AMES, Iowa — It was around midnight on Friday, Oct. 30, when Steven Leath saw more than a half dozen students pile into a car outside a dormitory. The scene alarmed him. One student, clearly drunk, had climbed into the vehicle’s trunk, yet his friends piled into the car and began driving away.
Leath, president of Iowa State University, was heading from one location full of partying college students to another. He pointed the incident out to Jerry Stewart, the university’s police chief, who was driving around with Leath that night, and Stewart activated his lights and pulled the car over before it left the lot.
The driver looked startled when the two men told her to take her friend out of the car and help him back to the dorm — and even more shocked when she found out one of those men was the university president.
“That is not a good idea. And that kid looked in rough shape,” Leath said shortly afterward, back in the unmarked cop car, his dog dozing off in the backseat. Students, he said, “don’t always think things through. … I think we did a good thing back there.”
Leath and his 6-year-old yellow Lab, Quill, were making the rounds that night, visiting areas near campus where students party and go to bars. He was checking in with the students, making conversation about everything from their Halloween costume to their plans to go to law school and asking, over and over, if they were making good choices.
It’s a routine Leath has maintained for three years now, especially during weekends when partying is rampant. Though a drizzly Friday night, Oct. 30 marked the start of homecoming weekend, which happened to coincide with the Halloween holiday — and Leath wanted to make sure students were partying responsibly.
Leath is a personable president. The 58-year-old academician has led Iowa State for four years, coming to the Midwestern campus from the University of North Carolina System, where he headed the system’s extensive research enterprise. He’s a plant scientist by training but now spends much more time with people than plants — and he seems to like it.
He’s known to take meals at the dining hall, and once a week he and his wife, Janet, eat dinner at a different fraternity or sorority house. He’s an outgoing leader, participating in events like the Ice Bucket Challenge and the Iowa State Fair, where he showed a steer shortly after being appointed president.
But perhaps his most unusual connections with students come late at night, sometime between the hours of 10 p.m. and 2 a.m., when Leath is patrolling the off-campus student parties, Greek neighborhoods and student bar area. He patrols the streets on weekends when students are expected to hit the party scene hard — like after football games or during the month of April — in an effort to encourage them to think about their choices and curb binge drinking.
“It’s amazing how much, when students see you, you talk to them, you get that small window, like as a parent, when they’re listening and you think it’s registering and you can talk to them about making good choices and making good decisions,” he says. “Sometimes you can capture them before something gets quite out of hand.”
Ames is a small town, and Iowa State’s 33,000 undergraduates are highly concentrated on and near campus. Like at many large public colleges, parties and drinking are prevalent.
In 2014, Leath announced the discontinuation of an event that put Iowa State in particular at risk for drinking-related incidents: the university’s nearly century-old heritage springtime celebration Veishea. The decision (which canceled the 2015 festival) was criticized by some students and alumni as disrespecting tradition, and lauded by others convinced it would have a positive effect on student safety. Leath, at the time, said the celebration had morphed from an opportunity to highlight the institution’s strengths into a “weeklong alcohol-fueled party.” In the spring of 2014, for example, there were 200 arrests and 250 citations and charges handed out during Veishea, which culminated in a riot involving thousands of people, damaged cars and toppled light poles.
On high-activity nights, the university operates a pancake tent on campus, not far from the local bars. The tent, Leath says, encourages some students to break their partying early with a carb-loaded meal. The university also has student ambassadors patrol student neighborhoods at night, and has a late-night safe ride program that provided more than 7,000 trips last year.
Leath sees his party patrols — often, but not always, conducted with a police officer or the police chief — as an extension of that effort to reduce excessive drinking, and other drinking-fueled mistakes, like sex assaults, drunk driving or reckless injuries (in one case last year, a student fell off a retaining wall and had to be rushed to the hospital).
“That was where a lot of times things got out of hand and that’s part of what led to this,” Leath said of Veishea. “We had issues in the past, and I thought, ‘This is the prime time for people to make bad decisions — let’s try to stem it any way we can.’”
At around 1 a.m. in the bar-lined Campus Town area, just on the edge of campus, Leath and his dog stopped by the line for the Super Dog stand. The line was full of people, mostly students, in costume — lumberjacks, bananas, scantily clad nurses — seeking the food cart’s signature offering: hot dogs piled with chili, pineapple, potato chips and cheese, apparently the perfect mix of improbable ingredients to help soak up the night’s imbibing.
“Oh, my God. How do I know you? You’re the president!” someone from a group of students in line shouted when Leath stopped by to talk.
“I’m just here to check on you,” he responded. “Just making sure everybody’s having fun but being safe at the same time.”
The students replied in the affirmative. “We’re surprised because you’re out here at midnight,” said one student.
Added a friend, “Not many people high up do that.”
Leath nodded. “Not many do, but we’re here.”
The student was right — very few college presidents visit with students while they’re drinking. Many see it outside the realm of their duties; others want to avoid misperceptions and issues of liability and some are simply turned off by the late nights. E. Gordon Gee, president of West Virginia University and former president of Ohio State University, is one of a handful of presidents who, like Leath, visits students while they’re partying.
“The presidency is one of the most isolated jobs in this country,” Gee said, adding that it’s important for him to be connected to students, faculty and staff in their day-to-day environment. “One of the great challenges of university leadership is to personalize it.”
Gee, like Leath, encourages students to “make sure that we’re working smart and playing smart.” Stephen Joel Trachtenberg, the former president of George Washington University, who now works as a consultant to colleges and universities, says that in an age when social media is pervasive, there are a lot of risks to such an approach — the president could be caught in a compromising photo, or in a situation where students are out of control and he’s perceived as complicit in their partying.
“The behavior of presidents, well-meant, is increasingly held up to review with great skepticism by critics of the institution,” Trachtenberg said.
Yet Gee cautions presidents not to be too concerned about liability: “If you run a university based upon the concerns about liability, you just simply are not doing the work you should be doing.”
Leath understands the risks, but says they are outweighed by the benefits of his interactions with students, however unconventional. He says he gets more student emails than the average president — some even include apologies from students he saw partying and inebriated the night before — and he takes this as a sign he’s getting through to them.
“There is some risk of being in a picture you don’t want to be in. Some risk of people taking it out of context before you can get it controlled and say, ‘Look, I’ve done this 20 times, I think I’ve alleviated countless problems.’ That’s hard to get in front of if someone puts out one bad picture,” Leath says. “That’s probably the reason people avoid it. It is risky, but I really think it’s for the greater good. And there’s a lot of students I feel confident that we’ve helped make good decisions.”
Ann Duffield is a longtime consultant to universities and presidents. She says it’s extremely rare for presidents to visit with students when they’ve been drinking or partying. Most stick to interactions through official events, or relatively safe venues like the dining hall, she said.
“His periodic showing up at places, or outside places, where there’s that type of activity going on at least makes students think twice about what they’re doing. He’s trying to make them think about their choices and their responsibilities, and he’s certainly demonstrating that he cares enough to be out when most adults are safely tucked into their houses,” she says, adding that by having the police with him on patrols Leath likely reduces, to some extent, liability issues.
“I’m of two minds. On one hand I think what he is doing is laudable,” she continued. “On the other side [he could be] perceived as being one of them.”
It’s not unheard of for presidents to be criticized for their less formal interactions with students. The Quinnipiac University president was criticized earlier this year for attending a raucous off-campus party. Local leaders have at times been angered by student partying, and they were unhappy the president seemed to be encouraging students by cheering them on.
That’s why Leath says he takes certain precautions, including obvious ones, like never drinking during his party patrols, and less obvious ones, like not holding a drink, even a nonalcoholic one, as he poses with pictures for students. For example, when one student asked Leath for a selfie late Friday night, the president put his cup of root beer down before posing for the picture.
Yet such precautions aren’t foolproof. In the midst of one selfie on Friday night with a group of three students, one student dropped a large bottle of beer — previously unseen — on the sidewalk and awkwardly scrambled to pick up the broken pieces as Leath stared at him.
Leath doesn’t ask students their age routinely (although he says he will if a student looks too young to be drinking). His conversations don’t seem designed to imply that all drinking is bad, but if a group of students are too drunk, he’ll advise them to pour out their drinks and move on, because the police could be on their way shortly. And there are times, like with the student in the trunk, when Leath has had to intervene in order to de-escalate a situation.
“Anyone who’s a danger, a danger to themselves, you’ve got to do something about it,” Leath said as he sat in the passenger seat of Stewart’s unmarked vehicle.
Added the police chief, “It’s a liability issue — did you deal with this person and did you make the right decision?”
But Leath hopes his patrols allow him to reach students before things have escalated. “If you get someone making the initial stages of bad decision, that’s when I want to get to them and educate them and either talk to them or scare them; whatever it is so they do the right thing.”
Breaking the Ice
Samantha Duvalle was dressed as an angel as she waited for her Super Dog around 1 a.m. Duvalle was one of a number of students who appeared happily surprised to see Leath, and the freshman said his visit would have a positive effect on her choices the rest of the night: “It makes you realize that people like that care about you and it helps you make smart decisions about yourself and other students around you.”
Junior Jacob McNeece, who had been drinking with a group of friends in the Campus Town area that night, said he too was surprised to see the president. “I’ve seen him around campus during school time, but I’ve never seen him around at night,” he said. “It’s cool that he’s out interacting with the students.”
But when he and his friends were asked if their encounter would change their drinking choices that night, they shook their heads. “No, not at all, it was just interesting to meet him,” said Gabriel Cook, also a junior.
And while many students were friendly as Leath stopped to chat, several others were clearly uncomfortable and standoffish. As Leath walked around the fraternity and sorority housing area, some students looked at the president and the cups they held as if they were unsure what to do, and whether they’d get in trouble. Many couldn’t walk away quickly enough. Others breezed by, careful not to make eye contact for too long.
Such reactions are not unusual, Leath says. But they don’t deter him.
“They’re thinking, ‘What is he doing here? What is he going to say? Is he going to say anything about our cups?’ That’s just going through their minds, but you got to get through some of that if you’re going to reach them,” he said. “Sometimes you’ll see them later in the night or the week and they’ll be much warmer and you can talk to them. Sometimes it takes a little while before you can really make an impression on them, and if you go too fast, then they’ll just not listen at all.”
He continued, “It’s a fine line, because if they run and scurry away then you’re not doing any good. You’re trying to get them to listen.”
And if students are uncomfortable, that could be a good sign. Explained senior Megan Sweere, a member of Iowa State’s student government, “When there’s any adult figures around, students are obviously going to act a little bit better just because the atmosphere is different than when it’s a bunch of young people.”
Leath’s secret weapon is Quill. Having the dog with him breaks the ice in a lot of situations — college students are generally dog deprived, Leath says — and puts students at ease. For example, as Leath and the dog walked away from a group of students in the early morning hours of Halloween, a student shouted after them.
“Make good choices, Quill,” the student joked.
But Leath saw it as a victory.
“See, they listen to me,” he laughed.
PBS NewsHour coverage of higher education is supported by the Lumina Foundation and American Graduate: Let’s Make it Happen, a public media initiative made possible by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.