Wendy Wintersteen is the first ISU graduate and first internal candidate to be named president of Iowa State University in more than 50 years. She’s also the first woman to hold the top administrative spot in ISU’s 160-year history. And she is forever true to Iowa State.
By Carole Gieseke
Wendy Wintersteen’s journey at Iowa State University has been slow and sweet.
She arrived 38 years ago, fresh out of college, as an integrated pest management specialist for University Extension. Her journey led her from hands-on field days in eastern Iowa to a PhD program to an academic appointment in the Department of Entomology. From there, she climbed the ladder in the College of Agriculture (now Agriculture and Life Sciences) to the very top: She became dean of the college in 2006.
And then, on Oct. 23, 2017, after a nearly six-month national search involving three other finalists, Wintersteen (L)(PhD ’88 entomology) was named Iowa State’s 16th president. She started officially in her new role on Nov. 20.
A KANSAS SUNFLOWER
Wintersteen grew up in rural Kansas, with two sisters, a love of insects, a mom who supported her passions, and a dad who taught at a community college.
Her parents farmed outside of Fort Scott in southeast Kansas, but a combination of drought and low cattle prices led the family to move to Hutchinson, northwest of Wichita. Growing up in Kansas, which Wintersteen describes as “a much wilder place than most of Iowa,” nurtured her love of insects and the outdoors.
“My mother helped me build this little insect zoo,” she says. “I was very young, and just have such a vivid memory of her willingness to do that with me. You know, my mother was a great lady. [I also remember] collecting cicada skins off trees and [finding] spiders in the basement…we had a wonderful childhood.”
As an undergraduate at Kansas State University, Wintersteen visited the Iowa State University campus and a corn insect laboratory. (She remembers thinking, “Wow, Iowa! We’re going to Iowa!”) And although Iowa State wasn’t her first choice for graduate school, she was offered a job at ISU Extension and found that she thrived in that environment.
“What I always will remember is that Extension at Iowa State University is a very caring community. They welcome individuals to that community and help you grow as a professional,” she said. She had “extraordinary mentors” and encountered many other caring professionals – including the late Al Seim, an Extension crop production specialist
who worked out of the Ottumwa area office and always called her “My Kansas Sunflower.”
“I could almost cry thinking about some of these people, because here I was, a young woman who really didn’t know very much, and they helped me learn what it meant to be a member of Iowa State University Extension,” she said. “And what they also taught me is that you have to work with farmers, community members, and youth where they are. Because it’s not about telling a farm family, a farmer, or a business what they need to know; it’s about hearing what they need.”
‘I JUST LOVE THIS WOMAN’
By 1988, Wintersteen had earned both her doctoral degree in entomology and the rank of assistant professor at ISU, and she was leading pesticide management programs for the state.
Bob Dodds (’77 ag ed, MS ’85), assistant vice president for the county services unit of ISU Extension and Outreach, was a county director back in the late 1980s when he first worked with Wintersteen, and he gained an appreciation for her leadership style early on.
“One thing that I’ve always appreciated about Wendy is it didn’t matter whose idea it was,” Dodds said. “It didn’t matter if you were the dean of the college or if you were the county director, all ideas were welcome. If it was a good idea and Wendy thought it was a good idea, you would be amazed how quickly it was implemented. And she always said, ‘Number one, how can I help you? And number two, what do we need to change to make it better?’ [She said that] to me so many times. Also, she always took your phone call [or] called you back. And you didn’t have to be the president of the university to get that call.”
Her strong management skills did not go unnoticed. She became director of Extension to Agriculture and Natural Resources in 1997, and by 2002 was a senior associate dean of the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences (CALS).
That was the year Iowa State hired its ninth dean of agriculture – and the fi rst female to hold that role. That new dean, Cathie Woteki, immediately recognized Wintersteen’s strengths and contributions to the college. “Oh, most definitely,” Woteki said. “She was already serving as the executive associate dean to the dean of agriculture. She had a wide range of knowledge and insights.” (Woteki would go on to serve six years as undersecretary for research, education & economics and chief scientist for the USDA; she recently returned to ISU as a faculty member in the Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition.)
In 2006, Wintersteen herself took the reins of the college, becoming its dean and the director of the Iowa Agriculture and Home Economics Experiment Station, roles she would hold until November 2017.
During her tenure as dean, she helped raise more than $247 million in donor support for College of Agriculture and Life Sciences students, faculty, and staff . In those 11 years, undergraduate enrollment grew by 90 percent, and the college’s placement rate for recent grads was consistently 97% or above. Th e college’s Agricultural Entrepreneurship
Initiative has prepared students who have started companies and has created hundreds of jobs. And for four of the last five years, ISU’s agriculture programs have been ranked in the top 10 among thousands of universities worldwide.
Edan Lambert, a senior in animal science, had the opportunity to interact with Wintersteen as the 2017 CALS Student Council president and as a member of the Dean’s Student Advisory Committee. She describes Wintersteen as “genuine, caring, fearless, independent, and selfless.”
“There are so many times when she speaks that I find myself sitting back, laughing, intently listening, and saying over and over again, ‘I just love this woman,’” Lambert said.
Brian Meyer (L)(’83 journ/mass comm), director of communications for CALS, has worked with Wintersteen for 16 years. He calls it a “good stretch.”
“I just think the world of her. She’s the best boss I’ve ever had,” Meyer said. “She always believed in the team effort. She built a team when she became dean in 2006. She’s very direct, in a way that gets to the heart of things. She really does want to make progress in whatever way possible, and she has that ability to bring people along and work towards that. I think that kind of marks her style.”
Wintersteen’s name was mentioned as a replacement for President Gregory Geoffroy when he retired in 2012, but at that time she believed she was too young and inexperienced for the top position.
But when Steven Leath (L) announced in May 2017 that he was leaving to become president of Auburn University, Wintersteen began to give it some thought.
“I love Iowa State, and I felt like I was a good candidate at this time,” she said. “I decided that I wouldn’t be happy if I didn’t put my name in the hat. I was excited about the opportunity.”
As an internal candidate for the Iowa State presidency, Wintersteen knew there would be advantages – and disadvantages. No internal candidate and no Iowa State graduate had risen to the rank of university president here for more than 50 years. (W. Robert Parks, president from 1965 to 1986, was an Iowa State professor, dean of instruction, and vice president for academic affairs before being named president; James H. Hilton, president from 1953 to 1965, was a 1923 Iowa State grad.)
Wintersteen’s colleagues warned her that it would be tough. Though she was a popular dean with an exemplary track record, she had weathered a few controversies: an appearance of having political ties to “Big Ag,” a dispute with the Harkin Institute, and, most recently, the defunding of the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture.
The four finalists for president each participated in a public forum in October, and Wintersteen’s crowd in the Memorial Union’s Great Hall was the largest, with about 300 people in attendance.
“I do not believe, given the challenges facing us, that we have time to wait for someone to come in from the outside and spend one or two years learning about the situation,” intersteen told the audience. “I believe I am a compelling candidate…because I do understand the situation. I understand the challenges we are facing.
“I am forever true to Iowa State,” she said. “It’s my turn to ‘lean in.’”
In the end, the obvious advantages of being an internal candidate won out.
“One enormous strength is, because her career has been at Iowa State, she has such a deep knowledge of faculty, [not just] within the College of Ag, but also contacts throughout the university,” Woteki said. “She has an in-depth knowledge of the work of the university, and she has a way of listening and really comprehending and grasping the issues that people are trying to bring forward.”
Meyer said Wintersteen possesses a deep love and commitment to the institution. “We’ve had some great presidents and deans, but she really, truly came from this grassroots place of being a field specialist for Extension, very literally working on the ground with Iowans, and seeing the value of the mission first-hand and as a young person. I think she just grew to love Iowa and grew to love the university. And I think that’s reflected in her actions and how she cares about what happens here. The roots go very deep with her, in a way that maybe we haven’t seen in a president for a while.”
Talk to anyone who’s worked with Wintersteen, and eventually they will all say the same thing: She’s an excellent listener.
Her old Extension colleague Bob Dodds says, “She has a very unique ability to listen. She hears what you say, and even when you may not say it well, she understands. Not a lot of people can do that. She hears what you say and can fill in the blanks. She can do that
very, very well.”
Meyer describes her listening ability, saying, “She’s empathetic. I really believe she does listen incredibly carefully to people. It’s not about her. She loves the institution. She wants things to move forward.”
She listens to students, too. Lambert says, “She listens. There is no better leader than one who listens to the concerns and fears of those they lead. Additionally, she acts on the concerns and fears she hears to the best of her ability. I saw her in action several times during CALS multicultural student forums. She intently listened to story after story of how her very own CALS students were feeling alone, alienated, and not welcomed on campus, in clubs, and in classrooms. She took these stories to heart, made changes within CALS, and held several other multicultural student forums.”
Strategic listening is one of Wintersteen’s top goals.
“I have to go out and listen,” she said. “I want to hear people’s stories. Hearing people’s stories really helps me learn. And it’s not about a question-and-answer discussion; we do that and we’ll always do that, but I want to sit down and just hear what people want to share with me. It’s not about responding so much as it is valuing the story and understanding what their experience has been. So, I think we’ll be doing listening sessions on campus, and then I’m going to go out and do that in the state as well, because I want to hear what Iowans have to say.”
AT HOME IN THE KNOLL: In January, President Wendy Wintersteen and her husband, Robert Waggoner, visited The Knoll as it was being prepared for their move-in day later in the month. The Knoll has undergone many repairs, expansions, and updates over the years. In the past year, a four-season room was added to the south side of the home, along with new stairs and a wheelchair-accessible ramp to the front door, projects initiated by former President Steven Leath and first lady Janet Leath. Tuck pointing of the exterior walls wrapped up in December, and the roof is due for replacement this spring. The home’s boiler will be replaced in the summer. On Oct. 19, the state Board of Regents gave Iowa State permission to begin work on an evolving list of improvements estimated to cost up to $750,000. Four days later, Wintersteen was named Iowa State’s 16th president and dramatically pared back the project to $150,000. “The suggested list of improvements was extensive. Given the budget situation at Iowa State, it simply wasn’t appropriate,” she said. The Knoll was completed in 1901, with additions made in 1922, 1967, and 2001.
A STRONG INTERNAL COMPASS
Back in the early days, when Wintersteen was an extension specialist in eastern Iowa, she drove a Volkswagen Beetle – she’s an entomologist, after all. She had been used to the
pancake-flat plains of Kansas, but in Eastern Iowa, near the Mississippi River, the roads are curvy, hilly, and harder to navigate. That took some getting used to. And so, one thing Wintersteen depended upon was a compass that her father had given her as a gift. She carried it with her always.
Brian Meyer told us this story. “I like that as a metaphor,” he said. “She always had this compass of which way to go, literally and figuratively. She was meeting with a lot of people and had this gift from her father that was guiding her along in her early career. That carries through today: She’s got a strong compass; she’s committed, and she knows where to take the institution.”
There’s a lot of positive energy surrounding this new president, both on campus and among the university’s alumni and friends. Rich Degner (L)(’72 ag & life sciences education, MS ’77) worked with Wintersteen for many years in his role as CEO of the Iowa Pork Producers Association.
“President Wintersteen utilizes a servant style of leadership philosophy,” he said. “I have had decades of watching her in action, and she truly cares about the Iowa State University community and the citizens of Iowa. She provides a calming influence when dealing with difficult societal issues. She is an accomplished fundraiser for Iowa State University. She is one of those rare people widely known by her first name. Many people in the agricultural community, certainly in Iowa, and beyond know her simply as ‘Wendy.’”
Students, too, are offering praise for Wintersteen’s leadership. Edan Lambert, the 2017 CALS Student Council president, said, “As the new ISU president, I am looking for her to stay genuine and independent. This goes hand in hand with her leadership style, but she is just a normal gal. She is funny, genuine, and caring but yet a role model and mentor.”
Jeff Johnson (L)(PhD ’14 education), the Lora and Russ Talbot ISU Alumni Association endowed president and CEO, applauded Wintersteen’s approach to alumni relations.
“I’m looking forward to working with Wendy in her new capacity with the university,” he said. “She understands that alumni relations starts during the student days, continues with graduation, and never ends. Wendy has already given Iowa State 38 years of her life. Some incredible relationships have been built over this time. She’s in a new role, but you can bet she’s not a new Wendy. She knows us, and we know her. This is a great time for Iowa State and for alumni.”
“I was delighted about her being named the first woman president of Iowa State, and also so thrilled that the Board of Regents had recognized her leadership,” Woteki said. “She’s a great choice. I think she’s going to be one of the great presidents.”
Meet the Prez
After 38 years at ISU, Wendy Wintersteen is Iowa State’s newest president
• Bachelor’s degree in crop protection, Kansas State University, 1978
• PhD in entomology, Iowa State University, 1988
At Iowa State since 1979, leaving only briefly (1989-90) to serve as acting
National Pesticide Education Program leader for the U.S. Department of
Agriculture’s Extension Service in Washington, D.C.
ISU administrative experience:
• Endowed dean of the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, 2006-2017
(the first endowed dean at Iowa State)
• Director of the Iowa Agriculture and Home Economics Experiment Station
• Senior associate dean of CALS, 2002-2005
• Associate director of Iowa Agriculture and Home Economics Experiment Station,
• Director of Extension to Agriculture and National Resources at ISU (1997-2000)
• Coordinator of pesticide management and pesticide applicator training programs
• Extension specialist in the Davenport and Des Moines areas, working with
farmers on integrated pest management
ISU academic experience:
• Professor in the Department of Entomology, 1996
• Assistant professor of entomology, 1988
• Carl F. Hertz Distinguished Service to Agriculture Award from the American
Society of Farm Managers and Rural Appraisers, 2016
• Named an Alumni Fellow by her alma mater, Kansas State University, 2007
• Member of the Entomological Society of America and the American Association
of University Women
• First-year salary as president of Iowa State is $525,000
• Contract is for five years, with incremental salary increases and a deferred
Family: Husband Robert Waggoner
This article was originally published in VISIONS magazine. To receive the full issue delivered to your mailbox four times per year, become a member of the ISU Alumni Association.