Q&A | President Barbara Wilson on free speech, student safety


Cody Blissett

University of Iowa President Barbara Wilson speaks during an interview on Tuesday, May 2, 2023.

The Daily Iowan sat down with University of Iowa President Barbara Wilson Tuesday to talk about campus safety and updates, and freedom of speech. 

The DI: The University of Iowa has begun its 10-year master plan for facility construction and upgrade. Could you give us an update on how that’s looking? 

Wilson: It’s great to have a 10-year plan. It gives us a vision for what we’re trying to accomplish. There are a lot of projects in that 10-year plan, so hopefully you’ve had a chance to look at it. I think when I think about the 10-year plan, it’s ambitious. But it’s also very student-focused and health care-focused, so most of the projects are going to help us to expand the kinds of things that we know our students need, and the kinds of things that UI Health Care needs. So, you can kind of think about them in buckets, I guess. I’m happy to talk about any of the projects if you’re curious about them, but you know, many institutions just think about them year to year. 

But for us, it’s great to have the whole vision set forward and be thinking about how do we manage different projects together and how do we set a timeframe that makes sense, and how do we find people who are going to be employed to help us with all these projects because if they all happen at once, we wouldn’t actually have enough construction people and others to do the work.  So it’s a great plan and it’s something we work with the board on all the time to make sure they’re supportive and they understand the cadence and the financing for all the projects.

DI: Over the years, there’s been talk about moving the cultural houses to a more central location on campus, as well as calls for creating one for people with disabilities. Are there any updates for the centers’ relocation and any more thought to adding a house for students with disabilities?

Wilson: So, the cultural centers definitely need a new space. We just had to move the pride house from one very old building to another building, which will hopefully be better, but I would argue not long term. Partly, it’s because they’re not very centrally located. As you point out, they’re pretty far away, and they’re not particularly accessible to a lot of undergraduates where they’re currently located. So, the goal is to move them as a group. 

They’re legacy houses. They’ve been around a long time and they deserve better spaces. So, we’re still working on the financing for that and the location of those new centers, but I’m really excited that a lot of our donors are stepping up and we’re having quiet conversations about how to fund new spaces. I’d like to keep them together because they deserve that. They’ve been together. There’s a lot of interaction between and among them, and events that they co-sponsor and activities that they want to do in conjunction with one another and also to bring more students into these centers to learn so the location hasn’t been determined yet. 

You asked about students with disabilities and we’re also working on additional space for students probably over in the Old Capitol Mall where the center already has services. If we could find a space for students to have more casual spaces there would be closer to where the resources are. We’re not going to have every group on campus have a new house. We have 500 student orgs, so we’re going to have to really think. But what we’re trying to do is have areas that support students at different places. You know that the Center for Veterans is over in Calvin and there’s a space in there for First Gen Hawks, so I like to think about spaces around campus for different groups of students that are supportive and helpful to students.

DI: As a follow-up, when you say a place in the Old Capitol Mall, would that necessarily be labeled as a culture house, or would it be more like a resource center?

Wilson: I don’t know what we’ll label it. I’ll look to the student groups to help us with that, but I don’t think it’ll be. I call them centers, not houses. But I think, just the same way we have a center for veterans, we’ll have a center for students with disabilities. We have the resource part of that, but I think what they’re asking for is additional space to meet together to have interactions, and maybe even host events. So we’re trying to work on what I would consider a range of spaces for some of our larger groups that serve lots of students. 

DI: Are there any other groups on campus that the UI is planning to give a space to? 

Wilson: Well, the IMU renovation we could talk about, and would love to talk about that. That will be another space for a lot of student groups. We’re hoping that we’ll start in the spring of 2024. I think it is roughly about when we are imagining. We’re going to really redo that space. It’s going to be pretty exciting. We’re going to get rid of the hotel in the back and create a whole Student Wellness Center in the IMU that will include the food pantry, the clothing closet, and some other wellness activities, including some of our counselors. 

So, I think it’s going to be much more service-oriented for students, and we’re going to be looking at how we provide more open space. We get some more light in there. We’ll maybe get some trees and green greenery in there. Also, better meeting places for student groups. So right now, our student orgs are often telling us there’s not enough space in there, that [they] could benefit [from] some lockers to store things. A lot of our groups will be using the IMU in a new and improved version of it. So, I like to think about it as a suite of spaces across particularly this side of campus for student orgs of different kinds of shapes and sizes.

DI:  Have you received any bids on Mayflower Residence Hall yet?

Wilson: Not yet, but we haven’t gone public yet with the sale. We’re really close. We’re getting a lot of interest, informally, so that will happen soon. It turns out that Mayflower is the last choice for students in terms of residence. When we look at the data, students who are in Mayflower, particularly first-year students, have lower GPAs and slightly lower retention rates. Part of it is that we think it’s not a great place for first-year students. You have to walk to eat, and lots of fewer services there, so we’re really thinking about it in terms of student support. 

DI: Was the decision to sell Mayflower made during your presidency, or was that something that the UI has been thinking about for years prior?

Wilson: I think it’s probably been discussed before my time, but the decision is pretty recent. The only thing I should mention is there’s a lot of deferred maintenance in Mayflower which, if you’ve been in it, I guess you know. The costs that would be undertaken to fix it are so high and then we look at the space and what it’s doing and what it’s not doing. Collectively, we decided it’s time. 

DI: Earlier this year, a survey revealed that more than nearly half of the UI faculty and staff seriously considered leaving the university in the past 12 months. What is your plan to help retain and recruit staff at the UI?

Wilson: We think about work on retention and recruitment all the time. I think that we never want to be complacent about our staff and our faculty. Every place I’ve ever worked, retention is just a constant challenge because you have really talented people and other talented institutions come after our talents. So, if we were at a place where we didn’t have very much talent, retention wouldn’t be very much of an issue. 

We have done a lot of work on increasing the amount of awards and recognition that our faculty and staff are valued for. We’re working very hard on salary programs that stay competitive, and I think some of what is expressed in that survey is a result of COVID. A lot of people have been stressed and challenged to think about work differently in the wake of the pandemic, but we’re not going to sit around and just worry. We’re trying to be as proactive and most of our managers and leaders are thinking about who is at risk for leaving and making sure that they’re offering professional development programs, that they’re offering opportunities for those faculty and staff to do more and to keep them here. So, it’s a constant effort with lots of people involved.

DI: How do you think the success of the women’s basketball team has influenced or will influence the publicity of women’s sports across the country?

Wilson: Well, it’s already influenced. It’s one of the proudest moments I think of my year was to be at the Final Four with our women. Our student athletes and our coaches are just fantastic. I can’t tell you how many people have commented to me as I travel across the country, about how fabulous our women’s basketball team is.

So, I think it’s already had that effect. You have probably heard that we had to stop early sales of new seats at Carver because we were running out of them, the demand was so high, and we still have to go back to our season ticket holders and make sure that they get a chance to renew and perhaps extend and enhance their tickets as well. 

Coach Bluder has been adamant that one of her goals is to fill up Carver and sell it out, and I think it’s going to happen this year. So that in and of itself is huge and historical. But I think that our team has really increased the visibility of women’s sports in a pretty phenomenal way. I’ve had lots of people say to me, “I don’t really even like sports and I’m watching your team because a lot of them aren’t even Hawkeyes fans. Your women’s basketball team has caused me to become a sports fan,” and that’s happened all over the country. So I think it’s already happening. I don’t know what the long term will be. I’m hoping that enrollments will go up, frankly, because I think the visibility that it’s brought to this university and to the excitement that we have around women’s sports. Many, many students come here because they want to be part of a community that celebrates Big Ten sports and to have a women’s team now that’s gone to the Final Four and that represents us so well is part of that. So stay tuned. We won’t know that for at least another year. 

DI: A lot of us saw a video of women’s basketball center Monika Czinano picking you up at the Elite Eight game in Seattle after the Hawkeyes won. Was that planned?

Wilson: If it was, I would have closed my mouth and looked better. I’ve been one of their biggest fans. I’ll be honest with you, I’ve traveled with them a lot. I went up to the Big Ten Championship in Minnesota and I try to attend as many games as I can. I’ve been in the locker room with them. 

Coach Bluder and Coach Jensen are fabulous and they always invite me in and so I’ve gotten to know a lot of the players and I just think the world of them. I have to say they are phenomenal student athletes. I mean they are great in their academic pursuits. McKenna’s going to go on to dental school and Monika, after she goes pro, is going to go to medical school and their GPAs are off the charts. They’re great community citizens. They’re out in the community, volunteering and they will take photos with anybody who asks so I’m a big fan of every one of them and Monika just came up to me and did that spontaneously. Kate was right behind her and went “Don’t drop her,” but it was a moment of just sheer joy and excitement. 

DI: What led to your decision to direct Iowa Athletics to pay the full amount of the discrimination settlement? 

Wilson: Well, Iowa code stipulates that half of the settlements like that will be paid by the state. So people, I don’t think appreciate that we were following state law. We were working with the State’s Attorney General’s office, and we decided to settle and the Iowa code says half will be paid by the state and half by us. In the midst of all of that, I think there were some concerns raised by certain individuals and by some of the legislators. Gary Barta and I talked and we just decided to cover the whole thing in this instance so that the payment was not the big issue. 

DI: This year some people, including State Auditor Rob Sand, have voiced concerns about Gary Barta and called for his departure. What are your thoughts on this and what do you think his future will be at the UI?

Wilson: I don’t really talk about personnel issues in the media, just to be honest with you, but here’s what I will say. Our athletic program is something to be very proud of. We have incredible student athletes who are graduating at a really high rate, almost as high if not high as high, as are our non-athlete students. We have winning sports. I mean, if you look I think we’re the only school in the country that both went to a bowl game and had both women’s and men’s basketball, go to the go to March Madness, go into the championships, or into the March Madness competition. We’re the only ones. 

Look at our wrestling team. You can just go from one sport to the next. We focus on student student welfare. The saying in athletics is win, graduate, and do it right, and we’re focusing on the whole experience of students here. Those are things that people on the outside who are critics often don’t look at, they’re looking at the win-loss ratio, or they’re looking at one particular case or issue and I see the whole picture. I see the great coaches we have. I see the great student athletes who we’re recruiting, and I see how well our student athletes perform both on and off the field, court, river or wherever they compete. That’s how we make decisions about who’s at the helm of athletics. I’m really proud of what we’re accomplishing here. I’ve spent a lot of time in the world of presidents and chancellors of other institutions, and we’re doing it right.

DI: Some students have expressed concerns about student safety at the UI. Especially with some Hawk Alerts we’ve seen this year of shots being fired in the Iowa City area and the introduction of a bill in the Iowa Legislature that would allow guns in locked vehicles on school and college properties. How do you plan to address student concerns with safety on campus and any possible changes moving forward with policies that could affect the UI? 

Wilson: Student safety is one of the things I think about when people ask me what I worry and what I think about, student safety is at the top of the list. I think we have a really safe campus and we can never let our guard down. We have to constantly be vigilant and constantly work on making sure that this is a safe community. 

We’ve just done a whole reimagining of campus safety, which you may or may not have been following. Part of the goal of doing that is to ensure that all parts of campus are working together around campus safety were a little too isolated. We had divisions and units working on parts of safety, but not communicating broadly. My charge to that group was we needed to be coordinated, everybody needs to be in the room. 

We need to be tracking cases, instances, and stats and making sure that we are thinking about it much more broadly, and I think that’s happening now. I’m really pleased with the progress that we’re making there. Are we ever going to be completely safe? Can I assure you we’re never going to have a tragedy here? I wish I could, but the fact of the matter is, there are instances that we can’t control very well. We have cameras everywhere … I’m proud of that. I know, it makes some people nervous, but it’s part of how we manage, monitor, and assess safety. We’re asking students all the time to speak up, report, and let us know if you see strange things. Safety is everybody’s business, so we can’t say that enough. We’ll just keep working on it. We want to alert you to things, I was just talking with Janine this morning about making sure we follow up and let students know when cases have been resolved or arrests have been made because I think that’s an area we could do a little bit more of without revealing personal information and not getting information out before it’s ready. But making sure that students know that there’s been follow-up to cases. We can always do more, but we need everybody’s help. Everybody’s got to treat it as part of our community. 

DI: How do you plan to balance freedom of speech on the university campus with concerns of hate speech like racism, transphobia, and sexism as we saw a couple of weeks ago during the Matt Walsh event and protests against the lecture?

Wilson: Another thing I spend a lot of time thinking about and talking with colleagues about, so there will always be a natural tension between the First Amendment and students’ sense of what’s right and wrong and their personal sense of safety. The First Amendment is a pretty important cornerstone of everything we do, and I think part of what we have to do is help educate students about what the First Amendment is and what we would risk if we lost those freedoms and those rights. 

It means that there will be times when people say things that will be hurtful and will be stressful and sometimes will be hateful. But the First Amendment protects hate speech as long as it’s not threatening and violent. It protects a lot of what people say that we don’t like and so that’s a balancing act. I have to tell you, I’m proud that Matt Walsh came and did his speech without interruption because it shows that this campus, even though many people don’t like what he says and don’t agree with what he says, we are able to have people come and speak what they believe in a peaceful way. Not every campus can pull that off. 

So, if you were a part of helping make that happen, thank you. It doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t protest and speak up and have counter activities as long as they’re peaceful because part of this is discussing, debating, and getting information out there. And you’ve heard this before, but the best counter to speech you don’t like is to speak more, and to speak in different ways. That’s what that event represented to me. Thankfully, it was safe, more or less. I mean, we had some marbles, a fire alarm, and things like that, but he was able to give his speech. It wasn’t interrupted. We didn’t have any incidents of violence. That’s pretty impressive, given how emotional the event was.

DI: I know the Pride House and some other student organizations help events during the week and after the week, specifically for transgender individuals on campus. Do you think it’s the university’s job to make students feel safe while also inviting someone who makes them feel unsafe on campus? Do you think the university has to do both?

Wilson: I think we do have to support the First Amendment, and we have to support student organizations and their interests in bringing speakers on campus … Doesn’t mean that we endorse all of those speakers, it doesn’t mean that we are inviting them as administrative leaders. It means we’re supporting student organizations that choose to bring different kinds of speakers on campus. Those things are going to come into tension a lot of times and, if we can model how to actually be productive in our discussions around those instances, I mean, if we can’t do it at a university, where can it happen in society? So,  part of it is to figure out how to have difficult conversations and have conflicting viewpoints in a place that is full of really smart people that are learning…that’s the goal. It’s not always going to feel comfortable, and sometimes it’s gonna make people really mad and frustrated and feel scared. We have a lot of resources for people who are feeling anxious, and I think we emphasized that during this talk and around this talk, but I was proud of the Pride House and others that said, let’s find some counter activities that will educate people about issues in a different way and do it peacefully and invite people to learn more. I think that’s what a university is all about.

DI: Recently, we’ve seen the rise of artificial intelligence, especially ChatGPT. How have you seen professors navigate artificial intelligence? How do you balance the use of AI for learning with the possibility of students using it to cheat in class?

Wilson: Obviously there’s been a lot of attention around AI recently, especially with ChatGPT. I don’t have the answers to all of the questions that you raised, but I’m really proud of the way many of our faculty and students have grappled with it. Tippie is a great example of how college business has several classes where they’re actually designing assignments around ChatGPT and asking students to use it and then critique it, and to figure out what its limitations are, and to analyze how accurate the information is. I think that’s in a way, the beauty of a university is to sort of say, here’s a potential problem, how are we going to critique it? How are we going to evaluate it? How are we going to grapple with it in the space of learning? There are people right now who are trying to design ways to figure out what’s using ChatGPT and what’s not whether or not people I don’t know if you want to call it cheating, depending on what the assignment is. So I have no doubt that like other areas, we’re going to have software that will detect the use of this and other versions of it down the road. 

For me, the challenge is to always be at the cutting edge of figuring out how artificial intelligence can improve our lives, and how it can potentially make our lives worse. And for a lot of things, this may be a really useful platform for people who want to write, I mean as long as you aren’t just adopting whatever is there, but you might get a rough draft there and then take it and make it your own and analyze whether it’s accurate or not. I think at the end all though, it is incapable of being creative. It’s incapable of doing what you all hopefully are learning in your classes as a writing university and that is how to take your voice, your ideas, and your thoughts, and use words to express ideas and new ways of thinking about things that it can’t do. That’s where humans are going … The next generation of thinking is going to be there. People were worried when we developed a calculator thinking no one would be able to do math again. When television first was on the scene, everyone thought it was going to destroy children’s minds, I mean, every new technology comes with a lot of fear and anguish, and I think our job as a university is to figure out how to take things like that and make sure that they are used for good things and to also reduce the harm associated with it.

DI: As we’re moving into a sort of post-COVID-19 centric world, how do you plan on continuing to address the struggles, such as finances and student mental health as we move beyond?

Wilson: As you know, mental health and well-being are one of our strategic priorities in our plan, and I’m really proud that we are one of the few universities that call it out as one of its main priorities, that I’ve seen anyway, in other strategic plans. We’re working really hard on a couple of fronts. You’re probably mostly interested in students so I’ll talk about what we’re doing with regard to students. You know that we have the 24-hour, seven days a week chat phone text service, encouraging more students to utilize that, especially during off hours. As we renovate the IMU, moving Student Wellness into the IMU will be a very signature part of what we do going forward. We’re also looking at embedding mental health and wellness professionals in more spaces than just the Counseling Center. Tippie has a mental health professional in the College of Business. The College of Law has a mental health professional, and dentistry does. It may not end up being in every college but the point is, let’s get professionals closer to where students are and allow students to do drop-ins, have conversations, and learn skills before crises evolve because they haven’t been dealt with. 

 So I think that’s our goal. We’re also talking about the potential of moving some mental health professionals into some of the residence halls so that they’re there. We aren’t relying just on RAs to manage every crisis. We’re talking with donors about the potential to support some of these activities. I can tell you that early conversations have been really fruitful, donors and alums are stepping up and saying, “We know there’s an issue, and we want to help. How can we help?” So I think those are some of the things we’re working on and they’re really important. People are calling us, and asking us what we’re doing. I’m not saying we have all the problems solved, but I think we’re ahead of the curve and thinking about how to help students. Think about stress, take care of themselves, manage the signals, eat, sleep, take care of the issues mentally as well as physically so that they can succeed on the academic front.