Legacy of a learning leader: Colletti retires after tackling grand challenges through team science

As Senior Associate Dean Joe Colletti retired this past summer, the caring educator and interdisciplinary team-builder reflected on a career in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences built by making the most of every opportunity.

Innovative Teacher and Researcher

His career began as a pre-med major at the University of California- Riverside where he says he quickly learned he was more excited by how plants worked than how people worked. He switched colleges (to Humboldt State University) and majored in forestry. He went on to earn a master’s and doctorate in forest economics at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

He came to Iowa State for his first faculty job in the Department of Forestry in 1978. That early phase of his career brings fond memories, including helping re-imagine forestry camp – a six-week summer experience conducted at locations around the country.

“It was a great tradition,” Colletti says, “but forestry enrollments were declining. The camp requirement was an impediment for some, especially students who needed to work to pay for college. We revamped the camp into a three-week experience integrated with five new fall courses. This maintained the benefits of comradery and experiential field learning and works better for many students.”

He’s also proud to have served as advisor and co-advisor to the Forestry Club for 25 years. When he started, the group purchased Christmas trees from out-of-state for its big annual sale. He found a location where the club could grow and manage its own trees, turning the fundraiser into a richer entrepreneurial experience. He went on to receive the club’s annual award for most beloved instructor many times over.

“Joe’s commitment to the success of several generations of students has been incredible,” says Iowa State President Wendy Wintersteen (’88 PhD entomology), who has worked closely with Colletti throughout his career. “He cares deeply about students in and out of the classroom. He made a tremendous difference in making the college a more welcoming and inclusive place for all students. His impact will be part of the college forever.”

Colletti also made his mark as a researcher with a long list of scholarly publications in forestry education, agroforestry and natural resources. His most well-known contribution has been to originate concepts for riparian buffer systems with fellow faculty member Richard Schultz (’65 forestry, ’68 MS and ’70 PhD forest biology), a University Professor of natural resource ecology and management. In the early 1990s, they assembled an interdisciplinary team whose work with landowners along Bear Creek in Hamilton County, Iowa, sparked a national conservation initiative that continues today.

Collaborative Administrator

Early on, Colletti was assigned to lead a re-accreditation review process for the forestry major and to co-chair a committee tasked with shifting from a quarter to a semester system. Those were just a hint of the administrative tasks ahead, such as chairing the college and university curriculum committees.

In 2003, he was a member of the committee tasked with merging the forestry and animal ecology departments into a new Department of Natural Resource Ecology and Management, and he served as its interim department chair. When someone else was selected chair, Colletti was disappointed.

“But another door opened,” he says, “and I stepped through.”

That door was an invitation to assist Wintersteen, who had taken an interim role as the college’s endowed dean’s chair and wanted to tap Colletti’s expertise, especially in budget forecasting. A year later, her position became official and Colletti was named senior associate dean, with responsibilities to oversee budgets, research and personnel for the college and the Iowa Agriculture and Home Economics Experiment Station.

His successes reflect many milestones in the life of the college, among them helping lead creation of an assistant dean for diversity position to coordinate and expand diversity, equity and inclusion programming for faculty, staff and students.

He also shepherded development of Iowa State’s BioCentury Research Farm, which is still the only bioeconomy research facility of its kind nationwide.  Colletti, along with Distinguished Professor Robert Brown and five other Iowa State colleagues, facilitated the creation of Iowa State’s Bioeconomy Institute and research focus on the bioeconomy.

“It’s been so impressive to see Joe’s ability to bring together and lift up faculty leaders to boldly collaborate on mission-critical issues. This has led to enormous research successes,” President Wintersteen says.

Indeed, he has done much of the heavy lifting for a number of multi-million-dollar, transdisciplinary research projects, including the $20 million Sustainable Corn project, a new National Science Foundation Midwest Big Data Hub and the $10 million Consortium for Cultivating Human and Naturally reGenerative Enterprises (C-CHANGE) project, a multidisciplinary partnership advancing new renewable-based agricultural value chains. He also helped assemble a group of staff known as the CARES (College of Agriculture and Life Sciences Research Excellence Support) team, whose mission is to provide pre-award support to faculty for their research.

Lifelong Learner

Through it all, Colletti thinks of himself as a “learning leader,” for which he credits the influence of his father, a long-time teacher and school principal.

Following his retirement, which was effective June 30, he and his wife Sharon (who retired from the Center for Crops Utilization Research at Iowa State in 2017), look forward to spending time with children and grandchildren and learning more about their family ties in Italy.

Asked if he has a piece of parting advice for others, he thinks a moment, then grins, “Step through the door that opens.”

Connect. Engage. Share.

In honor of Joe and Sharon Colletti’s distinguished service and contributions to the college, a fund has been established in their name to provide emergency support to students in need. Gifts can be made to the Joe and Sharon Colletti Cyclone Cares Fund by calling 515-294-7677 or visiting the ISU Foundation’s website.