Iowa State University President Steven Leath is a likely top candidate in Auburn University’s search for the presidential job being vacated by current President Jay Gogue, multiple sources have told the Opelika-Auburn News.

Leath, whose career has been spent at land grant universities similar to Auburn, has impressive credentials but is not without controversy. He drew scrutiny in recent months at Iowa State over his personal use of university-owned aircraft.

The local county prosecutor in Iowa declined to prosecute Leath in February after a six-week investigation conducted by the Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation determined "there was no probable cause to substantiate a violation of Iowa law,” according to The Des Moines Register.

The investigation was started after an audit found Leath, who is a pilot, used university planes for medical appointments, personal flight training and trips to his home in North Carolina. Leath reimbursed Iowa State for the flights after the audit, according to The Des Moines Register.

Auburn's board of trustees on Thursday announced a called meeting for Monday morning to vote on the university's new president.

Political influence questioned 

Leath also has drawn criticism from students for his political ties.

A group of students walked out of the Iowa State Conference on Race and Ethnicity on March 3 during Leath’s remarks at the conference, according to the student newspaper, the Iowa State Daily.

One student interrupted Leath’s speech with a megaphone and called Leath a racist for allowing Donald Trump on campus during the Iowa primary.

A photo of Leath and Trump standing together on the Iowa State football field was widely circulated in Iowa media outlets.

Leath said at the time he did not support any candidates and was using to opportunity to discuss higher education policy.

“I value the feelings and concerns of all members of the Iowa State community, including this student and those who walked out in protest,” Leath said in statement after the student walkout. “It is unfortunate that this student decided to express her feelings through personal attacks on me and in a way that disrupted a program that aims to bring our university community together.

Iowa State also hired a state Republican lawmaker, Jim Kurtenbach, as chief information officer in 2016 without a public search, according to a report from The Gazette in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Kurtenbach was serving in the position as an interim CIO before his position was made permanent.  

During an interview with the Iowa State Daily, Leath said he received flight lessons from Kurtenbach on university aircraft before Kurtenbach was hired.

Extensive education background

Before becoming Iowa State president in 2012, Leath received a bachelor’s degree in plant science from Pennsylvania State University, a master’s in plant science from the University of Delaware and a Ph.D in plant pathology from the University of Illinois, according his official biography from Iowa State.

Leath worked as an extension plant pathologist in Illinois for a year before moving to North Carolina State University as a plant pathologist with the USDA Agricultural Research Service in 1998. He worked in several research and teaching positions at North Carolina State before becoming vice president for research at the University of North Carolina in 2007, his only position at a non-land grant university.

Leath has published almost 100 scientific articles in his career, mainly on plant disease, pathology and breeding, according to his official Iowa State biography.

“It’s almost a necessity for (the next president) to have that land-grant experience,” said Earlon McWhorter, former Auburn University board of trustees member. “We’re a unique university, and he would need to know who we are. If he has land-grant experience, he will know who we are.”

Randy Peterson, an Iowa State sports columnist for The Des Moines Register, was able to ask Leath on Saturday if he is considering becoming Auburn University’s president.

“Leath very politely said no comment when I asked about Auburn,” Peterson said on his Twitter account Saturday.

Leath has not returned calls or emails for comment from the Opelika-Auburn News.

Auburn officials have not confirmed or denied Leath as a candidate, nor have they shared if any other candidates remain on a shortlist of finalists.

The Auburn University board of trustees meets at 10:30 a.m. Monday to vote on the naming of a new president at the Auburn University Student Center.

Staff Writer Cynthia Williford contributed to this report.

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