Iowa State University President

Iowa Press | Episode
Sep 2, 2022 | 27 min

On this edition of Iowa Press, Iowa State University President Wendy Wintersteen discusses updated initiatives, research and funding at ISU. She also discusses the university’s new strategic plan.

Joining moderator Kay Henderson at the Iowa Press table are Stephen Gruber-Miller, political reporter for The Des Moines Register and Linh Ta, reporter for Axios Des Moines.

Program support provided by: Associated General Contractors of Iowa, Iowa Bankers Association and FUELIowa.



Iowa's Regents institutions are important economic hubs for education, research, innovation but the costs for students continue to rise. We'll visit with Wendy Wintersteen, President of Iowa State University on this edition of Iowa Press.


Funding for Iowa Press was provided by Friends, the Iowa PBS Foundation. The Associated General Contractors of Iowa, the public's partner in building Iowa's highway, bridge and municipal utility infrastructure. Fuel Iowa is a voice and a resource for Iowa's fuel industry. Our members offer a diverse range of products including fuel, grocery and convenience items. They help keep Iowans on the move in rural and urban communities. Together we Fuel Iowa. Small businesses are the backbone of Iowa's communities and they are backed by Iowa banks. With advice, loans and financial services, banks across Iowa are committed to showing small businesses the way to a stronger tomorrow. Learn more at


For decades Iowa Press has brought you political leaders and newsmakers from across Iowa and beyond. Celebrating 50 years of broadcast excellence on statewide Iowa PBS, this is the Friday, September 2nd edition of Iowa Press. Here is Kay Henderson. 


Henderson: Our guest today is President of one of Iowa's oldest education institutions. In 1858, the Iowa Agriculture College was founded. In 1862, it became the nation's first land grant institution. The name Iowa State University became emblazoned on the campus in Ames in 19 --

Wintersteen: So that would have been in the '60s I think that it became Iowa State University versus the Iowa State College.

Henderson: Exactly. Well, Wendy Wintersteen, President of Iowa State University, welcome to this edition of Iowa Press.

Wintersteen: Kay, it's a pleasure to be here. I look forward to our conversation.

Henderson: Joining our conversation are Linh Ta of Axios Des Moines and Stephen Gruber-Miller of the Des Moines Register.

Gruber-Miller: So, President Joe Biden recently announced that he would be providing up to $10,000 in student loan relief for borrowers and up to $20,000 in relief for Pell Grant recipients for people making under $125,000. Can you just start off by telling us what kind of impact this has on your graduates and your students? What is the level of debt and what kind of effect will this have for them?

Wintersteen: Well, certainly our student financial aid office has been busy answering calls from alums ands from current students that have loans, that have debt right now. And I would just say while I have the opportunity in this public forum, it does require an application. And so individuals shouldn't assume that that debt is simply being removed from the debt that they have. So call the office, follow the rules on the webpage and take advantage of this. So, when we think about the average debt of students at Iowa State, we have to first begin by realizing that 43% of our students graduate with no debt and that is a great thing, 43%. But those that do have debt have debt, an average debt of about $29,000 plus, $29,500 would probably be a pretty close figure. So I think it does have an impact. I think this is an opportunity for those students. Of course, I think that we had hoped that we would have seen opportunity to increase Pell Grants, which is very definitely tied to income of the student, the student's family and that would make a tremendous difference in allowing students whose family really doesn't have the capacity to send their students to college without taking out significant loans, it would have helped them really very directly into the future for a long time.

Gruber-Miller: Sure. So you're sort of leading into my next questions which is that there are critics of the proposal to forgive loan debt and they say it doesn't control for costs. How do you keep college costs under control so that students don't leave with debt in the first place?

Wintersteen: Right, so again, if we could double Pell Grants it would make a tremendous difference. And I think we would all agree that higher education is really the opportunity for social mobility. Students graduate, they get a good job, on average they'll earn quite a bit more than a student with only a high school education, they have opportunities to do different things in their lives because of that education from a university.

Ta: Let's just review for the viewers, what was the tuition increase that students had to pay this fall semester in comparison to last year?

Wintersteen: So, it was a 4.25% increase, which is $354. So certainly an impact on all of our students. We take a very proactive approach to say that part of our responsibility is to have strong financial aid programs but also to be raising funds from private donors to support our students. Last year I think the scholarships awarded because of that private giving was around $22 million. Our commitment is to keep raising scholarships to support our students.

Ta: Do you see a day where we'll ever be able to reduce tuition at Iowa State or the other Iowa colleges? And what do you think needs to happen for that?

Wintersteen: So, over the years the cost of education at Iowa State University or the two other Regent universities has really been tied to how much the state could afford to invest. So the state invests quite a large sum of funds into Iowa State University and we're very thankful for that. But it would take quite a bit more for us to be able to lower tuition. And so there are a lot of expenses the state has. We of course believe that higher education should be a top priority because of the return on the investment.

Henderson: You have a college of education on the campus in Ames. There's a lot of talk recently about a shortage of teachers. Are you seeing a decline in students electing education and a career in education as a major?

Wintersteen: I don't think we're seeing a decline although I don't have the numbers right in front of me, Kay. I do know that in response to the need we have established some new majors in elementary and secondary education as well as math education. So we are very cognoscente of the need for that to be ramped up to support Iowa and the nation as well. So we're going to keep working on that and make sure that we can produce as many teachers as possible. You know, I used to be a dean and just the other night I was with the Gilbert FFA group, the teacher was one of our graduates in ag education, so very familiar with the demand in pool for teachers especially as we look at rural Iowa.

Gruber-Miller: Yeah and one of the proposals that has been debated at the Iowa Capitol in recent years has to do with the tenure system and there are legislators who want to phase out tenure or end it at the Regent universities and there is a proposal that even got out of committee for the first time. I'm curious kind of what impact you think that type of proposal would have on your ability to attract and keep faculty?

Wintersteen: Even the discussion of a proposal to remove tenure from the state universities has a negative impact. Our faculty are worried about those types of discussions and certainly I think it would be an impact on individuals that we are recruiting to Iowa State. Luckily that proposal didn't go very far. We had a lot of support from business and industry in the state that understand that we need to be on a level playing field with other universities to be able to attract the best faculty. And they came out in a pretty big way to say let's not have that discussion, let's not take that action. And we think that they're going to be there if that conversation would come up again.

Henderson: What sort of retention and recruitment numbers do you have in terms of the faculty at Iowa State? Are people leaving?

Wintersteen: So we keep a pretty close watch on that and I think we have seen about the same level as normal, maybe a little bit more this past year, but not a huge number. I think when I asked for the numbers most recently it was about 55 faculty members. Faculty leave for a whole set of reasons. They leave because their partner has a different opportunity and they want to be with them, it could be to go care for an elderly parent, but sometimes it's because the other institution has the ability to offer an extraordinary recruitment package. And then that becomes a loss for us. We have stars that are on the Iowa State faculty and we are cognoscente every day of making sure that we're doing what is required to keep them at Iowa State, to keep them here for our students and for the state as well.

Henderson: Sometimes Iowa State is evaluated in a cohort of like institutions. So how does pay for staff compare to the Purdue’s of the world?

Wintersteen: So right now when we would look at our peers we would be about 89% of the market for our faculty, which is not a good place to be. It has been over this last six, seven years that we've really seen the decline in that market. We talk to our faculty about this on a regular basis, about our commitment to addressing that issue. And so we know that we have to have a good salary to retain the very best and that is what our interest is and that is what the interest of Iowa should be as well.

Ta: Abortion has been one of the major topics nationally these last few months. How do you keep and recruit students at Iowa State who may be worried that Iowa is going to ban abortions?

Wintersteen: Well, we have a long history at Iowa State University of supporting our students who are navigating through a pregnancy or through parenting and we do that through a set of programs in our student health center, in our wellness program and our counseling program and we would continue to do that and provide assistance as we could while maintaining any action within the scope of the state law. But it is an interesting thing to recognize how many students, undergraduate students that you run into that have children, that are going to school as an undergraduate and still caring for children. So I couldn't give you the statistics on it but it is a not insignificant number.

Henderson: Your institution recently offered a climate change major. Why that decision? And there are critics who suggest climate change is a hoax. How do you address the criticism of offering that major?

Wintersteen: So it is a climate science major and at Iowa State we are all about science. We're the Iowa State University of Science and Technology. And so this is a major that will be focused on geologic and atmospheric science, it will be focused on the economics associated with climate as well as science communication. And it's going to investigate and use good scientific practices to understand causes of climate changes and some of that will probably be tied directly to humans. But they're going to do that in a way that is science-based and that is what we always do at Iowa State University and that is what we'll do in this major. There is a demand for these graduates. That's why we started to establish the major, that's why we did establish the major. So you need to think about insurance companies that would like individuals that are trained in this area, the military is interested, they are making plans for climate change. So there is a whole set of opportunities for our graduates that can come out, again, with a strong science major to be able to look at the economics, to be able to communicate about it. So we're quite excited about the opportunity for our students. And to critics I would say, we're going to do this right just like we do all of our programs at Iowa State.

Gruber-Miller: There have been a lot of changes in the way classes have been offered in the last few years, right, during the COVID pandemic with remote learning and different forms of offering classes. What is the future of sort of remote learning options at Iowa State? How do you balance student flexibility with the value of having an in-person class and those things?

Wintersteen: Well, we are a residential campus. We're a beautiful residential campus. Students love to come to Iowa State, it's such a beautiful place to learn, to interact with others. So we're always going to be a residential campus. But we did learn during COVID that there is more that we can do in terms of delivery of online education and this fall probably in January we'll be announcing that we have consolidated all of our online education opportunities that are currently in colleges into ISU Online. So we're going to make a different approach because of what we saw during COVID. I would let you know though that the online education we currently do is about 80% subscribed by our own students because they like the flexibility. They may be having an internship or a co-op where they're off campus for a semester but they could still take a class.

Gruber-Miller: So what are some of those changes like the ISU Online that you're talking about? What is the difference there that students will see?

Wintersteen: I think students will see improved approach, the efficiency of centralizing it will be helpful, it will allow more faculty across the entire university to see if there is an opportunity either to be proactive in offering current students that flexibility or is there a new audience outside of our current student base that would be interested in an online program? So we're going to look at all of those opportunities and see exactly what we should be doing. I would say that we probably have internationally one of the best masters of agronomy that is delivered almost all online. So that would be just one example and we'll build off those.

Henderson: So what is the price structure? Is it the same as if I was taking a class in a building on campus?

Wintersteen: The price structure will be variable and the Board of Regents has given us the approval to be able to do that. We have boundaries I think between what we charge in-state versus what we charge to international students. So there's some boundaries on what we can do but there's also some opportunity there especially as we start looking at courses that we're not delivering to our residential population but we're delivering perhaps through a partnership with a company or a business.

Ta: To keep Iowa State beautiful you have to make capital improvement plans. How do you balance that as well as the Regents asking for cuts and some more efficiencies?

Wintersteen: Well, it is a challenge. So we have a 400 building campus. We certainly have deferred maintenance just like everyone would have in their own home, but when you have 400 buildings it is multiplied in terms of the cost and what you need to get done. Most recently, just to give you some examples of what we've done to maintain, we replaced the windows in the College of Design building, we put a new roof on Friley, one of the largest residential halls in the nation, just a couple of examples. We demolished the insectary, which would be where I worked as a faculty member. We demolished a small genetics building. So we're constantly thinking where is the priority for capital improvements, for renovation and repair? And where can we find efficiencies? I think the Board of Regents has asked us to think more about renovation and repair than to think about new buildings and we're certainly in tune with that guidance.

Gruber-Miller: We're into the third year of the COVID pandemic now and I just am curious what ISU's COVID protocols look like? What mitigation measures are still in place to prevent infection spreading? And what happens if somebody tests positive?

Wintersteen: Certainly. So our Thielen Student Health Center continues to provide testing and also vaccinations to students for COVID and they're going to continue to do that. And so students who may have a concern about having COVID can be tested right there on campus and can get a response fairly quickly. And then we're encouraging students who are positive to think about isolating in place. Some of them will go home like they did during the pandemic and in some cases we have some limited space that we would be able to help students with isolation. But for the most part I think we're all to a place where we understand that COVID is pretty much everywhere and if we are taking the proper precautions with vaccination then we're going to be relatively safe in this environment.

Ta: Only 32% of colleges and universities have a woman as their president. Meanwhile, there are more women earning four year degrees in recent years than men. Why aren't there more women running universities?

Wintersteen: That's a great question. I was very proud to be the first female President of Iowa State University back in 2017. I think first of all it's a pipeline issue. You've got to have more individuals completing their Ph.D., being on the faculty, going through the ranks so to speak. So somewhat of it is a time lag experience. And sometimes I think it's because people simply don't think about it differently. Again, I work with some great female presidents in the Big 12 and around the nation and there is clearly opportunity. I think women bring a different style of leadership.

Henderson: How so?

Wintersteen: I find in myself personally that I am very interested in listening and hearing others' opinions. I want to know what all the ideas are before I make a decision to go forward. And I don't know if that is always a trait of all men. So I have some good friends that are presidents of universities that happen to be men and they're probably going, that's not fair. But maybe it's an emotional intelligence that I find better in many women.

Gruber-Miller: So obviously Iowa State has a reputation for agriculture and there are a lot of changes happening between effects of climate change that we've been seeing to different policies with ethanol and maybe there's going to be a widespread adoption of electric vehicles that could affect sort of the types of things that need to be farmed. I'm kind of curious, what do you see as the future of arming? What are some of the trends you're seeing coming up down the line? And how do you educate to adapt for those?

Wintersteen: Well certainly the future of agriculture is a question that is talked about all the time. And in Iowa what we've seen is a consolidation of land, larger acreages being farmed, farmed by family farmers still in Iowa and that has been a process that has been going on for a long time now. So I think that will continue or we'll continue to see what the opportunity is or isn't for those farm families. As we think about other types of agriculture beyond corn and soybeans there is a lot of different horticultural enterprises, small farm operations and through Iowa State University Extension we have a lot of programs to support those different activities. One of the big programs at Iowa State that we have found to be helpful is the beginning farmer program to connect young men and women with existing farmers to see if there is a connection and an opportunity to help them get into farming, which is a very expensive enterprise at this point.

Gruber-Miller: Yeah.

Henderson: Iowa State has one of the nation's leading veterinary medicine programs and like many other professions there's not enough people entering that profession. How do you address that issue that is a nationwide issue?

Wintersteen: Well, I think we do a great job at Iowa State University in maximizing the number of students that can be taught in our College of Veterinary Medicine. We have some unique partnerships with the University of Nebraska that allows students to come over here from Nebraska to finish up their last two years. So I think we're doing the most that we can do with our current facilities and the current faculty that we have. It is an intensive program, just as intensive in many ways as medical school, except they have many, many more species to learn about. So we're proud of the work that we do there at the college.

Henderson: Has the number of students enrolled dropped?

Wintersteen: No, in fact I think we're always pretty much at the maximum available spots.

Henderson: I haven't checked but there's going to be a kickoff in Ames on Saturday. What time?

Wintersteen: I think that's at 1:00 p.m.

Henderson: I'm sure you're preparing for that. But there's also happening at the university and college level a realignment based on athletic conferences. How is Iowa State going to remain competitive in an environment in which it's sort of a mid-major university?

Wintersteen: Well, I think the Big 12 is the key to that. So we're a member of the Big 12. The Big 12 is in a very good position right now. We have a number of new members. We have a new commissioner. We're very thankful for Bob Bowlsby who served as commissioner for many years but now we have Brett Yormark who is going to be very key in our media agreements. In fact, we're starting those conversations with our media partners right now ahead of schedule so that we can see what the opportunity is there. So I'm confident that all the members of the Big 12 are aligned, that we're going to go forward. And then actually we are one of the more powerful conferences. So we have a bright future with the Big 12.

Henderson: So, how do you balance sports and academics? That's always a delicate balance and some people say there's too much emphasis on sports, especially when now you have the name, image and likeness trend happening nationwide.

Wintersteen: When students come to college they love collegiate sports. It's part of the university experience. And then they carry it out themselves through our rec services program and flag football, soccer, pick a different type of sport. So we have hundreds of activities for students to participate in themselves. It's good exercise. It's a good way to spend time to have that exercise. So there is a nice connection there. But it's important to remember that at Iowa State we don't spend any of our general fund money in the athletic department. What they're able to do they do with the funds that they receive from the Big 12 media contracts and from attendance and from fundraising activities. So I think the balance is pretty good at Iowa State. We value collegiate athletics, we see the connection to the general student population, it's fun to bring everyone together to celebrate around a winning football team. So it's part of the whole experience.

Henderson: We have less than a minute left and I'd like to give you a chance to respond to some republican legislators who wonder about the value of a "Regents" institution, which is a state-supported university. What is the future in this country and in Iowa of a state-supported institution?

Wintersteen: I believe the future is still very strong. We're in a period of time right now where the state hasn't been able to really provide an increase that stayed with us at least since about 2014. So we've had, if you go up and down during that time period level funding during that period. But there's a large investment of state dollars at Iowa State and I think it's an investment that we show over and over again provides a tremendous return. And so we're going to keep having those conversations with state legislators about what Iowa State does for this state. And just one quick fact, so when we think about our general fund it's $174 million. And last year we brought in $284 million just through our research activities.

Henderson: Well, our conversation today is over but we'll have you back to talk about Iowa State again in the future.

Wintersteen: Thank you so much. It was a pleasure.

Henderson: And you can watch every episode of Iowa Press at or you can watch us at our regular broadcast times, 7:30 on Friday nights and noon on Sundays. For everyone here at the network, thanks for watching.


Funding for Iowa Press was provided by Friends, the Iowa PBS Foundation. The Associated General Contractors of Iowa, the public's partner in building Iowa's highway, bridge and municipal utility infrastructure. Fuel Iowa is a voice and a resource for Iowa's fuel industry. Our members offer a diverse range of products including fuel, grocery and convenience items. They help keep Iowans on the move in rural and urban communities. Together we Fuel Iowa. Small businesses are the backbone of Iowa's communities and they are backed by Iowa banks. With advice, loans and financial services, banks across Iowa are committed to showing small businesses the way to a stronger tomorrow. Learn more at