Second UI presidential forum: University of Illinois System Executive Vice President Barbara Wilson emphasizes student voices, diverse team building

In a public forum on Thursday, Executive Vice President and Vice President of Academic Affairs at the University of Illinois system Barbara Wilson cited her understanding of academia and academic hospitals as a reason why she should be the next top Hawkeye.


Katie Goodale for The Daily Iowa

University of Iowa Presidential Candidate Barbara Wilson addresses the audience during the second UI Presidential Forum in the Levitt Center for University Advancement on Thursday, April 15, 2021. Wilson is currently the executive vice president and vice president for Academic Affairs for the University of Illinois System.

The second candidate for the University of Iowa’s presidency, Barbara Wilson, touted her history of academic administration and promoted herself as someone who can bring together people as a team builder.

Wilson is the executive vice president and vice president for academic affairs for the University of Illinois System. She joined the University of Illinois system in 2000. She had 12 years of academic experience before her time in Illinois as a faculty member at the University of California, Santa Barbara. 

If selected, Wilson said she would look to students and shared governance leaders to assist her decision making, citing a long history of collaborating with academic institutions and higher education stakeholders as a reason she would be a good fit for the job. In her current position, Wilson said she regularly meets with student leaders from various groups on campus and she would continue that practice at the UI.

“I love meeting with students,” she said. “I had monthly lunch meetings with student leaders from the Greek system, international students, students working on sexual violence prevention, and I think that any leader of an organization like this has to have students in his or her ears all the time, because that’s what we’re about. We’re about students.”

She said it would be a high priority for her to meet as many student leaders as she could as president. Hearing about what students are doing is what excites Wilson about higher education, she said, and she plans to be accessible to students and the larger Iowa City community. 

Editor’s note: out of about 40 people who attended the forum, three students agreed to talk with the DI about the candidate, all of whom expressed critiques of the candidate’s answers. While the DI did not talk to anyone at the time who praised the candidate, in an interview after the third forum, incoming undergraduate student government President Regan Smock said at that time, Wilson impressed her the most of the three candidates so far because of her work history in academia.  

UI second-year graduate student John Tappen said he found Wilson’s lack of detail on answering difficult questions “not surprising but disheartening.” Tappen said he thought Wilson could’ve acknowledged that the Campaign to Organize Graduate Students didn’t have an initial representative on the presidential search committee. Later, the union ratified the Graduate Student Senate President John Piegors, who was also a member of COGS, to also serve as the group’s representative on the 21-member committee. 

Tappen said when Wilson was discussing her experience with labor unions, he thought it would have been a good opportunity to acknowledge the lack of organized labor input in the selection process.

“Not all bodies of organized labor, most notably COGS, were welcomed to participate in any of the sort of committees that have a pretty big say in who becomes the next president,” Tappen said. “That’s like the president of 2,000 graduate students and people who work in this university. I think that would have been a great opportunity, had there been an option for say follow-up questions to sort of engage with that.”

A consistent focus during Wilson’s interview was the importance of teams in higher education. She said she has skills in bringing together people from diverse backgrounds who will work together well — something she can bring to the UI if selected. 

“I’m known as a team builder, so I spend a lot of time bringing people together,” she said. “That’s what I do in this job and what I’ve done in many of my positions, and I think when I create teams what I’m looking for is diversity of perspectives, people who will challenge me.”

She said she is inspired by teams that take ownership of an issue and move to fix problems with the support of institutions. 

Wilson said she plans to surround herself with people who come from different backgrounds and can help her make more educated decisions.

The University of Illinois-Chicago has a hospital system that, with 21 outpatient clinics, is similar to the UI’s Hospitals and Clinics’ sprawling enterprise. The University of Iowa has more than 200 outpatient clinics and double the number of hospital beds than the Illinois system. 

Wilson said while the University of Iowa has more specialization and more clinics than Illinois, her background at the University of Illinois system allows her to better understand university health care and labor unions as a Hawkeye. 

“We have a big enterprise at UIC and I work regularly with the vice chancellor for health affairs at Chicago,” she said. “He and I…are regularly connected to one another, especially during COVID. Also, he regularly invited me to meet with the deans of the health sciences so I can understand their issues and advocate on their behalf.” 

When asked if she would look to internal or external sources for hospital decisions, she said she would look to both groups to promote competition and learning from other medical institutions.

“Occasionally bringing in outside advice is not a bad thing,” she said. “We’ve done that many times at Illinois when we need it and it’s always good to benchmark with other institutions that are like you.” 

Diversity, equity, and inclusion

When asked about supporting faculty of color on the University of Iowa’s campus, Wilson said she would focus on recognizing and rewarding “invisible labor” that many faculty members or color do on a daily basis, such as advising students who share their identity or engaging in work to promote diversity, equity, and inclusion programs.

“I often comment on and think about the invisible labor that faculty of color bear right now because their numbers are small and students want to interact with people who look and act and seem like them,” she said. “We’ve got to find ways to acknowledge that work and reward it.”

Wilson said she wants to focus on promotions and tenure processes to ensure faculty members who are doing extra work in community engagement can be rewarded. She said calling it “service” and not focusing on the diversity, equity, and inclusion work on their campuses is not enough.

Pointing to her time serving on committees dedicated to handling sexual misconduct for the University of Illinois system, Wilson said she is deeply committed to sexual misconduct training, prevention, and education. 

She’s worked on committees that focused on restructuring guidelines to prohibit faculty-student relationships and to have new faculty hires sign documents saying they are not involved in sexual misconduct allegations at a different institution. 

“We have an institutional commitment and priority to ensure the safety and well-being of our students,” she said. “Oftentimes those relationships have power imbalances and are deeply problematic when they go wrong. We now have some pretty incredible policies that support our ability to protect the well-being of students.”

She said the University of Illinois system’s “novel” policies — prohibiting staff-student relationships and requiring hires to acknowledge they weren’t facing sexual misconduct allegations — were difficult to push through, she said, but her committee wanted to ensure the universities’ values were promoted in all of its policies, norms, and education. 

Another focus of Wilson’s at the University of Illinois is mentorship programs to promote women and people of color into leadership positions across campus. She said leadership development programs are essential for newer faculty members to understand what they want their leadership trajectory to be at the university. 

She said she would promote people of all backgrounds into higher administrative positions because there is room to diversify leadership teams across institutions. She said leadership teams, faculty, and staff need to be diverse, which is a high priority for her. 

“Mentoring is important to get the [leadership] pipeline activated,” she said. “Of course, I think you have to emphasize diversity in searches and make sure you’ve trained for implicit bias and make sure your search committees are diverse and make sure everybody is saying leadership is important and diversity is a part of our excellence.

When asked specifically about promoting Asian Americans to new positions, Wilson said she is from a biracial family — both of her daughters are adopted from China — and said she is very concerned about the Asian American experience in the U.S. right now. 

University of Iowa fourth-year Dulce Escorcia said they felt Wilson was deflecting some questions, and thought Wilson’s answer to promoting Asian American faculty was lacking.

“I felt like the question to me probably came from a lot of concern in Asian American communities around Iowa City after recent hate crimes have been happening. That’s how I understood it,” Escorcia said. “But it seems like she understood it as not that, in the way that she felt like it was relevant to mention that she has Asian American people in her family, which is great, but like it doesn’t answer the question itself.”

Escorcia added that over three years at the UI, they have first-hand experience of being scared as a student of color on campus. They said they do not feel as though they will be safe in their last semester with Wilson as the next president.

“I will say part of it is probably my cynicism from being a student here for the past four years, and hearing the same thing from the current administration and not seeing tangible changes and improvement for marginalized communities on campus,” Escorcia said. “So, those statements don’t mean anything at this point to me.”

Wilson also suggested establishing scholarship programs for Native American students and encouraged partnerships with the tribes whose land the University of Iowa occupies. 

Wilson also touched on the University of Iowa’s Police Department when asked if she would commit to defunding the campus law enforcement agency. Wilson said she would not defund the department and instead would ensure an officer with a weapon is not the only response the university has for deescalation. 

Wilson suggested the University of Iowa could install a full time social worker high up in the department and have social work graduate students ride along with officers to respond to calls, similar to what the University of Illinois system has implemented. She said team responses are the best way to find solutions with mental health and social work professionals in the equation. 

University of Iowa fourth-year graduate student Derick Delloro, who attended the public forum as a representative of COGS, said as a whole, he was still disappointed with the forum’s structure and format as it only allowed 45 minutes of question and answer, and no follow up questions.

“I think the public forum…was really disappointing because of the screening of questions, the lack of follow ups…it felt like we were just sort of watching someone else kind of talk at us, and it didn’t feel like it was a public conversation,” he said. “It felt like there needed to be more time, there needed to be actual conversation with the public, and it feels like this entire process is weirdly rushed and been extremely challenging to engage with, as someone who’s not on the inside of the hiring committee.”