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
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
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