To say it’s been a wild ride lately for Iowa State University President Steven Leath doesn’t seem strong enough.

Here’s a guy who celebrates his fifth anniversary on the job in January and is beaming over the university’s status as the state’s largest public university (after overtaking the University of Iowa years ago), sharp enrollment gains in the College of Engineering and elsewhere, a growing and modernized research park, new approaches to working with businesses, an expanded football stadium, a growing group of National Academy members, and a huge jump in research cash.

But he’s also fighting through a gale force of public relations nightmares over his previous piloting of planes that were damaged in hard landings, over a land purchase that involved consulting with his boss, Board of Regents President Bruce Rastetter, and over episodes of racial and sexual orientation discrimination on campus. 

We sat down with Leath for an hour to discuss his review of ISU’s performance since he took his first job as a university president in January 2012, and to learn about his plans for the future. 

We learned that Leath considers himself on solid footing with the Board of Regents and has no plans to leave ISU. He told us he doesn’t consider the former AIB campus good enough to house the graduate programs ISU wants to offer in Des Moines, and he sees no reason to offer a lot of undergraduate programs when the main campus is 30 miles away. He also threw cold water on the idea of a major research facility in downtown Des Moines, for similar reasons and because it would be expensive. He’s still trying to figure out how best to deliver ISU’s programs in Des Moines, where ISU already has programs in Capital Square. 

We heard about plans to name a new dorm for former President Gregory Geoffroy. And, yes, we asked about Leath’s recent controversies over piloting ISU planes and buying a Hardin County retreat with Rastetter’s help. Let’s just say he is surprised by the intensity of the media scrutiny, even if he does realize as a public figure he’ll be questioned early and often. We’ll offer his colorful quotes and reveal the role his dog plays in the media investigations below.

But first, here’s his big picture synopsis of the past five years: 

“Overall it’s been a good run. I think if you look at some of the things in research funding, the Campustown (development), the (ISU) Research Park expansion, our graduation rates, our retention rates — if I had achieved that in 10 years, I think people would have been happy. We did it in five. In that sense, it’s been a fantastic run. 

“But the difficulties that we are having as a society this past year, with racial issues and diversity issues, have been a real challenge. You want everyone to feel welcome here. We want everyone to feel individually valued. So it’s stressful to have this much tension. You wish that you could wave the magic wand and make it better for everyone. That probably has been the biggest source of frustration because you can’t make it perfect for everyone. You are talking about people’s lives.

“But on research funding, grants, sports, graduation rates, we’re thrilled where we are, and the reputation of the university will go up. We didn’t have a single entry to the National Academies for 10 years. There have been six in the last two years (including two new hires). Three are in the National Academy of Medicine, and we don’t have a medical school. The stuff that we’ve been doing in the past five years to build the reputation, to build the profile of Iowa State, you know it is paying off in other ways. Our faculty members are gaining the reputation they deserve.”

Will you be ISU president in five years?
I don’t know. I certainly don’t have plans to leave. The students, faculty, the deans the community love us and we love them. The media certainly are taking a lot of fun out of it. I am paid very well, but it still has to be a labor of love because you work seven days a week. I am never off the clock, no matter where I am physically. They tire you out. When Greg (Geoffroy) retired, he told me he was tired. I fully understand it now. 

Do you have support of the regents to continue as president?
I think so. They look at a body of work. I think they are reasonable people. If there are changes suggested in the final audit (of travel policies), we will make them. In the preliminary audit, they thought we were doing things properly.

What presence will ISU have in Des Moines, beyond the space you have now at Capital Square? Will you use the regents campus at the former AIB campus? 
I think everybody is still trying to figure out if AIB is the right location and the right type of facilities. The primary focus of Iowa State in Des Moines has been graduate training. For a first-class, executive MBA program, the AIB facilities don’t match. We would have to look at a total overhaul of those facilities or being somewhere else in Des Moines. The AIB facilities wouldn’t draw students. They do not suggest a modern, executive-focused MBA program. We are trying to study whether that is a good location. Our input from the city is that they would like our programs more downtown. We’re trying to balance partnerships with the other regents universities with what we are hearing from the city. We have always questioned the need for undergraduate education in Des Moines and the unmet demand, shall we say. We did a marketing study. We looked at the enrollment numbers this year with the University of Iowa — they are not significant. It doesn’t really make sense for us to spend resources to duplicate facilities in Des Moines. We would still like to get a feel for how much unmet demand there really is before we dive wholeheartedly into undergraduate programs there. 

What about the idea of having a major research center in downtown Des Moines? 
In theory, that sounds great. We aren’t theoretically opposed to it. The problem is research facilities are really expensive. Some of the equipment in modern science is a million-dollar-plus piece of equipment. Duplicating them and getting substantial use in Des Moines is questionable, I would say. If we can find a niche that makes sense to have those facilities in Des Moines, and shows the demand and lack of duplicity, we would be interested. But right now, I don’t see the justification for that kind of capital expenditure. 

Is there a point where enrollment gets too big?
There is a challenge to setting a lid. We are a public university, and we are required to accept qualifying students. We have 95 percent placement rate. Our retention rate is up. That will drive enrollment. Our growth rate is slowing. Above 40,000 students, we would have real challenges maintaining the student-to-teacher ratios. We have 9,000 engineering students — that college is pushing the size of (the University of Northern Iowa). For some programs, like aerospace engineering, we are the only choice in Iowa.  

What changes have been most significant for Central Iowa’s business community?
One of the most visible is the whole expansion and change at the ISU Research Park. We had a good research park when I got here, but it’s becoming a great research park. A lot of businesses have been added. You look at the whole change in the architecture. We doubled the size of it. Now we are preparing to do another big expansion there. The whole culture there (has changed). It was not set up as a community to really drive millennials to want to work there. Now you’ll see additional big companies like the Boehringer Ingelheim space, or Workiva’s big space, or Vermeer’s big space, or our core development center. To see things like a restaurant (the planned The Cafe). To see things like a fitness center (the planned Ames Racquet & Fitness Center). Because that is what is going to drive research parks in the future, because people want to be there. So you’ll see things like a child care center. 

The second one would be the Cultivation Corridor. We never really had branded Central Iowa in any way for economic development. To name ourselves and to be willing to set priorities … when we started that process I said if we had 20 priorities, we had no priorities. As difficult as it was going to be, we had to decide what we were going to focus on. We focused on the Cultivation Corridor and our great strength and expertise around here in the life sciences, the ag sciences, these types of things. 

The third would probably be our big expansion on research funding, both from the federal sector and the private sector, because that new money for science drives innovation, it drives technology. It drives a lot of things. The growth in our resource has been tremendous, too. We’re up 22 percent in total research funding the past few years. Funding from companies is up 46 percent in the past five years. When you talk about growing partnerships, that is good evidence. 

You also reorganized your economic development efforts. You appointed Michael Crum as vice president for economic development and industry relations. You moved those efforts under one (new) roof at the ISU Research Park. Has that change transpired the way you hoped? Are there things you are looking to do in the next five years on economic development? 
I think it has gone the way we hoped. Sometimes you have what you expect and what you hope. This is one of those fortunate ones that exceeded what we expected and actually hit what we hoped for. By that I mean we are more efficient. You see the growth in our industry funding, so the relationships we have are working. When you talk to our outside partners, they are thrilled with this one-stop shop. They can talk about the Cultivation Corridor. They can talk about tech transfer. They can talk about small business, all in the same place. And it’s easy. They get right off (U.S. Highway) 30 and park with no problems. I think more significantly, we have someone now who knows what’s going on all these domains. If were to call Mike and ask what is going on with the new startup factory. What new companies are coming to the park? What new internships do we have? Somebody knows all this stuff. It’s created a lot of synergies because we don’t have duplication of efforts. When people come to our park and they sit in that new building in a conference room and see how organized we are, how pro-business we are, how focused we are,  it just makes it easier to go to the next step. When they were coming in and wandering around campus lost, and were going to six or seven buildings trying to find people in, basically, old academic-looking space rather than modern business space, it hurt our efforts. So it’s been tremendous (to move to the new building).

The new building opened in summer. Anything else about the significance of that? 
We wanted to look modern and businesslike. It says ISU is ready to do business. It’s a modern business culture. It’s an architecture that is classy, stylish, but frugal. We built a lot of building for the money we had. We are sensitive to expenditures and budgets. That area will be the village center. 

What comes in the next five years?
The upscaling of the village amenities that really tie everything together. We had a consultant that had worked at a dozen research parks, and he said ours is the only one contiguous to an airport. We need to market that asset, but he said our airport was really poor quality. So we worked with the city and we are doing significant upgrades to the airport. We want to make sure big Fortune 500 and Fortune 100 companies know they can come in, visit their research facility in five minutes, do everything they need to do, and go right back. You are going to see a tighter linkage with the municipal airport, which will be really good for economic development in Central Iowa. The new hangars should open soon, and the new terminal should be coming up soon. It will be real positive.

We’ll continue to develop the new sections and put the infrastructure in place on the south section. We will continue to recruit new companies. You’ll hear in the next three months or so some other companies that that will be coming to the park or expanding. They will be ones you recognize. 

What are the next steps for Cultivation Corridor?
I still think we need greater national and international brand recognition. We’re getting there, but it’s a relatively new concept. If you were to mention you were from Silicon Valley or Research Triangle Park, people will know what you’re talking about. We’re not there yet in the Cultivation Corridor. As we have big hits here and companies come here, and we go out to meetings, we have to drive that brand recognition.


The controversies

Media woes

Leath has faced intense coverage of incidents in which planes he piloted, including one owned by ISU, were damaged in hard landings. He noted in the interview that it was widely publicized when he joined ISU that he was a pilot and would be flying ISU’s planes for business and pleasure, but he didn’t want to push his new employers to spell out every perk in contract language. The Board of Regents asked for an audit of all ISU flights.
 
Leath clearly has been upset by the media coverage suggesting he acted inappropriately in not making the incidents public when they occurred. Leath paid for the damage to ISU’s plane and has decided he won’t fly ISU’s planes anymore.
 
“Some of the stuff I’m going through now is just unbelievable,” he said. “With all the great things about Iowa, and we love it here, the vicious personal attacks were unexpected. The intensity of it was unexpected. Frankly, I think it’s unnecessary. It is what it is.
 
“I am not naive. I know that I am a public figure and you expect scrutiny. But the level is hard to believe. I got a freedom of information request (Nov.16) for six months of my emails that had the words “dog” and “dogs.” When you get to the point where people are FOI-ing you about your dog. … “Puppy” was in the list. My youngest dog is 7. I haven’t had a puppy for a long time. 
 
“That level (of scrutiny) is disappointing because the truth of the matter is it’s a distraction for me, it takes (staff) resources, it takes time away from the things we should be doing, and it takes money. “Frankly, I don’t understand it. I understand transparency, openness, and we put lots of stuff on our website. When it gets down to that level, like your dogs, it’s like, ‘My goodness, people.’ ”
 
Asked if he knew what the dog email request is about, Leath said: “We are clueless.”
 
Leath said the coverage, much of it by the Associated Press and The Des Moines Register, seemed vindictive and personal.
 
“In January ’12, there was an article about me being a pilot. In ’13, there was a big feature article in The Des Moines Register that said I was a pilot, that I had flown private planes and that I flew state planes. I flew them for business. I flew them for personal use. It said it was considered an asset. So it stunned me that the same paper three years later would publish articles like this was a secret.”
 
He now wishes he had included his plane benefits in his formal contract. “Everybody would have been better served if that had been in the contract. Nobody anticipated this would be a problem, because everybody knew when they hired me what they were getting.” 
 
“The personal nature of it (is surprising). The assault on integrity, rather than, ‘Let’s get the story.’ For example, there has been some criticism of my trips with (Indianola native and celebrity bowhunter) John Dudley, who is an Iowan. Of the four trips that Dudley took with me to help Iowa State move forward, this is how many John Dudley hunted on: zero. So there are assumptions made that disparage people. John has received some criticism. He’s not an alum. He went out of his way to help us raise money, hunted on zero trips, and gets beat up for it. On one trip, some of the people hunted. Dudley didn’t. The other three trips, no one hunted.” 
 
Land deal
 
Leath was criticized for going through his boss, Board of Regents President Bruce Rastetter, to buy Hardin County land for a retreat and retirement home. Leath said he now “absolutely” wishes he hadn’t worked with Rastetter on the deal, but he contacted many others in the process. He said a short window to buy the riverside land forced him to move quickly.
 
It seemed innocent, and positive, to Leath.
 
“We like it here. We thought about having a home here, a place to get some R and R and a place to retire. When I came here five years ago, if I had asked you and you had asked me, ‘After five years will Leath be successful here and still be here, and would he love the place so much he wants to stay, we would have said, ‘Wouldn’t that be a great thing?’ ”
 
(He asked several land brokers about land. He was told his odds of finding something in the Iowa River corridor within a hour drive of Des Moines were “essentially zero.”)
 
“They are just so hard to get. When this one came open, it was quick. The intent was for us to buy part and (Rastetter’s company) to buy part. They wanted more farm ground, and we wanted recreational ground. If the thing had been surveyed once in the last 90-some years, that’s what would have happened. There would have been no deal. They would have bought a farm, and I would have bought a farm. It had a 30-day closing; I had to move on it. There was no ill intent.”


ISU President Steven Leath: Highlights of the first five years

Steven Leath took over as ISU president in January 2012. Here’s some of what has happened since, with the help of the faculty, staff, students, donors, business partners, the regents, lawmakers and others. 

Enrollment Up 23 percent to 36,660 from 29,887

Students from Iowa more than any other school, at 20,713.

New buildings:

  • Economic Development Core Facility at the ISU Research Park. 
  • Troxel Hall, a modern lecture facility. 
  • Jeff and Deb Hansen Agriculture Student Learning Center.
  • Elings and Sukup Halls, home of agricultural and biosystems engineering.

Renovations:

  • South end of Jack Trice Stadium, addition of Sukup End Zone Club. 
  • MacKay Hall, Lagomarcino Hall, Curtiss Hall and Marston Hall. 

In progress:
Student Innovation Center; Advanced Teaching and Research Facility and Bessey Hall addition; second building at Buchanan Hall site, to be called Geoffroy Hall.

Academic highlights:

  • More than 50 new endowed positions established. 
  • Launched largest comprehensive campaign with a goal of $1.1 billion. 
  • Lowered student indebtedness by 8.5 percent. 
  • Maintained 95 percent placement rate for graduating seniors for three straight years. 
  • Increased research expenditures by more than 20 percent, to $252.5 million in 2016.
  • Launched Presidential Initiative for Interdisciplinary Research, which has resulted in the submission of $437 million in new grant applications in four years and $43 million in new funding.  
  • Hired 444 tenure/tenure-track faculty since 2012.
  • Led the expansion of ISU Research Park, with a 200-acre addition expected to create 5,000 new jobs and add $100  million in annual payroll by 2030. Park now employs 1,800.
  • Co-founded Cultivation Corridor, focused on making Central Iowa a leader in biosciences and agricultural technology.

Philanthropy:
Launched five-year campaign to raise $150 million in scholarships and student support. Surpassed that goal in fall 2015 and reset it to $200 million. That was passed this fall, a year ahead of schedule. Pledges and donations stand at $204 million now.