‘It just kind of caught us off guard:’ UI stakeholders reflect on meetings with President Wilson

University of Iowa President Barbara Wilson said in a recent interview with The Daily Iowan that one of her accomplishments for her first year as president is meeting colleges and student groups throughout campus, but not every conversation has been beneficial, some groups say.


Daniel McGregor-Huyer

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

Kate Perez, News Reporter

When one student group on campus met with University of Iowa President Barbara Wilson, some members were concerned with the way she spoke about sexual assault protests and her previous work at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Wilson has been meeting with student groups and colleges across campus in her first year as University of Iowa president, one of her goals she’s outlined in the past. She said in an April 20 interview with the Daily Iowan that she wants to keep meeting people on campus after her first year concludes.

“I think one of my challenges to myself going 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. “That may seem like a small goal, but I think it’s a really big part of how I make sure I’m thinking about all the different stakeholder groups that care about the university.”

Ignite Iowa, a nonpartisan UI student group for women and nonbinary people in politics, met with Wilson in December after scheduling a meeting in late August.

Maggie Bashore, social media coordinator of Ignite Iowa, said among the topics the group and Wilson talked about were the protests at the Phi Gamma Delta house in September. She said the members found the way Wilson talked about it to be concerning.

In a recording of the Ignite Iowa meeting obtained by the DI, Wilson said she was told she needed to leave the President’s Residence and go to the public safety building during a Phi Gamma Delta protest that came to the residence in response to a question about how she manages stress.

Wilson said she got a text from staff saying she needed to go to the police station when protesters went to the residence during the protest.

“We got through that case, but it was enormously complicated,” Wilson told the group in the recording. “And social media was taking over, so much misinformation. And so, there it is, it’s 10 o’clock at night, and I’m ready to go to bed and I have to get in the car and drive down. So there are weird times in these positions. And fortunately, we got through that, but I think that’s the thing I worry the most about and the thing that stresses me out the most is student safety.”

“It just kind of caught us off guard because she made it sound like the whole thing was really an inconvenience to her. She didn’t really talk about the gravity of the situation,” Bashore said.

Wilson also talked to Ignite about her experiences at the University of Illinois, where she worked to get a policy enacted against relationships between students and professors or teaching assistants.

“This is a power differential, that is inappropriate,” Wilson said. “And it’s like, the public doesn’t like it, I don’t care what you think. Students [are] like, ‘We should be free to love and we’re adults,’ until it runs into a problem, and then you’re going to be suing us, OK? I’m gonna have to protect you from your own hormones and other things right now, because we can’t have it.”

Bashore said she felt concerned by the way framed her decisions at the University of Illinois.

“It was just very weird rhetoric to hear from her. I feel like that kind of felt like it was playing into victim-blaming,” Bashore said. “Afterward, we were all like, ‘Did she really say that? Did she really say those things?’”

In an email to the DI on Tuesday, Wilson wrote that she was being candid when she met with Ignite Iowa.

“I was speaking candidly from the heart with a thoughtful group of young women, answering the questions asked and sharing examples of inappropriate relationships between faculty and undergraduates that were concerning to me,” Wilson wrote. “I realize now that the students wanted to talk more about misconduct between students.”

Wilson wrote that supporting women has been an important issue to her and remains so.

“I wish I had done a better job of expressing my strong commitment to supporting women, preventing sexual misconduct, and holding offenders accountable,” she wrote. “Campus and student safety are one of the most important parts of my job.”

Bashore said she felt Wilson truly appreciated the group’s feedback and comments, but she wouldn’t say it was the most genuine atmosphere.

“I kind of feel like she came in and like she wanted to be really intimate and have girl talk with us,” Bashore said. “She wanted to be really real with us, but at the same time, why would you say those things to students? I don’t know if she thought it wouldn’t leave the room, but it’s still pretty naive to say all those things to a group of 12 or so members.”

UI Democrats and UI College Republicans

At the meeting with Ignite Iowa, Wilson also discussed meetings she had with student groups, saying her experience with the University Democrats and College Republicans was frustrating.

“I thought, ‘Well, I’m gonna bring these two groups together and see if we can’t work on something.’ And it was so strange, the meeting, I’ll just leave it at that. Say it was one of the most frustrating meetings I’ve had,” Wilson said.

Wilson said the two groups struggled to agree on different topics.

“We couldn’t agree on anything to work on together, except at the end, we said, ‘Well, we all care about political action, so maybe we could work on something to encourage students to get more active politically,’” Wilson said. “But it’s a pretty lame conclusion to an hour-long meeting.”

Caleb Slater, president of the UI University Democrats, said Wilson’s office reached out to the groups to set up an Oct. 4 meeting with UI College Republicans.

“We ended up having the meeting and it went fine,” Slater said. “In my opinion, it went about how you would expect two groups of young partisan activists meeting with each other — about as well as you could expect that to go.”

The DI contacted the College Republicans for comment multiple times but did not receive a response.

Slater said Wilson wanted to know if there were issues the two groups could work together on, but no real consensus was reached.

“I think from University Democrats’ perspective, we didn’t really see any reason why she would want to meet with both of us at the same time and why University Democrats would work with College Republicans when the goals of our organizations are polar opposite from each other,” Slater said.

Wilson wrote in the email to the DI that she intended for the two groups to be able to collaborate at the joint meeting.

“I had hoped we could find ways for the two groups to work together, across political party lines, on campus issues that students care about such as free speech, respectful political debate and voting,” Wilson wrote.

Wilson wrote that she will continue to listen to students.

“I respect the students’ concerns and I very much appreciate their feedback,” she wrote.

The feel of the meeting was “professional” and “cordial,” Slater said, with Wilson acting as a moderator throughout, but he said he wished University Democrats could have had their own meeting with Wilson so they could have voiced their issues without having to compete for her attention.

“We would have been able to better explain to her or chat with her about what our concerns are without having those concerns, kind of drowned out by College Republicans having their own concerns that also needed to be heard by her, and sometimes those concerns were a little bit contradictory to each other,” Slater said.

While the overall meeting was professional between the two groups, Slater said it was disappointing to share time because they had fewer opportunities to ask questions about their organization.

“I think we would have more appreciated an opportunity to focus on [their actions] and ask her what she thinks we could be doing better, or what she thinks what the student org of our type should be, how we should be working with other student orgs,” he said.

Wilson meets with UI colleges

Despite some concerns, other groups the DI spoke to said their meetings with Wilson were productive.

Wilson said in the April 20 interview with the DI that meetings with colleges at the university helped her gain insight into what different goals each school within the university has.

“When I go out and talk with colleges, of course, the goal is to ask, ‘What are your aspirations?’ ‘How can the president’s office help you?’ ‘How can I make sure I’m talking about what you’re doing to legislators and leaders across the state?’” she said.

All of the conversations she has had with different groups, both student and college, have helped her learn more about the university as a whole, Wilson said.

Wilson met with various colleges throughout the school year, including the Graduate College. Amanda Thein, dean of the Graduate College and associate provost for Graduate and Professional Education, said the president’s office reached out to her for their meeting.

“We were really thrilled to have them asked to do that,” Thein said. “They came to visit us in mid-December, and they were here for about three hours. A university president is a very, very busy person, so it’s a very, very generous amount of time to spend with us.”

Thein said she showed Wilson and Kevin Kregel, executive vice president and provost, Gilmore Hall while discussing her goals for the Graduate College.

“She got the chance to hear a little bit from me directly about some of my priorities, and then other people who are part of the leadership team and the Graduate College got a chance to speak to the president, which I think is so important,” Thein said.

Wilson said she spoke with various deans in the Graduate College, including Steve Varga, Jennifer Teitle, and Shelly Campo about the college’s student-centered approaches to graduate education and career preparation, the creation of communities and support networks for graduate students, and how it provides opportunities for undergraduates to explore graduate programs.

The directors of the college’s academic units, including the School of Library and Information science, the Center for the Book, the School of Planning and Public Affairs, the International Writing Program, and the UI Press, also got to tell Wilson what they do in their academic units and their goals, Thein said.

“I had been working with each of these units and we collaborate across units, but as we worked on what we wanted to share with President Wilson and Provost Kregel, it was really a nice chance for us to collaborate and think about what are the most important things that we do for campus and for students, and how can we help President Wilson really understand that,” she said.

Thein added that it was an opportunity to present the Graduate College’s core values and vision of student access to graduate education to Wilson.

She said she was grateful Wilson came and spent time with not only administrators but doctoral students and leaders as well.

“I really appreciate the fact that President Wilson wants to be very engaged with what’s happening with academics on campus,” Thein said. “She has a very big role over all aspects of what goes on at the University of Iowa. Academics is a central piece of that and she’s deeply interested in the kinds of new programs that we have, the opportunities that students have as undergraduates, as graduate students, as professional students.”