Friday night, Auburn University announced that University President Steven Leath is stepping down after less than two years on the job.
According to the university, Leath and members of the Board of Trustees’ presidential assessment working group “mutually decided to part ways.”
“Dr. Leath arrived with vision and enthusiasm to take Auburn to the next level,” said Board of Trustees President Pro Tempore Wayne Smith. “We’re grateful for his dedication and commitment as Auburn made strides as a world-class public university. We wish Steve and Janet all the best.”
“As I’ve said many times, serving as Auburn’s president has been the highlight of my career,” Leath said. “I’m confident we leave Auburn stronger than when we arrived.”
Smith said the Board of Trustees will soon convene to name an interim president.
Inside sources have been telling the Alabama Political Reporter for some time now that there was dissatisfaction with Leath from some members of the board.
Leath previously was the president of Iowa State University, a land-grant system college with an extensive research footprint like Auburn.
Under Leath’s leadership, Auburn was named one of the top 100 research institutions in the country and was working toward a goal of 500 tenure track professors.
Athletics, however, overshadowed much of his brief tenure with the institution.
Jay Jacobs was forced out as athletic director. While Jacobs resigned, Leath agreed to pay Jacobs $3 million in severance pay to leave.
Auburn’s football head coach Gus Malzahn was expected to part ways with the university after the 2017 season, but stunning surprise victories over Georgia and Alabama put the Tigers in the SEC Championship game. Rather than allowing Malzahn to go to the University of Arkansas, Leath and the trustees decided to extend Malzahn’s contract through 2024 and give him a raise from $4.725 million per year to $7 million per year.
In 2018, Auburn went 8 and 5 and finished fifth in the SEC West. Under the terms of the contract, if Auburn were to fire Malzahn, they would have to pay him 75 percent of the remainder of his contract, with 50 percent of that money due within 30 days of his termination. It is our understanding, that if for some reason the board wanted to move on from Malzahn, the buyout at the end of the 2019 season would be $26.4 million with $13.2 million of that due in a lump sum within 30 days.
Leath appeared to be ready to oust men’s basketball coach Bruce Pearl at the end of this season after assistant coach Chuck Person was arrested in the FBI’s investigation of basketball recruiting. Coach Pearl however then went on what was unquestionably the best season of basketball Auburn has ever had, going all the way to the Final Four, defeating Duke and North Carolina along the way. Leath’s public feud with Pearl did not help his popularity with members of the board. Person pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit bribery and accepting $91,500 from a Pittsburg financial adviser for recommending the adviser to basketball recruits with NBA potential.
Leath was also criticized by some for adding additional layers of administration, including a new high level administrative position for one of his former ISU colleagues.
Leath left ISU in May 2017 after more than five years. The Board of Trustees agreed to pay Leath a five-year contract with a base annual salary of $625,000, more than $83,000 above the $541,600 his Auburn predecessor was earning.
When Leath left ISU, he left on the table two deferred compensation payouts worth $1.18 million. The Auburn trustees agreed to make up for his loss with a signing bonus of three years a $250,000 a year in payments to a supplemental retirement plan “as an incentive for Leath to remain at Auburn for the full five-year term of this agreement.”
The retirement program was seeded with $500,000 “in order to offset the funds he would have received under his prior contract if he had completed the full term of the contract with his previous employer.”
At this time, we do not know how much of his compensation package Leath will be taking with him for his 23 months of service to the University.
Original reporting by the Auburn Opelika News, Iowa Gazette, Montgomery Advertiser, the Courier Journal and SB Nation contributed to this report.