Rooted Wendy Wintersteen breaks new ground at Iowa State
'I was not surprised at all that Wendy rose to the top'
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AMES — She has stood in a field after dark, wearing night vision goggles and counting grasshoppers on soybean stems.
She has stood in labs and on farms working out real problems with real Iowans.
She stood for expansion of Iowa State University’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences and for its enterprising mission — achieving research, fundraising and enrollment milestones along the way.
Now Wendy Wintersteen stands on the brink of becoming the university’s first female president. She assumes the top post Monday.
And although her roots run deep within ISU’s agriculture college — having worked or studied in it for nearly four decades, including the last 12 years as dean — Wintersteen, 61, told The Gazette last week her mission is now broader.
“As president of the university, I will be president of the entire university,” she said. “I am looking forward to going out across the university and listening to faculty, staff and students in every corner of this university.”
As the only internal finalist of four to replace former ISU President Steven Leath, Wintersteen received both praise and criticism for her depth of experience at the school.
Some say she has too many ties to the agriculture industry, posing potential conflicts of interest. Others say she’ll be biased toward the agriculture school, or that she won’t bring a fresh perspective during a time of enormous change across academia.
But supporters promote her background and deep knowledge of the university and state as enabling her to get right to work on ISU’s most pressing issues — like the budget and tuition, enrollment, the campus atmosphere and support for the faculty and research.
“The fact that she’s a graduate of Iowa State and has been a long-serving faculty member and leader all makes her formidable as a candidate and a very, very obvious choice for the leadership,” said Martin Jischke, a past president at both ISU and Purdue University. “It was a very competitive slate of candidates. But I was not surprised at all that Wendy rose to the top.”
As president, she will earn $525,000 in her first year, with sizable raises and deferred compensation over the next four.
Although Wintersteen stresses the importance of meeting with and hearing colleagues and students as she steps into her new role, she has thoughts on issues at the forefront. That includes a proposal before the Board of Regents to raise resident undergraduate tuition at ISU 7 percent annually for five years if lawmakers don’t increase funding enough.
“I think the 7 percent over five years has really been a jarring number for parents and students,” Wintersteen said. “I think it’s a number that reflects the reality of the need, but it probably doesn’t reflect the reality of what’s possible.”
WATCH: Wendy Wintersteen talks about enrollment, tuition, budgeting and her childhood
ISU’s enrollment this fall of more than 36,000 is the second highest ever. More than half the student body — over 19,000 students — are Iowans.
Former ISU President Leath wasn’t shy about sharing the potential consequences of declining state support in light of soaring enrollment. Faculty will leave, he said. The student experience will suffer. Research will stall.
Yet lawmakers in the last legislative session, facing a statewide budget shortfall, slashed funding for the regent universities by more than $30 million in the 2017 and 2018 budget years. Since then, the regents have asked lawmakers for an appropriations increase of $12 million across ISU, the University of Iowa and the University of Northern Iowa for the next budget year. All the money would go toward student financial aid.
Wintersteen said pressing lawmakers on the importance of state support is paramount. But she also urged the university to communicate its message to the people of Iowa.
“If we can increase the communication we’re doing with Iowans about the impact, about the benefit of what Iowa State University is doing for Iowa, that will make a difference as individual citizens talk to their legislators about why it matters to fund Iowa State University,” she said.
‘Take advantage of it’
Wintersteen has lived that message, starting with her arrival on campus in 1979 as an extension associate of integrated pest management. She immediately felt at home and found herself awed by mentors in a field she’d grown to love since childhood: entomology.
“At a very young age I had my first insect zoo,” Wintersteen recalled. “My mother helped me develop that. I collected the insects. She and I painted a diorama on the inside of a cardboard box. And then she used netting from her sewing box as the screening.”
As a child, she collected coffee cans of cicada skins, and over time she developed an affinity for Monarch butterflies.
“It’s my favorite project that we have going on right now — the Iowa Monarch Conservation Consortium,” she said. “We’re really working with all of Iowa, especially with agriculture, to see what we can do to preserve the habitat.”
Wintersteen earned her undergraduate degree from Kansas State University, in her home state. She pursued agriculture — not home economics as her mom suggested — and earned advanced degrees at ISU after taking her first job on the Ames campus.
She got married in 1984, before earning her doctorate in 1988.
In the mid-1990s, Wintersteen kicked off her administrative career as interim agriculture and natural resources extension program director and interim associate dean for extension.
She rebuffed any reservations and went for the job opportunity.
“It’s a message that I try to tell the students I interact with: When you’re given an opportunity like that … you might feel slightly unprepared, but you should take advantage of it. And so I did that.”
And when in 2006 the esteemed position of dean over ISU’s agriculture college opened, Wintersteen went for it, too. She was one of five finalists. She wasn’t at all sure she’d get it.
“When decided to apply, I called my mother, and I told her that I was going to apply to be the dean, but I doubted that I would be successful,” Wintersteen said.
Pros and cons
During her time as dean, the college’s enrollment soared 90 percent. Wintersteen helped raise more than $247 million in donor support. Its programs climbed the national rankings. And its graduate placement rate maintained at 97 percent.
Former ISU President Jischke long touted Wintersteen’s leadership qualities — suggesting she apply for the presidency before Leath took the helm in 2012. The time wasn’t right then, she said. But upon Leath’s departure in May, Wintersteen wondered whether it was now.
She declined the chance to serve on the presidential search committee, knowing she might want to apply.
“Being an internal candidate often is seen as not the best approach,” she said. “But I felt I brought an understanding of Iowa State that would be critically important at this time in Iowa State’s history. I bring an understanding of the culture of Iowa. I know leaders in Iowa … It gives me a special set of circumstances to hit the ground running.”
Wintersteen applied just over a week before the deadline.
The crowd that came out for her public forum exemplified the pros and cons of being an internal candidate, she said. Many approved, including numerous students. But some opposed it.
“They think they know everything about you,” she said.
No ‘lack of new ideas’
Critics criticized Wintersteen’s work with the agriculture industry as perhaps too cozy and blamed her, in part, for the recent loss of state funding for the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture, which over three decades sponsored more than 600 grants for research, education and demonstration.
Wintersteen called those opinions uninformed, insisting she fought for that money and mounted an effort to keep it from closing.
She discussed plans of a renewed vision for the center: “I think we can be successful in obtaining private funds and being successful with grants and contracts so that, again, our faculty’s work can continue.”
Betsy Hoffman, an ISU economics professor who served as executive vice president and provost after a stint as president of the University of Colorado system, praised Wintersteen as “just the right person” for the job. She touted Wintersteen’s fundraising prowess, her history at the university and her connections across the region.
“She knows the problems with support for higher education as well as anyone and has fought hard for her college and the university,” she said.
Wintersteen acknowledged areas within ISU that need improvement.
ISU is under a federal civil rights investigation for possible Title IX violations. It’s also facing lawsuits over the issue.
“As we have worked to diversify the student body here at Iowa State University, to diversify our faculty and staff, we have had some issues related to campus climate, and we’re working to address those,” she said, without giving specific examples.
But change is necessary, she said.
“By understanding the culture and the people, knowing the communication pathways, knowing how to build trust, that’s how change can occur,” she said. “I don’t think we’ll have any lack of new ideas.”
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