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ISU President Steven Leath

posted on March 2, 2012

Getting acquainted.  Iowa State University's new President Steven Leath adjusting to new responsibilities and new constituencies.  A conversation with President Leath on this edition of Iowa Press.

Borg: If moving companies were relying on turnover among university presidents for business, they might be disappointed.  Take Iowa State University for example.  Although Iowa State, the nation's first land-grant college in the nation dates back to 1858, Steven Leath is only the 15th president.  Doctor Leath holds plant science degrees from Penn State and the Universities of Delaware and Illinois.  He's 54 years old -- starting salary $440,000 coming to the Ames campus after being the University of North Carolina's Vice President for research.  President Leath -- welcome to Iowa and to Iowa Press.

Leath: Thank you very much.  Glad to be here.

Borg: We hope that you'll come back often.  Across the table -- Associated Press Senior Political Writer Mike Glover and Radio Iowa News Director Kay Henderson.

Glover: Dr. Leath, let's start with something that Dean mentioned in the open and that is moving vans.  You have been on campus about a month now.  You've had a chance to meet, interact with the leadership team at Iowa State.  Are you satisfied with the leadership team you have in place there or do you anticipate changes?

Leath: I think there will be a change in the way we do business and some changes in duties.  And as many people know, Provost Hoffman has decided to pursue other opportunities.  So there will be a chance at Provost, which is the top academic official of the university.  So it is a substantial change in that sense.  We will also have a different management model where we'll have someone functioning in an associate vice president role, much like a chief of staff.

Glover: And will that person assume the administrative daily duties?

Leath: Yes, they will handle all the day-to-day implementation, make sure things are done in a timely manner, we meet deadlines.  In some ways, not to minimize the position, they're almost like a traffic officer in some ways, keep everything moving on schedule in the right direction.

Glover: And your predecessor was a huge supporter of your athletic director.  Is that where you're at?  Are you satisfied with your athletic director and the job he's doing?

Leath: Very pleased.  I have developed a close working relationship with Mr. Pollard and I anticipate great successes with him there.

Henderson: As you may remember, the Big 12 almost disintegrated and Iowa State, at one point, looked as if it might not have a conference to be aligned with.  What are your plans should that situation occur again?  I mean, you've got to gain that out don't you?

Leath: Well, I thought I was going to have to gain that out over the fall when I was in close conversations with Greg Geoffroy during that period.  I don't think so any more.  The conference is very stable now.  The fact that we had equal revenue sharing changed most members' thoughts on participation.  So I see a very stable conference for quite a few years to come.

Henderson: What is the role of athletics at Iowa State University?

Leath: Well, it's a multiple role really.  Athletics are the front door to the university.  That is how many people perceive a university.  Often their impression whether you are a mediocre school or a great school is influenced by the success of your athletic teams.  And it is also a great experience for our students.  It is a part of campus life.  And it is also a great way for us to raise revenue, which is something we need to do more and more.

Henderson: You also mentioned you're bringing on a chief of staff.  Does that mean that you'll be a different kind of president by offloading some of those duties?  And what arenas will you be venturing into that your predecessor did not?

Leath: I'll definitely be a different kind of president than Greg was.  He was a great president and a very effective one for many years.  But these are different times and we have different personalities.  I'll be more externally focused than he was.  I'll have more of a role in advocating for the university as far as the state and federal agenda goes.  And you'll see me more involved in economic development and fundraising.

Borg: I'm interested in your comment on athletics being the front door of the university.  Some people are bothered by that, the athletics taking almost like the tail wagging the dog any more in universities.  Does that bother you?

Leath: It worries me.  As an academic I think we have to have student athletes that are students first.  I think we have to win in the right way and it goes back to my confidence in Mr. Pollard.  Jamie is a great athletics director.  And what I've been focusing on is the success we've seen under his leadership and improving the academic success of our student athletes.  So if we're doing things in the right way, our students are succeeding academically and graduating at higher rates even than the rest of the student body, I'm comfortable that we're doing it right.

Borg: One thing the Regents said as they interviewed you, though, that they liked about your resume is that you had a record of fundraising.  Athletics apparently, you think, does a lot to help you raise funds for the university.

Leath: And I'm not just talking about athletic funds.  When people are excited and enthused about the university they're more likely to contribute.  And a lot of times that excitement, enthusiasm and pride comes with winning sports programs.

Glover: And I'd like to get you to take a look at your colleague.  Your colleague at the University of Northern Iowa made a major decision to cut the Price Lab School, which has been a long-time component of the university, because of budget cuts.  You're going to be getting budget cuts.  Republicans in the legislature say they're going to come at it again.  Have you identified areas that you think can be cut should you be forced to make those kinds of decisions?

Leath: Not yet.  I've been on the job less than six weeks.  We have started a process where I'm learning the university.  I'm assessing the quality of programs.  I have looked at the list of low performing programs and I have studied a huge list, very thick booklet of the efficiencies that have been gained in the last five years.  But I do believe in cutting strategically, not across-the-board and I'm going through that process now so I can make an informed decision if it happens.  But my efforts in the legislature are to make sure that doesn't happen.

Glover: And what kind of a message are you getting from them?  Because the message I'm getting is that they're going to continue down that path.  For instance, when they eliminated the Price Lab School the legislative leaders cheered that decision, said that's what you ought to be doing.

Leath: Well, the legislators clearly do not want redundancy across the three Regents universities.  And Ben, Sally and I have started a process already where we're going to meet regularly.  Sally has been kind enough to host us at her house --

Borg: Sally Mason of the University of Iowa.

Leath: Yes, yes.  So we'll be having a close working relationship to make sure these -- that we're very efficient, we're not redundant and I'm cautiously optimistic that we won't have to do that.

Henderson: Another proposal advancing in the legislature that will impact your institution is the package of education reforms.  The part that will affect your institution would require a 3.0 grade point average for students who want to study to be teachers and then they would have to maintain a grade point average once they get in the college.  Do you think that is helpful?  Do you think that is needed?

Leath: I think we want high quality teachers and I understand the need to have teachers when they're studying for their major to have a high grade point average.  I do not want a hard, fast rule that no one that had an off year as a freshman could ever be a teacher or bring valuable life experiences when they return to college and perform well.  So I think we have to do this very thoughtfully.

Glover: And what do you think of that education reform package?  It would affect primarily K-12 education but it would have a pretty significant impact on higher education as well.  Are you supportive of that education reform package?

Leath: Well, we're not doing as good a job as we should be in this country and this state so some reform is needed.  And we certainly have to pay attention because we're the -- the universities are the ones that train those teachers and put them in the classroom.  So any implications that are made in that reform package affect us and we have to be prepared for it.  But for the most part it is a K-12 issue and we want to be in lock step with K-12 but most of those are not really affecting us as directly.

Henderson: This past week Vice President Biden visited the engineering college at Iowa State University.  You have recently lamented the fact that students on campus are shying away from science and math courses.  As the leader of the institution, and perhaps a cheerleader for academics, how do you change that mindset?

Leath: We have to change that all the back to K-12 to go off the last question.  This has to be a perception amongst young children that science is interesting, engineering is interesting and that they are capable of doing it.  That is one great thing about the Vice President coming.  To see the Vice President of the United States focusing on this gives kids enthusiasm and they see the merit and they see the job opportunities there.  So we will institute a number of programs, continue some already in existence to drive up our STEM numbers.

Henderson: One other follow up in regards to the Price Lab School decision and this idea that you are meeting with the other presidents of the Regents' institutions to sort of pare down what you do -- why is Iowa State educating teacher when the University of Northern Iowa is supposed to have the center of excellence that is K-12 educating teachers?

Leath: That's something we really do need to take a look at.  But one reason is because we have incredible strengths in the sciences and agriculture and to educate teachers in some of these specific disciplines it is really critical that they have the core courses around them and those are generally not taught anywhere else.

Borg: You're coming into a state and a university where 62% of the enrollment comes from Iowa -- those are Iowa high school graduates.  Are you concerned as the pool of high school graduates in Iowa steadily declines and your percentage at Iowa State continually increases from out-of-state tuition students, are you concerned about that, that Iowa students are declining at the state university?

Leath: Well, only if we fail to serve them or give them access.  If we continue to provide high quality education and give them all access that is fine.  We can't control things like birth numbers and things like that.  So the ratios probably will switch but I want to make it clear that focusing on high quality, accessible, affordable public education for Iowa students is our primary mission.

Glover: We had a couple of Regents on not too long ago and they were talking about the mix at Iowa's Regents universities of public versus private funding.  That has gone kind of past a watershed mark where less than 50% of the cost of higher education in Iowa, public higher education comes from taxpayers.  Are you comfortable with that mix?

Leath: Well, I would like to see continued investment in higher education.  I think it's good for society, I think it's good public policy.  As long as I'm president I'm not worried that we're going to lose our state focus because that is a personal passion and I will be driven by the demands of the state.  But with different leadership that ratio can really change the philosophy of the university so in the long-term it can be dangerous.

Borg: What do you mean by that, change the philosophy of the university with different leadership?  What do you mean by that?

Leath: Well, I have a great love and admiration and understanding of the land-grant mission and while I'm president we will be very focused at Iowa State of serving the needs of Iowa and serving the state.  But some presidents could look at it, if they're not being funded by the state, then they can do whatever they want in terms of research priorities, education for the university.  That is not going to happen regardless of the funding balance but it is a dangerous path to be on.

Glover: Isn't it inevitable -- I mean, if the majority of your money is not coming from the state, the majority of your direction will not come from the state.

Leath: That's true unless the state changes.  If the economy rebounds and the state decides to put more value in high quality public education as a benefit to society and for creating jobs and for promoting an innovation economy they could choose to reinvest in the higher --

Glover: Is that your message to them they should do that?

Leath: Yes.

Glover: And how do you carry that message to them?  Because, I mean, that is not the message I'm hearing from the leadership of this legislature.

Leath: You're right.  And we have an obligation as academicians and leaders of universities to explain ourselves to the legislature.  I'm new here.  I am going to each legislator one at a time and in groups explaining the academy, what we are doing now, what we intend to do and how we intend to serve the state.  It is my hope that after I'm here for a while people will trust me and they'll see such an understanding of what Iowa State does and can do that they'll continue to invest.

Glover: And I'd like to have you look at the structure of higher education in the state.  We increasingly have community colleges, two-year colleges where a lot of people go to make the first two years of their higher education and then transfer.  How do you compete with that?  How do you compete with community colleges that are cheaper, closer to home?

Leath: Well, I don't know that we need to compete as much as we need to differentiate.  For people that can't afford Iowa State initially or have reasons they need to be close to home or families or other jobs it makes sense for them.  We need to be clear about what we offer and let those students choose.

Henderson: You mentioned earlier that you are sort of a rainmaker, that you're going out and recruiting contributions to the university.  How would that manifest itself?  The people who were on this program a couple of weeks ago who hired you, hired you to do that, to bring in the DuPont’s of the world and situate them on campus.  Where is the line about where the control of academic research goes and how do you proceed as this "rainmaker"?

Borg: Can it be contaminated -- is that what you're asking?

Henderson: Can it be, yeah, chemical rain?

Leath: I didn't use the word rainmaker but I have had great success in public-private partnerships.  I think the key is to be very transparent and at the beginning make sure all the parties in the public know how you're going to work together and disclose any potential conflicts and make sure that your research is publishable, is published and is peer reviewed so there's no question about the integrity or the quality of the work.

Henderson: Do you have some sort of fundraising goal set for yourself?

Leath: Well, I'd like to do $100 million my first year on the job, which will be difficult coming off a capital campaign and being new and forming new relationships, but that is my first year goal.

Borg: I used the word contaminated -- let me ask it a different way.  You can assure Iowans, legislators, other constituencies that the purity of research and academics, despite the source of the funding, can remain pure?

Leath: I think we can.  There is a whole new set of conflicting interest standards coming out this year.  They have to be implemented by August 22nd.  They'll be very rigid, very transparent disclosure of our relationships with individuals and as a university with companies and we'll work hard for that.  Companies right now need to have a long-term relationship with universities due to the complexity of research.  They can't afford to do anything that is inappropriate either.

Glover: And it's something that you, at Iowa State University, has long been known for is the Iowa State University Extension service.  Can you assure Iowans the extension service will survive the budget cuts in some form and will still be in place?

Leath: Absolutely.  I started my career as an extension person in Illinois.  I have great respect and understanding of extension.  The university went through a great transformation in its extension program a couple of years ago and we have hired an innovative and aggressive leader in Cathann Kress.  She has my full support and she'll carry extension forward.

Glover: Will you have to share in the budget cuts?  Are there other portions of the university you're going to absorb?

Leath: Well, we have already shared disproportionately.  My expectation is that they'll actually probably benefit a little bit as I redo the budget.

Henderson: Are there areas of the institution which you think need to be beefed up either through infrastructure or bringing in fellowships, etc?  Do you intend to sort of reorient some of the academic areas of the institution?

Leath: There will be a few things that you'll see.  We do have a great shortage of repair and renovation money so we have a number of facilities, especially science facilities, that are unacceptable.  I looked at some of the vet school the other day and they were just horrible.  It is unfortunate some of our faculty are working in those conditions.  So we do need to beef up some facilities.  As far as programs, you'll see some big hirings in biology and engineering in the future.  But every aspect of the university has really high quality programs that will move forward.

Borg: What are you trying to do in those hirings?  Are you trying to further strengthen something that is already strong?  Or do you want to beef up something that needs some help?

Leath: Both but for the most part the former.  We want to grow on our strengths and differentiate ourselves from other schools --

Borg: Can you be specific?

Leath: Sure.  If you look at the interface in plant breeding and basic biology there has been very little work done in structural biology and plants as compared to mammalian systems.  We could be the world leader in plant structural biology here building on our strengths.

Borg: And that is your specialty.

Glover: And one of the things that people have talked about is the centers of excellence at the various universities.  If you were talking to supporters of Iowa State University what would you tell them the center of excellence at Iowa State is?

Leath: On the research side it is in biology and engineering, especially agricultural sciences.  On education it is the way they wrap their arms around undergraduate students and make sure that every individual student is successful.

Glover: And are you -- that is going to be part of the message you're taking as you try to build support?

Leath: Mm-hmm.  One of the reasons I was attracted to this job is because I have never seen a large public university like Iowa State do as good a job with undergraduate education.  They are one of those few schools that gets the blend of education and training right.

Henderson: Will you elevate administrators on your staff and make academic provost, if you will, equal to a research provost?  Other institutions have chancellors, if you will, that are of equal status to sort of elevate the research component of the university's mission.

Leath: There will be some restructuring.  I can't say exactly how it will all shake out.  You will see a more prestigious role for Vice President Tom Hill, Vice President Warren Madden than they have seen recently.

Henderson: Let's shift gears to a debate that is happening nationally about the training that people from outside of our country get at institutions in the country, that get a doctoral degree from Iowa State University, then they go back to China or some country in Africa and take the knowledge they have learned here, there.  What is your opinion about that?

Leath: Well, sometimes I think it's very unfortunate that this bleeds over into a very complex public policy issue as to what we do about immigration.  The most productive graduate student I ever had is a research scientist right here in central Iowa contributing tremendously to economic development in the state of Iowa and I'm pleased that he's doing that.  Would I like to see more people like him stay here?  Absolutely.

Glover: And I'd like to get you to talk about another issue that has resonated in national politics, I'm sure you have thought about it and talked to people about it and that is the scandal that has happened at Penn State.  Can you assure parents who are sending children to Iowa State University there will be no kind of a Penn State scandal?

Leath: Well, nobody likes to see something like that, especially at their alma mater.  I was very diligent when I came here to see what policies we have in place and I was impressed.  They are very robust.  But we decided to make them more robust.  So I feel we have done everything we can to ensure the safety of the students on our campus and children on our campus and I think we're as far along as we can be.

Glover: And how have you made it more robust?  What have you done?

Leath: We put in programs to -- programs that were common in athletics where we had children in programs, I'm now going to apply the background checks and scrutiny to a number of other programs on campus outside athletics.  Athletics have done such a good job of managing this and we want to make those programs more universal.

Borg: President Leath, you mentioned earlier you were in close conversation about the Big 12 athletic situation with former President Greg Geoffroy before you came here.  He stayed on the faculty teaching chemistry I think, isn't he?

Leath: That is correct.

Borg: Well, do you still maintain that close conversation?  Because that is somewhat unusual that the former president goes back to teaching and stays on the campus.  Do you still have coffee together and do you still seek his advice?

Leath: Greg was as good a transition partner as any incoming president could have had.  My schedule has not allowed that contact like I'd like but I'm having dinner with Greg and his wife on Sunday and Greg and I are catching a more formal business lunch in the next week or two.  So, there are some things that we still exchange ideas on.

Borg: Let me just ask a follow up about your vision now.  Greg Geoffroy was there for ten years before he went back to teaching.  What is your vision for Iowa State today as to how it is going to be when you maybe ten years from now go onto something else?  How will Iowa State be changed?

Leath: Well, the real, real short answer is it will be the best land-grant institution in the United States.  But what I think you're really asking is how will we be differentiated.  One, you'll see a university that is very sensitive to the needs of the state and really had a major role in growing the economy of the state that can be clearly traced back to the efforts of the university.  You'll see more public-private partnerships.  And you'll see one big university getting this blend between education and training that is often a controversy, getting it right where our students continue to be placed at the 90 some percent rate when they graduate.

Glover: President Leath, I'd like you to step back and do another sort of a big picture thing.  A, do you plan a long tenure at Iowa State University?  And at the end of that tenure what would you like to be remembered for?

Leath: I hope to be here until I retire.  So I'm 54 years old, I'd like to give it ten or more years.  So, the answer is yes, this is where I want to be, this is the job I want.  I want to be remembered as someone that was a good listener, not just on the first day and the last day, was listening to the concerns of the citizens, the businesses, the elected officials in this state so that we get our mission right.  And I'd like to see a more prosperous university that is on sound financial footing that continues to serve the needs of the state.

Glover: And what is your relationship with the Regents?  They hired you.  I assume you have a fairly close working relationship with them.  Are you in contact with them often?  Do you have interchanges about the direction of the university?  What is your relationship?

Leath: Two leaders of the Regents, Lang and Rastetter, we talk at least every week, sometimes more than that.  All the other Regents I am making individual, private meetings with them.  I met last week with David Miles and Greta to get their ideas and thoughts about priorities and where we should go.  So I'm working my way through the Regents one-by-one.  I'm more than halfway through to keep that communication up.

Borg: Final question, Kay.

Henderson: Exactly.  We haven't much time left but you recently took on a role in the Iowa Business Council.  I'm wondering what you think Iowa State University's role in Iowa's economy is or can be.

Leath: Well, if we're going to continue to serve the state and do it better I need to know what are the needs of the state.  And there's no better way on the economic development side to be sitting with the business leaders of the state.  So I'm really in listening mode right there.  But I think there are spots where industry doesn't do things particularly well and we do and those are the spots we want to concentrate on and those are the areas I want to learn from them.

Borg: President Leath, I meant it when I said earlier we want to see you back here quite often.

Leath: I'd be delighted.  I think part of my administration goal is to be transparent and let the citizens of Iowa know where we're going and this is an excellent forum so thank you.

Borg: Thanks for being with us today.  Next week on Iowa Press we're checking the economic pulse of Iowa's local communities with Cedar Rapids Mayor Ron Corbett, Council Bluffs Mayor Tom Hanafan.  Local issues, statewide ramifications on the next edition of Iowa Press.  And we're going to have special broadcast times too during our Festival programming.  You'll see Iowa Press Friday night at 6:30 on our main channel and at noon Sunday on our IPTV World channel.  I hope you'll be watching.  I'm Dean Borg.  Thanks for joining us today.


Tags: education government higher education Iowa Iowa State University news Steven Leath