Life on the IT Frontier

For Steven VanRoekel, the former Microsoft whiz kid who was recently named chief information officer (CIO) of the U.S. Government, happiness is using his high-tech Internet skills to help streamline federal information processing.  His “wonderfully challenging” goal during the next few years: to dramatically improve the speed and efficiency of federal information management – while at the same time saving billions of dollars in operating costs.

When Steven VanRoekel (’94 management information systems) was growing up in small-town Iowa back in the 1970s, he drove his parents crazy by constantly disassembling the family’s kitchen appliances . . . and then hoping he could figure out how to put them back together again.

“I grew up in Cherokee, way up in northwest Iowa [population: 5,369],” says
the former Microsoft wunderkind, who last August was tapped by President Barack Obama to become America’s chief information officer. “Looking back, it was pretty much an idyllic childhood . . . except for those times when I took apart the toaster and left my parents feeling pretty frustrated the next morning at breakfast!”

itfrontierFor the technologically gifted VanRoekel (pronounced Van-ROE-kel), reducing the family vacuum cleaner to a pile of useless metal parts and plastic hoses was simply doing what came naturally. By the time he was 12 years old, in fact, the ardent electronics buff was already noodling around with the first, primitive versions of the “personal computer” – a futuristic, technologically daring device that was still in its infancy three decades ago.

“I can still remember the joy I felt one Christmas morning,” recalls the 41-year-old VanRoekel, “when I looked under the tree and saw that my parents had gotten me a Commodore 64 – which was one of the first-ever PCs, along with the early Apple II.

“The Commodore 64 was an extremely basic, extremely limited computer device, but I was thrilled to have one – and I soon learned how to make it do things that weren’t in the instruction booklet!”

That thrilling Christmas morning took place nearly 30 years ago, but the techno-savvy Internet guru still remembers it vividly. “My mom took a picture of me under the tree with the Commodore,” he recalls, “and that photo is now hanging on the wall of my office, here at OMB [the federal Office of Management and Budget].”

As VanRoekel loves to tell visitors to his fourth-floor digs at the venerable old Eisenhower Executive Office Building in Washington, that aging Christmas photo speaks volumes about his rise from adolescent computer geek to America’s top-ranked cyberspace executive.

A 15-year veteran of mighty Microsoft (where he directed the Windows Server and Tool Division for five years and then was the “speech and strategy assistant” to famed CEO Bill Gates from 1999-2002), VanRoekel departed the private sector three years ago in order to serve newly elected President Obama as managing director of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC).

There he distinguished himself by using his high-octane techno skills to quickly improve the agency’s IT operations – while reducing costs and helping to tighten cyber-security throughout large areas of the federal government.

Describing his meteoric career during a recent Washington interview, VanRoekel said, “I like to think of myself as being broader than just a ‘Microsoft guy.’ I’m a proud father and husband, first of all – and I’m also a proud public servant. And third, I’m a ‘technologist’ through and through.

“I’ve always been an embracer of new technology, starting way back in eighth grade . . . and now I’m determined to help make that technology serve our country by improving our ability to process and share information, while at the same time cutting back on future costs.”

While he’s understandably proud of having goosed up the FCC’s ability to talk to itself and others, the social media-minded VanRoekel is especially happy about having made the giant agency accessible to youthful, Internet-savvy citizens all across the country.

Ask him if he’s pleased that the FCC now has more than 400,000 Twitter followers, and he’ll nod enthusiastically. “Actually, it’s now 450,000 followers,” he says with a proud parent’s beaming smile. “And I think that’s a good sign that the agency has been getting into closer touch with the public. We pushed hard for more effective use of social media at the FCC, and those efforts seem to be paying off.”

Feeling energized by the challenge ahead
When the youthful VanRoekel landed on the ISU campus back in 1990, the personal computer was still a struggling new technology, and the Internet as we know it today hadn’t been born yet.

But that didn’t slow him down. After being appointed yearbook editor, VanRoekel quickly began using his exotic skills to transform the production process. “The year before I was editor, we’d done the usual ‘wax paste-up,’” he says with smile of nostalgia, “and then we sent the pages off to have the [printing] plates made.

“That was old-school stuff. But it didn’t take us long to convert to Macintosh. We had an old Mac ‘single-box’ with a little screen on it . . . and I soon figured out how to link it to several other word processors, and that changed everything.

“That was an exciting time for all of us at the yearbook. All at once, the potential of the computer seemed obvious, and we realized that it could really do things for you.”

After earning his B.A. in management information systems (he minored in journalism) at ISU, VanRoekel signed on as a techno-manager at Microsoft, then spent 15 years helping Bill Gates build the computing giant into the cyber-behemoth it is today.

An easygoing executive with an affable exterior, the laid-back VanRoekel got on well with the equally unflappable Gates. “One of the first things I told him was that I was extremely proud of having come to Microsoft from the place where the digital electronic computer was invented – at Iowa State University [by physicist John Vincent Atanasoff and electrical engineer Clifford E. Berry], back around 1940.”

Although VanRoekel had a proven track record of success at streamlining cyber-operations at the FCC, his task as CIO will not be easily accomplished. In addition to blunting the ever-escalating national security threats posed by hackers, he’ll have to deal with deficit-inspired budget cuts that seem certain to take a major-league bite out of his $80 billion yearly operating budget.

Unfazed, however, the relentlessly confident Internet wizard says he’s actually looking forward to the challenge of doing more with less.

“It won’t be easy, but I think it’s doable,” VanRoekel says, relaxing for a moment in an elegant conference room at the graceful old Eisenhower complex not far from the White House. “For starters, we know that the technology is out there, ready to answer the call. And we also know that we’ve got some powerfully effective managers and staffers out there at the federal agencies and that they’re eager to improve their IT systems in any way they can.

“This is a very exciting time to be working on information systems at the federal government – and I think all of us are feeling energized by the prospect of making IT much more effective and efficient in the days ahead.”

Call him whatever you like — but please don’t call him czar!

Ask Barack Obama’s newly appointed chief information officer if he wants to be known as the “IT Czar,” and he’ll respond to the question with an unhappy frown.

“Really, I do think I would resist that terminology,” says Steve VanRoekel, who currently oversees an $80 billion annual budget and is responsible for making sure the federal government implements and then uses state-of-the-art Internet technology with maximum efficiency.

“I realize that the term ‘czar’ has been used in the past to describe people who direct federal programs of one kind or another . . . but I prefer to think of myself as a partner who seeks to inspire innovation and efficiency at the various government agencies where we’re working to improve IT operations day in and day out.”

Although the former Microsoft executive now commands a vast technological enterprise that’s charged with teaching 2.1 million federal employees how to use cutting-edge Internet tools as effectively as possible, he insists that his role is to “inspire learning and innovation,” rather than serving as the traditional bureaucratic boss.

While taking several history and political science courses at Iowa State in the early 1990s, VanRoekel gained a keen awareness of the fate that is so often reserved for “the czar” – typically an all-powerful tyrant (as in 19th- and early 20th-century Russia) whose career ends suddenly and violently, after his subjects grow disenchanted with his leadership. But the cyber-guru is also quick to point out that his function as IT chief is “much more about teaching and helping our agency partners implement powerful new communications tools” than it is about giving orders from on high.

Unlike the federal “drug czars” and “terrorism czars” and “intelligence czars” who’ve made headlines in recent years, VanRoekel won’t be running a war-fighting agency dedicated to shutting down international narcotics trafficking or preventing the next 9/11 terrorist attack. But the challenge he faces is every bit as urgent as theirs in one important way . . . since it will require him to design and then implement staggeringly complex IT technology aimed at saving several billion precious tax dollars during the next few years.

With the U.S. economy caught in a seemingly endless and brutal recession, finding ways to save taxpayer funds – while increasing productivity at the same time – is more important than ever before.

“The task ahead is going to be challenging, there’s no doubt about that,” says the cheerfully upbeat chief information officer. “To get it done, I don’t need to be a czar-like figure issuing commands from on high. What I will need, however, is the ability to inspire people at all levels of government to better understand and more efficiently use all of these marvelous new tools that information technology is creating every day.

“Maybe the right word for me is ‘evangelist’ – somebody who’s passionately determined to spread the gospel of improved productivity at lower cost, via better use of technology.”

Iowa State’s new president is a land-grant guy


Steven Leath became Iowa State’s 15th president on Jan. 16, 2012, and with the school year half over and the legislative session in full swing, he’s definitely had to hit the ground running.

Leath spent his early years in St. Paul, Minn., before moving as a teenager to Pennsylvania. He earned three plant sciences degrees from land-grant universities and spent 20 years working at a fourth, mostly in the areas of plant pathology and university research. He and his wife, Janet, have two sons and a dog named Dixie.

From everyone we’ve talked to, Steve Leath seems like the perfect fit for Iowa State. Well, he hasn’t memorized the fight song yet. But we’ll teach him.

A conversation with Iowa State’s 15th President

When Steven Leath was on campus for a series of meetings in mid-December, a month before he officially took over the Iowa State presidency, he sat down with VISIONS magazine to discuss his background, what he considers Iowa State’s strengths and challenges, and the future direction of the university.

First things first. What do you like to be called?
Most people call me Steve. My mother calls me Steven. Usually if I hear Steven
I sit straight up.

All right. What attracted you to apply for the Iowa State president’s position?
I was at a point in my career where I really wanted to have a leadership
position at a major university. I’m a land-grant guy; I’ve gone to school at three separate land-grants and spent 20 years on the campus of a fourth land-grant. So when I looked for a position, my first focus was on a quality land-grant institution. So when the Iowa State position came open, that was immediately on our list. I’ve actually had a number of NC State colleagues who went to Iowa State, and they spoke so highly of Iowa State and their love for their alma mater that it gave me an initial really positive impression.

What would you list as Iowa State’s strengths?
Iowa State has a number of strengths. One, for a large land-grant university, a large public university, [Iowa State] does an incredible job focusing on undergraduate education, ensuring the success of their students. So that was one thing we noticed right away and one thing that attracted us. Because even though I come out of a research background, I have a strong interest and love for undergraduate education and students. The second thing we consider to be real strengths are traditional land-grant things – engineering and agriculture. A third is [Iowa State] has done a very, very good job of transferring its innovation and faculty scholarship outside the campus where it makes a difference in society.

What are Iowa State’s biggest challenges?
One challenge is Iowa State has had reduced budgets over the years so we’re constrained as to moving in new directions, new research initiatives, new ways to ensure student success. So that’s a challenge. And the other challenge is that students of Iowa public universities have a very high debt load when they graduate. We can’t allow that to increase. We’ve got to find a way to make it better.

What’s unique about Iowa State?
Somewhat special at Iowa State is the very high undergraduate participation outside the classroom. If you look at the number of students participating in intramural athletics, it’s one of the highest in the country. If you look at the number of students in learning communities, Iowa State was really a pioneer in developing learning communities and getting high student participation. If you look at the clubs, [they number] in the hundreds and hundreds with relatively high student participation in those. So [what’s unique is] the level of student involvement and the way Iowa State has gone forward to making sure students are successful, because the more involved students are the more likely they are to be successful.

What were your first impressions of the Iowa State campus?
First impression of campus was that it was very pretty. We were fortunate
to come in the fall when there was beautiful fall weather. So that was the first impression. At the same time, my second – almost simultaneous –
impression was how friendly and welcoming all the people were that we encountered: people associated with the interview and people who weren’t, just people we met, whether it was at a restaurant or walking across campus.

Have there been any surprises so far?
I guess the biggest surprise, even though I went to school at three land-grants and spent 20 years at a fourth, is how complicated the institution is and how long it will take to learn it to the level I’m satisfied with.

The budget has been a constant challenge in recent years, especially when it comes to state appropriations. Of Iowa State’s $1.069 billion total budget, only $236 million (22 percent) comes from State of Iowa appropriations. What are your thoughts about how the regent universities can get a larger share of state funding?
If we’re going to get a larger portion of the state budget, we have to show value to the state. We have to show a complete partnership with K-12 and the community colleges and the public universities so people see all education in the state as a continuum and then specifically see the value of higher education if they’re going to fund it at a higher level. I also think we need to show a stronger role in economic development and job creation to fully engage the general assembly and the governor in supporting more funding to higher education.

Could you talk a little more about economic development?
In North Carolina I ran a large research program. When I took over the program, we did a little over a billion dollars a year in contracts and grants. This last year we did about $1.4 billion. We had great success in growing research in a university system. But perhaps more importantly, we had great success in making the research more relevant. We did an overhaul of our technology transfer and [launched] a number of initiatives to foster innovation in the university culture to make all of our faculty more innovative. So regardless of your area of scholarship the tendency was to focus more on innovation and then translating that innovation out to society.

I think Iowa State’s done a very good job of translating their research and scholarship out, and they’ve had some new changes and restructuring that will help foster that to a greater level. But I think we can still go one or two levels beyond that, and I’d like to work with the folks at Iowa State to take it a step or two beyond where we are.

What aspects of your previous positions do you feel have prepared you for this presidency?
I would say my time at NC State running a large research program in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. NC State had very similar size, structure, and culture to Iowa State. So spending 20 years on the campus both as a faculty member and then as an administrator definitely helped prepare me. When I went to work for Erskine Bowles, who was then president of the University of the North Carolina system, Erskine was the best manager I’ve ever worked for and the best budget guy I’ve ever worked for. Although that’s not the glamorous part of university administration, if you can’t manage well and you can’t deal with budgets well you won’t be successful. So spending a lot of time, 4½ years, with Erskine was extremely helpful.

Athletics have become a flash point for many Division I schools around this country. Can you talk about your plan to work with the Athletics Department and your philosophy on student-athletes and big-money sports?
We need strong leadership in athletics, and I believe we have that at Iowa State in Jamie Pollard, so that’s step 1. Athletic structure in conjunction with the president needs to set the tone for athletics, and that includes stressing academic success. And if you look at the recent results of Iowa State athletes in the classroom we’ve done incredibly well. We continue to excel academically, and that’s the type of model we want to promote here at Iowa State. These are student athletes; they’re clearly students. We understand the tremendous time commitments, and we do want to win. Make no mistake about that. We want to win, but we want to win in the right way with a program we can be proud of. Athletics is the front door to the university, and many people not that familiar with the university get much of their impression of the university from athletics. So I want that impression to be not only that we’re winners but that we’re a class program, we win in the right way, and our athletes are great students.

Do you consider yourself a sports fan?
(Laughs.) I’m a sports fan, yes. In these jobs, you’re so time constrained it’s difficult to spend all the time on all the things you’d like to do. But when I’m at a game I’m usually fully invested. (Laughs again.)

Can you sing the Iowa State fight song yet?
No, I’ve not yet learned the fight song. I’ll have to work on it.

Tenure is another touchy subject on college campuses today. Can you discuss your philosophy on faculty tenure, how it strengthens or weakens an institution, and where you think it will go in the future?
First, tenure is a highly valued practice in higher education institutions, and when we compete for faculty we compete against the very best universities in the world. And tenure is a recruitment tool because top faculty look toward tenure. It’s important that we not lose sight of the fact that tenure protects academic freedom, and although that is probably less of an issue than it was 100 years ago it’s still an important issue, and we need to remember at all times a university like Iowa State University has to look at every critical issue openly and fairly. The faculty can’t feel like they’re constrained or worried about their job because of an opinion they take or which way the data lead them, and tenure helps us protect that. So in that sense I put a lot of value on tenure and I’d like to protect it. I also think that Iowa State has a very robust policy so that in those rare cases where tenure has been granted and someone is not performing, we have an effective means to deal with it, with a post-tenure review process that’s been very ably handled and instituted by the faculty senate and the current leadership.

A university president has to wear a great number of hats. You have to be a fundraiser, a legislative advocate, a friend to students, a spokesperson for the university, a great communicator. You have to rally the faculty and advocate on their behalf, go to sporting events, travel across the state, mingle with alumni. It’s a big job. Can you tell me how you think you’ll prioritize your time and what the really critical functions of your job will be?
I think as you look toward prioritizing your time when you look at all the constituencies you serve and all the hats you wear, the first thing you do is you want to be really efficient. So when you go to a certain part of the state, you would like to stop at an extension office. You would like to go to a research farm. You would like to go by the business of a great partner or alum to learn about the economy in Iowa. And at the same time there’s no reason you can’t stop by and visit a regent or see a general assembly member in their district. And so as we plan trips around the state I’m really trying to do a good job of doing multiple visits with multiple constituencies in the same part of the state at the same time.

As far as how do you blend your priorities, you have to remember we really want to serve the students well. We want to give them access to this university at an affordable price, and we want to give them a high-quality education. So that is always going to be on your plate, always on your mind. At the same time, the university is not so much the buildings – even though this is a beautiful campus – it’s the faculty. And if you don’t have good faculty who are empowered and given the resources to do their jobs and do them well, you won’t be successful.

At the same time, none of that can happen if you don’t have support from your alumni, if you don’t have good relationships with the community colleges, good relationships with local government, town and gown relationships, and especially with the governor and legislators and with your regents. So you do all these things at once. And what it really translates to when you come right down to it, it’s about relationships. They have to trust me, they have to trust the university, they have to know we’re a good partner. They’re going to have to know we’re accountable, we’re transparent, and we’ll make good partners with them. And then you build those relationships over time, across the state with different constituencies, and that’s what will make us successful long term.

Janet Leath joins us for the remainder of the interview.

Working toward becoming a president, was that the dream job? Was this the kind of job you were hoping to get?
Janet: Absolutely. Absolutely. I don’t think there could be a more perfect fit out there.

Steve: We wouldn’t say it’s “the kind of job,” we would say it is THE job.

Janet: It’s absolutely THE perfect fit.

Steve: It’s where we want to be. Both
of us.

What else would you like VISIONS readers to know?
Janet: Some people may not realize that we have an ag background. Our kids grew up driving tractors. We raised angus cattle. We thought our kids should know where food comes from, about life and death and hard work. We really didn’t raise the cattle to make money.

Steve: We really did it to teach about responsibility. The other thing I think that might be interesting, too, is that I was raised as a boy in St. Paul. I spent some of my college summers in Nebraska. When Janet and I got married we both spent more than four years in Illinois. We are very fond of the Midwest and Midwestern people and Midwestern values, and we were excited about coming back to the Midwest. We weren’t as excited about the winters (laughs) but we were really excited about coming back to the Midwest, quite frankly. I think that was a big part of it.

Janet: For me, this is exciting. Honestly – thinking through any school that there is in the country – I honestly cannot think of a better fit.

A team effort


Steve and Janet Leath are a great team. They’re the kind of couple that finishes each other’s sentences. The kind of couple you want to have as ambassadors for your university.

“We complement each other,” Janet says. “We care about each other. We like each other. We want the other to succeed. We know what our strengths and weaknesses are, and we really try to help each other.”

“We’re at the point in our lives when we’re interested in fostering success in each other. That’s what these jobs are about,” Steve says. “It’s difficult for any one person to have an entire skill set. I feel fortunate that Janet is at a point that she wants to do this. I think between the two of us, it’s a better package for Iowa State University.”

Janet Leath, the other half of Iowa State’s presidential “package,” is ready to make the transition. The owner of a successful State Farm insurance agency in Garner, N.C., Janet holds a bachelor’s degree in plant science from the University of Delaware. She started her agency 21 years ago, when the couple’s two sons were 3 years old and 7 months old.

“It was a huge commitment,” she says. “Looking back on it, I wonder how in the world I did it, but I did. Steve was incredibly supportive. We tend to work together very well and support each other.”

In addition to her full-time job and the family’s Christmas tree business, Janet has also pursued landscape architecture as a hobby, creating the family’s private botanic garden at their home in Fuquay-Varina, N.C., just south of Raleigh. She also designed the landscaping for three buildings on North Carolina’s research campus in Kannapolis.

Doing that landscaping project, which required her to drive more than two hours each way, was a real “eye opener” for Janet.

“I learned that I work much harder for a labor of love than I ever will for money,” she said. “I learned from that experience that I am completely ready to give up my career. When I walk away from my State Farm Agency, I am walking away empty-handed. I am willing to do it. I have put my heart and soul into my gardens, and they are beautiful, beautiful. But I realize this is what I want to do, something that I feel is a more noble cause where I can serve, where I can be an ambassador. And if you put a dollar amount on it, for me it wouldn’t be the same.”

The Leaths have been preparing for this next step in their lives for about five years. Janet said that when they first decided this was the career path they wanted to follow, she started paying close attention to the styles of other presidents and their spouses.

“In North Carolina there’s a 16-university system, and Steve was the vice president for research for all 16 universities, so he worked very closely with 16 different chancellors, from small schools to very large schools. I spent a lot of time with him going to events and football games and meetings and really seeing how different schools handle certain things and what the role of the spouse is. Some spouses worked and didn’t have much to do at all with the university, and other spouses were fully engaged. We decided the model that would work best for us was to be fully
engaged and do this together.”

The Leaths have lived in the Midwest before. Steve spent much of his childhood in St. Paul, Minn., and the couple lived in Champaign, Ill., for four years while Steve worked on his Ph.D at the University of Illinois. Janet was born in Yonkers, N.Y., and spent most of her childhood living on Long Island. She met her future husband at the University of Delaware, where she was a non-traditional undergraduate student and he was a teaching assistant working on his master’s degree.

Janet was surprised by her initial reaction to central Iowa and the Iowa State campus when she accompanied her husband for his interview last fall.

“It was rolling and beautiful,” she said. “It’s a gorgeous campus, and I met wonderful people, and it immediately felt like home to me, which I did not expect. I just looked at Steve and I said, ‘Steve, this feels like home! I really want this to work out. It just feels like home.’”

Dixie: Iowa State’s “first dog”

For the first time since we can remember, The Knoll will be home to a first dog.

Dixie is a 4-year-old golden retriever / golden lab mix. Here’s the story of how she came to live with the Leaths:

“We went to a friend’s daughter’s wedding in Mississippi four years ago and came home with a puppy unexpectedly,” Janet begins. “We didn’t even know their dog had had puppies.”

“She was not the most aggressive and not the most passive puppy in the litter, but she seemed like she had the most personality,” Steve says.

“You know, you look at nine golden retriever puppies and you can’t help but fall in love with them,” Janet continues. “But I just thought they were cute; I didn’t really think I wanted one. But as we went back out and looked at them again, I thought, ‘Oh, my gosh, I want one!’ And so I went out and found Steve. He was on the front porch with our friend, and I kind of got up next to him and waited for a lull in the conversation and I said, ‘Um, we don’t want a dog, do we?’ And he didn’t say no.

“So a minute later he said, ‘Well, why don’t we go out and look at them again?’

So we went out and looked at them again and picked out one of them. But then we thought, ‘Well, surely we can’t actually fly home with this puppy.’ We called the airline and they said, ‘No problem. You can take the dog on the plane.’”

Steve says, “We decided if Wal-Mart has a dog carrier, we’ll do it.”

“They had the carrier and she could fit underneath the seat,” Janet continues. “So we ended up flying home with a six-and-a-half-week-old dog. Now she’s my daughter! She’ll come with us to The Knoll. We think the students will really like her.”

The Leaths describe Dixie as smart and a good communicator.

“If she wants to go outside, she will walk to the door and tap it with her nose as if she’s saying, ‘If I had opposable thumbs I’d do it myself, but since I don’t you have to open it for me,’” Janet says. “She’s well behaved.”

“She’s well behaved except for the first 90 seconds when she meets someone,” Steve interjects. “She gets so excited. She loves everyone.”

“We’re working on her not jumping up on people,” Janet adds. “She’s just as friendly as can be.

What they’re saying about Steven Leath
during his first few weeks as president:

“Right now, he’s doing a lot of listening. He’s also putting in a lot of hours, and he’s off to a good start. I think he’ll jump into this position as quickly as anyone I’ve had the experience of working with. I think he’s got the personality to get along with a wide range of people with different backgrounds, from farmers to corporate leaders.”

Warren Madden, ’61 industrial engineering;
ISU vice president for business and finance

“I’m very impressed by how personal he is with all of us in the President’s Leadership Class. He is very enthusiastic about taking over the presidency … and about connecting directly with the students and the staff. I think we’ll see a really personal leadership style. He seems very warm and genuine.”

Alex Menard, senior anthropology/Spanish major from Davenport, Iowa; teaching assistant for the President’s Leadership Class

“His leadership style is straightforward. If he has a question, he hasn’t been afraid to ask. He’s been very forthcoming with the Senate leadership and me. I think he’s going to be a strong leader. It’s an exciting time.”

Steve Freeman, professor of agricultural and biosystems engineering; 2011-12 Faculty Senate president and member of the presidential search committee

“I got to know Dr. Leath pretty well during the hiring process. And right now, I feel like he’s just an earshot away. I think the more people get to know him the more excited they’re going to be. He’s a visionary person and will be inviting others into his vision. I think he can take us anywhere we want to go.”

Dakota Hoben, senior agricultural business major from Grandview, Iowa; president, Government of the Student Body

“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.”

Roger Underwood, ’80 agricultural business;
co-chair of the presidential search committee


Steven Leath

Age: 54

Born: Providence, R.I.

Grew up: Moved to St. Paul, Minn., when he was age 2. Relocated to central Pennsylvania when he began junior high school.

Education: He holds three plant sciences degrees: a 1979 bachelor’s from Penn State, a 1981 master’s from the University of Delaware, and a 1984 Ph.D. in plant pathology from the University of Illinois.

Previous positions: Since 2007, he had been vice president for research and sponsored programs for the University of North Carolina system; he also served as interim vice president for academic planning. 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. Earlier in his career, he was a research leader and plant pathologist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Research Service and an extension plant pathologist at University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.

Career highlights: Helped develop the North Carolina Research Campus, a private-public venture that fosters advancements in biotechnology, nutrition and health; author of nearly 100 scientific publications on plant disease control and variety development.

Family: Married to Janet Leath for 30 years; two sons, Eric, 24, and Scott, 21.

Interests: The family owns and manages a Christmas tree farm in Ashe County, N.C. He’s an avid outdoorsman and enjoys bird hunting, bow hunting, and fishing. He’s also a pilot and enjoys flying small airplanes.

Arrived in Ames: Started at Iowa State on Jan. 16, 2012 as the university’s 15th president.

Annual salary: $440,000

Spotlight on: The Hospitality Industry

Are you interested in transitioning your career to the hospitality industry? Paul Ruby (’85) talks about trends, what you need to do if you don’t have any hospitality experience, and what his typical day involves. Paul is the vice president of operations for Shodeen Hospitality and general manager of The Herrington Inn & Spa in Geneva, Ill.

If there is a specific industry you would like to learn more about in a future ISUAA Career Link newsletter or if you are willing to be interviewed about your career field, email Katie Lickteig at

Can you give a brief overview of your responsibilities and day-to-day duties?
PR: I’m currently a vice president of the hospitality division of a real estate development company. Most of my time is spent as the General Manager of a full service luxury boutique hotel.  The hotel offers meetings, weddings, a restaurant and a day spa. Also under my umbrella is an additional banquet facility, golf course, and swim club all in separate locations that require hands-on management each week. I’m also involved in the evaluation and development of future projects. The most important part of my day includes interacting with staff to insure we are providing great service and engaging with guests to confirm they are receiving great service. Our mission statement is “exceeding out guest’s expectations with enthusiasm and anticipation.”

What is your advice for a working professional who is interested in making a career change to the hospitality industry with no prior experience in the field?
PR: Depending on the size and/or business model of a hospitality company, many offer entry-level positions where work experience from a different industry actually translates very well. Examples are facilities management, customer service, and possibly sales. In a hotel, the front office is typically the communications hub, and therefore an ideal place to develop their skills and determine if hospitality is a good fit. The sales and catering department of a hotel often has a coordinator or conference services position that will allow someone to learn the ropes if they believe they would be a good event planner or operations manager. Just as it would be unrealistic to attempt a career as an executive chef without first being a line cook/sous chef, it would also be difficult to manage a restaurant without any prior food/beverage service experience. In my experience, learning from the ground up makes a quality leader and performer in our industry.

What trends do you see in the near future for the hospitality industry?

PR: The forecast for hospitality industry job growth looks very positive. Although new construction remains slow to rebound, current occupancies and demands are ascending providing employment stability. The nation’s top hospitality forecasting groups are telling us that corporate and leisure spending is on an uptick affecting all facets of the hospitality sector. The short term future will be focused on yield management (hotel rooms, restaurant table turns, wine inventory, etc.) to properly leverage supply vs. demand, continuing to keep costs as low as possible, building client loyalty, and keeping with mainstream technology. Quality service never goes out of style.

What things do you, as someone in the hospitality industry, do to help stay engaged and up-to-date with the profession?
PR: Typically, I read regional and national business and trade publications and newsletters to stay informed of current trends and business activities.  Staying in touch on a personal level with both clients and peer professionals through various associations as well as one-on-one meetings is also crucial to keep my network of contacts continually growing regardless of how our operations are performing.