Q&A with President Barbara Wilson

In her second year as UI president, Barbara Wilson is focusing on student and employee health and wellness, student retention, and freedom of speech on campus


Gabby Drees

University of Iowa President Barbara Wilson speaks with The Daily Iowan reporters in Jessup Hall on Friday, Oct. 21, 2022.

DI Staff

The Daily Iowan sat down with University of Iowa President Barbara Wilson on Friday to talk about her first two years as president.

During her first two years at the UI, Wilson said she has been focusing on student mental health and holistic wellness, student retention, and building relationships with students.

She also discussed student concerns regarding the freedom of speech on campus, and the UI’s responsibility to protect students on campus.

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

The Daily Iowan: It’s been almost two years. What do you think your biggest accomplishment is? And what are some goals that you have moving forward?

UI president Barbara Wilson: It’s always hard for me to assess what my biggest accomplishment is. But here’s some things I’m proud of. I couldn’t do anything without great people all around me, great teams, great people in the colleges in the Provost Office, and great students who really do make this job a lot more fun, and who contribute all the time to our good ideas.

I’m proud that we have a strategic plan in place. Now, that’s been approved by the board. And that has very aspirational metrics on the last page that are going to challenge us to reach some goals that we haven’t actually set up for ourselves in the past, but I think we can do it. And I’m also proud that that strategic plan has holistic health and wellness in it. If you do a dive across universities of our type, you’ll look at a lot of strategic plans, and many of them call out support for students and faculty and research. And ours does that too, but not very many of them call out a commitment to holistic health and well being. And I think that’s a special attribute of this university that is going to make a huge difference in the next few years. So I’m proud of that, too.

DI: And any goals moving forward?

Wilson: Well, to see those metrics reached, if you’ve looked at them, you know their five year goals around retention and graduation rates for students. There’s a goal for raising more scholarship funding for students. There’s a goal to increase our research portfolio. So, all of those will keep us very busy in the next couple of years.

DI: Last year, one of your goals was to connect with multiple areas and students on campus. Have you been able to meet with most of the campus? And if so what feedback did you hear on the next steps with students’ interests or concerns on campus?

Wilson: Well, I’ve met a lot of people and I continue to meet with a lot of people. So last year, I made sure that I spent time in every college on campus, usually about a half-day visit where I went in and said to the deans, you set up the meetings, you figure out who I should meet so that I understand your goals and your aspirations and make sure you include a group of students from your college, so we did every single college in most likely in the fall.

For example, I had our group tally how many students had lunch or dinner in the president’s residence last year. So, we had over 390 students over at the house in small groups, and they are a mix of undergraduate, graduate and professional students, they get invited mostly by student life because they’re leaders in whatever they’re doing. And we sat around the table, they had a good meal, and I asked questions. So we’re continuing those dinners and lunches this year. But, you know, my goal is to make sure I’m always talking to students.

In addition, the student government leaders also bring student leaders in to talk about particular issues. So I think it was this week, we had a meeting about student safety. We have met about student mental health. Those are just a couple that have happened recently. And they pick the topics, and then they bring students in, and we sit and have conversations, we bring some professionals in so we can make sure the students know what’s happening. But then they can also say these are things we’re worried about, these are things we’d like to have improved or work more on.

DI: Is there anything specific from those meetings that you feel are things you want to take on in the next couple of years or things you are already?

Wilson: Yeah, I think they reinforce the importance of focusing on mental health and wellness. In every one of those meetings, that’s a topic of conversation. I think our students feel really good about where we are. But they always have suggestions for more that we can do. One of the things that I hear a lot from students and, even from faculty and staff is, let’s help people build coping skills and resiliency before the crisis hits. So if you’re only treating crises, you’re kind of waiting too long. What I often hear is, we could use help on thinking about how to pick up signs that have anxiety, or how to figure out how to manage schedules better, or how to study better, or how to sleep better. And it’s those kinds of proactive skills that we are trying to get ahead of.

I hear a lot of excitement about the IMU and our renovation of the IMU. We talk a lot with student groups about what are your goals and aspirations for that facility? What kinds of things would really make you excited about visiting the IMU? And particularly, how do we get graduate and professional students to think of that as a place for them too, because right now, for whatever reason, they tend not to use the IMU as much as undergraduates do.

DI: Another one of your goals coming in as president was student retention. So, what is student retention like as of now for the school year?

Wilson: It went up a little bit, but it’s still unofficial, so I can not give you the numbers quite yet, I am sure we will be able to provide them for you when we’re confident of them. We have a five year goal to raise first year retention – that’s the percent of students who successfully make it from first year to second year – from 88 to 90 percent. And we’re trending in the right direction in spite of the pandemic, which, frankly, caused a lot of stress in the system, and a lot of students struggled during the pandemic. So I’m grateful that the numbers look like they’re trending in the right direction.

DI: Iowa became the first power five school to create a women’s wrestling team. The women’s field hockey team is in the top 10 in the country again, and the women’s basketball team, headed up by Caitlin Clark, seems to be impacting a lot of youth right now. Can you talk a little bit about the state of women’s sports at Iowa?

Wilson: I’m really proud of the programs that we’ve developed here at Iowa and women’s athletics. There’s tremendous excitement about us, leading the way. In this regard. There’s a lot of interest in wrestling in the high schools and even in some of the middle schools and junior highs. The idea that it’s in Iowa, where we have this tremendous history and commitment and love of wrestling, is one of those things where people say, Well, of course it should be Iowa that’s doing that. I’m really excited about that. I love our new coach. She is an energizer bunny, she’s got a lot of enthusiasm and commitment. And our donors and our fans are just so excited. You’ve seen the new facility we’re building in front of Carver, it’s going to be a great statement of our commitment to women’s athletics here.

We also are working on facilities for other sports. We know that that’s probably our challenge in women’s athletics. We have a great field hockey field and facility. Our soccer field is one of the best, and we are fundraising for a new facility for women’s gymnastics right now. I just went out and visited women’s rowing the other day, I had no idea we had 75, I think, women rowers, and they were at that facility. They’ve all said it’s the best in the country. But we can never be complacent. We have to constantly challenge ourselves to make sure we’re supporting women. I mean, look at women’s basketball, just got ranked fourth in the country. We’re going to get a lot of attention for that. And we’re trying to fill that arena every time they play.

DI: And then up to $20,000 of student loans are being forgiven for thousands of UI students, what was your initial reaction to the loan forgiveness?

Wilson: I’m always supportive of anything that will help students finance higher ed. You know, we are trying to help students sort through who qualifies and under what circumstances because it could be 10,000, it could be 20,000. We’re encouraging students to ask questions and get their application and if they qualify.

The thing about that program is it’s a one-time forgiveness. So it doesn’t really address the longer-term concerns around costs for students. I, along with many other university presidents have been pushing for an increase in the Pell Grants, Pell Grants or federal grants for lower-income students. They have not kept up with inflation. We’ve been pushing to double the Pell Grants and that kind of activity coming out of D.C. out of Washington would be helpful, and we’d have more of a long term effect on student affordability.

So that is what we’re hoping for at the federal level, at the local level, we are constantly talking to donors and friends about student scholarships and financial aid help. The good news is 50 percent of our undergraduates graduate with zero debt here at the University of Iowa the other 50 percent graduate with an average of $20,000 of debt that is below the state level and below the national level. Our tuition is the third lowest in the big 10, for in-state.

DI: Going back to last year, one of the concerns students brought up was free speech. And since the implementation of online training, do you feel like students can freely express themselves on campus?

Wilson: Well, I think the online training is great. I’m glad we have it. I’m glad students are doing it. I think many of us need to learn more about the First Amendment. Many of us like free speech until we don’t like what we’re hearing, and then we want to punish it or shut it down. So I think the training has been good for a lot of people to sort of remind them about the principles of free speech and what we have to and should be encouraging at a university like this, but the training in and of itself isn’t going to automatically change what we do here at a university.

When I talk to faculty, and even with students, I think there’s a general sense that students can express themselves and should express themselves in classrooms. And our faculty are committed to encouraging students to express a variety of opinions. I think sometimes, our challenges around free speech actually happen outside the classroom. And sometimes they happen in student orgs. One of the things I emphasize a lot, if you’re going to go into a conversation with someone from a different background, don’t have your goal to change their minds. Your goal should be to try to understand what their experiences are and open your heart and your mind to different backgrounds and perspectives.

DI: Earlier this semester at a College Republicans meeting, a student went in and was arrested for kicking their projector. Do you feel like it’s the UI’s responsibility to make sure people with different political views can feel comfortable on campus outside of the classroom?

Wilson: I think it’s our responsibility to ensure that students can have open discussions and that students from different backgrounds feel comfortable doing that. Can we always make them feel completely protected from things they don’t want to hear? No, we can’t do that because the First Amendment won’t let us do that. But if there are safety concerns, if there are misconduct concerns, we will go in and manage those cases the way we need to. But we can’t protect students from hearing things they don’t want to hear. I can tell you that if there’s a case where a student is doing something that violates our code of conduct, we’re going to act on it.

DI: The University of Iowa is looking to hire a new Vice President for Medical Affairs and Carver College of Medicine Dean, but the candidate withdrew recently. Why do you think it’s been a struggle or taking this long to fill that high-ranking UHC leadership role?

Wilson: I don’t think it’s been a struggle, so I might politely disagree with the framing that you offer. These positions are really important, they’re high-level, they have a huge amount of responsibility. So anytime you launch a search for a vice president, it’s not going to happen overnight, and if it does, you probably didn’t go through as much of a thoughtful process as you need to.

In this case, the candidate that we made the offer to politely declined our offer because of family circumstances. So we are regrouping, we are going to launch the search again, we hope to do it before the December holidays. These things happen, and I don’t think it was any failure on anybody’s part. It’s hard to move talented people, and they don’t just jump ship from one university to another, just because you make an offer.

DI: A University of Iowa music school professor was federally charged earlier this year, and student concerns about professor conduct is a growing campus concern. What is your response to the concerned students? I know you probably can not comment on the case directly, which is understandable.

Wilson: Yeah, I can not really comment on particular cases, but I can say that it’s very difficult for the university to act when we get anonymous complaints with nobody to follow up with. So if a student has a concern, please, please, please come forward, find confidential sources, and then be willing to be a part of a process so that we can investigate. Too often, we get stymied, because we have an anonymous complaint, or someone who says something, but then retracts and says, I don’t want to help anymore. And we can’t do much when those situations happen.

If a student is feeling concerned about any issues with regard to safety or anything else, come and talk to somebody, the sooner we get a handle on it, the sooner we can investigate, the sooner we can figure out what the issues are, and we will act on it.

DI: Recently, UI students have advocated for cultural halls for students with disabilities. What’s the President’s office doing to ensure that students with disabilities are included on this campus?

Wilson: Well, we have a pretty robust student services center over in the Old Capitol Mall. The number of students needing services has increased over the last couple of years, and we’ve done our best to try to ensure that we have staff and support for students who have all kinds of needs around learning issues and around physical issues.

We want to be a place that helps students succeed no matter what their challenges are. The challenge for us is around finding spaces for every student group. We have over 600 student organizations, just imagine if every one of them came and said we’d like a house, we just don’t have the capacity to do that kind of thing.

What we’re trying to do is really look at how we can create the IMU as a space for lots of student groups to use. How can we work with students with disabilities? We’re looking at the mall and wondering, maybe there’s a way we can augment the student services space to have social and cultural space there. But at some point, we have to recognize that we can’t create a separate house for every student org out there, it’s just impossible to do.

DI: Going off that, you said expanding the student houses and potentially the IMU in the mall. Would you mind going into what that would look like?

Wilson: We have four, what are called legacy houses. They’ve been around for a long time. They mostly serve undergraduates. And they’re in buildings that are not in great physical shape. So one of the things we’re looking at is, what would it take us to move those four legacy cultural houses over to this side of the university where more of our students are at the undergraduate level, and upgrade those spaces? We haven’t made any decisions yet, but we are in active conversations with each of those houses and with the student groups.

If we could move those houses, we might have an additional space for other groups to use as well. The goal is to serve as many students as we can.

DI: Great, I think we’re at about time, but are you watching the game this weekend?

Wilson: I try to support and watch all of our sports when it’s possible.