Iowa State University President Steven Leath

Dec 12, 2014 | 00:28:47 | Podcast | Transcript


Borg: Steven Leath is closing in on completing a third year leading Iowa State University. He is a plant scientist focusing on serial plant diseases. This is his first time as a college or university president, spending five years as the University of North Carolina's Vice President for Research just before coming to Ames. Heading Iowa State he has seen enrollment surging past 34,000, now, among the state universities in Iowa, its largest. And coming at a time when the governing Regents are reworking state funding rewarding those universities for enrolling more home state Iowa students. President Leath, welcome back to Iowa State.

Leath: Glad to be with you today.

Borg: And welcome, I should say, Iowa Press. I've got Iowa State on the mind here. But welcome back. And you notice I didn't even mention VEISHEA or a disappointing football season.

Leath: Not yet.

Borg: You're right. Across the table, Gazette Political Writer James Lynch and Des Moines Register Political Columnist Kathie Obradovich.

Obradovich: Not football right away but I do want to ask you about basketball. I'm wondering if you have been involved in the decision dealing with Bryce Dejean-Jones' position on the Iowa State basketball team in light of his recent drug arrest?

Leath: I'm very familiar with the situation, as you can imagine. Generally my style is to hire good people, the kind of people you trust to run the program you want run and let them make decisions. So, Fred took the leadership role in making the decision --

Obradovich: Coach Hoiberg.

Leath: Coach Hoiberg, yes. I did have some conversations with Associate Athletic Director David Harris during the process and was comfortable with where we were going.

Obradovich: Okay, well the police and the courts are still sorting this case out. But the university doesn't always take its cue from what happens in the courthouse. Is it possible that Mr. Dejean-Jones won't play again for Iowa State regardless of what happens with the criminal charges?

Leath: Well, that's possible but I think unlikely. I think Coach Hoiberg is trying to factor in a number of things, not only developing players but developing young men and he is trying to find an appropriate policy and approach to making the student athlete understand his role and responsibility and really the aspects that go with wearing an Iowa State uniform.

Obradovich: And does he have a lot of autonomy on this? Are you letting him make these decisions? What has your advice been?

Leath: I am available to him and athletics on all of these to use as a sounding board. They know how I feel about these types of issues. They know what our standards are. They know what goes with the privilege of wearing the uniform. So this one went in a way that I was very proud of Coach Hoiberg. I think he made the right decision at the right time. I actually went over there last evening to compliment him on the decision after he made it. So as long as things are progressing in the way you want it's probably better to let your good people have some autonomy.

Lynch: I think this goes to a broader question about disciplinary actions against student athletes. And that is, when is it appropriate for the university to substitute its judgment for that of the legal system or the judicial system, even in cases when the judicial system sides with the student athlete as in the case of Bubu Palo, a basketball player earlier this year?

Leath: Well, we have a comprehensive set of guidelines to help us through that decision process. But the reality is there's two things here, there's criminal activity and then there's activity that is conducive to an educational institution and an environment of learning. So when behavior gets to a point where we feel it is impacting the student or other students' ability to function, perform and learn and be successful in our environment it's time for us to step in. Now, on criminal things, especially issues like sexual assault, we immediately involve the police because of the serious nature of them. But you can go to issues, for example, with free speech. Some things are not a violation of free speech in this country and according to the First Amendment but they can make a very non-conducive educational environment if we allow certain types of hate speech or really aggressive speech in certain forums that people can't have a normal discourse. So there are times when the university comes in with policy and say, you know, that's not a reasonable way to behave in the workplace, even though it may not be criminal.

Obradovich: When it comes to sexual assault, of course, the national spotlight has been on universities around the country. What did you learn out of the BuBu Palo case that can be applied to making sure that students are A, safe at the university but also can be assured that their rights are respected?

Leath: I think the biggest thing we have learned, or I could say relearned is education, which might sound ironic since we're an educational institution. But the more the students know coming in while they're on campus what is acceptable behavior the fewer problems we're going to have. So we are actually stressing education more than ever, we have a comprehensive training program going on right now for all the faculty, the staff and the students in sexual misconduct. I think that is a great approach. The other thing you've got to realize that you've got to have all the resources immediately available whether it's your sexual assault response team, your already prior engagements and relationships with both city and county law enforcement officials, all these things need to be cued up and ready to go because there is so much pressure now to make the right decision that protects the alleged victim as well as the alleged perpetrator, you want to get that right before you make any decisions. But the timeframe is compressed.

Borg: I mentioned in our introduction that there is increased competition for Iowa high school students among the private colleges, all the higher institution colleges and universities in Iowa. The University of Iowa over the past few days said our applications, because they're recruiting heavily, are up 10% from a year ago. How is Iowa State doing?

Leath: We're probably up about 5% on applications, about 10% on admissions, the number of those applications that say yes, which is probably a good number for us. As you know, we have grown hugely the last few years and I would like to continue to grow but if we slowed our rate of growth some it would probably be best for everybody.

Obradovich: Is that what you expect to happen, a slower rate of growth? Or is that something that you're going to have to make happen somehow?

Leath: I think it will probably happen because we're not changing what we're doing but UNI and Iowa have more aggressive campaigns to recruit more Iowa students, especially the University of Iowa. So I think as they have more aggressive recruiting campaigns and we continue to do what we have done we'll probably see our rate decline somewhat but I think we'll still grow.

Obradovich: IS there an upper limit to what the university can accommodate? And how are you working to accommodate the increase that you have already seen? I don't know if it's an even increase across all colleges, for example?

Leath: No, about nearly 70% of our growth the last few years has come in ag and engineering. And another way to look at that, about 55% is coming to biological sciences. All of those fields are very intensive learning fields where you need hands-on learning so they're very difficult to grow into. As a matter of fact, that's one of our capital requests this year at the legislature. But we don't really know the upper limit. A lot of that depends on the funding stream. I have said since I got here, I said at recent Regents meetings, we can provide access, we can provide affordability but access and affordability without quality is a bad deal for our students. And the quality takes money as you grow at the rate we're at. So the size that we can get to is highly dependent on the resources quite frankly.

Borg: Where's the strain in resources right now?

Leath: Biggest strain probably is in high quality laboratory space. We hired 105 tenure-track faculty last year and we're hiring another 130 this year. No other university I know of in the country is hiring like that. So we're keeping our student ratio, student to faculty ratios right. The biggest constraints that we have right now probably are housing, Cy Ride and laboratory space.

Borg: And the Cy Ride is the bus rides around campus?

Leath: Yes, that we share with the city of Ames.

Lynch: All this growth is coming at a time when, as you have mentioned, the Regents have sort of, they have this efficiency study going on and are making recommendations. I wanted to ask you, are you able to achieve some of these recommendations internally? And where are you finding savings at this point? Or have the savings started to accrue?

Leath: Well, our university was named one of the six or seven most efficiently run research universities in the country a couple of years ago by the Wall Street Journal so it's a little bigger challenge for us because we have already been pretty lean and managed very efficiently. But we are seeing where we can save in purchasing, the way we do things in human resources, IT, for example. So we're just starting to accrue those savings. For example, we bought a number of client devices rather than conventional PCs for our employees. We have bought over 1,000 already so we're saving on infrastructure costs and we're coming up with some new ways. So we're seeing some of the savings but many of them will take a few years to realize once you start the implementation process.

Borg: But that is hardware. There are going to be some reductions in human beings too, aren't there?

Leath: It's conceivable. The numbers that came out in the early reports was 250, which is a relatively small number over thousands of employees.

Borg: 250 at Iowa State?

Leath: I believe that was the number. It may have been 250 across all three. I'd have to double check that. But we're talking about relatively small numbers. Even if it was that many at Iowa State we're talking about a very, very small percentage. We lose that many employees just to normal attrition, retirement, in a year. So I don't think it's anything to be overly concerned about.

Obradovich: Aside from the current efficiency study, what do you see as the longer term direction of the university? Are universities in Iowa and around the country going to become more specialized? There was a focus on duplication at the universities that has gone on for decades. Is that going to be the direction? Or is it going to be a situation where you're providing similar programs in a different way?

Leath: Well, I think we will focus. When I came here I said we were going to build on our strengths, ag and engineering, and clearly we have done that with the enrollment. And it doesn't make sense for other universities to try and start really expensive programs like in agriculture, engineering. So you'll see more focus on the things we're good at. That being said, it's not fair to the students or the employees or really society to educate students only in one discipline. So every university is going to need some core competency in things like English, history, communications. So a big university like Iowa State will continue to have a breadth and a scope of programs but there will be strengths.

Obradovich: But do you then say, for example, that some of these courses that are being offered at Iowa State could be provided to the University of Iowa via the Internet instead of having to have staff and people teaching those classes?

Leath: For the non-really hands-on laboratory course that would be wonderful if we could do more of that.

Borg: This brings up a question that is in my mind related to that. Iowa State and the other universities continually announcing new alliances with community colleges and private colleges across Iowa. What is your vision? Where would you like to see this evolve to? What kind of linkage? Are you there now?

Leath: No, we're not there completely and we're going to have a new president at Drake soon, which is a great private college nearby Iowa State. So I'm hoping to foster even a closer relationship with Drake as we go forward. On the community college it's a challenge for us because in Iowa the community colleges are not part of a system like the Regents schools so all your articulation agreements, all your joint programs have to be done one-on-one. So it's a very labor intensive process that has to be refreshed every year and as there's changes in leadership you have to constantly re-engage. So that process is non-ending and I think it's a good one and we do have articulation agreements with all of the community colleges. But the more that we can refine it, the more we can get our faculty and their faculty together to close these gaps the better we'll be. For example, we worked with Western this year on our engineering program so there's even a clearer linkage of those students when they start in engineering there what's going to happen when they arrive at Iowa State.

Borg: That's the school out of Council Bluffs.

Leath: Yes.

Borg: Yes, okay.

Lynch: Given the Regents change in funding mechanism to reward you for recruiting Iowa students, does the alliance with the community colleges become even more important to sort of create a pipeline to Iowa State?

Leath: It is important, it certainly doesn't diminish. Now we take more community college transfers than any other university in the state. Just two years ago I think 2,000 of our 6,000 students that came in that year were community college transfers. So we have a very rigorous, robust program with the community colleges. I don't see that diminishing. I'd like to see it continue to grow. Those students are largely successful when they arrive.

Obradovich: One of the Governor's stated goals is to make sure that Iowa university students emerge with less debt. Of course, there's a variety of ways to do that. One is for the state to just give the universities more money, right?

Leath: I'll go for that.

Obradovich: But I'm guessing that he probably has some other methods in mind. Has he shared any of those ideas with you? And are there things that you think are perhaps going to be a priority?

Leath: Well, there are a number of things. Some that the Governor and I have talked about in terms of reducing student debt is our obligation at the university to raise more money. So two years ago at my installation I promised to raise $150 million more in scholarship money the next five years. We're less than halfway through that and we have raised $107 million so far. So I think people are generally pleased that we're raising more scholarship money. Some other things the Governor has addressed is seeing if we could have programs were students could graduate in less time, specifically three years. Now some of our students do graduate in three years. The provost is actively working on programs right now. So each college will have at least one degree program that could be accomplished in three years, especially with a combination of credits you bring from high school, summer classes, some distance learning. So there will be an opportunity for some students. It won't apply in all fields because some of them it's just not possible, some of the complex engineering design fields. But there will be those opportunities.

Borg: Does that sort of bother you? You have gone on through a Ph.D. degree. Can you envision someone coming out with a college degree, a B.S. or a B.A. in three years?

Leath: It's problematic. It's not impossible though. And we do get more and more students that come with credits to college when they arrive. It's not uncommon -- I teach a leadership class with my wife once a week and these are 30 of the best freshmen on campus. And when you talk to those freshmen many of them are coming with 20 to 30 credits already. So they're already well into that freshman year credit wise. So for them to take a little bit heavier course load, do some summer school and graduate in three years, that's entirely conceivable for some students in some programs.

Lynch: Is it possible, as the Governor has suggested, that some of these B.A. programs should be $10,000 programs that I could enroll in college and get a B.A. or a B.S. for just $10,000?

Leath: That is a huge challenge. I told you before and I'll say it here now, access and affordability without quality is not a good value. So we need to keep our quality there or we'll devalue the whole university in this degree going forward. So I don't know that this is like landing a man on Mars but it's like landing a man on the moon. It has been done but it will be a real challenge to find a way to do a quality degree for $10,000. I think our hope is could we do a quality degree and get enough scholarship money for those people that really need the help or that are really high academic achievers so they could graduate essentially with only $10,000 of their own money is probably a way we're going to have to look at it to be successful.

Obradovich: Where does that $10,000 figure come from anyway? Is somebody else in the country doing that? Is it just a nice round number?

Leath: It was proposed in Florida and Texas and they had the same challenges and weren't able to accomplish this. So we have studied what they tried to do and we're trying to figure out if there's some new approach to that where we could be successful.

Obradovich: Speaking of -- go ahead --

Lynch: Whether it's $10,000 or the current rate of tuition everybody seems pleased that the Regents have frozen tuition for a third year in a row. But what is the impact on the university of freezing tuition? And can you sustain that? And how confident are you in the legislature delivering the resources you need to maintain the quality you have talked about while you're freezing tuition?

Obradovich: That is an excellent question. The freeze on resident undergraduate tuition is an over $2 million hit to our budget. It's one we didn't fully anticipate. So somewhere that has to close. And we go back to the quality issue again. How do we provide quality with all the growth we have had if our budget doesn't increase? What it really does is it begs the question about the performance based funding model, whether that will pass or not. That becomes -- that was our number one legislative agenda was to have the performance based funding model approved by the Regents go through the legislature and it becomes even more important with the tuition freeze.

Borg: Are you saying that the performance based funding for Iowa State, which you're coming out on the good end on that, the University of the Iowa is the one that is complaining because they're losing about $13 million for not enrolling as many Iowa students, but you're saying it hurts you too and is problematic for you?

Leath: No, no. It's very, very good for us. What is problematic is the initial tuition freeze causes us a loss of $2 million in our budget this year which makes the performance based funding model even more important to us because it can close that gap.

Borg: Got it.

Lynch: Is a tuition freeze more of a political goal than -- is it really based in realism, that the cost of education isn't going up so we can freeze tuition? Or is this more of a political achievement?

Leath: I think it's an attempt by some of the Regents to keep costs down and there probably is some politics involved and they also want to tell Iowans that they're doing everything they can to make college affordable for them. It's no secret I don't think that the UNI student body and Iowa State student body were not in favor of freezing tuition. They wanted the monies to come in and be used to deal, in our case, with growth.

Obradovich: How does the tuition freeze affect that balance between what the university is bringing in, in tuition and donations and fees and what the state is putting, what taxpayers are contributing to the universities? How does that balance -- how does that affect it? And how does that compare to other universities around the country?

Leath: Well, most people are seeing tuition increases because they haven't been a fortunate as us. Really it is a $2 million hit but when you put this in perspective over the last few years the Governor and the legislature have been extremely kind to the university system and they have been very sensitive to our needs and our budgets have grown the last few years. And we're hugely appreciative of that. It's more of a calculation of adjustments for us. We can deal with it this year and we're glad that Iowa residents will have another year of relief on tuition. But, like I said, it makes the new funding model more important.

Borg: Let me move -- Kathie do you have another one --

Obradovich: I was just wondering, you mention other states and their budgets going up, I was wondering whether at some point Iowa becomes the Regents system for the state of Illinois? They seem to be, first of all, having budget problems and sending a lot of students across the border.

Leath: They certainly are. And they're the biggest source of non-resident students I believe for Iowa. They're the second biggest source of non-resident students for us. They follow Minnesota for us. Some of our neighbor states the cost of public education has gotten extremely high and it has caused them to look elsewhere for good value.

Borg: I said early on I hadn't asked you about VEISHEA but I am going to now.

Leath: Okay, sure.

Borg: What's next? What is going to replace VEISHEA?

Leath: The truthful answer is we don't know. But a more elaborate answer, because I owe you a real answer, is I promised to deal with the faculty senate and the government of student body to find a way to showcase the university, in other words, the good parts of VEISHEA. So this spring there will be a return of the spring theater production that actually predated VEISHEA so that will go on the schedule. And I just met recently with Kevin Schalinske, the faculty senate president, to charge him and he is putting together a group from faculty senate to look at what are the parts that could come back in a meaningful way and let us avoid some of the problems we've had in the past.

Obradovich: So VEISHEA, of course, was the largest student run celebration in the country and it over years has been marked by violence, usually alcohol fueled violence until you made the decision to end it.

Leath: Correct.

Obradovich: So what happens if you have ended VEISHEA and the violence does not end? What are you going to do if riots continue this spring?

Leath: That's certainly a concern. I think many students, over 200 of them that were arrested last year, realize now that there's teeth in this procedure. So the students are being counseled right now to behave themselves and that there are repercussions for getting out of hand. And this goes back to the earlier question, can we suspend or expel a student for behavior that is not conducive to our learning environment and the answer is yes. We have just seen this recently at some other schools. So they know that there's consequences for behaving poorly.

Borg: Let me take you to another area and it goes back to athletics. I believe, if I'm right, you had just come to Iowa State when the Big 12 Conference was kind of falling apart. And you and Baylor President Ken Starr, along with some others, were primary architects in preserving what is now the Big 12 Conference. Now there's some questions about there ought to be two more schools added to the Big 12 for various reasons. Would you be in favor of that?

Leath: On the first point I think I should clarify, I think Greg Geoffrey really gets the credit there. But on the favor of expansion I'm probably like most Big 12 presidents right now, we're receptive to the idea if they're the right schools. We're in no hurry. The Big 12 is functioning very well. Our revenue sharing agreement is great when you only divide by ten versus twelve or fourteen. So you would need schools that actually add value to the conference otherwise it doesn't make sense for us.

Obradovich: And how would you feel about a Big 12 title game, especially considering that Baylor and TCU didn't make it into the national playoffs?

Leath: That was a tough one because with just a slight turn of events we could have had half the teams in the playoffs. Instead we ended up with none. But we are inquiring with the NCAA for an exception to see if we could have a title game with only ten teams, which currently is not allowed. So we're going to at least investigate the exception rule so we can make a decision as presidents if that's something we want to do.

Lynch: The other question is, assuming there is a title game, will Iowa State ever be a part of that title game picture? And will Paul Rhoades be part of that?

Leath: Well, I hope so to both of those questions. I'd like to get our football program where it needs to be, which is representative of a first class university. We're not there. The last two seasons were clearly disappointing. As to Paul's future, I can't predict that. He knows, Jamie knows that we want a first class winning program and that's where we've got to be and hopefully he's the guy to get us there. But either way we've got to get there.

Borg: I believe it was Martin Jischke on a program when he was president of Iowa State and he was at the seat where you are right now we were asking about athletics and he said a winning football season, a winning athletic program is absolutely essential as a billboard for the university across the nation and helps in recruiting and in fundraising. So is that the way that you'd make a judgment on a football coach?

Leath: No. Frankly we're doing very well on fundraising. We set a record two years ago for non-campaign year. We surpassed that record last year and we're looking at an all-time record for fundraising this year in a non-campaign year. So fundraising is going very well. Fundraising is actually going well on the football facility. There are so many other factors. Is this the kind of person can run the program in a way you're proud of? And can this person get student athletes to succeed in school and move towards graduation and graduate? So all these things factor in as much as winning. You don't want to win in a way you can't be proud of. And so we've got a coach right now that we're very proud of for every aspect of the program except the record right now. So hopefully he'll get that straightened out this fall.

Obradovich: So does a coach that everybody likes get to stay longer than a coach who is winning all the time but people don't really care for?

Leath: Probably.

Lynch: And that's the university president talking. But the fans, are they going to be as patient as you are?

Leath: We're probably on the same page. I think Coach Rhoades said this himself, that this is a business and he knows he's got to win and we'll work through that over the next season.

Borg: Well, it's not because you're not winning or anything like that but we're going to have to call a close to our conversation.

Leath: Okay.

Borg: We're out of time. Thanks so much.

Leath: Oh, you're so welcome.

Borg: We'll be back next week with another edition of Iowa Press at the usual times, 7:30 Friday night and noon on Sunday. I'm Dean Borg. Thank you very much for joining us today.

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