The Accidental President

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How a series of fortuitous decisions led Ann M. Fields from the family farm to the William Penn University president’s office

In the late 1980s, 39-year-old Ann Schultz Fields was a victim of the farm crisis. And she was having a crisis of her own.

Fields and her husband had lost their farm in northeast Iowa. Their two children were away at college.

“My husband started driving semis, so I was home alone with the dog,” Fields remembers. “I started applying for different jobs, but they all said I needed a degree – preferably a four-year degree.”

So Fields moved 200 miles to Ames and started taking college classes at Iowa State the day after her 40th birthday.

Education is a journey
Fields got her degree – a bachelor’s in ag business – in 1992, with the hopes of finding work at Cargill or Quaker Oats.

How she parlayed a late entrance into higher education into an esteemed career in that very field is a remarkable story – because Fields is now the president of William Penn University in Oskaloosa, Iowa.

To get where she is now, the former farmer and commodity broker took every advantage offered to her at Iowa State.

She worked for ISU distinguished professor of agriculture Neil Harl (’55, PhD ’65) and got involved with his Center for International Agricultural Finance. (“Dr. Harl presented the theoretical philosophy of capitalistic banking, but then I could present, ‘This is what happened to our farm,’” Fields said.) She spent time in Ukraine, helping farmers there learn to grow corn. She studied in the Nontraditional Student Center in the Memorial Union. She met other adult learners at the Margaret Sloss Women’s Center who encouraged her to pursue graduate work.

And, perhaps most importantly, she immersed herself in college life.

“My daughter gave me some advice. She said, ‘Remember, you’re a student, not a mom,’” Fields said. “So I dressed in jeans and sweatshirts. But I always sat in the front row [and paid attention]. I said, ‘I waited 22 years to come to college; why would I sleep through a class?’”

Fields stayed at Iowa State, earning a master’s in agricultural economics in 1994. She worked on the ISU campus as the program coordinator of Vision 2020, which was funded by the Kellogg Foundation. The project looked at food systems professions education and established groundbreaking partnerships with Iowa’s community colleges.

Fields brought energy and leadership to the project, according to Gerald Klonglan, ISU professor emeritus of sociology who was the Vision 2020 program director.

“Ann walked in the door and had all the skills and enthusiasm we needed,” he said. “She got to know people from all over the country. She was very much in demand from other leaders in higher ed.”

To the head of the class
While working with Vision 2020, Fields started taking courses in higher education.

“I was thinking I might like to teach at the community college level,” she said. “Then [university professor of higher education] Larry Ebbers [’62, MS ’68, PhD ’72] said, ‘Well, you might as well finish your PhD.’” Ebbers became her major professor and mentor.

Fields finished her PhD in educational leadership and policy studies in 2001 and was working part time at Iowa State on a grant she had written for women and minorities in higher education. At the same time, she began teaching on an adjunct basis for William Penn’s College for Working Adults in West Des Moines.

“Teaching in the College for Working Adults, I was teaching other nontraditional students,” Fields said. “That was very interesting because I knew exactly where they were coming from.”

That part-time teaching job eventually turned into a full-time tenured faculty position at William Penn’s traditional campus in Oskaloosa. She became director of retention and learning, chaired the Faculty Council, and became involved with the building committee.

Fields’ practical, organizational skills caught the attention of the university’s Board of Trustees. William Penn was struggling to keep up with a rapidly expanding student population – the combined enrollments of the traditional campus and the College for Working Adults had grown from 400 students to 1,400 students in just 10 years.

She was named vice president of operations and systems, and when the university president announced his retirement, Fields was named provost. She became interim president in June 2009 and was named the university’s 26th president in February 2010.

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A new kind of leadership
Lining the hallway of Penn Hall, the university’s administration building, are 25 portraits of stern men: the former presidents of William Penn University.

“And here’s ‘happy Ann,’” Fields laughs. “When I look at those pictures, I think, ‘Where are all the women?’”

Fields is the first female president of William Penn and is nontraditional in more ways than her gender and her educational journey.

She drives a tiny, red Honda Fit, dusty from her 30-mile, partially-gravel-road commute to campus each day.

She knows most of her students by name and hometown.

She gets up to her elbows in mulch during campus beautification day, working shoulder to shoulder with students, faculty, and staff as they pull weeds, push wheelbarrows, rake leaves, and beautify flower beds.

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She lives on a 60-acre organic farm five miles south of Knoxville, Iowa, with her second husband, Lanny, a social worker for the Iowa Department of Human Services. They raise goats and chickens and also have, she says, “horses and mules, dogs and cats.”

“We go home and saddle up the horses, and we can ride for an hour on our own property,” she says. “People talk about having balance. THIS is balance.”

Fields was inaugurated as William Penn’s newest president the first weekend in October.
Klonglan was one of the speakers at the inauguration ceremony.

“It was a very special event,” he said. “Ann will be a major contributor to higher education in general and certainly in the state of Iowa. It was a great day for Iowa State as well as it was for William Penn.”

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Coming Out From Under the Desk

For national Teacher of the Year Sarah Brown Wessling,
each day brings a new opportunity to learn

wessling1Ten years ago, in the first year of her current position as a high school English teacher in Johnston, Iowa, Sarah Brown Wessling was having a horrible time. It might have been her vision of the perfect classroom colliding with the reality of the classroom. It might have been that she shared her room with an uber-popular teacher to whom students brought little gifts and invitations to slumber parties. It might have been that she felt tired all the time.

Whatever the reason, Wessling’s teacher evaluations from her students had just come back with less than desirable results. And she chose to read them at school.

“I wasn’t quite prepared to be confronted with the truth of what had been going on in the classroom, and I started to cry,” she said about that day. “I didn’t want anyone to see me cry, so I climbed under the desk because there wasn’t anyplace else for me to go.”

From her hiding place Wessling reached for the phone and called her mother, who listened to her blubber and then asked the million-dollar question: Well, are you going to come out from under the desk?

The young teacher knew, right then, that she had to make a choice. She could stay under the desk, or she could come out and confront the rest of her life.

“There was so much truth in that moment,” she said.

“I think what happens to teachers is they start to build walls. They start to protect themselves, and then their agendas become more important than the learning of the students. So, for me, getting out from under the desk really means paying attention to my students. It means knowing that every day is not going to be perfect and that on more days than not the most important thing I do is get out from underneath the desk and do better tomorrow and heed the wisdom of my students.”

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‘I was meant to be a teacher’
Sarah Brown Wessling grew up in Winterset, Iowa. Becoming a teacher was never a choice, she says, but rather a realization of something she’d always known.

She tried on a few different majors at Iowa State: broadcast journalism, psychology, philosophy, literature. Finally, it dawned on her that she could pursue all of those disciplines
at once – as a teacher.

Wessling earned her bachelor’s degree in English education in 1998 and later followed up with a master’s in 2003.

“Sarah came in to the English education program just like everybody else,” said ISU English professor Bob Tremmel. “But even in that early stage she really did stand out. She asked all the right questions and had an incredible understanding of people.”

When she set off for the teaching world, she first went to Cedar Falls (Iowa) High School and then to Johnston High School.

Teaching is hard work, she learned. And it takes practice.

“Here is what I know about being in Iowa: We grow things,” she said. “Teachers are not born; they are grown. There’s a lot of practice involved.”

Wessling’s teaching philosophy is learner-centered. She maintains that every person who walks into her classroom becomes part of the learning process, whether that person is a teacher or an administrator or a student or a member of the community. When you come into that space, you walk through the door ready to learn.

For Wessling, the learning process is sacred ground. Her teaching does not end in the classroom. It spills out to conferences she holds with students about their writing, in the individual feedback she provides to them (often through podcasts and recordings), and in the before- and after-school hours. She draws from pop culture and media to make language arts interesting.

“Sarah has a unique way to make sure what she teaches connects to all kids she works with,” says her principal, Bruce Hukee. “She seeks out students to see how they want to learn.”

In the spotlight

In the fall of 2009, Wessling was honored with the 2010 Iowa Teacher of the Year Award, putting her in an elite class of educators nationwide.

And then, in the spring of 2010, she got a phone call that left her speechless.

Wessling was at home with her three children (6-year-old Evan, 4-year-old Lauren, and infant Zachary). It was spring break.

“I had the baby in one hand and the other kids were on the way out the door because we were going to the park,” Wessling says.

The phone rang, and the voice on the other end of the line informed her that she had been chosen the National Teacher of the Year.

“Well, I was stunned,” Wessling remembers. “I was really, completely inarticulate. I was very overwhelmed and humbled and honored.”

wesslingobamaThat phone call set off a series of public and private events, including the formal announcement of Wessling as National Teacher of the Year by President Barack Obama in the Rose Garden on April 29. She was also invited to Vice President Joseph Biden’s home, attended a black-tie dinner for all the state teachers of the year (at which she and her husband, Tim, shared a table with secretary of education Arne Duncan among other top national educational leaders), and appeared on CNN.

Since then, she has been invited to present keynote addresses and lectures, respond to state and federal educational initiatives, attend a wide variety of events, participate on leadership panels, and meet with policy-makers and industry leaders. The Council of Chief State School Officers, the group that oversees the National Teacher of the Year Program, estimates that Wessling will attend more than 150 events before audiences ranging from
a few hundred to several thousand.

“It’s been an incredible learning curve,” Wessling said. “I’m learning something new every day, and I’m being challenged to look at education through a slightly different lens.”

Magical moments
Though the National Teacher of the Year recognition has taken Wessling away from her classroom for a year, it is the classroom experience that is closest to her heart. She says she measures her success by the success of her students.

“I’ve long known that my story of learning and teaching has never really been about me,” she says. “My contributions are my students.”

“You walk into her classroom, and there’s this sense of excitement. She’s so passionate about what she’s teaching,” says Leah Bowman, a senior at Johnston High School who was in Wessling’s AP English class last year. “She pushes us to be our best. I experience reading and critical thinking in a completely different way now.”

Through her students’ questions and motivations and passion, magical moments can sometimes happen in the classroom, Wessling says.

“I think magical moments are often very ordinary. I think sometimes we assume that magical moments are going to be Hollywood versions of magical moments. But for me, magical moments can be when [a student] finally lifts his head up off the desk because of something that we said or did. All of a sudden something was relevant to him. I think that, going back to the idea of coming out from under the desk, the moments where students engage and where they learn are the magical moments.”

The Fred Factor

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fred_filmstripLast Jan. 8, Fred Hoiberg was in the thick of a busy NBA season. In his role as vice president of basketball operations for the Minnesota Timberwolves, he had planned a few visits to his beloved Hilton Coliseum, where he’d scout Cyclone player Craig Brackins and other Big 12 talents while silently cheering for the Cardinal & Gold from his courtside seat. He would keep his dream of following in his grandfather’s footsteps as a college coach politely tucked away. Because if there was one head coaching job Hoiberg really wanted, it was Iowa State’s. But as a Cyclone fan, he supported head coach Greg McDermott. He wanted what was best for his alma mater. A few years earlier, he’d made athletics director Jamie Pollard aware of his interest in coming home. And that was going to have to be good enough for then.

But a lot can change in a year. And this is palpably now.

This Jan. 8, Hoiberg will be in the arena where he once accepted his grandfather, Jerry Bush’s, posthumous induction into the University of Nebraska Athletics Hall of Fame. It will be the last time Iowa State plays a conference game at Nebraska, as the Huskers will be leaving to join the Big Ten next season. But the game will be significant for another reason: It will be the first time Hoiberg coaches a conference game in his new role – as the man who landed his dream job at age 37.

The nation raised its collective eyebrow last April when Hoiberg (’95 finance) was introduced as McDermott’s successor – despite having no formal coaching experience. To those on the outside, the hire didn’t make much sense. But to those who know and love “The Mayor,” nothing had ever felt so right.

“Sometimes it just makes too much sense,” Hoiberg’s former ISU coach and current UTEP coach, Tim Floyd, said. “His hire is so logical, and it’s going to be great for Cyclone fans and fans of the game of basketball.”

The man who recruited Hoiberg to ISU, Johnny Orr, agreed. So did Larry Eustachy, the coach who followed Floyd at ISU. So did Timberwolves owner Glen Taylor. And ESPN analyst Jay Bilas. And the thousands of Iowa Staters and Ames community members who had full confidence in the hire because, well, “He’s Fred.”

It can be tough to quantify or explain the “Fred factor” that attracts people to the Ames native and former Cyclone All-American, but there’s no question it exists – and that it’s a huge asset to him in this new endeavor. His father, retired ISU faculty member Eric Hoiberg, says his son has always been extremely confident in his own abilities and, in turn, others have supreme confidence in him. While some may view Hoiberg taking this job as a personal risk to his sterling reputation, neither the coach nor his father see it that way. When you love Iowa State this much and have such high confidence in your ability to meet a challenge, you don’t bat an eye at the chance of a lifetime.

“I think life is full of risk taking, and some people take it on as a challenge,” Eric Hoiberg says. “Fred’s always been the kind of person who looks at risk and doesn’t back away from it. Fred’s got a lot of confidence in his abilities and in his knowledge of the game and, particularly, in his ability to work with people.”

Sure, Hoiberg knows he has something to prove. But his confident and competitive personality relishes the challenge. “I want to make the people of this community and this state proud. I want to make Jamie Pollard look like a genius for making this hire,” he says. “You know, I’m up for this job. It takes a lot of time and effort and energy, and I’m all in.”

One of the people who bought in early to Hoiberg’s confident vision is Bobby Lutz, who now sits alongside Hoiberg on the Cyclone bench as an assistant coach. Lutz, who was fired after 12 seasons by his alma mater, Charlotte, following a 19-win season last year, won 399 career games as a head basketball coach. He’s certainly someone who knows a thing or two about coaching.

“I was going to take the year off; I had some other opportunities – in fact, they were great opportunities, but I just wasn’t interested,” Lutz says. “The more I got to know Fred, the more I was interested [in coming to Iowa State]. The biggest reason I came into this situation was because of him as a person.”

Lutz, who calls Hoiberg a “natural,” is one of the primary resources the rookie coach says he’s leaned on as he learns the ins and outs of the coaching profession. Hoiberg says it was a huge feather in his cap to lure Lutz to Ames, where he rounded out a staff that also includes former McDermott assistants T.J. Otzelberger and Jeff Rutter, as well as 14-year veteran assistant Elwyn McRoy.

“I’m excited about not only the chemistry on the team, but chemistry on the staff,” Hoiberg says. “Our staff has great chemistry.”

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Even before he had coached a game, Hoiberg could summarize his coaching style: up-tempo offense and pressing defense, an approachable relationship with his players, intense but not aggressive leadership, and a philosophy that empowers not only the coaching staff, but his players, to be leaders and disciplinarians within the team.

“Fred’s never been one to use intimidation in anything he does,” Eric Hoiberg says. “But he’s got a highly competitive spirit, and it doesn’t take long for people to recognize that.
I think that that competitiveness is the thing that lays the foundation for his relationship with his players. He wants to win, but he’s not an explosive personality. He’s very intense, and he just comes at [coaching] from a perspective of mutual respect. I think the players respect his abilities and Fred respects their abilities.”

Forward Calvin Godfrey says Hoiberg’s team “feels like a family.”

“I like his coaching style,” adds forward Royce White. “He’s a players’ coach.”

“Successful teams I’ve played on, everybody knew their role,” Hoiberg says. “The teams I’ve played for that weren’t very good – and, you know, I’ve played on a lot of those – everybody had their own agendas and were out for themselves. I talk to these guys all the time about that.

“I think sometimes people may label [the term ‘players’ coach’] as being soft, but I’m stern with these guys, direct with them. You have to know exactly where you stand, but at the same time they know they can come up and talk to me at any given moment. I consider Larry Brown and Kevin McHale players’ coaches, but we knew where we stood because we had great communication with those guys. That’s the biggest thing I learned, I think, is that you have to let these guys know – whether they like it or not – what their roles on the team are.”

Hoiberg has instant credibility with recruits and players for one major reason: He knows just about everything there is to know about the NBA, which is where nearly every player ultimately wants to go. A decade of playing experience coupled with extensive front office scouting and management experience makes ISU’s new basketball boss fully qualified to tell players exactly what they need to do to reach the sport’s highest level. And that goes a long way.

“I can talk about the ways I went about accomplishing my dreams – because it was my dream as a kid to play professional sports,” says Hoiberg, who famously declared at his hiring press conference that he had every NBA general manager on speed dial. “Not many people get the chance, but with the right timing and a little bit of luck anything can happen. We talk to recruits about that, about my NBA experience and, you know, I try to have them put goals together and try to build a path where they can at least give themselves a chance to make it.”

Hoiberg has full confidence that Ames is a place that can make those dreams come true. It certainly worked for him.

“When I played for the Timberwolves, they used to have a segment at time outs called ‘meet the team,’ and [the players] would talk about their hobbies, families, and there was a question about ‘favorite place to vacation,’” Hoiberg recalls. “My teammates said Maui or South of France or Italy. I said ‘Ames, Iowa,’ and I meant it. It’s because of the people, and it’s because it’s home for me. I can’t wait to raise my family here.”

Hoiberg and his wife, Carol (’94 marketing) – also an Ames High and ISU graduate, have four children: Paige, Jack, Sam, and Charlie. They also now have two sets of delighted grandparents in town. Dozens of relatives from Iowa and Nebraska were on hand to see Hoiberg walk onto the Hilton Coliseum court for the first time as head coach Nov. 5, and just about everything about Hoiberg’s new gig has made for an unforgettable homecoming and family reunion.

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“It’s just such an exciting prospect for us and for him and for his family,” Eric Hoiberg says. “And the fact that it’s also happening in the place where he grew up is just a special treat and a special privilege.”

Hoiberg and his family admit that he hasn’t had all the time he would like to spend with the family since returning to Ames, but everyone also understands the demands that come with the job – especially starting out. Lutz says the balancing act that comes with being a head coach has been the biggest thing Hoiberg has had to learn on the job.

“He wants to please everybody, and that’s just something you have to juggle,” Lutz says, adding that Hoiberg is in an especially unusual position as local-hero-turned-head-coach. “Every head coach is in demand, but I don’t think there’s any coach that can be more in demand than Fred Hoiberg is at Iowa State University.”

But despite his wild popularity, Hoiberg’s been given a surprising amount of space and respect by the community.

“People in Ames and Iowa State fans show him a lot of respect and respect his privacy,” Eric Hoiberg observes. “You know, you don’t get a lot of people that are hounding him all the time or coming over and interrupting his dinner and that kind of thing, and I think that’s a really positive feature of people around here.”

And perhaps that’s why Hoiberg has such a love affair with Ames – the place where he was a ball boy who grew up idolizing Cyclone basketball players, where he won a high school state championship, and where he once loved eating at the now-defunct Happy Joe’s and O’Malley & McGee’s and the still-popular Wallaby’s, Hickory Park, and Downtown Deli. It’s where he ran a youth basketball camp that was attended by his own children and even his current player, Ames native Bubu Palo. (Hoiberg says it’s “crazy” now to see the photos of his first camp, where he is holding his now-teen daughter as a newborn.) It’s where he has received write-in votes in the mayoral election and where he returned in 1997 to have his No. 32 jersey retired – the first time he announced, perhaps in the heat of the moment, his intention to someday return as head coach.

It’s where he attended classes and breathed in the beauty of ISU’s central campus; Hoiberg is perhaps one of the few coaches in the country who can tell recruits in which exact building they’ll be taking specific classes. (“That’s kind of nice,” he says.) It’s the place where he fell in love with his wife, where he once chucked his losing Pinewood Derby car in a fit of competitive childhood frustration, and where he learned to channel his competitiveness into a true love of sports – basketball, football, track, baseball, really, all of them, his father says.

For Hoiberg, it’s truly the greatest place in the world.

“The best years of my life were playing at Hilton Coliseum,” Hoiberg says. “So now to get the opportunity to coach in front of those same people that supported me, I’m really excited.”