Optimistic Leath outlines plans

President Leath at the podium

President Steven Leath delivered his annual address Sept. 13 in the Memorial Union Great Hall. Photo by Bob Elbert.

President Steven Leath is optimistic about funding, support and the future of research at Iowa State. Over the coming year, he plans to hire more faculty, raise the university's national profile, improve the student experience and further promote economic development in the state.

Following are some of the president's comments during his Sept. 13 speech:

Faculty and staff deliver on the promise

A big congratulations, really, to everyone on this campus, for efforts to deliver on the Iowa State promise of providing high-quality education, research and service to Iowa. It's being noticed by the regents, the governor, the Legislature, and by students and their parents who are sending their kids here. The value you folks are delivering to our students, and in serving our stakeholders around the state, has been tremendous.

Hiring more faculty

At my installation, I announced that we were going to try to hire at least 200 high-quality faculty in a relatively short time. I commend the provost and the deans for working hard on this. We added 80 new faculty members before this fall, and 60 more this fall -- 140 -- so we're well on our way to reaching this goal. I'm not sure this is a static goal; we may have to change this goal as we go forward. This is going to enable us to continue to deliver the high-quality instruction we want to deliver, keep our student-faculty ratios right and expand some of our research and economic development efforts in critical areas.

Raising the profile of Iowa State

The President's Committee on Enhancing Institutional Excellence provided me with recommendations that will ensure we maintain our presence as a national leader in higher education and grow that presence. It will be available on the president's homepage soon. The plan focuses on first, growing our research and development footprint; and second, increasing national awareness and recognition of our great faculty here at Iowa State; growing our graduate programs; and making very specific, targeted, but impressive investments in the humanities disciplines.

Increasing the value of graduates' degrees

Everybody in this room ought to be focusing on our graduates' degrees being worth more every year. We've really got to focus on this total educational experience. Our students are successful because they get a treasure-trove of on-the-job type experiences here. However, we have challenges, with this many students, in keeping this experience the way we want it.

The Student Experience Enhancement Council has provided recommendations pertaining to a broad array of student-centered activities, such as study abroad opportunities, leadership development, intramural activities, campus housing, dining, safety and CyRide. You'll see an investment of resources (time and money) in advising, supplemental instruction, internship support, learning community support, classroom facilities, educational technology improvements and many others.

How much larger can we get?

In a Q&A session after his address, Leath was asked how much larger Iowa State can get without diminishing the services it currently offers to students. 

"That's probably the single most important philosophical question I have in front of me right now," he said. "We have worked hard on that. And we don't have an exact answer.

"The best examples come from China where they are growing higher education quickly. They did a number of calculations and they determined if you've got 40,000 students, you're better off to build another campus than to grow the one you have."

Leath added there are examples of great universities, such as Ohio State, Minnesota and Arizona State, that have more than 40,000 students and seem to be flourishing.

But those universities probably don't the offer "the cultural experience, the brand experience that we do," he added.

Iowa State is responding in the short-term to keep its quality, keep those experiences -- the learning communities, the university housing, the faculty-student ratios -- in place, he said.

"How big can we get and what do we need?" Leath asked. "We value everyone's opinion on this. This is a campus community decision and it affects our town and gown relationships, too."

The future of research

I'm very optimistic about the future of research. People were scared this year, rightfully so, about sequestration, the federal budget and the federal research budgets. Iowa State, like many universities, took some hits there. And while our faculty and staff were hindered some by that, I'm really excited with how they responded.

The intent to grow our graduate student body, grow our research efforts and better serve Iowa was not lost because of one blip in the federal year. In fact, the faculty rose up, they recalibrated and they retooled. Private sector support of research at Iowa State was up over 13 percent in one year. I was really excited to see that. It's that kind of get-it-done, roll-up-your-sleeves, no-excuses attitude that's going to keep pushing us forward.

Now, it's still early in FY14, but our numbers on the federal side look like they're coming up. I'm a glass half-full guy, so when you hear these things about the federal budget, you hear about the difficult times. There are going to be great universities that emerge from this stronger, and I am confident we're going to be one of them.

Extension and engagement

I'm very impressed with Iowa State's ability to engage our farmers, revitalize rural communities, help youth through 4-H, and the tremendous efforts to help our manufacturing and business sector. I want to make it clear: Extension and engagement are huge parts of this university. You've got a president who started his career in extension engagement, who appreciates it, appreciates what Cathann Kress' team is doing and we're going to keep pushing those efforts forward.

Economic development

Helping Iowa State have a tangible, serious, important role in promoting economic development in the state is the right thing to do. It's going to grow this state in the future and ensure our success. Today, we're creating a modern workforce, producing innovation and applying and sharing knowledge through our small business development centers, CIRAS, IPRT and other units. Bottom line, our efforts in these areas in economic development are essential to the long-term economic success of the state. I'm looking to Mike Crum to lead this effort. He's going to elevate this mission and move it forward.

We're fortunate that we've received $12 million from the state to build a central core facility at the research park for our economic development efforts. You're not only going to see it pay off in economic development and in how we engage our partners throughout Iowa and beyond, but you're also going to see a park that can grow from the 1,200 employees it has now, to a 5,000-employee, robust economic center for central Iowa. I think this is a real game changer for central Iowa, a game changer for the university.

Diversity initiatives

We have a comprehensive university diversity report coming to us in the next couple of weeks. We contracted with Jackson Consulting firm to examine the university's strengths and weaknesses with respect to diversity, and then create a roadmap of how we can go forward. We have resources set aside to push forward in this area, and I think we can be a university that people look to and say, "How did Iowa State achieve that?"