Iowa State University President Wendy Wintersteen

Jan 19, 2018  | 27 min  | Ep 4520 | Podcast


A changing of the guard in Ames as a new University President confronts a litany of campus concerns and financial challenges. Iowa State University President Wendy Wintersteen on this edition of Iowa Press.

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For decades, Iowa Press has brought you politicians and newsmakers from across Iowa and beyond. Now celebrating more than 40 years of broadcast excellence on statewide Iowa Public Television, this is the Friday, January 19 edition of Iowa Press. Here is David Yepsen.

Yepsen: A modern university president wears more hats than ever before. Keeping a watchful eye on students, faculty, coaches and a sprawling campus is a full-time job. But duties as chief fundraiser and key legislative liaison have come under increased importance in tougher financial times. Iowa State University President Wendy Wintersteen is no stranger to Ames. Her time on campus dates back to the late 1970s. But her journey as University President only began months ago. Dr. Wintersteen, welcome to Iowa Press.

Wintersteen: Thank you for the invitation. It's a pleasure to be here.

Yepsen: And congratulations on your appointment.

Wintersteen: I continue to be very honored and humbled to be selected as the 16th President of Iowa State.

Yepsen: It's great to have you with us today. And also joining us are Statehouse reporters Joyce Russell, Correspondent for Iowa Public Radio and Kay Henderson is News Director at Radio Iowa.

Henderson: You have been on campus for 35 years so you've had some time to think about it. What is your number one priority?

Wintersteen: Well, I have many priorities but I will tell you that first and foremost I'm very interested in making Iowa State University known for providing a welcoming and inclusive environment for our students, our faculty and staff. I think that's critically important in this time of change that we're undergoing. Other priorities would include issues related to how we maintain a high quality student experience, how we support and achieve continued great excellence in our research and innovation programs and I think how we build a creative culture so that we can be more entrepreneurial and we can contribute more to the state's economy.

Henderson: Often times people who come in to lead universities at the highest level come in with a fresh set of eyes. How do you guard against sort of maintaining the status quo and taking a new path as the president of Iowa State?

Wintersteen: I think being an internal candidate actually gives me a set of opportunities and strengths that an external candidate does not have. I know the culture of the university, I understand our past, our history. But what I know as a president is that good ideas come from everywhere and as president I will be out across campus listening to our faculty, staff and students about what are the opportunities and challenges and I'll also be out in the state listening. I want to hear what Iowans have to say about Iowa State University and I want the opportunity to tell Iowans about the great accomplishments that we achieve every day.

Russell: Well, in addition to traveling around the state, you may spend a little bit of time at the Capitol. It's budget time at the Capitol. What are you hoping for, for state appropriations this year?

Wintersteen: Well, the Board of Regents submitted a request. We've certainly seen the Governor's proposal as well. We continue to be very interested in an increase in funding for the Board of Regents that will support our student financial aid. We know as the increased cost of education poses a challenge to our students and their families that the need for increased financial aid is critical. So we're hoping for that. We're also hoping for a continued conversation and funding to start the new vet diagnostic laboratory. This is a facility that supports all of Iowa, it's not just about Iowa State University. So those are our two priorities for the legislative session.

Russell: Well, speaking of state appropriations, you can't talk about that without talking about tuition levels. You talked about making college affordable. One task force foresaw the need for several years of 7% tuition increases if state funding remains the way it is now. Do you think that is inevitable?

Wintersteen: I believe we have to have a tuition increase. The Board of Regents has not made a decision on what that number is going to be. They did have the tuition task force to understand what was the situation at the three Regent universities. But I look forward to February when the Board of Regents does have a conversation and a proposal related to a tuition increase.

Yepsen: What kind of style of leadership would you bring? Your predecessor was sort of a jetsetter running around raising money all the time. Is that going to be the model you have to follow?

Wintersteen: I believe that fundraising is critically important for the success of Iowa State University. As a Dean I was very involved in fundraising. I have to tell you that fundraising is actually a lot of fun. The donors that want to invest in Iowa State University do so because they love the university, they love our students or they're interested in a unique and novel partnership. Fundraising is critically important and we're going to work on that very hard.

Yepsen: And do you have a pilot's license?

Wintersteen: No I do not have a pilot's license.

Henderson: Your predecessor said Iowa State University was at a tipping point because you've had a dramatic increase in enrollment whereas state support has not been following that dramatic glide path, if you will. Do you agree that Iowa State is sort of at a tipping point and has to make some serious decisions based on the finances?

Wintersteen: I believe that we have a very strained financial situation at Iowa State University. We know that we weren't able to provide salary increases to our faculty and staff last year. That's a problem. We're in a competitive market to retain the very best faculty and staff and so we have to be able to provide salary increases. So we are stressed financially. What will happen though I think is so dependent on this legislative session and what we see as a proposed tuition increase. Those two things will come together and give us a clearer picture of what's going to be possible this year for Iowa State's budget.

Henderson: As you know, the Governor suggested paring the current year's budget. Are you able to absorb that?

Wintersteen: It will be difficult to absorb another reversion. Last year was a 6.5% reversion. But Interim President Ben Allen, who was a great Interim President, went through a process of working with the various units on campus to ask them to begin a planning process. So we have that as a foundation for those conversations and we'll be having discussions with those units as we go forward and see what really is going to be the outcome on the budget.

Henderson: What about the conversation of what level of state support is appropriate for a state university? Why shouldn't students pay more for degrees, which are quite valuable these days, the STEM field, science, technology, engineering and mathematics, all of which students are your institution are earning?

Wintersteen: Certainly. I believe that the university provides a return on investment to this state that is extraordinary. It's not just preparing students to become successful in careers, becoming Iowa taxpayers, becoming leaders in communities, but it's really the work that we do in our research programs and innovation that drives opportunities for this state. I think that if we can talk more about what that research investment brings to Iowa, see that return on investment, then I think the legislature will be more interested in seeing a greater investment at Iowa State University.

Henderson: What about a different tuition based on the degree you're earning or paying a different level of tuition based on the year in which you're in college?

Wintersteen: So, at Iowa State University we do have differential tuition for quite a while in our Colleges of Engineering and Business. We added some programs in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences last year. We've been having discussions with our students about adding additional programs as well that are high cost, high hands-on experiential learning so that students really are very well prepared and are very attractive to the employers out in Iowa and the nation. So we're going to continue to look at that.

Yepsen: Around the country and here in Iowa you could make a pretty good case that support for higher education is really declining or certainly under stressed. You see it at the federal level, certainly at the state level over the last few years. A lot of policymakers don't think it's worth it. You have students who are priced out of an education, you have other students who are saddled with big debts. Is support for higher education on the decline? What do you do to reverse it?

Wintersteen: We have to begin a series of conversations with our legislature and with Iowans about why the investment is so important and what that return on investment is. I believe that it's a way for Iowa to change its future. It's really through research and innovation that opportunities come about. It's a change in how we look at our undergraduate programs. So we're producing entrepreneurs that start businesses in rural Iowa. This is where the investment is for Iowa. So we've got, at the universities, to do a better job of communicating what it is that we're doing and why that tax dollar is being returned many times over to Iowans.

Yepsen: You've been on campus for a long time and so you'll remember all the duplication studies. That word has popped up again. Is it time again for the state universities and the private universities to have a conversation about who does what and maybe you quit doing some things and let the University of Iowa do them or someone else or let them let you specialize in things?

Wintersteen: I'm always very interested in any conversations that can bring greater efficiency and improved performance. I think there are wonderful opportunities with the Regent universities to think about how we collaborate. One of my areas of high hopes would be in this area of entrepreneurship, how we build on the Pappajohn investment and his great vision. We also do the same thing with our community colleges. And I know our College of Engineering is helping Central College think about how they establish actually a small engineering program. So the collaboration I think that exists in Iowa and higher education is actually pretty good. But we can always improve it, we can always have more conversation and discussion.

Russell: Switching gears a little bit, we'd like to ask you about water quality, which is an issue that is dividing the state really tremendously right now, a conflict between production agriculture and environmentalism. What do you think is Iowa State's role in that conflict?

Wintersteen: Well, Iowa State has played a critically important role in water quality and what we bring to the table is science. We have a set of committed scientists and engineers that are working on what are the innovative practices that will help producers, that will help rural communities address water quality issues. Science is the only way to the future and science brings about innovation. So an investment in research allows us truly to determine what are those opportunities, what can we do? Right now we're faced with some pretty difficult decisions, practices that are available are a high cost to farmers. So what can we do to reduce those costs and see a greater adoption?

Russell: All the science in the world is not going to solve the problem if the people on the ground, if farmers are not changing their practices. And I think there were a lot of hackles raised when the funding was cut for the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture. And some said that you and others didn't do enough to protect that valuable resource. What do you say to that?

Wintersteen: So, that was a shocking development for me personally and for the college and Iowa State University. I learned about that about ten o'clock at night one night and nine days later the Leopold Center's funding was gone. The university worked very hard to have conversations about how we could retain the Leopold Center at Iowa State University and we were successful in doing so along with the many supporters out in the state that were requesting that as well. In the midst of that nine day period I was meeting with the founders of the Leopold Center to ask them for their guidance and assistance in how we should move forward. So now we're at a place where the Leopold Center has its private endowment that is small. But we're in the process, how do we grow that endowment? How do we see the opportunity for the Leopold Center to move forward with private funding?

Yepsen: Where are you going back up to the legislature and telling them they made a mistake and they do need to appropriate some funds to get that Leopold Center going again?

Wintersteen: So, the legislature that made that decision is the legislature that is still there. It's hard for me to see that I would be able to make the case, change their mind, after all that we did last year. When we say that we pulled out all the stops to change that conversation, we had farmers from all over the state, large farmers, small farmers that were calling, talking to their legislators individually and they got the same message. And so it was a very well planned effort and the message received was that the work had been accomplished. So maybe in the future there will be an opportunity. The work that was done at the Leopold Center really funding important seed grants that allowed faculty to go and get big federal grants made a tremendous difference I think especially in the area of water quality.

Yepsen: One of the criticisms that has been made of you was you're too close to corporate agriculture, the President from Monsanto. It's sort of one of the downsides at being successful at raising money from these corporations and all of a sudden the land grant institution and its leaderships are accused of being in the tank for corporate agriculture. What do you say to those critics?

Wintersteen: I say look at the data. So when we look at the research funding that we receive at Iowa State University almost 75% comes from state or federal granting agencies, about 12% comes from industry, another 14% comes from what our commodity groups provide, the Soybean Association, for example. So we do not believe that industry has created a problem for us in terms of the work we do. They're actually a very small part of the funding that is provided to our faculty and staff.

Henderson: You mentioned earlier no pay increases for faculty. What is faculty morale? And isn't there sort of a ready supply of folks who want to be on the faculty of Iowa State University if people leave?

Wintersteen: I think that the faculty morale has been damaged by our inability to give a salary increase and by the workload that is being carried every day by our faculty in the classroom, in the research lab, in our extension programs. So we have a great set of people at Iowa State. I have a good friend that tells me we're successful because of our secret sauce and the secret sauce is our people. So I believe he's right in that. But I will tell you, it's not so easy to just simply go out and replace somebody that decides to leave, especially when it's the stars that are being recruited away. As a Dean I'll never forget Cornell showing up one day with a million dollars to recruit away Dr. Adam Bogdanove who was one of the individuals that developed TALEN, a gene editing system. And I think we provided a great retention plan but he was from New York and wanted to go home in the end. But there is a competitive market whether it's Cornell, whether it's Purdue, pick the other universities that have a great ability to come in and lure away some of our very best people.

Henderson: So who are your competitors? The University of California, Davis, you mentioned a couple.

Wintersteen: So I would say the University of California, Davis would be ranked number one in the world, then you look at Cornell, Wisconsin, Purdue. That's who we would think about as our top competitors. In the last four or five years we have been routinely ranked in the top 10 agricultural universities in the world. So when you think about agriculturally those are our competitors. When you think about the university we have another set of peers that we look at.

Henderson: If the financial situation doesn't change, do you ever anticipate limiting enrollment?

Wintersteen: So, that is a great question and we actually are in the process of putting together a small committee to have a discussion about enrollment strategies at Iowa State University. What is the right size for Iowa State University? How should we go forward? So we're going to have that discussion this year.

Yepsen: Dr. Wintersteen, I want to follow up on something you were asked earlier about your vision. I hear you say we're ranked in the top 10, I hear all kinds of people in Iowa say we're ranked really high. Why not the best? Why shouldn't a new President of Iowa State University lay on the table a plan to make Iowa State number one and give it to the legislature and the donors and the people of Iowa and say let's be number one in five years? Why can't we do something like that?

Wintersteen: I'd love to have that conversation with the legislature. I think that, again, it's about being able to show them that return on investment, that the universities are not a cost, they're an asset for this great state. And how do we show and demonstrate that we can do that and we can make a difference for this state? So that would be a great conversation.

Russell: Dr. Wintersteen, sexual harassment has sort of risen to the top of concerns in Iowa and across the country. Do you have a plan to be proactive in any way on that?

Wintersteen: So we certainly are proactive at Iowa State University in a number of ways and we do that in conversations with our student government, our faculty and our staff. We just started a new program called the Green Dot program and really it's a program that encourages everyone at the university to be thinking about their role, one, in a proactive way. If they see something happening can they intervene or can they call the right people to call in assistance to a particular situation? So Green Dot is a brand new program, something significant that is happening in this area at Iowa State. And then of course we have our training, we have our understanding about reporting, we have a police force that has a new campaign, I won't say it exactly right, We Care, Tell Us. So we're engaged in that conversation and I think we are really underway with some very good programs.

Russell: Do you think that the fact that you are a new woman president, do you bring something to the table on that?

Wintersteen: I think as a woman president that I certainly bring a different perspective to this particular issue. I think I also bring a different leadership style and that is a style of caring. So I have high expectations in terms of our academic excellence and our success in research and extension, but I also bring a high level of caring for all of the people at Iowa State University.

Henderson: You have a vet med school at Iowa State and it needs to be updated, the building itself. How can you make that argument when you're getting signals from the Statehouse that hey, hey, hey, we don't want to build any new buildings this year?

Wintersteen: Well, we are very thankful that the Governor included the vet diagnostic lab in the budget beginning in fiscal year '20. So we have our toe in the door and we're going to continue to have those conversations with various stakeholder groups that understand the importance of that facility and certainly we're going to be asking every legislator to come and tour the facility so they can see the issues with biosecurity, they can see the issues with space, the outdated HVAC system and they can understand the 86,000 samples that come into that facility and why it's so important we have the rapid turnaround. I could tell you story after story about the vet diagnostic lab and the successes that have occurred there and why they matter economically.

Russell: Quick question about athletics. The last time the conferences were realigned and television contracts were renewed the Iowa State Cyclones almost got left out. Are you concerned about that for next time?

Wintersteen: I am not concerned about athletics because we have a great athletic director in Jamie Pollard. So I work very closely with Jamie Pollard and he has a vision for what we need to be doing at Iowa State University, he is very strategic in his planning, he engages with me and helps me be a part of that. So I'm very optimistic about what we're going to do in Cyclone athletics and especially after that bowl game win it's hard not to be.

Yepsen: What do you say to those critics who say the university has put too much emphasis on sports and athletics?

Wintersteen: I believe athletics is a place for our community to come together. Our students love athletics, they love our student athletes. So it's part of the culture, it's part of the student experience, it's part of how we connect with alums. So I don't think we put too much emphasis on it. I think we do a great job of taking care of our student athletes and having high expectations for them.

Yepsen: Should they put more back into the university? The University of Iowa I think they are putting, the athletic program is. Can you do that at Iowa State?

Wintersteen: So, the two budgets between the University of Iowa and Iowa State for athletics are quite different and it's a reflection of the Big Ten versus the Big 12. So we have to understand that context for that question and I think we also have to recognize the amount of tuition and fees that the athletics department pays each year for each of those student athletes.

Yepsen: Another issue that always comes up at Iowa State, or used to, is do you want to bring back VEISHEA?

Wintersteen: We will not be bringing back VEISHEA.

Yepsen: Why not?

Wintersteen: VEISHEA was a wonderful experience for so many of our alums and our students but it became something that we really didn't want. And so now what we've done with great planning, again with our student government and with the alumni association, we have a set of celebrations throughout the year and we're going to continue that kind of more distributed experience, giving students still great opportunities to show leadership and planning, to raise money for their clubs and I think this is a good way to proceed.

Henderson: At the beginning of the program you said diversity was a goal. What do you envision?

Wintersteen: Again, when I think about Iowa State University I envision a very welcoming and inclusive environment. We aren't there yet. But we've seen a tremendous growth in the number of multicultural students at Iowa State University and it's time that we all understand that we can value somebody that is different than ourselves, that having that difference brings new opportunities, it brings new ideas. So we are going to work on this, we are going to be listening to our students' stories about their experiences at Iowa State, we're going to help our faculty and staff understand what it means to have a welcoming and inclusive environment and we're going to be successful at that.

Yepsen: We've got just a minute left. Academics are into metrics, you all are fond of giving grades out but you don't like people to grade you necessarily. So what are the metrics we use to give you a grade in a year? What are the measurements that we say whether Wendy Wintersteen has been a successful president at Iowa State or not?

Wintersteen: I think one metric, and it will be hard to measure, is how we have engaged with the public in conversations about why their investment is so important at Iowa State. I think that has to be part of what we accomplish this year, demonstrate what that return on investment is. When we think about our significant goals for our students, these are issues related to graduation rate, retention rate and we are involved in a big effort to address those. And so over the next few years I'd love to be graded on how we look at our graduation rate.

Yepsen: I get graded on watching the clock and I've got to tell you we're out of time. I wish we had more. Dr. Wintersteen, thanks for being with us.

Wintersteen: It was a pleasure, thank you.

Yepsen: Good luck to you.

Wintersteen: Thank you.

Yepsen: And thank you for joining us. We'll be back with another edition of Iowa Press next week with a former Cyclone, Iowa Senate President Jack Whitver, now in the midst of the 2018 legislative session. That's Iowa Press Friday night at 7:30 and Sunday at Noon on our main IPTV channel with a rebroadcast on our .3 World channel Saturday morning at 8:30. For all of us here at Iowa Public Television, I'm David Yepsen. Thanks for joining us today.


Funding for Iowa Press was provided by Friends, the Iowa Public Television Foundation. The Associated General Contractors of Iowa, the public's partner in building Iowa's highway, bridge and municipal utility infrastructure. I'm a dad. I am a mom. I'm a kid. I'm a kid at heart. I'm a banker. I'm an Iowa banker. No matter who you are there is an Iowa banker who is ready to help you get where you want to go. Iowa Bankers, allowing you to discover the genuine difference of Iowa banks.    

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