Get to know Wendy Wintersteen, Iowa State’s 16th president
VISIONS met with President Wintersteen in Beardshear Hall on Dec. 8, 2017. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
VISIONS: You grew up in Kansas and went to school at Kansas State University. How did you end up at Iowa State?
WINTERSTEEN: I was thinking that I would go to grad school, and I thought I’d go to Oregon State (laughs). But then I applied for two jobs. One was here at Iowa State, working for Extension in integrated pest management, and one was at New Mexico State University on the rangeland caterpillar. And then I got the job at Iowa State University. So, I was given an opportunity that was, for me, an incredible opportunity. I graduated in 1978, and I started in January 1979 over in the Davenport Extension Office. I worked in
seven counties, from Clinton County down to Lee County, and worked with the most
wonderful farmers and their families.
Why did you stay at the same institution for 38 years? How did you stay motivated and passionate?
It’s really about Iowa State University and [the state of] Iowa and the partnerships that we have, with our stakeholders, with our students and our alums, and how you care about your faculty and staff. I had opportunities to leave over the years … but I looked around and looked at the partnerships and still felt that I had a lot to give here at Iowa
State University and wasn’t interested in leaving. I love Iowa State. I have my “forever
true” button on.
How long have you been seriously thinking, “You know, I’d really like to be president of this university”?
I really didn’t give it a thought until Steve Leath announced his resignation. It had really been special to me when [former ISU president] Greg Geoffroy, way back when, had mentioned my name, and I thought, well, NO! That’s not right! (laughs deeply) I thought, you know, I’m too young … I’m not ready for that.
So, it’s been fairly recent.
And the reason is because, in searches like this, you never know who will be in the pool, and I decided that I wouldn’t be happy if I didn’t put my name in the hat.
It was a good pool. You had strong competition.
I think so, too. But, again, I knew I could, if it went either way, I could still be the dean. I just thought it was important to have somebody at this time that knew and understood Iowa State University and understood [the state of] Iowa. So, I just felt compelled and I was excited about the opportunity to do it.
What’s one thing about this job that keeps you awake at night?
You know, we have a number of challenges in front of us. The budget is uncertain for the coming year; I think that is an important issue. And then, where we are in the discussions about the campus climate – have we really helped everybody understand what it means to reach out to somebody that is different than themselves? How do we get our students to that place? To understand that it’s important to value differences.
Talk about university size and managing growth.
I think we’re at a good size. And what has been important about the growth at Iowa State University is that it has increased the diversity of our student body. Twenty-four percent of our students are international or multicultural students from the United States; that provides for all of our students a better set of opportunities, and so I think that is just a tremendous value. So, I think this is a good size for us. I think we’ve managed the growth in enrollment pretty well. We would like to be able to reduce the faculty/student ratio. Certainly, our facilities are running at full capacity, but we are taking appropriate steps. You talk to each of the deans, and this is something they work on every day. We have a great plan to look at how we increase our graduation rates.
How many red jackets are in your closet?
I don’t have enough! (laughs) There just are not enough red jackets!
What’s your favorite insect?
(No hesitation) Right now it’s the monarch butterfly. Iowa State is partnering with other entities to preserve the butterfly through the Iowa Monarch Conservation Consortium. We have support for research from those groups, support to ask private landowners to provide land that could be habitat for the monarch butterfly. We’ve had great conversations, and we’re making progress. If Iowa leads the way on this, I think we can save this important insect and save its iconic migration back and forth to Mexico.
What else would you like people to know?
I was being very sincere at President’s Council when I said I care and we should all care. And I think we do. And how we demonstrate that is important. I think that really is something we need to be known for at Iowa State, that we care about our faculty, staff, and students. That we care about each other, that we work together to accomplish our goals and to serve our students and the state.
James Autry is my favorite author. He wrote The Servant Leader, and one of the things he says in his book is that leadership requires love. I believe that deeply. There will be things we have to face, but we’ll do it together. We can do it all together.
“We are having numerous conversations about the budget. Of course, there simply are a lot of unknowns at this point. The Board of Regents is working through its process to determine the tuition increase. We know that the Board of Regents’ proposal to the Legislature is about new dollars to support student financial aid at Iowa State University and the other Regent universities. I think that shows the commitment to assist students and their families with any tuition increase. We also know that Iowa State had a very tight budget last year. For the most part, our faculty and staff did not receive salary increases. I’m making that a priority to address in this coming year. We work in a competitive market, and we have excellent faculty and staff.”
– From a Nov. 27, 2017 interview with Inside Iowa State
“We knew fairly quickly that [7 percent] was a number that wasn’t very well received in Iowa. It was jarring to students and to their families.”
– From an interview with the Des Moines Register on Jan. 16. Presidents from Iowa’s three public universities proposed annual tuition hikes over the next five years of 7 percent at ISU and the University of Iowa. In the Register interview, Wintersteen predicted next year’s tuition rates will increase at least 3.5 percent and that the Board of Regents would not approve a 7 percent tuition hike. A final decision will be made by the Iowa legislature in April or May.
…being the first female president at Iowa State
“We went to the Homecoming football game with [interim president] Ben and Pat [Allen], and we visited all the tailgate tents. We walked along and stopped and visited with so many people, but what was life-changing for me was the number of women who came
up and hugged me and thanked me for serving as president. To be a role model for young women, for their children, they thought that was important. And I think it is important. We all need role models, and you know, I’m the 16th president – we were formed in 1858 – and we now have the first female president. So, it’s a big deal. It was nice to see the outpouring of support from people I don’t even know.”
…the student experience
“We have to always be committed to an extraordinary student experience. I want every student to be able to succeed at Iowa State. They have to work hard; they have to earn it, but we need to be making sure they have the opportunities to reach their full potential. That’s our obligation. ¶ We’re proud of where we are in terms of graduation rates, but those graduation rates are not where they should be. We need to be more successful there. [We must provide] that extraordinary student experience, where more and more students are able to successfully graduate and go forward. ¶ It’s also about research, innovation, entrepreneurship, and economic development. We do this every day, and we’re going to do it even better in the future.”
“We’re not bringing back VEISHEA. It wasn’t President Leath who took away VEISHEA. It was the people that came into town and misbehaved [and some of our own students]. Those people took away VEISHEA. So, what I think [senior VP for student affairs] Martino Harmon and [Talbot ISU Alumni Association endowed president and CEO] Jeff Johnson and other leaders have done, working with student government, is create a set of events throughout the year now. [These events] give students an opportunity to celebrate, an opportunity to be part of the planning and leadership of a big event that gives them a new set of experiences that will help them in their future careers, and an opportunity to raise money for the student organizations they’re a part of. That all exists, and it will continue to be refined and improved upon. And when students have an opportunity to
participate, lead, carry out something like that, that’s a learning experience.”
…the importance of alumni in the life of the university
“We have a great Alumni Association, and people love being engaged in the Alumni Association. I’ve always thought it was fabulous how the alumni board of directors is elected. That shows a level of commitment by alums. They know their set of responsibilities that come with that seat, and they take it very seriously. You can see it in the outcomes that they achieve. ¶ It’s important to begin working with alums immediately [after graduation]. By having our young alums become engaged with us, they may go up and down with how they participate as their life changes and they have children and their job gets bigger, but when you connect early, then I think you connect forever.”
…the 21st century land-grant university
“When I think about the 21st century land-grant university, I believe that our missions are still as relevant today as they were back in 1858 and when the very special pieces of legislation were passed to support the Morrill and Smith-Lever Acts. I think those missions are still in place. I think it’s critically important that we have our Extension programming out in the state, that we have a diverse set of programmatic areas that we work in. ¶ I think the work we do in all three missions – teaching, research, and extension – continues to evolve, and how we reach and connect with Iowa citizens and with our students, how we connect nationally and internationally, continues to evolve. But the core stays the same, and in the end it’s about the relationship we have with people, it’s how we communicate with them, and it’s the trust that we’ve built together really to achieve some very great things.” ■
Statements are from Wendy Wintersteen’s Dec. 8, 2017 interview with VISIONS magazine
unless otherwise noted.
Just call him the president’s spouse
Life for Robert Waggoner (L) since Oct. 23, 2017, has been a whirlwind.
That was the day his wife, Wendy Wintersteen, was named president of Iowa State University.
“Around that time there had just been the hurricanes in Texas and Florida, and I told people that we’d just entered our own personal Category 5,” he says, laughing. “But as each week went by it decreased and decreased, and now we’re just in a tropical storm. That’s our current life.”
Waggoner and Wintersteen met in the state of Kansas when they were still in high school. They married in 1984. Waggoner is a 1981 graduate of Drake University, with a degree in psychology. He worked in sales and marketing in his family’s business before pursuing his dream job: dreams.
“I decided that I wanted to write a book on a niche area of psychology called lucid dreaming. Lucid dreaming means that you realize within the dream that you’re dreaming,” he said.
He joined the International Association for the Study of Dreams, and he published a book, Lucid Dreaming: Gateway to the Inner Self, in 2008. That book has been translated into multiple languages and is currently in its 10th printing. He followed it up with a second book, Lucid Dreaming, Plain and Simple: Tips and Techniques for Insight, Creativity, and Personal Growth in 2015, co-written with author Caroline McCready.
Waggoner had to make a speedy transition to the president’s spouse, his new official job title. On Oct. 23, he says, Wintersteen was on the phone with the Board of Regents, accepting the position.
“She gave a date that was literally about 10 days later, and I was in the background thinking, ‘We will not be ready!’” he said. “So, thankfully she thought about it for 30 seconds after she hung up and called them back and asked for one more week.” Wintersteen started her job on Nov. 20.
But now he’s ready to embrace his new role, one that, for 160 years at Iowa State, has been held by women.
“For the most part, I see the demands of the role are roughly the same [for a male]: to act as someone who supports their spouse, supports the president, supports the university, supports the students, faculty, and staff, and in many degrees is involved in social functions. But it is a little bit different, I think, being a man in this role, because my wife is the first woman who’s been a president of Iowa State University. So, in that sense I’m aware that I’m setting precedents.”
Waggoner has experience, serving as the dean’s spouse for 11 years, during which he traveled, met with alumni and donors, visited project sites, and attended events for the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. He said he plans to reach out to all parts of the campus and the Ames community, making the historic president’s residence available for events.
“We’re happy to have events here, because we know for many people, coming to The Knoll is a special time,” he said. “I think things will be a bit more active here [in The Knoll].”
Wintersteen says her husband is ready to step in to his new role.
“Robert is very serious about his role,” she said. “He was engaged in conversations with [former interim first lady] Pat Allen very much during that month we had with them. He’s in great conversations with [former first lady] Kathy Geoffroy; he and [former first lady] Janet Leath have had a conversation. He’s very serious about it. He wants to do a good job.”
Waggoner says he’s excited about the challenge to support the new president.
“You know, we’ve been here at Iowa State University throughout Wendy’s entire career,” he said. “We feel very much at home here. We’ve come to love Iowa State and the students and the faculty and staff. It’s truly a phenomenal university.”
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.