Throughout Auburn’s history the spirit of utility, adaptability and camaraderie has held strong. Never one to sit idly by while the world—our global community —stands in need, the Auburn Family has remained committed to innovating solutions for lingering problems. For the last 162 years, it has served us well. On March 29, 2018, the institution entered a new chapter, one that will see Auburn’s abilities amplified like never before.
On that day, Dr. Steven Leath, the nineteenth president of Auburn University, formally delivered his vision not just for the next five years, but the next 50 and beyond.
“Our vision for Auburn is to become a world-class academic, research and service university in the true spirit of our land-grant heritage, and to be recognized as an undisputed go-to destination for that special caliber of student, faculty, staff and development partner driven to make a meaningful impact on the state of Alabama, the nation and the world.”
Before a crowd of thousands watching inside the Auburn Arena and around the globe, Leath outlined three pillars on which we can use our mission as a land-grant university to transform Auburn University and, in turn, the rest of the world:
• To educate and prepare our students for life
• To drive the development of scholarship and research that creates and advances knowledge in the truest sense of the word
• To engage our students, graduates, faculty and partners to turn the fruits of our scholarship and research into products, methods and services that meet our communities’ most pressing needs
All three points are in service of a single, unified goal: achieving R1 Research University status from the Carnegie Commission on Higher Education. Currently listed as an R2, a leap to the top echelon would put Auburn in the same company of universities as MIT, Stanford and Johns Hopkins.
The benefits, Leath says, would be endless: public and private companies using Auburn for research and development; broader, in-depth experience with real-world organizations for students; funding for new facilities and programs; graduates’ improved marketability for careers and opportunities in their field; increased internship opportunities; avenues to create intellectual property, which could be reinvested into the university and more.
If ever there were a man for the job, Leath is it. The former president of Iowa State and, before that, the Vice President of Research for the entire University of North Carolina System—both R1 universities—Leath has both the experience and the vision to guide this period of development to completion. While it may appear that Auburn could exceed its grasp reaching for so many priorities, Leath abides by a maxim he learned from former UNC President and White House Chief of Staff Erskine Bowles:
“Erskine used to tell us—and I told everyone here—if you have 20 priorities, you have no priorities,” said Leath from his office in Samford Hall. “No matter what your job is, whether it’s at Auburn or elsewhere, you’ve got to set some priorities. What are the things we’re really going to focus on in this time frame, or this time period? You tend to get more done that way.”
Leath is no stranger to helping things grow. A plant pathologist by trade, he built his career studying plant diseases and plant breeding, publishing nearly 100 articles on his research and following in the footsteps of his father, Kenneth Leath, a respected plant pathologist and professor at Penn State. Following the completion of his undergrad at Penn State, Leath attended the University of Delaware, earning a master’s in plant pathology and meeting his fiancé Janet in the process.
The two were married in 1981, while Leath earned his doctorate from the University of Illinois’ Urbana campus. Coincidentally, years later, while touring the Plant Pathology and Entomology facilities at Auburn, Leath was surprised to learn that Kira Bowen, John Murphy and Ed Sikora, three of his colleagues from Illinois, are all on the faculty here.
In 1985, Leath accepted a residency with the UNC Agriculture Research Station (UNCARS). After moving around so much, Steven and Janet would stay in North Carolina for the next 27 years. Today, it’s still where they call ‘home.’ It’s where their sons Scott and Eric were born. It’s where they still maintain a home and Christmas tree farm in Jefferson. It’s also where Leath would rise from a plant pathologist with the UNCARS to VP of Research for the UNC System.
Comprising 16 separate constituent universities and a high school, including five minority institutions, four historically black universities, one Native-American serving institution and a variety of public, private and liberal arts colleges, the UNC System encompasses a wide breadth of institutions. Leath still takes pride in never trying to homogenize them, allowing each school to develop its own identity while still remaining committed to the same mission.
“To get that breadth of experience was remarkable, because every chancellor approached their job differently: they had different personalities and different skillsets, so every school was different.”
Though he technically worked for Erskine Bowles, Leath reported directly to Senior VP for Academic Affairs Harold R. Martin. A former Chancellor of Winston-Salem State and current Chancellor of North Carolina A&T State, Martin remains a close friend and mentor to Leath.
“Harold’s long-term interest [then] was to go back to a campus,” said Leath. “I had been on a campus and was in general administration, [but] my long-term goal also was to be back at a campus, so we had similar career goals. Harold is an engineer, I’m a biologist—we think very differently. We complemented each other well because our processes were so different, and since Harold had already been a chancellor, he gave me a lot of advice and guidance.”
At the time, Leath aspired to make the transition from vice president of research to university president or chancellor, but admits he thought he needed more experience. Martin was the one to convince him he was ready.
When Iowa State University eventually hired Leath as president, he arrived with high expectations for himself and for the school. In five years, Leath’s administration expanded research funding, raised student enrollment and retention rates, updated the school’s research park and became the largest public university in the state. Though he had achieved much, Leath wanted to do more. Then, in 2017, when President Jay Gogue retired after a decade in office, the presidency was offered to him. For Leath, it was a dream come true.
In the first days of his presidency, he wasted no time in learning as much as he could about the history of The Plains. He quickly made a friend in Bo Jackson over their shared love of archery and mutual respect for Howard Hill ’22, a three-sport letterman and Hollywood icon known as “the World’s Greatest Archer.”
Leath met with Auburn Mayor Bill Ham, made the rounds of every college on campus and met with students to discuss their biggest concerns, assessing Auburn’s strengths and isolating several key milestones on the path to becoming an R1.
Complicating things is the abbreviation of Carnegie’s evaluation period from five years to three. Basically, Auburn will be evaluated on the progress made between 2015 and 2018. To sharpen his administration’s focus, Leath is hiring two separate VPs—one for research, the other for economic development—to concentrate all their time and energy on advancing the mission.
“At the pace we want to go, I think we need separate but coordinated leadership. These people should be collaborators, not competitors, and will be talking to each other every week, but I think we can reach our goal faster if we split these.”
A stated goal of his administration is to employ 500 research faculty members by 2022. Leath has stated before that the strength of a university rests as much with its faculty as its facilities and encourages them to propose the fields and projects to pursue. It’s hard to be an expert in every field, he says, but fortunately for Auburn, we have experts in every field.
“We asked the deans last fall ‘where are you good,’ ‘where are you very good’ and ‘where are you great,’ but tell us especially where, with a few additional resources, you could be world class.”
Leath points to our world-renowned aquaculture program, first-rate additive manufacturing program and burgeoning partnerships with Delta and NASA as examples of Auburn’s solid foundation, but says that if we’re going to reach the top level, more facilities and more researchers are necessary. But Auburn’s research campus isn’t the only that needs an update. Leath mandated a revision of the old, transaction-driven research partnership model to a more flexible design like the one used by the North Carolina System and Iowa State.
“We’ve had an old-fashioned, rigid model of how we engage, and the world has changed. I can tell you from experience, to think that the pharmaceutical industry, the software industry, the aerospace industry and a plant breeding company are all wanting the exact same model is unrealistic.”
The goal is to build long-lasting partnerships that Auburn can rely on moving forward. Auburn has plenty to offer potential partners—students, research facilities, a steady supply of interns, graduate workers and faculty—with room to grow in other fields, like biomedical sciences, cybersecurity, music performance and more.
“If we take a little risk in one or two partnerships and it doesn’t work out, but the other ones work better than they’ve ever worked before, it’s still worth it,” said Leath. “We’re trying to transform our whole culture.”
Advancements will not be limited to purely “bench science” either; Leath envisions a host of upgrades in the humanities, as well as an “arts district” centered around the Jule Collins Smith Museum of Fine Art and the Gogue Performing Arts Center to be completed in 2019.
As the Auburn Research Park expands, Leath hopes that there can be collaborations between the arts, humanities and other fields like engineering or business that could generate value from intellectual property which, in turn, could be reinvested in Auburn.
“If we create an ‘innovation district’ between the research park and performing arts center—and there’s no school I know of that has a big research park linked to the arts—we could be one of those really rare schools that links the arts and the sciences because it fosters creativity in a new way.”
Leath isn’t the only one taking the initiative in humanities advancements. Janet herself has been a driving force for change, always concerned and committed to helping disadvantaged youths in the community through fundraising and after-school programs. In Ames, Iowa she served on the board of the Youth and Shelter Services; since arriving in Auburn, she has joined the Lee County equivalent, as well as joining the fundraising committee for the Gogue Performing Arts Center and the eventual “Arts District” coming to South College Street.
It was, at her suggestion, that Langston Hughes’ poem “I Dream a World” was performed to music by professors Rosephanye and William Powell during Leath’s installation.
There are no cut-and-dry numbers Auburn needs to achieve R1 status—Leath compares the selection process to the NFL draft, ‘try your best and hope you’re picked well’—but is confident that Auburn has a very good chance already, and that mobilizing the university for the selection process will only benefit the institution moving forward. Critical to success, however, is the support of the entire Auburn Family. With more than 230,000 alumni around the world, Leath hopes that alumni young and old can advocate for Auburn and its programs.
“We need all those alums to constantly support our vision and our mission,” said Leath. “Sometimes, alumni think we’re talking about money, but this is more important than money. We absolutely have to have enthusiasm and buy-in moving forward, because no matter what the ‘keystone’ is in the plan, we’re never going to get to any of this if people are on the fence. That’s one of the reasons this is a faculty-led strategic plan driving this process from the ground up.”
A look around Auburn today provides a clear demonstration of that growth. Inside the Auburn Research Park new facilities for health sciences, childcare and administration are already breaking ground. Dining, residence options, parking and other amenities to sustain future generations are already in the works. One hundred individual grant proposals for the recently created Presidential Awards for Interdisciplinary Research Initiative were submitted earlier this year.
With new developments, initiatives, partnerships and more happening every day, there’s never been a better time to make the push for R1 Research University status than right now.
“This is the perfect time,” said Leath. “The strategic plan was expiring. We needed a new plan and everything just lined up. It’s made for a hectic first year, but the timing is so good, you can’t help but be excited.”