UI President Barbara Wilson continues prioritizing mental health, focuses on strategic plan

The new leader has spent her first year meeting with campus stakeholders and preparing the university for the future.


Daniel McGregor-Huyer

University of President Barbara Wilson speaks with members of The Daily Iowan in Jesup Hall on April 20, 2022.

Hannah Pinski and Kelsey Harrell

University of Iowa President Barbara Wilson has almost completed her first year at the helm of the institution. During her first year, Wilson prioritized mental health, met with student groups and campus leaders, and helped with the next strategic plan.

But she said there’s more she hopes to accomplish in the next academic year.

The Daily Iowan sat down with Wilson on Wednesday to check in on how the past year has gone and what she has planned next.

What Wilson has done so far

Since starting as president in July, Wilson said she has spent her time meeting with students, faculty, and staff to get to know the campus community and to make sure she’s thinking about what each group cares about. She’s met with leaders in every college, heads of campus centers and institutes, and many student groups.

“I think one of my challenges to myself moving forward is to continue to get out and meet people because I won’t learn anything if I don’t get out of the office and talk to people,” Wilson said.

She has also spent time getting feedback from students on what they would like to see in the Iowa Memorial Union if it were to be renovated.

Wilson said she’s also been emphasizing looking at metrics when making goals for the next UI strategic plan to stretch the university in different directions.

In addition to these meetings, Wilson got to know Iowa’s state lawmakers before the legislative session began, making sure they know how important the UI is to the state.

Improving mental health resources for students has been a priority of Wilson’s, and she has already taken steps toward her goals. Not long into her tenure as president, the 24-hour Mental Health Support Line was launched as a resource for students to use whenever they need help or advice.

Wilson’s role in UI strategic plan and prioritizing mental health

Before Wilson stepped foot on campus, the UI Strategic plan was already underway. Now that the 2022-27 plan is in the development stage, Wilson is working with the Strategy Team to create a new five-year plan for the university.

The Strategy Team co-chairs oversee four strategic development teams: Student Success Team, Faculty and Staff Success Team, Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Team, and Research and Discovery Team.

The five core values listed in the draft of the plan are creativity, community, excellence, inclusion, and integrity. The final strategic plan will be submitted to the state Board of Regents on May 13 and will be implemented on July 1 per regent approval.

Wilson said that she believes the strategic plan will help the university stand out as a prominent higher education institution in Iowa.

“We can’t ever lose sight of the fact that we’re a public university, and that we’re partly supported by the state, our role is to be an engine of good things in the state,” Wilson said. “And so that pillar really reminds us of our commitment to being a great public institution in the state of Iowa and in the Midwest.”

In addition to the strategic plan, Wilson hopes to continue to prioritize mental health on campus. Services like the 24-hour Mental Health Support Line for Students are important, she said, and hope to open up more conversations between faculty and staff and students about mental health.

“Talking within the context of academic work about the importance of health and wellness, in terms of student success is really a good thing and reaching out to students who look like they could use a conversation and perhaps some resources,” Wilson said.

One goal Wilson has is to embed mental health professionals in every college and address and build resiliency skills in students.

“We don’t wait until things are really traumatic,” Wilson said. “But we try to help students read their physiological and mental states earlier and get help and have professionals out there who are available to groups of students as well as individuals.”

All students should feel comfortable expressing opinions freely, Wilson says

In the UI 2021 Campus Climate Survey, 56 percent of conservative undergraduate students reported they don’t feel their political beliefs are respected on campus. This year, the UI debuted a first amendment online training for students.

As an academic institution, Wilson said it’s a problem that students aren’t comfortable expressing their opinions on campus.

“I mean, every student should feel comfortable expressing opinions and thoughts in a respectful way,” Wilson said. “So I think it’s, you know, the reason we do those surveys is so that we can find out what students are feeling and thinking, I would never judge those expressions as valid or not.”

She said, however, that the discomfort may come in social settings rather than in the classroom. Although Wilson thinks some students may shut out or push away opinions they don’t agree with, she believes it’s important for students to open their minds and find common ground in disagreement.

“If they’re not necessarily all in the classroom, then we’ve got work to do helping our student leaders think about diversity of viewpoint, and how do we encourage those conversations,” Wilson said.