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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