Next Iowa State University President Wintersteen seen as strong candidate

But other finalists viewed positively in more areas

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Iowa State University’s incoming president Wendy Wintersteen was seen as a strong finalist in every category the Board of Regents asked the public to weigh in on – indicating, perhaps, that regents aligned with their constituents’ wishes in hiring her.

But Wintersteen – who has served as dean of Iowa State’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences since 2006 and was the only internal finalist – did not in many cases receive as much general support as her counterparts.

They included Sonny Ramaswamy, director of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture; Pamela Whitten, University of George provost; and University of Central Florida Provost Dale Whittaker, who withdrew from consideration after his campus visit.

All four finalists to replace former ISU President Steven Leath visited campus in October and participated in public forums, where they presented a vision for the university and fielded questions. The Board of Regents asked the public to share opinions via a website of how well they thought each of the four could, for example, grow Iowa State’s research portfolio or enhance the student experience.

To all eight questions posed to the public, more people agreed “strongly” that Wintersteen was up to the task, according to documents the board made public Thursday. But while she seemed to have more ardent backers, other candidates topped Wintersteen in general support.

When combining the percent of folks who both “agreed” and “strongly agreed” a candidate could move the university forward in various areas, Wintersteen only came out ahead on two questions – whether she could amplify Iowa State’s impact through extension and outreach and whether she could be an inspired fundraiser.

Whittaker, who withdrew, actually got the most or tied for the most “agrees” and “strongly agrees” in the five categories; Ramaswamy topped or tied in three areas.

The issue is a contentious one after the Board of Regents in 2015 hired former IBM businessman Bruce Harreld despite widespread criticism of his candidacy. Harreld received dismal support via the board’s feedback mechanism during that search, and yet regents still agreed unanimously to hire him.

That decision prompted faculty and student votes of no confidence in the regents, and it led the American Association of University Professors to sanction UI for its board’s disregard of shared governance values.

A year after Harreld’s hire, the board again found itself searching for a new university president – this time at UNI to replace William Ruud. Unlike for the UI search, the board in 2016 aligned with public sentiment by hiring then-Montana State University Billings Chancellor Mark Nook – who had broad support among faculty, students, staff, and members of the public.

At the start of the Iowa State search earlier this year, ISU Faculty Senate President Tim Day said his colleagues voiced concerns about how seriously the board would regard their input. Now that the search is over, Day said, faculty feel they were well-represented and heard.

“We believe that the Board of Regents absolutely took our feedback seriously,” he told The Gazette. “We definitely feel like we had appropriate voice in the process.”

That sentiment could help remove UI from the AAUP sanctions list – if the association finds the UNI and ISU searches count as evidence the regents are conforming with governance expectations, according to UI professor Katherine Tachau, president of Iowa’s AAUP chapter.

What really matters, she said, is whether faculty supported Wintersteen – as the AAUP represents faculty interests. And, according to board documents released Thursday, more faculty either agreed or strongly agreed than disagreed that she would advance Iowa State in every topic addressed.

“It’s shared governance with and integrity toward faculty in searches that need to be addressed,” Tachau said. “For that reason, if the regents chose the candidate for the ISU presidency whom the faculty preferred, as the regents did at UNI, then I assume this will carry weight with the national AAUP committee that would need to recommend the lifting of sanctions.”

In collecting feedback on the ISU finalists, the board also sought general comments on candidate strengths and weaknesses.

Wintersteen, who also directs Iowa State’s Agriculture and Home Economics Experiment Station, garnered the most total feedback and comments. While 256 people weighed in via the board’s search website on Ramaswamy, 220 on Whitten, and 196 on Whittaker, 324 provided feedback about Wintersteen’s candidacy.

Many of the anonymous comments identified as a strength Wintersteen’s lengthy tenure at Iowa State, where she’s worked for most of four decades after earning a doctorate in entomology from ISU in 1988.

“Wintersteen’s knowledge of the inner workings of ISU is definitely invaluable,” one person wrote.

Another person noted her “established record of service to ISU” and her accomplishments with the College of Ag and Life Sciences, which boasts the nation’s top-ranked agricultural and biosystems engineering program.

Some flipped her tenure at ISU as a weakness, though, asserting that as an internal candidate she’ll sustain the status quo and won’t generate new ideas and approaches. Others, under the weaknesses category, said Wintersteen lacked a clear vision for the university and has “built-in prejudices.”

And many raised questions of potential conflicts. Wintersteen serves as an ex-officio member of the board for the Agribusiness Association of Iowa, which advocates and educates on behalf of the seed, feed, and crop protection interests in this state.

“Candidate appears to be beholden to big ag,” one person wrote.

“Concerned about ties to big agriculture,” another commenter said. “A president needs a larger perspective.”

Some, regarding possible weaknesses, pointed to the state’s recent defunding of the ISU Leopold Center, which for three decades has developed methods for farming profitability while conserving natural resources and reducing environmental harm.

“Failure to keep Leopold Center funded foreshadows failure to keep ISU funded,” one person wrote.

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