earlier than expected.
Gogue said he felt it was his time to retire, citing his age.