Sunshine and 50-degree temperatures helped usher in spring semester this week. The south side of Parks Library was reminiscent of April, with students reading, enjoying lunch and catching up on their communications ... outside. Photo by Bob Elbert.
Plant pathologist, pilot, bow hunter, Christmas tree farmer, dad, first baseman, associate ag dean, national program leader, ranch hand. And, starting today, Steven Leath adds another title to his life list: university president. He is the 15th person to lead Iowa State.
Leath comes to Ames from Chapel Hill, N.C., where since 2007 he served as vice president of research and sponsored programs for the University of North Carolina system. In the last year, he also served as interim vice president for academic planning for the same 16-campus system.
Since being named Iowa State president on Sept. 27, Leath has spent about 21 days in central Iowa, learning the university and meeting political leaders in Des Moines.
The right fit
While he hasn't lived in the Midwest since receiving his Ph.D. from the University of Illinois in 1984, Leath said earlier this month he believes that Iowa State is a good fit for him and his wife, Janet. A product himself of land-grant universities -- his three degrees all came from land-grants -- he said the "three-legged stool" mission of the land-grant remains very important to him. While some land-grants have moved away from that mission, Iowa State, he said, has not.
So, when the Leaths visited campus in late September, "we realized that not only is Iowa State the type of university we want to be at (large, public, land-grant), it is the university we want to be at," he said.
The Leath family likes to farm.
Leath also was drawn to Iowa State's commitment to undergraduate education. Noting that he wasn't as involved as an undergraduate as he wishes he'd been and that Janet was a nontraditional undergraduate student, he said Iowa State "really takes seriously its mission of educating students and making them successful, and that's important to us."
"It's not just about providing seats in classrooms and giving lectures. Iowa State does a better job of wrapping its arms around students to make sure individual students are successful, that they're engaged in the university, which translates into success."
"That's a credit to the faculty," he added.
The road to 1750 Beardshear
"I did not plan to be a university president," Leath said of his path to leadership. "Maybe these are very strategic, carefully laid out career plans for some, but they weren't for me."
From 1985 to 1998, Leath progressed through the plant pathology faculty ranks at North Carolina State University, Raleigh, where he also researched disease resistance in grains, primarily wheat and oats, in the U. S. Department of Agriculture's Agricultural Research Service (ARS). Though not required (he had a 100 percent research appointment), he taught or presented lectures nearly every semester "because I had an interest in teaching."
When the leader of Leath's ARS research group retired, he asked Leath to take over, which he did, in a position analogous to a department chair. Two years later, the USDA invited him to Beltsville, Md., to serve as acting national program chair for grain crops. He took the job, but wasn't ready to move his family yet to the Washington, D.C., area.
Within months, N.C. State leaders succeeded in luring him back to Raleigh to serve as assistant director of the state ARS. Within two years (2003), he advanced to the director's post of the North Carolina ARS and also became associate dean of N.C. State's College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. In 2007, North Carolina system president Erskine Bowles brought him to Chapel Hill for the vice president post.
"He said I had a campus reputation for getting input, making a decision and implementing it, and that's what he wanted," Leath recalled.
Leadership: Remove the obstacles
Leath readily admits that he's "never been shy about making a decision." But, he added, "we want to be thoughtful and we want to get it right."
He credits good mentors and some very good executive leadership training programs for his success as an administrator. He also has learned a thing or two along the way:
- Recruit and retain good people. "I don't see how you can be successful as an administrator if you don't have really good people working with you. And I've been very successful in that sense."
- Focus on the success of others. "If that can be a motivator, it is often a way to become an effective administrator. I take a lot of satisfaction from the success of others. That's really what administration is about: Removing obstacles and empowering people and enabling them to be successful."
A 2-year-old Leath moved with his family from Providence, R.I., to St. Paul, Minn., where he, two brothers and a sister enjoyed a typical upper Midwest childhood. They ice skated, walked to school, gardened, visited the state fair and took summer fishing trips in Minnesota and Wisconsin.
Not so typical, perhaps, was the research experience the Leath youngsters acquired in their early years. Leath's father, Kenneth, a graduate student in plant pathology at the University of Minnesota, tended research projects in greenhouses and field plots nights and weekends. The children routinely would tag along with their dad and help.
Kids in the lab
"We were exposed to agriculture and ag research pretty much weekly," Leath said. "We'd even measure the diameter of fungal colonies in petri dishes when we were just little kids."
When his father completed his degree and took a position at Pennsylvania State University, the family moved to rural State College, where Leath attended junior high and high school. He played baseball and wrestled and worked in the produce department of a local grocery. Leath said he also spent a lot of time in the mountains of central Pennsylvania fishing and hunting "deer, rabbits, pheasants and, at that time of my life, just about as often as I could."
A good school and a nice tuition incentive for the children of faculty prompted Leath to enroll at Penn State.
"I was more of a worker than anything," he said of his undergraduate years. The young plant sciences major kept busy doing research for an oat geneticist, working on horse, beef and sheep farms, and weekend bartending.
Early Iowa encounter
Leath also spent a couple of undergraduate summers working on a big cattle ranch in north central Nebraska. On Memorial Day weekend in the summer of 1976, he was cruising across Iowa en route to the ranch when he ran out of gas.
"I wasn't sure what to do," he said. "It was a holiday weekend and there were no convenience stores back then. But an Iowa farmer saw the car broken down, drove up his lane, filled me up and didn't take any money. He said all he wanted from me was a promise that if I saw someone else in that situation one day, I'd help. I had a fondness for Iowa after that, and I have tried to do as I promised."
Leath chose the University of Delaware for his master's studies. He describes Delaware as a "great experience" for several reasons -- a small grad school that brought related disciplines together and diversified his scientific base, an adviser who was a great role model . . . and Janet.
He met her while teaching an introductory plant pathology lab. She was a nontraditional student who'd gone back to school at 21 and the two "more mature" students found much to talk about during and after the lab. When the semester ended, they began dating.
"I actually told my adviser about it to make sure everything was cool," Leath said. It was. The two were married in the summer of 1981, then headed to Illinois, where Leath earned his doctorate in plant pathology.
Then it was on to North Carolina, where Leath began his university career, Janet built a thriving insurance agency from scratch and their two children were born.
Eric, now 24, is on the staff of U.S. Sen. Richard Burr, North Carolina. He works on health, education, labor and pension issues for the senator. Eric double-majored in finance and accounting at North Carolina State.
Scott, 21, a junior in management at Appalachian State University, Boone, N.C., spends considerable time working on the family tree farm in nearby Ashe County.
Hunter and pilot
If he finds a free moment or two, Leath said he'll try to fit in some bird hunting and bow hunting ("my two big passions"). He also hopes to get in some flying. He learned to fly single-engine planes through a North Carolina flying club.
"I like to fly," he said. "Sometimes when I'm going places [on business], I'll fly myself."
Steven Leath didn't grow up on a farm. But he's been hanging around agriculture all his life.
He and his father are one of very few father-son plant pathologists in the country. And his favorite job during his high school and college years seemed to be that of farmhand.
So perhaps it's not surprising that when Leath moved into the academic ranks at North Carolina State University, he and his wife Janet moved not to Raleigh, but to a rural acreage nearby.
The new ISU leader talks about his school years, family and interests when he's not working.
"I wanted a farm," Leath said. Soon, the Leaths had put 10 acres of their own into production and leased land from two nearby farms. On that first farm, the Leaths grew strawberries and other crops for transplanting.
Within a few years, when the Leath youngsters, Eric and Scott, had reached middle childhood, the transplant operation gave way to a cattle operation.
"The boys were interested in agriculture, and we thought they needed some more responsibility," Leath said. However, Dad nixed the boys' first choice for the next iteration of the family farm.
"They wanted chickens," he said. "I didn't want chickens. So we had a family meeting and decided to get cattle."
The family started a small cow-calf operation, raising cattle and growing their own hay.
"The boys eventually took responsibility and were fattening cattle and selling them for beef," Leath said. "It became kind of a comprehensive, but small, operation. It worked out really well."
The Leath boys' entry into high school and college took a toll on the cattle business.
"I lost my two right-hand men," Leath said, of the decision to move from cattle to a tree farm. Soon thereafter, the Leaths purchased land in the Blue Ridge Mountains in the north corner of the state and were planting Fraser firs.
To Christmas trees
The tree farm now boasts 50,000 Fraser firs and is a bit of work.
"It's not like corn," Leath explains. "Every tree is fertilized individually, sheared individually, sprayed individually."
However, Leath said he and his family have enjoyed the tree farm.
"It is therapeutic. Jobs like I have are often fairly high pressure and you're with a lot of people. So sometimes it's nice to be in the tree fields."
Leath said his agricultural forays have proved useful in his academic endeavors.
"When I was overseeing agricultural research at NC State, it helped keep me current with a lot of problems farmers were facing, whether it was labor, or regulations, or marketing, or research needs."
However, the new ISU president said there's probably not an Iowa farm in his future.
"I think the time constraints in these presidential jobs are too great," he said. "I'm trying to get one of my sons to take over the tree operation for us."
Gregory Geoffroy's time as university president officially winds down at the end of this week. In mid-December, Inside talked with Geoffroy about his 10-plus years of leading Iowa State University. Here are some highlights from that conversation.
"Iowa State is a better university now than it was in 2001." In your opinion, what's the strongest evidence for that statement?
First, I think there's a tremendous amount of momentum right now. Look at how our enrollments have grown, which really is a reflection of how much more attractive the university has become for students. It's because of the excellent educational programs that we have here, the great educational experience that our students receive.
Look at the growth in the sponsored funding that we've experienced in recent years, a 26 percent increase over the last three years. That's a very, very positive sign. The success of our big fund-raising campaign, Campaign Iowa State -- larger than all of the previous fund-raising campaigns put together -- is also a reflection of the support for the university and the kind of momentum that we have.
Secondly, there's the high impact we have in so many fields: biorenewables, virtual reality and so many fields in agriculture. Our College of Veterinary Medicine is an example of a college that has transformed over the last 10 years. It's a far better college than it was 10 years ago. All of this is a result of lots and lots of people working together to create this kind of momentum and to make the change.
I think the university is well positioned for Dr. Leath. I look forward to watching great things happen.
How does your leadership style play into all that's happened?
The most important thing any leader can do is to appoint great people to work with him or her. Create a great leadership team and then work really hard to inspire that team and ensure that they work together to move the institution ahead. I think we've been very successful in that. I'm enormously proud of the leadership team that has been assembled here. But I'm equally proud of how well that team works together -- and with good faculty and staff and students -- to really keep advancing the institution. A single person can't do all these things.
Among all the accomplishments recorded by this university under your watch, of what are you personally most proud?
It's hard to pick any single thing, because I'm very proud of lots of things. As I said, I'm really proud of the great leadership team we've put together. But I'm also proud of strengthening a campus environment and culture that has allowed the university to achieve at a high level over the last 10 years. I can point to really tremendous renewal of the campus, the new buildings, the renovations that have occurred. I can point to the fund-raising campaign success and the impact of those gifts on the institution. But ultimately, it's creating or strengthening the environment here and the culture that allows that excellence to flourish.
What are a few of your favorite tasks associated with being ISU's president?
Ultimately, it's spending time with Iowa State people. It's just going over to a dining hall and sitting down with a group of students at lunch and chatting about their life and their experiences on campus. Interacting with students can be very uplifting and refreshing -- it is one of the most enjoyable things I do.
I also really enjoy spending time with faculty and learning about what they're doing, and hearing and seeing their excitement about their teaching and their scholarship. And learning about how they're advancing the frontiers of knowledge and all the kinds of fun things they're doing. And then spending time with our alumni and just being so impressed with their individual success, their caring for the institution. It's spending time with Iowa State people, starting with students.
What was your best day as president?
There was no single best day. There have been a lot of best days. I think several of the Order of the Knoll celebrations were just terrific. We've had several great athletic wins, this year alone in football, beating Iowa in that triple overtime and then beating Oklahoma State when they were ranked No. 2. Those were pretty good days. Dan Shechtman winning the Nobel Prize, that was a great day. But there have been a lot of good days.
What was your darkest day as president?
The darkest day was clearly the Veishea riot [in April 2004] and hearing all the sirens at night and getting the phone calls and having to deal with the aftermath. Those were dark days, very clearly.
Are there projects, goals you regret not completing?
When I first arrived, I started this series of presidential initiatives, with the hope that we'd be able to do those every two or three years. We funded five of them. That was a great program; several have had a huge impact. Our focus in biorenewables all began with one of those initiatives. Some of the very high-impact new things we've done in human computer interaction and virtual reality were wrapped up in one of those initiatives. I really wish we had the resources to do that every couple of years, and that didn't happen.
I really wish we could have been more successful in addressing the fact that our overall compensation for our faculty and staff is not as competitive as it really needs to be for the university to compete in the higher levels of higher education.
And I'm disappointed we weren't able to move ahead on some of the campustown initiatives because of the budget situation. So, those are a few, but overall, I think we've made great progress.
What will you do more of when you're not the president?
Certainly there will be more visiting family -- children and grandchildren. I hope to have a fishing rod in my hands a little more than I have in the past, and I hope to do more direct classroom teaching than I've had the opportunity to do in the last 10 years.
Were you a fisherman when you arrived in Iowa?
No. I had never fished. That occurred when Russ and Ann Gerdin invited [several couples] to join them for a long weekend at their elk ranch in southwestern Colorado, where they had several well-stocked trout ponds. Russ put a fishing rod in my hand and said, 'Catch some trout,' which we did, and the rest is history.
I don't play golf, I don't have many other hobbies, but I really enjoy being outdoors and I enjoy the beautiful surroundings you're often in when you're either fly-fishing in beautiful streams or on a lake in Canada.
Did you ever throw a line in Lake LaVerne?
Absolutely. There are some big bass in Lake LaVerne, and I've caught several of them (the largest was about 16 inches long). Lake LaVerne has been discovered by those who like to fish. It's required at Lake LaVerne, but I'm almost always catch-and-release.
What are your plans for this spring and next fall?
We do have some trips planned for the spring, but I'm also going to travel to UNI to visit with President [Ben] Allen's President's Leadership Class, and I'm going to teach one of the [all-day] sessions in the Ph.D. program in higher education here at Iowa State. [ISU Foundation president] Dan Saftig and I are in discussion with [University Professor of educational leadership and policy studies] Larry Ebbers about teaching a seminar course on university comprehensive fund-raising campaigns, also for the ELPS program.
Probably I'll do similar things in the fall, but over the course of the year, I'm going to have to progressively get up to speed on teaching freshman chemistry, because my plans right now are to teach one of the courses in freshman chemistry a year from this spring. It's been 25 years since I taught those kinds of classes. So I'll be sitting in on chemistry lectures, working through the textbooks and all the homework problems, learning how to use clickers and Blackboard and all those kinds of things.
(Geoffroy moved into a Hach Hall faculty office in late December.)
Why do you want to teach freshman chemistry?
I love teaching. I always did.
Why did you and Kathy decide to stay in Ames?
We love Iowa; we have really become Iowans in the time that we've been here. We like the culture here, the people of Iowa, the values and the overall quality of life. We think the pace of life here is terrific. This is where we want to be. Our children are spread out across the United States: two on the west coast, two on the east coast, and we decided to stay here.
Do you have any parting comments for the faculty and staff at Iowa State?
I really just want to thank all members of the university community for their support and all the work that they have done, and do, to make this a great university. It's a great institution because of the terrific people we have -- our faculty, our staff, our students -- and then the support we get from our alumni and friends. It's been a pleasure, a great joy, to work with this university family.
Construction work on The Knoll and 1750 Beardshear Hall is nearing completion, just as Steven Leath takes over as Iowa State's 15th president on Jan. 16. Virtually all of the work is scheduled for completion by Feb. 1.
"Although we're not meeting the schedule we hoped for, we're making a lot of progress and we've gotten a lot done," said Dave Miller, associate vice president for facilities planning and management.
Miller said delivery delays have been the biggest issue. Unexpected discoveries during renovation work at The Knoll -- such as two inches of concrete beneath the second-floor master bathroom and undersized plumbing -- also required additional planning and adjustments.
"It's a 100-plus-year-old house," Miller said. "It's an experience every time we go in there."
The main floor -- which is used for university events and meetings, and is not part of the living quarters -- awaits the arrival of some of the carpet and tile for the bathroom. Window replacement also will be completed this month.
The living quarters (second and third floors) are substantially ready. Tile and cabinetry work on the master and guest baths will be complete by the end of the month, after which the last of the painting and carpet cleaning will take place.
Unlike the first floor, the living quarters are not furnished. The first of the Leaths' household items will arrive Jan. 12. The rest will follow later this spring when Leath's wife, Janet, joins him permanently in Ames.
Miller said most of the construction work in the president's Beardshear suite of offices is "clean up and dress up," including new carpet and a fresh coat of paint.
The west office area of the president's suite is nearly complete and will house the east office staff while workers finish their portion of 1750 Beardshear. The carpet, which was scheduled for delivery by Dec. 23, should arrive this week and will allow workers to have Leath's own office ready by his start date. Work will then move to the reception area and conference room, which also received lighting and media upgrades.
The stretch of unseasonably warm weather we enjoyed allowed campus crews to catch up and get ahead on plenty of outdoor chores.
"We're going nuts to get to as much as we can," said Les Lawson, campus services manager for facilities planning and management. "We're taking a lot of weight off our spring load with what we can get done now."
Much of the work has been pruning and mulching, particularly along the "golden loop" -- the path taken by prospective students during campus visits. The weather has been favorable enough to get through about one-third of an upgrade to that route -- a project that wasn't slated to start until the spring.
Lawson said it's nearly unheard of to be moving trees during this time of year. Thanks to the absence of frost and frozen ground in December, crews were able to dig up and relocate several trees near the construction site for the new agricultural and biosystems engineering building north of Howe Hall.
Virtually all of the late-fall leaves have been picked up, and crews have been catching up on a backlog of work postponed by the frequent snowfalls over the last couple years. Lawson said the mild weather prevented an early crop of potholes and buckled roadways, and the cost savings of from very little salt and sand use also translates to less mess being tracked into campus buildings.
On the other hand
Despite the many benefits of warm winter weather, Lawson still is aware of possible adverse effects.
"It's not all good, either," he said. "We're probably going to see more diseases and insects in the spring, and drought conditions also could be a problem. But right now, we're taking advantage of the weather while we can."
Campus and community celebrations and two notable speakers are among Iowa State's activities to honor the life of Martin Luther King Jr., Nobel Peace Prize winner and civil rights activist. All events are free and open to the public.
The traditional Ames community birthday celebration for the Martin Luther King Jr. national holiday will be at 6 p.m. Monday, Jan. 16, at the Ames Middle School, 3915 Mortensen Road. Festivities include a birthday cake and a program featuring a variety of community groups presenting songs, skits and speeches celebrating King's life. In addition, canned goods and other nonperishable food donations for the MICA food pantry will be collected.
Iowa State's Martin Luther King Jr. Holiday Celebration will be at 4 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 19, in the Memorial Union Great Hall. Music and speakers will honor King's life and legacy. Musical performances will feature Bridges to Harmony Choir and Shy of a Dozen. Speakers include Nana Osei-Kofi, assistant professor and coordinator of social justice studies in the department of educational leadership and policy studies; Government of the Student Body president Dakota Hoben and Black Student Alliance president Paris Tindrell. Steven Leath, the new university president, will present opening remarks. In addition, the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Advancing One Community Awards will be presented. Birthday cake will be served.
Film: Black American Gothic
Black American Gothic, a 60-minute documentary about the urban migration from Chicago to Iowa City, will be presented at 7 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 26, in the MU Great Hall. The film looks at racial politics in Iowa City after the demise of public housing in Chicago. Iowa City residents -- black and white, old and new -- tell the story through their experiences. The film addresses how changing demographics in the community have affected low-income housing, public schools and law enforcement. A discussion on "Planting Urban Roots in Iowa," will follow the presentation.
Lecture: Touré – Who's Afraid of Post-Blackness
NBC correspondent Touré, author of Who's Afraid of Post-Blackness, will discuss his book at 8 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 2, in the MU Great Hall. To research his book about what it means to be black today and how blackness has changed over the decades, Touré interviewed more than 100 prominent blacks, including Jesse Jackson, Cornel West, Malcolm Gladwell and Soledad O'Brien. As a contributing editor at Rolling Stone for more than 15 years and host of two music shows on Fuse Network, Touré has interviewed nearly every major hip-hop figure. Touré's talk is also part of the National Affairs Series and Black History Month.
Through its people, its research, its economic development, and its community support, Iowa State is making life better for Iowans. The winter issue of VISIONS magazine is devoted to all things Iowa and the value that this university brings to the state. VISIONS is published quarterly for members of the ISU Alumni Association, but you can read the stories in the current issue online.
ASIFlex became Iowa State's new administrator for the health care flexible spending account and dependent care assistance program on Jan. 1. Employees who are enrolled in a flexible spending account for 2012 soon will receive a welcome letter from ASIFlex with instructions on how to enroll in automatic reimbursement and/or direct deposit of reimbursable expenses.
Remember, spending accounts provide for reimbursement of eligible expenses. ASIFlex cannot process reimbursements until it has received the first employee contributions of 2012. The first contribution occurs with end-of-the-month January paychecks; reimbursements will be processed in early February.
Wellmark will continue to process 2011 flexible spending account reimbursements. Eligible expenses for 2011 must be submitted to Wellmark no later than April 30.
Flexible spending accounts (health care spending accounts or the dependent care assistance program) provide employees the opportunity to reimburse health care or dependent care expenses with pre-tax dollars. More information on flexible spending accounts is available in the benefits section of the human resource services website.
Monty Python's Spamalot returns to Stephens Auditorium Jan. 14. The Broadway comedy, based on the film Monty Python and the Holy Grail, won a Tony Award for Best Musical in 2005. It joins King Arthur and his knights of the Round Table on their quest for the relic in hilarious fashion. The adventure includes Vegas-style showgirls, a killer rabbit, cows and lots of lampooning -- appropriate for all ages. Showtime is 7:30 p.m., preceded by a Celebrity Café preview presentation by ISU Theatre's Matt Foss at 7 p.m. Tickets are $47 or $51 ($28 for youth, $20 for ISU students), and can be purchased at the Stephens ticket office or through Ticketmaster. Contributed photo.