Barbara Wilson named next University of Iowa president

Wilson, University of Illinois System’s executive vice president and vice president for academic affairs, will be the third woman to serve as the top Hawkeye. The state Board of Regents voted to select her Friday.


Ayrton Breckenridge

The new University of Iowa President Barbara Wilson addresses reporters in the Levitt Center for University Advancement on April 30, 2021. Wilson becomes the 22nd president for the University of Iowa and was previously the Executive Vice President and Vice President for Academic Affairs for the University of Illinois. (Ayrton Breckenridge/The Daily Iowan)

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Barbara Wilson, current University of Illinois System’s executive vice president and vice president for academic affairs, will be the next president of the University of Iowa.

The state Board of Regents announced on Friday afternoon that it selected Wilson for an initial term beginning on July 15 and ending on June 30, 2026.

Wilson will replace outgoing President Bruce Harreld, who has held the position since 2015. Her annual salary will be $600,000.

During a Friday afternoon press conference, Wilson said she plans to spend her first year as president building relationships.

“I’m eager to meet with faculty, staff and the range of students here – both undergraduate and graduate and professional and all the people affiliated with the people of Iowa City,” she said. “I want to meet with people who love this place as much as I’m going to learn to love it as well. And meetings with donors and alums around the state, legislators. That’ll take me a couple months – I hope I lay my head down every day and I’m exhausted from meeting people.

During Wilson’s forum on April 15, Wilson called the UI presidency “a dream job” for her. Since 2016, she has served as the executive vice president and vice president for academic affairs at the University of Illinois system.

Wilson has a lengthy résumé in academia and higher education, and touted it during her public forum as a reason she is the optimal candidate for the UI presidency. In her current position, Wilson oversees a three-university, roughly 90,000-student, and 6,000-faculty system where she is second in command.

Wilson is the third woman to be the top Hawkeye, following in the footsteps of Sally Kay Mason — who served from 2007 until 2015 — and Mary Sue Coleman — who served from 1999 until 2002.

During her press conference, Wilson said she will approach diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts by educating about lived experiences and “opening people’s hearts.”

“We’ve been really careful about that, at my previous institution, thinking about concrete kinds of activities we can engage in, and the more people we get involved in those activities, the better off we’re going to be,” she said. “I’m eager to learn about what the issues are here and what kind of commitments have been made – I think there’s things we can do immediately and things that will take longer.”

Iowa Board of Regents President Mike Richards announces Barbara Wilson as the new University of Iowa president-elect at a press conference in the Levitt Center for University Advancement on April 30, 2021. Wilson will take over after the previous University of Iowa President Bruce Harreld, held office for just over five years. (Ayrton Breckenridge)

Wilson said she was nominated for the position by several of her colleagues.

“I didn’t apply right away because I needed to learn a little bit about the position and make sure it was a great fit for me, but as soon as I figured that out I put my application in and the process started,” she said.

During her forum, she emphasized that if she were selected as president, she would focus on forming teams composed of students and work to elevate faculty of color and women to more leadership positions.

“I love meeting with students,” Wilson said at the forum. “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.”

It was answers like these that made incoming Undergraduate Student Government President Regan Smock trust Wilson. Smock previously told The Daily Iowan that Wilson was the most impressive of the candidates who had come to campus.

In an interview on Friday, Smock said she was hoping the regents would choose Wilson because of her experience working with students.

“I was a little anxious, but secretly really hoping that she would be the pick,” Smock said. “Because I think that she will build a great relationship with student government, and have some experience to do some really big things and change in ways that I think the universe really needs to so I’m super excited.”

Smock said she hopes Wilson works to build trust with students on campus, which she said has been eroded under Harreld’s leadership.

The new University of Iowa President Barbara Wilson addresses reporters in the Levitt Center for University Advancement on April 30, 2021. Wilson was tapped the 22nd president of the University of Iowa and was previously the executive vice president and vice president for academic affairs for the University of Illinois. (Ayrton Breckenridge/The Daily Iowan) (Ayrton Breckenridge)

“Questions that came up multiple times for every candidate in our student listening sessions were, ‘how are you building that trust,’ because that relationship right now is damaged,” she said. “There’s a lot of people who are going to really struggle with trusting that this person has the best intentions, because I don’t think that they’ve felt that way in recent times.”

Colleagues and students of Wilson at the University of Illinois System said that Wilson is a strong leader who embraces connection building in higher education.

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.

As the 22nd president of the UI, Wilson will oversee 31,730 students, 25,287-employees, a sprawling health care system and a reputation as a writing university as she prepares to take up office in Jessup Hall some time this summer or fall.

John Keller, the outgoing dean of the graduate college, will serve as interim president of the UI after May 16, when Harreld will leave the position.

The search to find Harreld ended in controversy, after the regents picked a business executive with no academic administrative experience to take the UI from “great to greater”. He was rated as the least qualified for the position among faculty, but worked to establish better relationships with shared governance groups throughout his tenure.

Following the unanimous vote by the nine regents, Wilson thanked the regents and said she knows she will have a great working relationship with them. She also thanked the search committee for their hard work.

“I am excited, I’m ready to roll up my sleeves,” she said. “…I’m really delighted, this is such a great honor and it will be fun. We’re going to make the University of Iowa as good as it can be, and even better.”

Loren Glass, president of the UI chapter of the American Association of University Professors, said that he thinks Wilson was the most qualified candidate.

“In terms of readiness for the position – she said she’d hit the ground running and I think she is someone who’s ready to do that,” Glass said. “She’s worked in a system that is comparable in size and composition. I’m really excited.”

Glass said he was impressed with the quality of the search process.

“I think that the search was handled professionally, transparently, ethically. It’s great to see that after the fiasco of the prior one,” he said.