UI President Barbara Wilson talks free speech, faculty recruitment

Wilson said she was happy with the free speech training provided by the state Board of Regents, discussed COVID-19, and said the university is working to recruit faculty to campus.


Braden Ernst

University of Iowa President Barbara Wilson answers a question in an interview with The Daily Iowan on Monday, Feb. 14, 2022.

DI Staff

The Daily Iowan sat down with University of Iowa President Barbara Wilson on Monday four weeks into the spring semester. With the university closing in on its 175th anniversary, Wilson spoke on the upcoming celebrations planned and her vision for the university.

Wilson also discussed this year’s free speech training provided by the state Board of Regents, efforts to foster inclusivity on campus, COVID-19, and student mental health.

Read the full transcript of the interview below. The transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

DI: We heard you have an announcement about a gift coming to the university, do you want to tell us a little bit about that?

President Wilson: We’re very excited about this. We’re going to announce the largest single gift ever to the University of Iowa. It’s basically a $70 million gift. And it’s in the name of the Jacobson Foundation in honor of Richard Jacobson. It’s to help our health care enterprise, so we’re going to be using it to expand our health care facilities and be able to treat more patients down the road. We’ll be building a new tower over in the hospital area. It’s really exciting. As many of you know, we turn away many patients every year around the state who need critical health care, and we just don’t have the space for those patients — over 2,000 individuals a year. We have to tell them, “We can’t take you, because we don’t have enough space.” This gift will be transformational for us. We’re really excited about it, and it’s gonna take us a while to build this tower, because there’s a lot of projects that need to happen before the tower happens. It’s a great statement of faith in what we’re doing and a great endorsement in the University of Iowa and health care enterprise.

DI: The tower renovation — building the new tower was announced about a month ago. Was the gift known at that time? Did the gift spur on the renovations, or was it the other way around?

President Wilson: We just knew that we’d have to expand our capacity one way or another, and when this gift became known to us, it helped spur us along in a particular way. We would be doing enhancements somehow or another because we have to.

DI: What was the process of trying to work with this foundation to get a gift this large? Did you or university officials reach out to the foundation, or did they reach out to you?

President Wilson: I’m not sure how it started, because it started before my time. These things don’t happen overnight, as you can imagine. Once the conversations start, there’s a lot of back and forth about the amount of the gift, whether there’s any conditions around the gift, how it will be named, what the plan is, all of those kinds of things. It doesn’t happen overnight, that’s for sure.

DI: Is that going to be strictly looking at infrastructure physically, or will any of the funding be allocated to research or any other medicinal?

President Wilson: This is really for the tower, which will be primarily a patient care facility. We have other work to do on that side of the river around research and other things, but this particular tower will be primarily patient care.

DI: Is the gift only for the tower? Is it going to be put towards other activities as well?

President Wilson: No, it’s for a patient care building, and it won’t cover the full cost of it. We’re still in the process of figuring out what that will cost, but we’re going to have to do some work before the tower goes up, including figuring out what to do with that big water tower over there with the big herky sign on it. Other things that are going to have to be adjusted or moved potentially.

DI: Do you have a goal date for the completion yet?

President Wilson: We have landmarks of things that need to be done along the way, but it would be way too premature for us to say anything of this size and magnitude will be done by “x date,” as all these kinds of projects reveal things as you go along. But, we’re eager to get started as soon as possible on the projects that will enable the tower — this will be right across from Kinnick Stadium.

DI: The university community received the Board of Regents free speech training that was sent to all the three regent universities. That’s been in the works for a while, I know, but what do you think about the value of that training and why it’s needed on campus and for the community?

President Wilson: I actually took the training over the weekend. It was the first time I had time to sit down and really work through it, and I thought it was really quite good. The goal of the training is to help educate faculty, staff, and students around First Amendment issues. As it turns out, a lot of people don’t understand the intricacies of the First Amendment, and what this whole democracy is based on. What the law says, what we can do, and what we can’t do around free speech.

It’s not too heavy, it doesn’t go too far into the weeds on the legal issues. I think it reminds all of us what the First Amendment is, what our legal obligations are, what our efforts should be around encouraging open dialogue, even if it’s sometimes hurtful and difficult and involves conflict. It reminds us all that if we start thinking we should restrict everything and punish everything, we’re going to go down a path that’s going to be antithetical to the Founding Fathers’ documents of this country. I think we all would say we like free speech, until we don’t like it. This training really helps remind everybody, sometimes sticky, nasty things come about because of our founding documents. How do we have dialogue around these issues? How do we encourage more talk? How do we ensure that voices can be heard? How do we support a place where vibrant conversations are occurring all the time?

DI: There’s been a few instances of challenges, or people saying Free Speech had been violated at the university. One recent instance, student who complained that a few faculty members had restricted his speech by disciplining him for comments made in class, and other students had felt that those comments were homophobic or offensive, do you think that there are instances where the university’s and the state and the country’s free speech policies can’t interfere with an inclusive campus or the goals of creating an inclusive campus?

President Wilson: I think there will always be conflicts and challenges in those spaces. Do I think that they can permanently interfere? No, I wouldn’t be in the education business if I thought that we were trapped by our laws and could never get where we need to be.  I think as in many cases, there are tensions between the legal underpinnings of the First Amendment and our ability to make sure that people feel like they belong here, and that we have a space for all kinds of opinions, attitudes, thoughts, and backgrounds. That’s our job, to figure out how to balance those tensions, and they’re going to exist. I think what the training tries to do is say don’t do a knee jerk where you think that everything you hear that you don’t like should be punished, because chances are, we can’t punish it. Even if it’s hate speech, chances are it could be protected by the First Amendment. So, let’s find other ways forward in terms of talking about these kinds of sticky issues. If we can’t figure it out at a university, I don’t know how anybody’s gonna figure it out. I’m going to acknowledge there’s tensions there. Absolutely.

DI: Starting off this semester, COVID cases were pretty high.  They’re going down now pretty quickly, but in the first week of classes, you sent an email really encouraging people to wear masks, and you’ve always been encouraging that. So, I’m curious, during that time when we were seeing a lot of spread, do you wish that you or the university had the power to require masks on campus?

President Wilson: There are problems with mandates. We’ve seen them everywhere in this country. Mandates cause people to react in unfortunate ways. So, I don’t think mandates are the perfect solution either, frankly. My wish is that through communication of scientific information, through communication about norms related to community safety, that we can encourage most people to do what will make most of us healthy. And in the end, mandates, as you can see, just cause a lot of problems of their own. So, I don’t think mandates are the path forward with no complications. Just like I think letting everybody decide on their own with no signs or no encouragement is the right path forward. You know, we chose a path around public health and around public health communication. We encourage students to get involved in these efforts. We incentivize some behaviors through prizes. In the end, I think we can’t point to any place that did it perfectly. We’ve politicized a pandemic in this country, unfortunately.

DI: How are you viewing your approach to COVID? Now that we’re on the tail end of the omicron wave, not sure exactly what’s next. Are you changing how you’re viewing things?

President Wilson: We’re watching the numbers. Every morning I get COVID numbers from the hospital, from our self-reports. We’re still monitoring all the wastewater in the residence halls. We are looking at COVID every day, and we’re not pivoting yet, but we are watching things at this point. One of the things I’m really proud of is that we made safer masks available to everybody. Not every university is handing these things out like candy — these are everywhere.  I think our goal is, we know what works, help us keep people safe.

I’m very happy to see how many students I’ve noticed are wearing masks around campus after omicron became the dominant variant. It’s not everybody, but I’m seeing more masks now. Sometimes, I think it’s because people are cold outside. I’m hoping that it’s actually because people are saying, “We’re in this together. This is what we have to do. We don’t have to do it forever. Hang in there. Let’s get to the other side.” That makes me pleased to see that.

DI: And speaking of those kinds of changing policies, Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds recently declared the end of the COVID-19 emergency for the state. How do you feel about that and how will it impact the university’s workings if at all?

President Wilson: We are being led primarily by our hospital and health care system right now. Our biggest concern is, what are the patient numbers looking like, and can we staff the hospital and health care enterprise? A lot of what we’re doing is based on those goals right now, and fortunately, things are looking better. We’re not out of the woods yet, but things are looking a lot better than even two weeks ago.

DI: Kind of pivoting away from that, football coach Kirk Ferentz recently dissolved the football program’s alumni Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion committee.  He said that the committee would be restructured in some way and return eventually. The program has also been subjected to a racial discrimination lawsuit from former players. Do you think that the football program needs to do more to address racism and diversity issues within the program at this time?

President Wilson: I think they’re working very hard on a lot of fronts, and hopefully you’ve read about some of their efforts. I think what Coach has decided to do is to create a different kind of advisory group. He’s working on that right now. That will include some former players who haven’t been out very long because he really wants to make sure that he’s tapping into where the young players are today and what the issues are for the next generation, if you will. There is a lot of work going on over there. There’s a Diversity Equity Council within athletics where people can bring complaints and concerns. They’ve just brought [Lew] Montgomery to continue the work that was ongoing. I’m impressed by the amount of attention they’re paying. Have they solved all the problems? Probably not. I don’t think anybody could say we’ve solved all the problems around race issues, even on this campus. I think they’re headed in the right direction, and we’re in regular conversation about it.

DI: I know there are multiple new programs to retain and recruit faculty this semester. Why is it important to use university money to promote these initiatives?

President Wilson: Well, I hope that you would agree as students here, that the talent of our faculty is critical in ensuring that this is one of the best universities in the country. We have to be a magnet for faculty talent and for student talent, and I talk about that every day. In order to recruit great faculty, you have to constantly be looking at what the competition is, where the really smart ideas are coming from, and you have to make sure some of those folks come to Iowa. The programs that you refer to are both to recruit new talent and to retain the incredible faculty that we have here. It’s a very competitive market out there, you probably don’t realize how competitive it is. Anybody who gets tenure and has done great, other universities are going to start looking at those people. They’re gonna say, “You trained them up. Now we can come in and grab them and form our university.” We’re not only trying to do what others are trying to do to us for other faculty, but we’re also trying to retain the faculty that we’ve developed and helped grow and prosper here. One of the programs is the transformational hiring program. The idea there is to bring a small number of tenured faculty to campus each year that are going to be in these areas of what I call transformational excellence. People who will bring faculty together around topics, help us ignite more grant money, help us bring certain academic programs together in areas that are in high student demand. We’ll do that for several years, and then we’re also launching a new award program for recently tenured faculty, where we will give them several years of funding and an award that says you’re amazing across research, teaching, and public engagement. We want to make sure you know it because we know it and we’d like you to stay here. We don’t make them sign on the dotted line or anything like that, but the goal is let’s recognize the talent we have and ensure that people want to stay here at Iowa.

DI: There was an article, it may have just come out today in The Chronicle of Higher Education, that talks about how flagship universities in very conservative states are having problems recruiting and retaining faculty because faculty may not want to be in a state where they feel like the institutions or academia is under attack. Do you think that that’s a problem you see here [at] the University of Iowa, or could be eventually?

President Wilson: I read the article, and I think it was more nuanced than that. The headline is always a grabber, but when you got into the text of it, our former president Sally Mason was quoted several times in there saying she’s not seeing the supply of presidents changing in red states versus blue states. Here’s what I’ll say to that: if this state were ever to legally eliminate tenure, we would be in a world of hurt on the talent side. What I’ve been trying to help our legislators appreciate is that even having conversations about that is a path that’s risky for us, because the marketplace is so intense and so competitive. The minute you have a place that’s going to try to take away something that’s common at other institutions, you’re going to be in a challenging place. Fortunately, we haven’t heard anything about tenure bills this year, and I’m hoping it stays that way. Right now, I’m not hearing people say, “I don’t want to come to Iowa because it’s a red state.” People want to go where there are great colleagues, there are great resources, there are smart students, and the quality of life is good. Well, turns out, [the] University of Iowa is one of those places.

DI: The UI is celebrating its 175th anniversary and you’re having an installation on the anniversary. What is the event? What are you looking forward to about this event? And what does it mean to you to be here during the 175th anniversary?

President Wilson: I’m looking forward to celebrating with everybody else this 175 years of existence. It’s kind of phenomenal, when you think about it. We were one of the first to do so many things, including be in existence, right? It’s a great time to reflect, to think about our past, to remind ourselves of all that we’ve accomplished, and then to begin to look forward. It’s a celebration really. What a great opportunity for me as the new president to be part of it. It just so happens we’re installing me at that event, so what I’ve been telling everybody is less attention on me more attention on the institution. I think we’ve got the balance about right, because I really see my installation as part of a way to showcase the history of this university.

It’s a good question, because I’ve been here for seven months, right? This maybe should have happened earlier, and in some places it does happen early. I think COVID got in our way. I think people were thinking, “Why don’t we wait to do it at this time so that we can make it more of a celebration, at a larger scale and help our alums and our students appreciate more than just a new president.” Installation means that you are formally and ceremoniously recognized as the new president. Now, I’ve been here for seven months, right? So there isn’t anything that’s going to happen in that event that’s going to change my job. It is a celebration, if you will. So it’s really a ceremony, but it has a ceremonial aspect that I think is important for an institution because of the celebration of where we’ve been and where we’re going.

DI: During this time of focusing on mental health, the University Counseling Services Director, Barry Schreier, announced that he is departing that role this week. If you’re involved in selecting the new director, what are you looking for? Are there any major changes that you’d like for them to make in the UCS Department?

President Wilson: Barry has been great. We have to acknowledge that sometimes people want to make career changes. He’s not leaving, he’s going to go full time into the College of Education. The whole time he’s been in that role, he’s had his 25 percent faculty position. I think one of the things we’ll probably do with the new director is not have the person try to straddle two jobs the whole time, that’s very difficult. He’s made it work beautifully, but it’s not necessarily optimal as we go forward. Yes, we’re going to do a national search. I won’t be choosing the person, but I’m sure I’ll meet with the candidates, or I hope I will. I just talked with Sarah Hansen about the position today, and it’s a huge opportunity for us going forward, and we’ll find the best person who will take this on, with a renewed sense of optimism and creativity. Barry’s not going anywhere, so he’ll be able to help through the transition.

DI: We were talking about the 175th anniversary, at this landmark, what would you like to see the university be at its 200th anniversary?

President Wilson: I think that this university has a unique calling card. We are a big university in a small city, with comprehensive excellence across lots of different areas. There aren’t many people or institutions that can make that claim. In my wildest dreams, I would like to elevate Iowa’s excellence a little bit more at the national level, because people who don’t come here often don’t know the things we have here. I want to celebrate what a university can do and can be in a public flagship institution in a state like Iowa. We should be a magnet for talent for both faculty and students. We should be an economic engine for the state. More people should know about the great things we are doing here. Those are my aspirations, and we have work to do.