ISU Students Quiz Presidential Finalist Whitten on Controversies Under Leath

Topics of discussion included diversity issues, record enrollment growth, transparency, and the cancelled Veishea celebrations

Pamela Whitten. Image: Image: YouTube livestream screenshot

On Tuesday at the Memorial Union during the second of four open forums for the finalists seeking to become the new president of Iowa State University, members of the audience probed Pamela Whitten, the provost at the University of Georgia in Athens, on how she would address controversial issues that former president Steven Leath grappled with, including problems with diversity, record-breaking enrollment growth that’s strained the Ames community, the administration’s transparency (or lack thereof), and the cancellation of the annual Veishea celebration.

Citing “the recent shift in political climate,” an ISU student told Whitten that “diversity and inclusion has become a more pressing matter to this university, as we have seen an increase in discriminatory acts.” As examples, she mentioned incidents of verbal harassment, racist posters that have repeatedly appeared on campus, and “unsettling social media posts.”

In response, Whitten said that “Iowa State was one of the pioneers in diversity,” specifically mentioning the botanist George Washington Carver, who in 1891 became the college’s first African American student (because campus housing was segregated at the time, Carver lived with the family of Henry Wallace). “The climate and culture you create has to also be accompanied by discrete action to ensure that everyone understands that you’re working at a place, and you’re living in a place, that sincerely values different perspectives,” she said, adding that the university needed to take a “proactive” approach to diversity problems through a continuous dialogue instead of just reacting to incidents like the student mentioned after they occur.

Another student, referencing Whitten’s interest in retention rate metrics that was part of her introduction before the question-and-answer session, asked about ISU’s recent enrollment growth that continues near record highs, a metric “Steven Leath was always really proud of” but whose “negative aspects” he said that he and others have seen in their colleges at the university. The growth has strained resources at the university and caused housing issues that have spilled over to the broader Ames community. Whitten called the growth “dramatic and impressive” and “phenomenal” but said there was a need “to catch our breath now,” consider the increased workloads on faculty and staff, and manage growth.

The finalist also described how she has selected two undergraduates every year at the University of Georgia to serve as paid “provost liaisons” who meet with university administrators on at least a weekly basis to open up channels of communication with students. This came in response to a question about how she would work to ensure transparency between students and university administrators — an issue under Leath, whose administration also constantly played games with the press, particularly after his planegate scandal emerged, despite his vow to be “open and transparent.”

Whitten punted responding to a student who didn’t ask a question but simply stated that he wanted Veishea to be brought back. The 92-year tradition was cancelled permanently by Leath in 2014 after he convened a task force chaired by Tom Hill, the now-retired senior vice president for student affairs who is on the 21-member presidential search committee, after the latest of several late-night disturbances in Campustown that led to extensive property damage and a serious injury. Whitten said she was aware of that but would need to learn more about Veishea itself before saying more.

As it did in Monday’s forum with Sonny Ramaswamy, the first of the four finalists, agriculture came up in a question posed to Whitten. Asked about how the university could help better address the extensive (and largely unregulated) water quality problems in a state where hogs outnumber people 7 to 1, Whitten said it was important to consider ideas and research questions important for students’ post-graduation careers that instructors might be neglecting.

State funding cuts to higher education was another topic of interest at the forum. Whitten said this was a problem faced by universities across the country, suggesting she would continue ISU’s outreach to state lawmakers and saying that, “from the limited experience I’ve had with the Board of Regents, there is no one more committed to ensuring an affordable education and an excellent education at Iowa State University.”

The third finalist, University of Central Florida provost Dale Whittaker, is scheduled to appear for his open forum Wednesday afternoon at the Memorial Union. As with the previous forums, his will be livestreamed, and the university has said it will upload the videos from the streams for each candidate after the forums conclude Thursday.

Gavin Aronsen
Gavin Aronsen is an editor and reporter for and founding member of the Iowa Informer. He previously worked as a city reporter for the Ames Tribune, research assistant to investigative journalist Wayne Barrett at the Village Voice, and in various roles at Mother Jones, where his work contributed to a National Magazine Award nomination for the magazine's digital media coverage of the Occupy Wall Street movement. Email: garonsen [at] iowainformer [dot] com.