- Associated Press - Monday, March 20, 2017

AMES, Iowa (AP) - President Steven Leath’s abrupt departure will leave Iowa State University seeking a new leader as it faces budget cuts, enrollment growth and fallout from controversies.

Auburn University’s Board of Trustees voted Monday to appoint Leath as the school’s next president. Leath immediately announced plans to resign from Iowa State, telling the Board of Regents his last day would be between May 8 and June 2.

Board President Bruce Rastetter issued a statement Monday thanking Leath for his service, saying the school “has made great strides during his tenure, including achieving record enrollment.” He said the board would hold a special meeting soon to discuss the presidential transition at Iowa State.

If it follows past practice, the board will appoint an interim president and hire a firm to conduct a national search. Leath’s successor will have to manage record enrollment while trimming millions from the university’s budget.

During Leath’s 5½ year tenure, the school’s enrollment surged past 36,000 students to become the largest university in Iowa. He helped raise millions of dollars and expand the ISU Research Park. In a resignation letter, Leath said he was “turning over the university to the next President better than I inherited it.”

But in recent months, Leath faced criticism, audits and investigations after he acknowledged he used university planes for trips that mixed personal and official business and privately bought a $1.1 million piece of land with Rastetter’s company.

A pilot, Leath damaged one of the planes while returning from vacation in a 2015 hard landing that was kept quiet and revealed over a year later by The Associated Press. The university is currently trying to sell the plane, which Leath purchased using $498,000 in private donations in 2014 and then used for numerous trips to his mountain home in North Carolina.

Leath’s departure comes three months after the Board of Regents rejected calls to sanction or fire him during a special meeting, where he apologized and pledged to pay back $19,000 in flight costs. Rastetter said then that Leath made mistakes but deserved Iowans’ continued support.

Leath has three years left on his contract, which guaranteed a $525,000 annual salary. Because he is voluntarily resigning, Leath will be forfeiting deferred compensation of $625,000 that would have accrued had he remained president in June 2020, board spokesman Josh Lehman said.

Leath’s most important backer, Rastetter, announced last month that he’s stepping down from the board April 30. The regents are expected to select new leaders soon, who will then have a chance to select and work with a new ISU president.

It’s unclear how budget problems may affect the search. In January, Leath announced plans to delay filling or eliminate some open jobs and cut travel and other expenses to offset an $8 million funding cut approved by state lawmakers.

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