Q&A with President Barbara Wilson

During her first few months as president, Barbara Wilson said she’s been building relationships with campus stakeholders and outlining her long-term goals.


Grace Smith

University of Iowa President Barbara Wilson answers questions during an interview with The Daily Iowan on Wednesday, Oct. 16, 2021. At the interview, Wilson addressed the challenges and highlights she has encountered during her three months of presidency, campus safety, her relationship with the Board of Regents, how the university handled the sexual assault allegations against Phi Gamma Delta, her goals with USG, and more.

DI staff

The Daily Iowan sat down with University of Iowa President Barbara Wilson on Wednesday for her first interview since assuming office in Jessup Hall.

During her first three months on campus, Wilson said she has been building relationships with students, laying out her priorities, and forging a long-term strategic plan.

She also discussed campus protests and her approach to sexual assault prevention, her relationship with state legislators, her goals for campus security and mental health, and more.

Read the DI’s interview with President Wilson below. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

The Daily Iowan: President Wilson, thank you again so much for making the time for us. We had a few questions for you about your first few months on campus here and some of the things that are coming up. You’ve been here since July, what has been the most exciting part of your first few months on the job?

University of Iowa President Barbara Wilson: Yeah, that’s a great question. So, this week is my three-month anniversary just to give you a timeframe. And the most exciting thing I’ve done, I mean, I have to tell you that every time I meet with a group of students, I get excited. So, one of the things I’m doing is meeting with every college, and I’m probably four or five colleges in now, and I’ve asked to meet with a group of students at each of the colleges. So, we’ve done Nursing and Dentistry and Law, and this morning we did Tippie and Engineering, so we’ve done five so far. And at the end they pull a group of students together, and it’s always a highlight, because I just get to talk to student leaders who care about the college, and the first question I ask everyone is, ‘Why are you at the University of Iowa?’ And I get great answers and it’s just really inspiring. So that’s probably a highlight for me.

DI: And so, just to turn that around, what have been the biggest challenges so far?

Wilson: COVID No doubt, one of the biggest challenges I would say.

DI: Another thing that was one of the bigger issues right away this semester was the petition about the sexual assault that was alleged at FIJI and the protests that came out of that. So, I’m curious, what was it like handling that, and a lot of students, when we were reporting at the protests were sometimes unsatisfied with how the university responded to that situation. What was happening behind the scenes and how do you think the university handled that situation?

Wilson: Well, it’s always hard to ask the president how the university can handle the situation, but what I would say is, every situation like that is very complex, and at the core of everything we do, we’re trying to protect people who’ve been involved in those instances and to ensure due process. So, what is challenging, from my perspective is when people make decisions based on what they’re hearing and learning in social media, and even in regular media when very few people have the facts. So, in that case I think it’s a good example. There were lots of allegations and assumptions flying around, many of which were just not accurate, but in order to protect individuals, we can’t come up and talk explicitly about cases, but I can tell you that when we have a complaint, we investigate. So the challenge is that sometimes people just don’t feel comfortable going through the processes required.

DI: The UI’s Anti-Violence Coalition recently put out the results of its Speak Out Survey on Sexual Assault. Is there anything that you think needs to change in how the university handles sexual assault reporting, about that process, and what do you hope to improve during your tenure as president?

Wilson: Well, my focus is always going to be on prevention and education, because I don’t think we’re going to get very far if we’re just focused on investigation and punishment. We’re an educational institution and we’re dealing with a cultural problem. And the more we can help students and faculty and staff appreciate issues around sexual misconduct, and the more we can prevent people from getting in situations that unfold in really bad circumstances, the better off we’re going to be.

So, I’m going to always have attention on prevention and education, and I think that’s what we need to do as a university. We’ll still have cases, unfortunately. But the more we can help students from the minute they get here, understand, it’d be nice if they knew some of this before they got here, which is one of our challenges, we’re looking at how can we help K through 12, really think through issues about healthy relationships and so that it’s not the first time people have heard it when they come to a campus like this. But even so, we will be continuing to look at what are we doing to help students as they acclimate to this big university. They’re on their own, some of them for the first time, and there’s just a lot of issues around education and prevention that we need to work on, and we’ll continue to work on.

DI: I remember reading through your CV, it was very fascinating, you made a lot of movements at the University of Illinois system, bringing women to the forefront of faculty and also addressing sexual misconduct on University of Illinois system. How have you taken what you’ve learned from that and then brought it to this campus?

Wilson: We focused on prevention and education a lot there as well. And so, I’m working with student life, making sure that we’re doing what we need to do, but part of it is, we can’t just do a one-shot thing at the beginning of the first year and then not follow up. Everything about education is developmental. If you look at the literature, you can’t just do a one-shot, educational training and expect everybody to understand what it is. The literature tells us we need more than one education or intervention. We need to get students involved in this, because peer education is more powerful than having experts and adults. And we need to follow up over time with lots of ways for students to roleplay different situations and learn how to have conversations around challenging issues and make decisions that help, and of course bystander intervention is part of that as well.

So, I’m going to be looking really carefully with our team to make sure we’re doing what the research says you need to do in order to fully educate people. We also instituted some policies there, I don’t know whether they’re necessary here. I’m still learning but we took some pretty dramatic steps there about intimate relationships between faculty and students that we felt we needed to make at that point in time.

DI: Do you think that you’re leaning one way or another, I mean, what have you seen in that sphere of relationships between instructors and students?

Wilson: Most of what I’m hearing right now is student-to-student issues — doesn’t mean that we don’t have issues in another sphere, but right now that’s where most of my focus has been. On the investigative side, the only thing I would add to that is, we have to make sure we’re fully staffed in that office, and we’ve done some work on that so that we can make sure that we’re responsive and that we get investigations done in a timely fashion, and we’ve been looking at that with our Title IX officer. I think we made some good improvements in that area too.

DI: So changing topics a little bit, the Board of Regents had a lot of good things to say about you when they chose you as president. What has your relationship been like with the Board of Regents so far?

Wilson: It’s been great. I’m so impressed with the level of dedication that the current board has for the regent universities and of course, especially University of Iowa, which is one I care about the most. They’re smart, they’re caring, and they want the best for this institution. And they’re all volunteers, which I think people lose sight of. It’s a lot of time commitment and energy on their part. And many of them have other jobs, so I’m very grateful for the support and for the amount of time they’ve spent here. Two of the regents showed up, for example, for the First Amendment panel that we had over in the Old Capitol.

I’m meeting almost once a month with the student regent, who happens to be a student here. She wants to learn, I want to learn from her. Mike Richards, the president of the board, is in regular communication with me. So, I’m just thrilled that we have a good relationship with the board and that they’re really supportive, not just of me as the president but of this university.

DI: And then when you met with the Undergraduate Student Government a couple weeks ago. You mentioned you had goals on regarding mental health and well-being, increasing DEI student success, and then collaborating with shared governance, would you be able to break down those goals a little bit more and talk a little bit more about what you hope to achieve in your presidency?

Wilson: It’s still a little early for me to be establishing metrics or concrete outcomes, because we’re in the process of doing a strategic plan right now, and many of those things will get featured in the strategic plans. So, I’m coming in midstream to a plan, and thankfully the university kind of waited until I got here before it became final or formalized, but you’ll see more metrics in that than what I can offer you today.

On the mental health front, yes, that’s a priority for me. It’s a priority personally as well as as president. I think there isn’t anybody that I’ve talked to in the last three months who says the last year and a half, it’s been easy. I think even people who are normally really optimistic and healthy and not prone to anxiety are feeling anxious. And so, in a way the pandemic affords us an opportunity, I think, to really focus on mental health and wellness in a way that maybe we couldn’t before the pandemic.

And so, I’m grateful that there’s already a lot of work being done here. A good example, when I came in, this was already in the works. This new 24/7 text phone line that we’ve collaborated with CommUnity, and we now have that staffed 365 days a [year], 24 hours a day, seven days a week with someone who knows what issues college students have, so a professional who’s focused primarily on the needs of students attending a big university like this. That is amazing. And, you know, and you can call at 2 in the morning, you can text at 3 in the morning and there will be a response. So that’s an example of the kind of progressive work that we’re doing.

But I’m also heartened that many of our colleges now have an embedded mental health counselor. And I don’t know all of them, but I know Tippie does, and I know the dental school does good Dental College so we’re going to work increasingly on making sure we have enough counselors, and that we have proactive programs because can’t hire enough mental health counselors to give every student who needs it one-on-one therapy time. But what we can do is hire enough staff so that we have programs around mental health, that we’re teaching coping and resilience, that we’re offering meditation classes and all kinds of things that will help students. Because I would love to be able to say to anybody that this university is a place that cares for the whole student, not just the academic success, but the health and well-being, which is related to the academic success. And I think we’re close to that, but of course we still have some work to do, so that’s mental health.

Students success was another thing that I mentioned at the Student Government session. We’ve made a lot of progress, our graduation rates, and our retention rates have gone up in the last couple of years. That was before my time here, but I think we’re all collectively really eager to get those numbers, even higher and to focus on where there are gaps. So, there are gaps with Pell-eligible students and gaps with certain other kinds of categories of students, and we need to not only get our overall rates up but close the gaps, and we’ve got lots of programs in place to do that. I can list them all, but I think what you’ll see is that the more money and time and attention we put into those support services, the more we’re gonna have lots of different ways to ensure success for students, and we’re behind our peers, we need to be better in those areas.

DI: You mentioned that you’re putting together a strategic plan. And obviously, all the things that you listed just now are probably part of that plan, but what’s the process like and what’s guiding that process.

Wilson: Well, there are a lot of people involved, I just met with 60 people in the Zoom call, and they’re all involved in the strategic planning process. There’s been a lot of work before I got here, just bringing groups together and identifying, what are the issues that we care about, where can we move the needle, how can we ensure that this is the kind of institution that attracts talent and supports talent. Strategic plans are supposed to be living documents that inspire people and help to focus people’s energies, they’re not supposed to be a 100-page document that sits on the desk and collects dust, and go, ‘There, did that, now we don’t have to do it for another five years.’

So, my goal, and our goal, is collectively to create a document that really lays out very broad priorities that any college can hook into, and any group can hook into. I think we’ve got to find things that inspire everybody, but also allow colleges to find their own ways to connect to those, so the campus one is going to be pretty broad and big picture, but it will probably have some inspirational goals. Like right now our first-year retention rate is 87 percent. We need to be 90 percent. Now you might go, ‘Oh, 3 percent, that’s no big deal.’ Just think about that, that’s a lot of students that we have to carry from freshman year to sophomore year that are not making that transition. It might sound like 3 percent is no big deal but it’s a lot of students and we’ve got to get there. So, we’ll have those kinds of metrics, but we’ll also have some kind of broad stroke goals as well.

DI: President Harreld met with legislators to advocate for more state funding and to discourage them from cutting funding from what the regents already received. So how do you plan to approach advocating for more in state appropriations, and how do your approaches differ from Harreld’s.

Wilson: Well, I don’t know what his was, that’s not a fair question, let’s not compare myself to previous presidents. But I will tell you what I’m planning on doing — so I’m already meeting with legislators. Yesterday I was in Mount Pleasant meeting with two of our legislators. I’ve been up to the Quad Cities, I’ve been over to the eastern side of Iowa. I haven’t gotten to Western or Northern Iowa yet but I’m three months in, so we’ll get there, but my goal is really to get out and renew our partnership and our conversation with legislators across the state. Help them to understand the impact that the university’s having in different counties and the different districts. When we go in, we give them a one-pager that shows all the students that were enrolling from their district, all the alums that live in their district, how many doctors we’ve trained, how many dentists we’ve trained, how many teachers, et cetera, just to remind them of the powerful impact that the University of Iowa has across the state. And then I listen, ‘how can the university help you, what are we doing that is frustrating to you?’ And we can’t solve all of those issues tomorrow, but I think just being at the table, listening, learning, and going out and building some renewed partnerships is going to be key to our future.

DI: I know last year there were quite a few bills that were proposed, a couple passed, that affected higher education. Are you concerned at all about efforts, or would you perceive these as efforts to put a cap on academic freedom?

Wilson: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, if we lose academic freedom here, we lose this university. We have to celebrate, reinforce, and nourish academic freedom here. The minute we lose that, if we were to, we would see faculty leave. And I think many of our legislators realize that. Maybe not all of them, but many of them do. We had a similar situation in Illinois where we were faced with ideas and bills during the session every year that were would be very, very problematic for the university, and it’s our job to educate. And we say we’re batting down bad bills. But, you know, every state has this built in, unfortunately, some ideas just make their way into legislative ideas and that’s not where they should be. So, we’ll continue to do that. I don’t think that Iowa’s any different than the other states. Some states are really over regulated, they over-regulate their universities, others are less regulated, but there’s often efforts by certain legislators who get upset to think, ‘Well if I just pass a bill if we’ve worked on a bill we can, we can get a change there.’ And it’s up to us to educate our policymakers, you know, about the negative impact. Because sometimes it sounds like a good idea, but they often don’t realize what the consequences of those ideas will be. So, we’ll probably see some of those again in the session. I’m hoping not, but we might. But academic freedom — we can’t lose that. But we also have to have professional standards here. And, you know, we have to help our faculty to work together to make sure that we’re adhering to the right professional standards for each of our disciplines and there’s rights and responsibilities with tenure, and with being a tenured faculty member.

DI: What kind of concerns have you been hearing from faculty about COVID-19 policies in place right now?

Wilson: Well, the faculty is not one thing, we have lots of faculty. And just like any issue related to COVID, there’s lots of opinions and thoughts out there. So, I would be hesitant to characterize the faculty’s perspective on anything. They’re as diverse as our student body, but we do know that there are faculty who have been concerned about COVID, and we’ve provided KN95 masks to any faculty and staff that want them. We’ve put up Plexiglas. We have in some cases moved to bigger classrooms. We’ve tried to do as much as we can to ensure the faculty feel safe. I think the one remaining issue is, what are students doing in the classroom, and that’s been a challenge. We’ve tried to encourage open conversation, but also respecting all the different opinions that exist out there with regard to COVID. And I can tell you I go into some classes, and everybody’s got a mask on. I go into others and it’s a little bit less than that. Some faculty are more flexible or don’t feel as nervous. People’s personal risk varies a lot, whether they have young children, whether they’re living with a parent, so I think it’s very hard to generalize at this point, but what we’re trying to do is show as much care and concern as we can, and provide an on-campus experience for our students.

DI: President Harreld established a 50-year public/private partnership to run the UI’s utilities. So, with this being still in the early years of the P3 being in place, what sort of challenges has that presented, managing this partnership?

Wilson: Oh, you know I think the P3 is terrific, and it does provide some annual funding for us to spur innovation, so we’ve been really using the funds to test out pilot projects related to student success. Several of the things we’ve kind of intimated about are programs that we started, saying, ‘OK, we have a little money, we’ll test that out, see if it works, and if it does then we’ll commit recurring funds to it.’

So, we have been doing that with a lot of the P3 funding, and it’s provided opportunities for faculty to get together and write seed grants, we’ve done a lot of different things with the P3 money. It is not recurring, so one of the things we have to help everybody appreciate is that every year we’re spending money that’s coming out of the essentially earned endowment, and every year it could be different. It could be a smaller amount, it could be a bigger amount, and so for us to put anything permanent onto those dollars is a risk. We can’t offer you a scholarship off the P3 money and then next year have half of what we had and then we’ll have to come to you and say, ‘Sorry, we gave you one year but you know it’s P3 funding so year two and three and four, you’re on your own.’

So, I think we have to help educate everybody to realize this isn’t recurring money, and it’s not anything we can put recurring dollars into like salaries or scholarships. Now the good news is it can allow us to try out new things to spur innovation, to pilot certain things, and then if they work, we have to find the permanent funds to support that, but it’s been terrific. It’s a game changer. Very few universities have this kind of money that gives them that flexibility and that ability to help people think outside the box.

DI: The reimagining Campus Safety Committee gave its final report at the beginning of the semester, and kind of like we talked about already, the UI’s already implemented some of those recommendations like the 24-hour hotline that you mentioned. Another recommendation was to create a Campus Safety Accountability Board. Has that happened, or how are you planning to do that?

Wilson: I think we’re in the process. I don’t think it’s been announced yet, but yes, that will happen and actually, I’m really excited about that. I was really glad to see that that was coming out of that planning process. I think we’ve renamed it since I’ve gotten here, I wanted the word safety in it, not just accountability. It’s going to help us all to think differently about how we engage in public safety activities here, and it’ll give us a sense of, annually, what are we seeing, what are the trends, and how can we do better. So, we’re in the process of that, but I don’t think it’s been announced yet.

The other thing that we’re really looking carefully at is partnering public safety with people who have expertise in social work and mental health, and then trying to figure out if a team is going to go out on a call, who should be the lead on that team? In some cases, it’s a mental health issue, and we don’t need, necessarily, the police to lead, because it’s not a public safety issue as much as it is a personal safety issue or something like that, or just someone who needs some real mental health counseling and crisis intervention. And so, we’re going to benefit from a more multi-pronged response to crises. Doesn’t mean that we’re going to defund the police or get rid of the police. And you won’t want us to. Frankly, there will be times you’ll be really glad we have amazing public safety officers here, but they don’t have to be on the front lines for everything. There are lots of issues that we can be, I think a little bit more sensitive to how we respond to those issues.

DI: To wrap up, what has been a fun story or funny experience from your three months here?

Wilson: Well, fun is the football games. You know, I don’t know if you should print this because I don’t want my Illinois colleagues to read this, but football at Illinois was, you know, not good. And so, to be at a place where, when you’re 17-3 in the first half, I mean, I was ready to give up because that’s what I’m used to. And I’m thinking, there’s no way, and then of course we did. So it’s been really fun to be part of a football experience that is so joyful and that brings so many people here to celebrate what we do.

And I think it’s students, it’s faculty and staff, and its alumni, everybody celebrating this university through athletics. That’s why I call it the corridor to the university because it’s a great opportunity for people to see this massive place, to be near the hospital, to wave up after the first quarter, you know it’s a gateway to what we’re about. So that’s been really fun.