Wintersteen Dodges Agribiz Influence Question at Final ISU Presidential Search Forum

For years at Iowa State University, Wendy Wintersteen, the controversial dean of its agriculture college and now a finalist to be its next president, has been involved in advancing the interests of the Big Ag lobby at the expense of others, from silencing critical voices at the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture and drafting the memorandum of understanding that drove the Harkin Institute of Public Policy away from the university to attempting to help Bruce Rastetter personally profit from a Tanzanian land grab.

But you’d never know about it from attending her open forum Thursday afternoon, where the only question touching on any of this came from the Informer itself in the closing moments after Wintersteen was showered with praise for the better part of an hour.

When she entered the Memorial Union’s Great Hall, Wintersteen was greeted with warm embraces and, as she took to the lectern after a glowing introduction from Tom Hill, a presidential search committee member and ISU’s former senior vice president for student affairs, a standing ovation from much of the audience. Among the agribusiness power players in attendance was Craig Lang, a past president of the Iowa Farm Bureau Federation who served as a Chet Culver-appointed member of the Board of Regents until Statehouse Democrats blocked his reappointment in 2013* over concerns he’d pushed to stifle academic freedom at ISU in the Harkin Institute fiasco.

Wintersteen, who has been at the university since 1988, touted her fundraising prowess — a detail eagerly regurgitated by an uncritical local press — working with the ISU Foundation as dean of the ag college, the position she’s held since 2006. She mentioned new privately funded research facilities at the university, including Sukup Hall, named for Sheffield’s Sukup Manufacturing Co., which recently boasted that it played a role in former Gov. Terry Branstad’s appointment by President Trump as ambassador to China. And she called her college’s entrepreneurship program, whose chair is endowed by a $2.25 million donation from Rastetter, the Branstad-boosting agribusiness tycoon, Trump campaign policy adviser, and former Board of Regents president whose business ally Roger Underwood founded the initiative and helped lure Steven Leath to ISU, as “another great example of investment in our students.”

Casting herself as the only suitable candidate to follow in Leath’s footsteps, Wintersteen said the university was at a “very unique and special point in its history,” enjoying an “unprecedented growth in student numbers” but also “facing a set of critical challenges” including budget constraints, overworked faculty and staff, and the campus climate. “I do not believe, given the challenges facing us, that we have time to wait for someone to come in from outside and spend one or two years learning about the situation, trying to understand the history, trying to understand the context of the situation,” she said.

After her introduction, a series of softball questions from the audience was kicked off by a man who introduced himself as a 1973 graduate of ISU who knew Wintersteen on a first-name basis. “I’d like to know why it’s so important for the people of Iowa, the three-plus million people we have from river to river, border to border, to have a great Iowa State University,” he groveled.

Wintersteen also fielded a pair of sympathetic questions on campus diversity issues. The first, from Gabriel Rios, a freshman from Puerto Rico who commended ISU for its interest in recruiting students from the island and helping it recover from Hurricane Maria, raised concerns about “the growing national and state climate toward foreigners” caused by the hostility toward immigrants from Trump and other politicians including Steve King, who represents Ames in Congress. The second, from an ag college colleague of Wintersteen’s, asked how she would work to continue to help people of color feel safer on campus. Wintersteen admitted that ISU “got behind” on diversity and inclusion and vowed that the university going forward would be “part of the solution” and “celebrate each other’s differences.” (Earlier, she touted the ag college’s diversity and multicultural programs.)

Near the forum’s end, Wintersteen responded to a general question about the “sticky wicket” water quality issue (the questioner borrowing language from finalist Dale Whittaker) by discussing the university’s research that led to the state’s nutrient reduction strategy to decrease runoff from farms into Iowa waters that contributes to the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico. Critics have dismissed the strategy and other water quality policy measures in the state as inadequate because of lax regulations that are largely voluntary thanks to the lobbying efforts of many of the same agribusiness interests that fund research at ISU.

The forum’s final question came from the Informer, which asked Wintersteen what she would do to ensure that these agribusiness interests wouldn’t monopolize the academic program in the ag college after its allies in the state GOP this year defunded the Leopold Center. (Wintersteen this time vouched for the center in a halfhearted appeal to preserve its state funding.)

Wintersteen said the center’s loss of funding was “terribly unfortunate,” noting that Branstad agreed to not shutter it completely, that it has a small endowment that allows it to continue, and that its “intellectual capital” remains “in about 80 faculty that live across the university, in departments all over the university.” The center’s director, Mark Rasmussen, has been working with the ISU Foundation to develop a plan for additional funding, she said, adding, “I’m very optimistic about the possibility for private money in that way.”

The faculty invested in the center, Wintersteen said, continue to work on research and grants that contribute to the diversification of Iowa agriculture and building more biodiversity. She then put in a plug for her “favorite project,” the Iowa Monarch Conservation Consortium at ISU, whose partners include a handful of sustainable ag groups like Practical Farmers of Iowa and the Soil and Water Conservation Society but also many of the typical Big Ag powerhouses, including the Farm Bureau, Iowa Corn Growers Association, Iowa Soybean Association, DuPont Pioneer, and Monsanto.

In her response, Wintersteen did not address the dominance of these lobbying groups and their allies at ISU and the Board of Regents, which is expected to name a new university president after meeting with the search committee on Oct. 23.

* Correction: This article initially said that Craig Lang’s reappointment to the Iowa Board of Regents was blocked by Statehouse Democrats in 2011. They blocked his reappointment in 2013.

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.