Q&A | President Barbara Wilson talks COVID-19, sexual misconduct, legislative priorities

In a Dec. 9 interview with The Daily Iowan in the University of Iowa Office of the President, President Barbara Wilson emphasized mental health resources, UI fraternity sexual assault allegations, and her legislative priorities for the upcoming session in January.


Larry Phan

University of Iowa President Barbara Wilson answers questions from Daily Iowan editors in Jessup Hall on Thursday, Dec. 9, 2021. Wilson answered questions regarding updates on COVID-19 and future safety precautions as well as future legislative actions. (Larry Phan/The Daily Iowan)

DI Staff

University of Iowa President Barbara Wilson said COVID-19 is still a challenge for her as she reaches the end of her first semester at the helm of the university.

In an interview with The Daily Iowan, Wilson said she has spent much of the semester meeting with students, faculty, staff, and legislators. Wilson has enjoyed meeting with students and hearing about their experiences on campus, she said.

Wilson also discussed her priorities for the upcoming legislative session, federal vaccine mandates, and the university’s response to sexual assault and mental health issues. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

The Daily Iowan: We’re getting close to the end of your first full semester on campus here. How would you evaluate that first semester? And what do you think some of your biggest accomplishments are?

Wilson: It’s been busy. For the most part, I would say it’s been tremendously exciting. I’ve felt a lot of welcome and enthusiasm for who I am and what I represent and what I can bring to the university. Then, spending most of my time listening and meeting with people. We’ve almost hit every college for several hours, each visit is a couple of hours. Yesterday was CLAS, this week is the libraries. I think we’re close to being done with the list of colleges, the provost and I are doing that. And I’m just out and about and beginning to meet with legislators. So it’s been very busy.

DI: The last time I spoke with you, you mentioned that, obviously, COVID-19 has been one of your biggest challenges that you face so far. Is that still the case? And what has it been like navigating COVID-19 on campus?

Wilson: I think it still would be, it would qualify as the challenge for all of us, I think you’d probably agree with me about that. It just continues to kind of wear on and on, and I think people are exhausted by it. We’re doing as best as we can, and I’m so heartened by the number of people that are getting vaccinated and doing what needs to be done to get this virus under control, but it’s still very challenging. And I think people are just exhausted.

DI: And then, as COVID-19 masks and vaccine mandates are introduced in the country, we know that many of these decisions impacting the university are made by the Board of Regents. Does the UI have any say in the mandates, and are you specifically asked for your input?

Wilson: Oh, yeah, we work with the board all the time. And the three presidents are continuously in discussion with the board president, with all the regents. It’s not just up to the board, it’s state law that impacts us, and federal law. So I hope people understand the complexity of the situation that we face right now. We’ve got lots of potential mandates that are all being challenged in the courts, and we get ready to move on one thing, and then it gets pulled back by another. So it’s a really challenging time for every university, I would say.

DI: Up until recently, the university vaccine webpage said that employers working on federal contracts are required to submit vaccination status or waiver by Jan. 4.That’s been blocked by a judge, but that could be appealed and other suits like the one on medical workers are still being decided. So what should university staff know or understand about the requirement to be vaccinated?

Wilson: That it’s complicated. We are continuing to encourage voluntary uploading of vaccine information. We’re working on that on a regular basis. We are poised to follow the mandates. And we’re working hard to understand the legal implications of all of these challenges that are occurring.

For faculty, staff and students, for me, the big message is get vaccinated, get boosted, wear masks when you’re in indoor spaces and close in contact with others. We’re beating back this virus but everybody’s got to work together.

DI: I know that there were some vaccine incentives for students at the beginning of the year, so now that we’re in the territory of getting booster shots, are there plans for vaccine incentives?

Wilson: We’re talking about that right now. We’re still in preliminary conversations about how to encourage students to do more. And we’ll let you know, once we figure all of that out.

DI: The legislative session is going to begin in January. We had a forum with some state legislators last week and they said that they were hopeful that they could get the funding that was cut in 2020 to the regent universities restored, and possibly see a further increase in appropriations, so what do you expect to come out of that state Legislature when it comes to appropriations from the Board of Regents?

Wilson: Well, this is my first round in Iowa, and with this legislative session, so it would be probably challenging for me to predict, but I’m hopeful. We’ve been having great meetings with legislative leaders across the state. I’ve been out and about, we’re going out again next week. We’ve had a study session over in Des Moines with several of our legislators, I’m hearing positive things, and I’m really hopeful.

DI: Beyond funding for the universities, do you have any other legislative priorities that you’re trying to push for this session?

Wilson: I think that’s the main thing — support higher ed in the state, help us attract talent, keep people in the state, encourage more people to come here, both at the undergrad and the graduate and professional level. We are a magnet for talent, and what we are trying to help our legislators appreciate is the impact that this place has on the state, not just on Iowa City, or Coralville, or in North Liberty.

Whenever I meet with a legislator, I remind them eight out of the 10 dentists in the state are trained by us, five out of the 10 doctors are trained by us. We’re doing newborn screening for every baby born in the state for free to ensure that we know about genetic challenges and illnesses. We’re helping the K-12 school system train teachers for mental health and wellness. I mean, there’s so many things that we can point to that are affecting every county around the state, and so help us make sure this university continues to thrive.

DI: Are there any specific legislators that you’re trying to build more relationships with?

Wilson: All of them. No specifics, just all of them. I’m a big believer in relationship building. When I meet with them, I say, “What are your concerns? What things are challenging you? What don’t you know about?” And then I hand them a piece of paper that shows them how many students from their district are attending here, how many doctors in their district are trained by us. Just to remind them that we’re in this together, and we all want the best for the state so we can work together and make sure that happens.

DI: You mentioned in the UI undergraduate government meeting that you spoke at earlier this semester, that you’re taking a hard look at the multicultural houses and are planning to move them closer to campus. Where is that process at?

Wilson: There are two things that need to happen. One is to really think deeply about design, and what would that facility or facilities look like, and we’re in the process of thinking really carefully about that, and where it should go. Is it one building, is it multiple buildings? We want to make sure that each of those houses has a part of this, whatever it is, that feels close to their identities and the concerns that they have, and that feels like home like the homes do. But nicer than those homes. But also, how do we think about shared space, because it doesn’t make sense for every one of them to have a big meeting room if we can share. So you know, that kind of thing.

The second thing is fundraising, frankly. We don’t have a pot of money to put toward capital projects of this sort, and the board has encouraged us to think very carefully about our physical footprint. So we’re just beginning conversations with donors around that kind of space. And we’re hopeful that we can find some people who want to contribute to a new set of facilities, a new facility that will really reframe how we think about those houses.

DI: Before break, The Campaign to Organize Graduate Students released COVID-19 Safety requests and spoke to the university about them. I believe the university turned them down. But overall, a summary of them is that they wanted the UI to allow instructors to move their classes online as often as they felt necessary, to notify instructors when students in their class test positive for COVID-19 and allow instructors to inform students of possible COVID-19 exposures in the classroom. So overall, what do you think about this, and were their demands reasonable?

Wilson: We continue to work with our graduate students and with COGS. I don’t like the word “demand.” I think we’re in dialogue with the grad students and with COGS. And helping them appreciate that we have certain constraints. There are privacy issues related to some of those requests that we can’t manage, frankly. Our commitment is to be on the ground and to provide the kind of opportunities that I hope all of you are experiencing this semester.

Every time I meet with a student group, graduate, professional or undergraduate, they tell me they’re so grateful to be back on the ground. That last year was just really challenging. I haven’t had any person say, it was great, let’s go back to a virtual experience. It’s just consistent, one student after another saying, ‘Thank you, thank you, thank you. We know it’s challenging, we’re willing to do our part. This is so much better. I’m healthier mentally. I’m doing better in school. My labs are easier.’ I just met with CLAS students yesterday talking about how difficult it is to do performances online.

So I would hope that our COGS leaders understand that students want to be back here. And so what we’re doing is trying desperately to make sure that we are as safe as possible, that we’re following all kinds of healthy protocols. There are masks everywhere, there is encouragement to get free vaccines, there are incentives. We’re doing everything we can. We have no evidence that we have outbreaks here in the classroom. We just have to keep having those conversations and doing what we can. If there are specific requests in specific areas that we can accommodate, we’ll do it.

DI: So one of the things, you mentioned was privacy concerns, and one of their requests was to notify instructors when a student in their classroom tests positive. COGS was told that was a privacy issue, but that was a policy last semester, if I’m not mistaken. So what changed there?

Wilson: I don’t think we’ve ever identified particular students. You know, that’s the issue. And so if there’s an outbreak, we want to be aware of it and know about it and figure out what we have to do about it. But we would never point to particular students.

DI: And as you said, there’s not too much evidence of outbreaks in classrooms, there’s only been two classes that have had more than two cases in the classroom, and the total cases among students and staff is lower than it was this time last year. Some of that can be, are attributed to just the state caseload being lower, but what do you credit that to?

Wilson: Vaccines. So let’s get vaccinated. And you know, the thing is, I think increasingly what we’re realizing when we talk to our health experts is that COVID may be around for a while. And it may turn into something like the flu, where we just have to keep monitoring it year after year, we have to keep getting vaccinated, we have to do our part to be healthy. But you know, we’re in a different phase now with our understanding of COVID, with our abilities to manage COVID. We didn’t have a vaccine in the beginning of this pandemic, and we do now, and we have boosters, and we have evidence that it works. So I think at this point, we have to become a society that figures out how to cope with COVID, rather than a society that shuts down because of COVID. We all know that just doesn’t work for prolonged periods. You all know that. Again, I’m going to return to the students that I’ve met, nobody says, “This was great last year, let’s go back to virtual learning. It’s just, it’s tough.”

DI: The Cedar Rapids Gazette reported that the associate director of UI Fraternity and Sorority Life programs, ShirDonna Lawrence helped find housing this fall for the Phi Gamma Delta fraternity and their members after their house was damaged during protests over sexual misconduct allegations. So why did the university take on that responsibility? And were there any additional costs in that decision?

Wilson: Well, we’re always helping our students, no matter who they are, if they get disrupted in terms of housing, in terms of food. We’ve got food pantries, we’ve got clothing pantries. If any of our students are for some reason disrupted, we’re going to look to help them as much as we can. Doesn’t matter whether you belong to a fraternity or sorority or whether you don’t. In that effort, we had students who, in an emergency sense, didn’t have housing, and we swoop in to help them. We would do that, under most circumstances, if students let us know, or if we find out about that.

DI: Do you have an example of a previous time that the university has had to take on a responsibility like that to maybe rehouse students or was that an unprecedented decision?

Wilson: I don’t know because I haven’t been here that long. We can get back to you on that. I do know that we have students that are homeless and we do try to help those students, but I don’t have specific examples.

Editor’s Note: After the interview, UI Assistant Vice President for External Relations Jeneane Beck provided a list of instances to The Daily Iowan. In fall of 2015, some students in Slater Hall lost housing after a fire in the residence hall. They were relocated and damaged items were replaced, Beck wrote. In fall 2020, the UI’s Chi Omega house was shut down, which displaced around 30 sorority members. University Housing and Dining helped with accommodations for some and others were helped in finding apartments and signing leases.

“In the case of [FIJI] or Phi Gamma Delta, students were displaced suddenly and the chapter house was deemed unlivable for the 2021-2022 academic year,” Beck wrote. “While Fraternity and Sorority Life staff assisted the students in finding hotel rooms, Phi Gamma Delta paid for the lodging.”

DI: The last time we spoke, you talked about some of the sexual assault prevention strategies that you were looking at. You talked about how you wanted to focus on prevention rather than addressing after, so that you can prevent this from happening. So what has some of that work been like since we last spoke?

Wilson: Well, it hasn’t been that long since we talked last time so I would be remiss if I said, ‘Oh, we’ve got that taken care of, and everybody’s educated, and we’re preventing everything.’ I think it’s really a multi-pronged approach that’s going to take us some time.

In the fall of next year, I think we’re going to come out with some new ways that we’re working with the Greek system, fraternities and sororities, around sexual prevention and training. We want to ensure that all members are committed to these kinds of activities, and they’re eager to work with us. We have now a website that shows compliance for every fraternity and sorority, it’s a public website, anybody can go on there and look at what each of these chapters is doing, and how well they’re doing in their academic realm, as well as on the education and training around sexual violence and misconduct.

We are looking toward better protocol for the directors of those houses and what we can make sure is happening within the houses. That’s a work in progress. But it’s another path forward, I think, to ensuring safety, and standards in the houses that we have here at the University of Iowa. So those are a set of examples of things we’re working on.

I’m really pleased that the leaders of fraternities and sororities are working with us. They aren’t resisting any of this, I think they appreciate the challenges that they face right now. I haven’t had any of them say we don’t really want to do this. So the challenge is how do we design those education and training modules so that they’re not just a one-time click thing that you do at the beginning of the semester. We know that the research clearly shows that you have to do overtime education, it can’t be a one-shot thing, that peer education is much more effective than virtual or adults trying to teach young people about these issues. And what we’ve had students say is, ‘we need some role-playing, we need to understand issues around consent, we get it, but we need to actually grapple with how do you engage in conversations around consent? How do you engage in conversations around bystander interventions?’ I think the challenge for us is to go way beyond a module.

DI: Just recently, the university hired a couple of care coordinators under the Department of Public Safety as part of the Reimagining Public Safety Committee. What’s that been like? And what spurred that?

Wilson: Yeah, I think the goal really is to be more proactive when we see signs of crisis, because many of those don’t require police as much as they do care coordinators. A lot of the issues that we face here on this campus have to do with mental health and wellness, challenges with students related to perhaps drinking and drugs, and things like that. What we really need are care coordinators who can come in, who can ensure that students get the help they need. If they need to go to the hospital, those care coordinators are there for them. I just talked to an ER doctor last night who said it’s been fantastic. The care coordinators escort the students, they go to the facilities, they’re there for them when they get released. It’s a more holistic approach to crisis management.

DI: You’ve been going around building relationships with the UI colleges. Do you feel like you have a strong relationship with them so far?

Wilson: You probably have to ask them. Our meetings have been well received. We’ve had great interactions with the leadership teams. Yesterday, we were with CLAS for three hours, and we met with the associate deans and the dean, then we met with a lot of faculty who are running centers. And then we met for an hour with students.

It was galvanizing. I mean, afterward, they thanked us for coming over, for spending time learning about what they’re doing, for hearing about concerns they might have. So I think they’ve been going great, but I’m only on one side of it. They’ve been very well received. And what we’re trying to figure out now, the provost and I, are, what do we do going forward because this has been great onboarding for me, but it’d be nice if we did this every year. Probably not three hours per college, that’s a little much, but trying to find a way for us to get out and visit each of the colleges every year in some fashion.

DI: Right now a lot of students are seeking mental health counseling at University Counseling Services, but some students are having to wait months to sit down with a professional. What do you think the solution is to this and do you have any plans in the works?

Wilson: Every university is challenged right now to figure out how to manage the mental health and wellness needs of students. Do we have it figured out? No. Are we doing better than we were six months ago? I hope so. A couple things that we’ve done recently, we’ve hired more mental health counselors, we have instituted the 24/7 365 day a year chat, phone, text line. That’s pretty novel. Not every university has anything like that, and the goal of that is to have some place that students at any time of the day can reach out and get some help.

And I hope students know it’s there, we’re still trying to get the word out. When I meet with students, they often don’t even know that that exists. So that’s pretty new. And it’s not, it’s not going to fill all of the needs, but it’s another piece of the puzzle as we figure out how to help students. The other thing we’re working on is embedding mental health professionals in various colleges. So dentistry now has one, law has one, we’re trying to get them into most of the residence halls. So getting people closer to where the students are as opposed to having students have to go to the counseling center or connect with the counseling center. I think Tippie has one too.

And most of those folks are actually working on prevention and education. So instead of the one-on-one counseling sessions, which many people need, the professionals that are working more on the colleges are figuring out okay, what kind of, can we teach a class on meditation? Can we teach a class on resiliency? Can we teach a group yoga class? Can we deal with groups of students as opposed to one-on-one to try to say, ‘If you’re feeling stressed, get in quickly, get in early, come to a session where you can talk about it.’

Those are the kinds of things I think that are going to allow our reach to be broader. Because in the end, we cannot service enough one-on-one. It’s going to be really challenging for us to do that, I think.

DI: The semester before this, in the residence halls, in COVID wings, there would be signs saying, you’re entering COVID housing, and in residence halls this year, those haven’t been present. Can you talk a little bit about why?

Wilson: We are monitoring the wastewater for every residence hall every week. We have not seen spikes at this point, like there were before I arrived. So I think that’s part of the reason we’re not doing that kind of thing. Now, I’m less familiar with if we’re asking students to quarantine, I don’t quite know what all the logistics are. So I can look into that and get back to you. But we’re just in a different situation than we were even a year ago, knock on wood.

So far people are doing what they need to do. They’re getting vaccinated, they’re being careful. I’m quite pleased at the response, you know, it could always be better. So do what you can to help, you know, help us in that regard. But, what I always say is, if you want to be on ground, this is a community, we have to work together on making sure we can keep, keep people safe.

DI: We know that you’re a big Iowa football fan, you mentioned that in our last interview. A few weeks ago, Iowa played your former school, Illinois, so what was it like watching that?

Wilson: Well, you know, I’m here now. I got rid of all my orange and blue clothing before I moved. You know, it was fun. And it’s great to be part of a university that embraces athletics the way we do in a safe and proactive, ethical way. And it’s lovely to have a football team that wins. Maybe you don’t want to quote me on that. I don’t want that to go back to my former colleagues at Illinois, but you know, when we hit six wins, I was so excited. I was running around here like, ‘Oh my gosh.’ It’s fun. It’s fun to be here. We’ve got wrestling, we’ve got basketball, we’ve got field hockey, you know and football of course is making us feel really proud this year.

DI: We’ve all been talking about your Instagram account and wanted to know if you’re the curator behind that.

Wilson: Well I’m certainly involved in it. Obviously my dog is involved with it as well, Ollie. Basically we’ve got people from media following me around during the day. Like last night we had all the students who work in the president’s house over and we did a cookie decoration thing. I’m not saying what should be in there, but they know what my schedule is, they show up. I look every week in advance what the posts and what the ideas will be but not actually checking it very often because I don’t want to see — I think it’s positive right now but if it turns negative I don’t want to be brought down by it. So I’m involved but from a distance.

And I’m sending all the photos of the dog. Ollie’s only on there because of me. And several students have said, you know, ‘why doesn’t Ollie have his own account?’ Well then because nobody would follow mine.