The cabinet: Administrators discuss building a diverse leadership team


Emily Blobaum/Iowa State Daily

ISU President Steven Leath meets with Vice President for Student Affairs Martino Harmon, ISU Dining Director Mohammad Ali and Dean of College of Agriculture and Life Sciences Wendy Wintersteen Nov. 7. They briefly discussed the idea of launching a creamery using resources from Iowa State. 

Alex Ivanisevic

Since his appointment in 2011, Iowa State President Steven Leath has pushed several initiatives in an effort to improve the social and academic climates of Iowa State.

One of his main focuses has been on building a cabinet diverse in experience and expertise.

“My philosophy on that is if you get a lot of smart people at the table and you foster open discussion, you’re more likely to get things right, and you’re less likely to make mistakes,” Leath said. “At the same time, the more diverse opinions, outlooks and perspectives you have, the more likely you are to make a good decision.”

Each individual in the presidential cabinet bears a complex list of duties. 

Leath said he thought about the type of expertise the university needed while searching for cabinet members. 

He added someone from human resources and from engagement and economic development in an effort to broaden the people who were “at the table.”

Five individuals work under Leath with respect to the structure of the cabinet. 

They include Reginald Stewart, vice president for diversity and inclusion; Martino Harmon, senior vice president for student affairs; Kate Gregory, senior vice president for university services; Miles Lackey, chief financial officer and chief of staff; and Jonathan Wickert, senior vice president and provost.

Leath said he has worked with administrative cabinets in the past, some smaller and some larger than the current cabinet he is working with.

Stewart stressed the importance of developing strategies and policies that will not only adjust and fix any current areas in need of improvement but also vigorously act on behalf of preventing future problems from occurring or returning.

“We are always pushing and striving to ensure that as executive and cabinet level positions open, that we bring in diversity,” Stewart said. “When you are dealing with really complex and multidimensional issues, you need complex multidimensional thinkers.

“By trying to diversify your cabinet, what you’re saying is we want to make the best possible decision for our students, our faculty and staff and the citizens of the state of Iowa.”

Stewart said his position is to manage all of the different places that faculty and staff members intersect, identifying where resources need to be directed and where personnel needs to be brought in.

He said the role of the vice president for diversity and inclusion is to take on a forward-thinking motive with the question, “What makes Iowa State University unique and special in this conversation in higher ed diversity?,” in mind.

“We are asking you to treat each other with humanity and civility, but if you choose not to, we have procedures in place to address that,” Stewart said. “Having a cabinet with members who contribute multiple perspectives and invest those ideas into decision-making, actions and leadership for the university, the impact of which extends beyond campus, is essential for developing advanced and professional minds out of Iowa State University that can compete globally.”

Gregory said diversity is a fundamental asset to any organization.

“I think we have some opportunity ahead to increase the diversity at Iowa State and in all organizations,” Gregory said. “I am really glad to be at an organization that is so committed to that effort.”

Gregory served in the Navy for 37 years. 

She oversees all the facilities and infrastructure at Iowa State. 

Her position also includes environmental health and safety and business services.

She has enjoyed her position for the past seven months at Iowa State.

“If you’re gonna make a baseball team, you don’t want nine third basemen,” Gregory said. “You want people with different skills. That is true in the cabinet, that is true every place. [Diversity] is essential if you want to succeed in the world today.”

Gregory and Stewart believe there are multiple ways of defining diversity, and there are many descriptions that fall into that category that extend beyond race and gender. 

Both said there are areas that remain slightly underrepresented, and that under-representation provides room for growth in the cabinet.

“I think that especially, for underrepresented people, I really believe that those who have the privilege to lead have a responsibility to enable others to have opportunities,” Gregory said. “I believe that senior leaders have a responsibility and an obligation to mentor.”

Wickert held positions as department chair and dean before he attained his current role in Leath’s cabinet.

“As provost of the university, that means I am responsible for all of the academic programs at the university,” Wickert said. “As a land grant university, we have strong programs in teaching, research and in extension.”

Wickert said Leath has created a really positive environment that has led to progress and initiatives that improve the diversity and overall quality of the university.

“I think the work that he has done to build a diverse and a talented cabinet is part of that,” Wickert said.”Universities have always been and always will be places of open, honest discussion on topics that are important to ourselves and important to our country.”

Harmon is involved in a variety of leadership initiatives across Iowa State. He works directly in relation to the concerns of maintaining the value of student life.

“I think [diversity] is absolutely important for two reasons: organizations function better when you have different perspectives involved in the decision-making because each one of us bring our own experiences and expertise to the conversation,” Harmon said.

Harmon also said that it is important for students to be able to observe the diversity of the cabinet as having members who are leaders and represent their own ideas and can understand their life experiences.

Leath added that there is strength in having different perspectives.

“I am always amazed at the variety of perspectives and life experiences that come through with making critical decisions,” Leath said. “It is a lot better this way.”