ISU internal finalist Wendy Wintersteen: No time to educate an outsider
'We need somebody that can step in'
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AMES — Iowa State University has a lot of pressing issues, and it doesn’t have time to wait for an outsider to catch up, Wendy Wintersteen told a crowd of hundreds Thursday.
The longtime dean of the ISU College of Agriculture and Life Sciences cited her accomplishments, her endorsements and her grasp of issues as reasons she should become the 16th president of the university.
“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 said at an on-campus afternoon forum, the last of the four presidential finalists to meet the public 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 visited the ISU campus this week include Sonny Ramaswamy, 65, director of the National Institute of Food and Agriculture in the U.S. Department of Agriculture; Pamela Whitten, 54, senior vice president for academic affairs and provost at the University of Georgia Athens; and Dale Whittaker, 56, 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.
Wintersteen, 61, 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 — 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.
Wintersteen, who also directs the ISU Agriculture and Home Economics Experiment Station, 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.
She acknowledged issues that need addressing — issues that have come up in this week’s candidate forums. They include diversity, climate and inclusivity, which Wintersteen 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. ... 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.
Those at the forum challenged Wintersteen over weakening state support for Iowa’s public universities and ISU’s somewhat disparate branding.
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 agreed 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.”
As dean, Wintersteen oversees a budget of $172 million with 317 faculty, 484 staff and more than 5,500 students, according to her resume.
In her introduction, Tom Hill, ISU search committee member and retired senior policy adviser, told a story about Purdue University’s efforts years ago to recruit Wintersteen 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.
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