Katie Goodale

University of Iowa Presidential Candidate Barbara Wilson addresses the audience during the second UI Presidential Forum in the Levitt Center for University Advancement on Monday, April 10, 2021. Wilson is currently the executive vice president and vice president for Academic Affairs for the University of Illinois System.

Student focused: UI Presidential Finalist Barbara Wilson’s career embraces building connections as a higher education leader

Colleagues of Barbara Wilson, a finalist for the 22nd president of the University of Iowa, and students at the University of Illinois Systems describe her work during difficult times, saying she always keeps students, faculty, and staff at the core of the university's mission.

Barbara Wilson’s colleagues and students know her as a servant leader and a good listener. The University of Illinois System, a three-university, roughly 90,000-student, 6,000-faculty system, has known her as the executive vice president and vice president of student affairs since 2016 and a two-decade faculty member and administrator on the Illinois campuses.

Wilson is one of four finalists in the candidacy for the University of Iowa president, after current UI President Bruce Harreld announced in October 2020 he would retire at the end of the 2020-2021 academic year.

During her public forum on April 15, Wilson said, if selected, she would look to students and shared governance leaders to assist her decision making, citing a long history of collaborating with higher education stakeholders as a reason she would be a good fit for the job.

Colleagues and students of Wilson’s in the University of Illinois System echoed those traits. At Illinois she focused on creating opportunities for faculty members and students as well as being transparent to ensure policy decisions were made productively and information was shared effectively, colleagues and students told the DI. That included creating stricter sexual misconduct guidelines — namely, prohibiting staff-student relationships and requiring hires to acknowledge they weren’t facing sexual misconduct allegation,  steering campuses through offering academic instruction during a pandemic, and leading the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign as interim chancellor, the equivalent to a president of an Iowa university.

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. Among her many leadership roles, Wilson currently is the primary liaison to the University of Illinois System’s Board of Trustees.

University of Illinois System Board of Trustees Student Trustee Austin Verthein, a junior at the University of Illinois at Springfield, has worked with Wilson while on the board, and said she has always been a resource for all three universities’ student trustees.

“She’s always taken the extra step in making things clear for me when I’ve had questions or when other student trustees have had questions about our limitations,” Verthein said. “I remember there was something on campus policing, and she was very helpful in defining our boundaries, and what we’re able to do and perhaps not do as a student trustee. So that was very helpful.”

Incoming University of Iowa Undergraduate Student Government President Regan Smock said she is particularly excited about Wilson’s candidacy, citing Wilson’s communication skills and her desire to connect with students as two of many reasons.

Smock said she appreciated how Wilson provided concrete answers to questions during her forum with specific examples, such as the committee she created to handle sexual assault on the University of Illinois campus, which resulted in progressive policies that no other university had implemented, according to Wilson.

Wilson’s ability to admit she wasn’t 100 percent sure what to do in some situations was something Smock admired.

“Multiple times, especially in our student meeting, she would say, ‘I don’t know what I would do here, but this is what I’ve done’,” Smock said. “At first, I had some students talk to me about, ‘What do you mean, you don’t know what you would do here? That sounds like you don’t know what you’re doing’, but really I think that is by far the most honest answer you could ever give, because you’re walking into a place as a total outsider. You have no idea what it’s like to work here, so I appreciated that.”

As someone who thinks prioritizing students is important to consider during this selection process, Smock said there is no doubt in her mind that Wilson would be very good for students if she were to be the next president.

“She actually says the reason she wants to take this job is because working at a system level, she misses students, that’s the real reason that she does this work. When you’re so high up you don’t get to that opinion,” Smock said. “Multiple times she said ‘students are why we are here’…every single interaction I had with her was very personable: ‘I want to learn more about the UI, I want to learn what you’re excited about, what you’re worried about.’”

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

Verthein, the University of Illinois student, said Wilson is a perfect fit for higher education because of her commitment to the well-being and success of students.

He added that her rise through the ranks from professor to executive vice president helped her build lasting relationships with students on campus, particularly at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Timeline by Kelsey Harrell/The Daily Iowan

“She was a professor of communications, you know, and her husband is also on campus,” he said. “You walk around and people know Barb Wilson on the Urbana-Champaign campus…she will stop and she’ll have a conversation with students. From a student perspective, I think that’s very important in an administrator, at least being somebody that’s able to be approachable. That’s the word really. I would definitely describe Barb Wilson as approachable.”

Wilson earned her bachelor’s degree, master’s degree, and Ph.D. at the University of Wisconsin-Madison between 1979 and 1985, where she focused on journalism and communication arts. Her research expertise included the social and psychological effects of the media, particularly in children and young people.

Verthein added that Wilson is a deliberate and thoughtful decision maker, which has helped her during times of difficulty.

“She had an experience where she came into an interim chancellor position when it was a very tumultuous time for the university, and she came in and she steadied the ship,” he said. “I think that speaks volumes about her character and her leadership abilities that time as interim chancellor.”

The “tumultuous time” is in reference to when former University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign Chancellor Phyllis Wise resigned over controversies and legal allegations involving the university in 2015. According to Illinois Public Media, Wise and other University of Illinois officials used personal emails to hide discussions in an effort to skirt Freedom of Information Act law.

Wilson was appointed interim chancellor that same year, and held the position until 2016 when she became executive vice president.

When current University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign Chancellor Robert Jones entered the position of chancellor in 2016, he said Wilson took him under her wing and helped him learn the ropes of his position.

“She was very helpful with getting a sense of the culture of the place, providing a perspective in terms of where there will be some challenges and some opportunities,” he said. “…She was a tremendously helpful resource, to have somebody with that kind of insider knowledge.”

Jones said Wilson was a tremendous resource because of her background of understanding faculty, students, staff, and shared governance. Her perspective allowed Jones to move quickly into his position and she remains a resource, he said.

Assistant Professor of Political Studies and Chair of the University Senate Magic Wade said Wilson played an essential role in opening lines of communication between faculty and administrators.

Wade said Wilson reaches out to shared governance frequently to get a better understanding of how faculty members feel about decisions to see a variety of perspectives.

“It’s important for people at the top of the University of Illinois System to understand what’s going on at the ground level and Dr. Wilson knows that, so she always asks for faculty members’ opinions,” Wade said. “I feel like my perspective has been valued by Dr. Wilson in a unique way as a junior faculty member.”

During her public forum, Wilson highlighted the importance of teams and multiple perspectives when working in higher education. She said she has experience in bringing together people from diverse backgrounds who will work together well — something she can bring to the University of Iowa if selected.

“I’m known as a team builder, so I spend a lot of time bringing people together,” she said at the forum. “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.”

Wilson’s ability to have a keen eye to faculty members’ needs has not changed during the COVID-19 pandemic, Wade said. Wilson’s approach to the pandemic was collaborative and she encouraged faculty members to ask questions so she could share as much up-to-date information as possible, Wade said.

Jones said Wilson has worked hard to ensure faculty members stay at the three University of Illinois campuses and she has worked hard to create a space for diverse educators.

“Part of her DEI work has been having a focus on the faculty recruitment and faculty retention piece,” he said. “She has made sure that is a priority across all of the campuses.”

Wilson has worked hard to support faculty from all backgrounds from when she was the dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign to when she served as the executive vice provost of the school, Wade said.

However, Wilson’s reach extends past her academic position at the three University of Illinois locations. Wade said she is willing to meet with faculty members and chat with them about their tenure and also non-academic related topics.

“Dr. Wilson is always willing to meet with me for coffee to talk about my career as a friend or a mentor,” Wade said. “I know she is really busy, so I’ve always appreciated that she not only makes herself available for shared governance but to any faculty member for career advice and support.”

If Wilson is selected to serve as the UI’s 22nd president on April 30, Wade said she will be sad to lose Wilson and the role she plays at the University of Illinois System, but is excited to see what she can do for another university.

“She has shown that she is really attentive to the perspective of students and attentive to the types of support and resources faculty members need,” Wade said. “We would be sad to lose her because she is highly competent and has really demonstrated her ability to lead through her work at Illinois.”

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