Iowa State University internal presidential finalist: No time to educate an outsider
'We need somebody that can step in'
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Iowa State has a lot of pressing issues, and it doesn’t have time to wait for an outsider to catch up, longtime Dean of the ISU College of Agriculture and Life Sciences Wendy Wintersteen told a crowd of hundreds Thursday.
In arguing for why she — as the fourth and final top prospect to replace former ISU President Steven Leath — should land the job, Wintersteen cited her accomplishments, her endorsements, and her answers to some of the issues other candidates have vowed to address if hired.
“I believe, at this point in time, we need somebody that can step in to the presidency and that understands the issues — that is ready to work on day one,” Wintersteen, 61, who also directs the ISU Agriculture and Home Economics Experiment Station, said while presenting at an afternoon public forum — like each of the finalists announced earlier this week.
“I do not believe, given the challenges facing us, that we have time to wait for someone to come in from outside and spend one or two years learning about the situation, trying to understand the history, trying to understand the context,” she said. “I do understand the situation. I understand the challenges we’re facing. I know the people on campus that we need to work with. And I truly care about Iowa State.”
The three finalists who spoke before Wintersteen include Sonny Ramaswamy, director of the National Institute of Food and Agriculture; Pamela Whitten, senior vice president for academic affairs and provost at the University of Georgia Athens; and Dale Whittaker, executive vice president and provost at the University of Central Florida.
They vowed to focus on student success; increase faculty support; improve Iowa State’s standing in the American Association of Universities; and address broader local, national, and global problems — like world hunger.
As dean for 12 years of one of Iowa State’s most esteemed colleges — which boasts the No. 1-ranked agricultural and biosystems engineering program in the country, according to U.S. News & World Report — Wintersteen addressed ways she’s pursued those goals and achieved success.
For starters, she said, she and her colleagues have raised more than $250 million to support student scholarships, establish programs, and fund professorships and chairs. She, along with others across the university, recruited faculty for top awards — landing more in the national academy.
“Just in the last five years, we were able to double the number of faculty in the national academy from Iowa State,” she said.
She cited innovative programming rolled out under her leadership — including a “global resource systems major” that enables students to become culturally competent in their studies, and an “ag entrepreneurship initiative” that teaches students to become entrepreneurs.
A “center for sustainable rural livelihoods” presently has faculty and students in the poorest part of Uganda, where they’re working in schools and with farmers on how agriculture can be part of rural economic development.
Whittaker, who visited Ames on Wednesday, praised Iowa State’s position as best in the world “to end hunger and create a future that can be sustained.” He vowed to move that mission forward, if hired.
As far as faculty support and research goes, Wintersteen said, it’s blossomed on her watch. Since 2005, her college has doubled the contracts and grants in agriculture and life sciences.
“We have established an environment, an ecosystem, so that all of our faculty could be successful with grants and contracts,” she said.
With all that happening, student interest has soared and success rates haven’t suffered. Enrollment has grown nearly 90 percent during her time as dean, and the college has maintained a post-graduation placement rate of 98 percent.
And yet, she acknowledged issues that need addressing. Issues that have come up time and again in this week’s candidate forums. They include diversity, climate, and inclusivity — which Wintersteen, again, had on-campus experience to pull from.
“This past year we went through a process of holding listening sessions for our multicultural students,” she said. “At these listening sessions, we heard about their experiences. We learned about the problems that they were having. And some of those stories were pretty difficult to listen to.”
In summary, according to Wintersteen, “we did not have a very supportive campus climate for our multicultural students.”
In response, Wintersteen said, her college wrote a letter to its members calling for a behavior change.
“So we are just on the edge of learning what we need to do across campus to change the climate to make sure that all of ours students feel supported,” she said.
In driving Iowa State as a whole to greater success, Wintersteen said, she’ll focus on bumping up graduation rates, developing an entrenched entrepreneurial culture across campus, improving administrative efficiency, and broadening the conversation to include more alumni and community members.
Members of the community on site Thursday challenged Wintersteen over weakening state support and somewhat disparate branding across campus. Jeff Johnson, president and CEO of the ISU Alumni Association, said he would be willing to forfeit his association’s brand and logo if it meant a more congruent message for the campus as a whole.
Wintersteen said she agrees with him, and stressed the importance of listening to those types of ideas in a leadership position — one she said former ISU President Greg Geoffroy boasted her ready for years ago.
“I think what he admired in me was that, as a dean of the College of Agriculture, he looked at me as an individual that could manage a set of very complex issues,” she said. “Every day we were addressing issues that were relevant to Iowa, relevant to Iowa agriculture, and oftentimes relevant to the nation and the world.”
In her introduction, ISU search committee member and retired senior policy adviser Tom Hill, told a story about Purdue University’s efforts years ago to recruit Wintersteen away and then-ISU President Martin Jischke’s successful counterprotest to keep her — even though he left shortly after for the same institution recruiting Wintersteen.
Those endorsements, Wintersteen said, finally motivated her to pursue the opportunity Leath’s departure created.
“I decided this time around that it was my turn to lean in,” she said.