ISU Presidential Finalist Whittaker’s Diversity-Heavy Pitch Overshadowed by News of Ag Dean as Fellow Contender

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Dale Whittaker. Image: YouTube livestream screenshot

University of Central Florida provost Dale Whittaker, the third of four finalists to be Iowa State University’s next president, delivered a pitch heavily focused on the themes of diversity and inclusion during his open forum at the Memorial Union Wednesday, which was mostly well received by the audience.

But Whittaker’s forum was overshadowed by the announcement the same morning of the fourth finalist, whose forum will be held today: Wendy Wintersteen, the dean of ISU’s college of agriculture and life sciences with controversial ties to former Board of Regents president Bruce Rastetter and the university’s agribusiness interests that have long been hostile to sustainable agricultural research.

Whittaker, who has a doctorate in agricultural engineering, briefly touched on ag issues during a lengthy slideshow presentation, discussing how ISU is “better-positioned than any institution in the world to lead the addressing of hunger” to help create sustainable solutions for the world’s population. For this to continue, he added, the university needs to foster strong partnerships with institutions such as the Gates Foundation and Ford Foundation. (ISU has already worked with both; the Gates Foundation provided funding for transgenic banana research that has been criticized by student activists and GMO skeptics but is intended to address vitamin A deficiency in Africa.)

Shortly before the forum’s question-and-answer segment, Whittaker himself brought up the issue of diversity — the focus of a question at the previous forum with finalist Pamela Whitten from an audience member concerned about racial tensions on campus — touting its importance in strategic planning and innovation. “But it is hollow without inclusion,” he said, adding that UCF was on its way to becoming a majority-minority institution. “[Inclusion] says that power is shared, it says that voices are at the table that are different.”

Most of the audience questions followed the same theme and came from students who commended Whittaker’s words (one joking that they were “a little bit on the political correctness side”). The finalist responded to questions about how he would work to make marginalized students, including students with disabilities, feel more included in the campus community. He expressed a desire to help students marginalized both “structurally” and by “this current culture and context,” and described a program established at UCF to help students with Down syndrome receive educations.

Whittaker also addressed the topic of controversial speech on campus in response to a question about his thoughts on recent incidents of police brutality as well as the Trump administration’s rescinding of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which protected people who entered the country as undocumented children from deportation.

In his answer, Whittaker demonstrated a much clearer understanding of the issue than former president Steven Leath, who on the day before last November’s election delivered a video-recorded message to students and faculty that addressed white supremacist posters recently found on campus and in which he incorrectly suggested that hate speech was not protected by the First Amendment. “Even bigots have a right to free speech,” said Whittaker, who also mentioned the posters, explicitly referring to them as white supremacist. But he called for civil dialogue absent of shouting down speakers or inciting violence, adding, “We need to not only communicate our consistent values, we need to respond immediately if something violates our values. We need to tell our story, our position, and respond immediately.”

Agriculture briefly emerged as a topic again at the end of the forum, when a woman present at the previous forum again asked about the state’s 7-to-1 ratio of hogs to people and how ISU should work to solve its detrimental impact on water quality. “I’d probably have to start by understanding it better, and the influencers,” said Whittaker, who then added he had a background in water quality and understood the issue, which he referred to as a “sticky wicket” that couldn’t be solved by any one group or person alone. But he said the university had the opportunity to create solutions that would have an impact both locally and globally.

Whittaker previously served in various leadership roles at Texas A&M and Purdue, where he received his doctorate in agricultural engineering.

Wintersteen’s open forum is scheduled for 4 p.m. today at the Memorial Union and will also be livestreamed. The Board of Regents is expected to make a final decision on the next ISU president later this month after receiving a recommendation from the 21-member search committee.

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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.