President Wintersteen on her approach, plans and favorite vacation spot


President Wendy Wintersteen in her office in Beardshear Hall on Nov. 27, her second week on the job as Iowa State's new top leader. Photo by Christopher Gannon.

On her second Monday on the job, Nov. 27, President Wendy Wintersteen, former College of Agriculture and Life Sciences dean, sat down with Inside to talk about what she plans to do, how she plans to do it and a few other topics. Here are highlights of that conversation:

You've been in the office for a week. What's been the biggest surprise?
I don't know if I've really had any big surprises yet. I spent a month with Ben Allen in his role as interim president, and we worked closely together almost every day to ensure a smooth transition, so that made a difference. I will say I've been delighted by the events I've been able to attend that represent the broader campus. Walking through the crowds at homecoming, there were so many young women and women my age, who gave me a hug, individuals I didn't know, who told me how pleased they were that a woman had been named president of Iowa State University. I was surprised by that -- just the outpouring of support for me as being the first woman in this role.

Wintersteen begins

Other coverage of new President Wendy Wintersteen in this week's edition of Inside Iowa State:

What are Iowa State's most urgent issues? What needs to be addressed first?
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.

There are a lot of top university leadership roles open, including a couple at the senior vice president level. What's the approach there? Is there a priority?
We have a number of searches underway right now, including the dean of the College of Veterinary Medicine and the vice president for extension and outreach. Very soon the search for the dean of the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences will be announced. We've named an interim senior vice president for university services. Pam Cain is going to serve that role. Also, on Dec. 15, as (chief financial officer and chief of staff) Miles Lackey moves to his new position at Auburn, Pam Cain will be taking on that interim chief financial officer position as well. Kristi Darr has provided excellent leadership as interim vice President for Human Resources. This is another position that we will need to move forward through the search process. It is so important that we find the right people for these key positions. I am grateful that we have very capable leaders who have been willing to step up and fill these roles on an interim basis.

The chief of staff position was new under President Steven Leath. Is that something you'll retain?
I'm definitely going to pursue a chief of staff position, but at this point in time I don't have anyone identified. I'm having conversations with the leadership about their recommendations and ideas. I think that'll take a little time. I might even have an interim serve in that role, as well.

Is it a given that it would be an internal appointment?
I think it probably will be, but it's not a given.

You've mentioned that you'd like to hold some listening sessions on campus. Are there any details you'd like to share about the timing or manner of those?
I'm going to be visiting with the senior leadership team, asking them for their advice on how to conduct those listening sessions. We'll begin to initiate those conversations over the next month and have them broadly announced. I'll be meeting with the formal groups that exist. Obviously, the Faculty Senate, Professional and Scientific Council, Graduate and Professional Student Senate, Student Government. But we really want to hear from everyone who has a constructive thought and helpful idea. How do we go forward? How do we seize the opportunities that are in front of us, address challenges and also wrestle with this big issue of becoming more creative and innovative in our approach? I'm convinced that as we talk to the campus community that they'll have ideas about processes or procedures that can be streamlined or pruned away to free up time and resources.

Any thoughts on how long this listening process will last?
I think over the spring semester. I also want to go out and talk to the citizens of Iowa since it's important to hear from them. Being out in the state gives them a chance to let us know what they think we should be doing, what they see as needs, what ideas and perceptions they want to share. It also seems a wonderful opportunity for me to share with them the great things we do every day. I think it's an important responsibility of the president to get out to all corners of the state.

There's never been an Iowa State president who has traveled the state or spent the time on campus that you have. Talk about the value of that familiarity. And why do you think it's somewhat unusual for academic leaders to be promoted internally?
As I contemplated applying for this position, I talked to a number of my colleagues on campus about my application. We had great conversations. In the end, I almost always heard this: 'Well, I wish you the best of luck but, of course, you're an internal candidate.' So I think there was a real understanding that it's somewhat rare in academia. I think what helped me in my conversations with the search committee and with the Board of Regents is that I was able to articulate the advantage of being an internal candidate. You understand the culture, you know the history, you are familiar with many of the challenges, and you have long term relationships with people all over campus. Routinely, business studies show that most internal candidates perform better, especially in the first few years.

Looking at Inside Iowa State's archives, I see that not only were you the bug lady for the extension service, you traveled the state in a bug.
Yes, that's right, my Volkswagen Beetle.

What did you learn traveling around Iowa that will transfer to the presidency?
What I learned is that the culture of Iowa, the culture of extension and, I believe, the culture of Iowa State is welcoming and supporting. I also learned to meet people where they are, and listen deeply. You learn from them, and they learn from you. It's really a conversation about how you work together to achieve a set of goals that you're mutually interested in. I think this is a lesson that we can learn as we address campus climate. It's about listening to individuals' stories. Where are they at? What have they experienced? Simply by listening, you begin to see things from a broader perspective.

What do you have in mind for the additional entrepreneurial initiative you'd like to instill?
The Deans' Council decided early this fall that it was very interested in working together to build an entrepreneurial culture in our undergraduate curriculum across the university. All the deans agreed this was important. I was so pleased. I think for all of us, it will be a competitive edge that differentiates our programs from others. Eventually, entrepreneurship could be a brand for Iowa State. It's not now, but maybe it could be. It builds on our great strengths of innovation, creativity and real-world solutions. We think an entrepreneurial focus would have a tremendous benefit to our students and to Iowa. The deans are going to lead this effort. I look forward to hearing their ideas.

Does changing or impacting the curriculum require a lot of money or just ideas?
The formal curriculum is always about the faculty. The deans will work with the faculty to make sure we have that connection and support. If a lot of money is required, I believe we can raise that money. Entrepreneurship is something that resonates with so many of our graduates. They see it as an investment in our students and the future of this state.

Talk about the role of transparency at a public university.
It's how you build trust. You achieve transparency through good communications. My experience with faculty senators in my own college was great. They were as involved as my cabinet in how we made critical decisions about the budget. We worked together. As we've had these conversations about differential tuition, I know all the deans have worked with their student leadership groups. Having those internal mechanisms for real conversations, not just reporting, but actually a discussion, is how transparency is achieved internally. Externally, we just have to do the very best job we can to let people know what we're doing and how we bring value to Iowans as well as people across the country and globally. When we have a difficult issue, which certainly we all face at some point or another, we need to be as open and as clear as we possibly can be.

Could you share one thing that even folks who have worked with you might not know?
How about this: My favorite vacation spot is Glenwood Springs, Colorado. They have a natural spring that feeds one of the world’s largest swimming pools. It's just massive. The spring pumps out 1.3 million gallons of water a day. They treat it with some ionization so there's no sulfur odor. It comes out very warm, and they have to cool it down to put it into the pool. They have a hot pool that's 104 degrees. You can only stay in there five minutes, but of course nobody follows that rule because it feels so good. Then there is a cooler pool for swimming and relaxing.