In a unanimous vote Monday afternoon that came as little surprise, the Iowa Board of Regents selected Wendy Wintersteen, the dean of Iowa State University’s college of agriculture and life sciences since 2006, as the university’s 16th president. When she takes office Nov. 20, the 61-year-old Wintersteen will become the first woman to serve as president in ISU’s 159-year history, as well as just the second alum*, having received her doctorate there in entomology. She’s being touted for her fundraising and student recruitment prowess; the university claims she’s raised $247 million for her college and upped undergraduate enrollment there by 90 percent.
But her selection also instantly proved to be controversial. In her time as head of ISU’s ag college, Wintersteen has given in to the will of agribusiness interests time and again, casting doubt on her commitment to academic freedom. She’s undermined the leadership of the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture, which GOP lawmakers attempted to kill off completely earlier this year and nearly did. Faculty members of her college advised agribusiness magnate Bruce Rastetter, a former president of the Iowa Board of Regents, on his business plan to acquire land on which refugee settlements sat for a research project in Tanzania that briefly partnered with ISU despite the blatant conflict of interest. And she helped draft the memorandum of understanding stifling the Harkin Institute’s ability to conduct independent agricultural research, chasing it off to Drake University.
In March, shortly after then-ISU president Steven Leath accepted the job of president at Auburn University, Rastetter, whose term as Regents president wouldn’t expire until the end of April, vowed that the presidential search process for Leath’s successor would be “open and transparent.” It was likely a face-saving gesture after the board’s disastrous search process at the University of Iowa, during which its eventual president, former IBM executive Bruce Harreld, was given preferential treatment behind closed doors in a series of meetings with regents at Rastetter’s private business in Ames. Those meetings are the subject of an ongoing lawsuit alleging a violation of the state’s open meetings law.
For its search at ISU, the board paid Washington, DC-based AGB Search $110,000 to help find candidates to succeed Leath — $15,000 more than what was spent in the search process that brought him to ISU in 2011 — and held a series of open forums earlier this month for the four finalists (one of whom dropped out before today’s announcement). In the end, it’s unclear what purpose that money served, as the board, stacked by former Gov. Terry Branstad with his own campaign donors and allies of Big Ag dealmakers like former Farm Bureau president Craig Lang, who attended Wintersteen’s forum, went with the reliable choice from within ISU.
Whatever openness the process could have provided mattered little anyway. Since Wintersteen was announced as a finalist on Oct. 12, less than two weeks before today’s decision, her past controversies and continued ties to the actors they involved received virtually no coverage in the local press, and no one else asked any tough questions during her open forum (Wintersteen is known to dodge questions from her critics and the media).
At the Memorial Union this afternoon, Wintersteen was introduced by Michael Richards, a physician and casino vice chairman who succeeded Rastetter as Board of Regents president and runs with the same political crowd. Richards said the board “was impressed with her vision for Iowa State’s future.”
Wintersteen told her audience that she looked forward to working with them to “create an open, inclusive, and welcoming environment” for students — a weakness of Leath’s — and complete the ISU Foundation’s eight-year, $1.1 billion Forever True, For Iowa State fundraising campaign. With a smile, she said, “My goal is that we will make Iowa State University the best land-grant university in the nation,” and added that she looked forward to working with Gov. Kim Reynolds and the Iowa Legislature to further the university’s goals.
In her first year as president, Wintersteen will receive a $525,000 salary, equal to Leath’s. That will increase to $550,000 in her second year and to $590,000 in her third. She will also receive a deferred compensation package.
* Correction: This article originally stated that Wintersteen will be the first graduate of Iowa State University to serve as its president. She will become its second — James Hilton, ISU’s 10th president, was its first alumnus.