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Illinois' Barbara Wilson Named Next President Of The University Of Iowa

President Barbara J. Wilson April 30, 2021
Justin A. Torner
The University of Iowa
President Barbara J. Wilson

The state Board of Regents has unanimously chosen Barbara Wilson to become the next president of the University of Iowa. Currently the second-in-command at the University of Illinois system, Wilson boasts some two decades of experience as an academic administrator and has a research and teaching background in communications studies.

A career academic who rose up through the ranks at multiple public universities, Wilson’s appointment represents a return to a conventional leadership profile for the school. Her qualifications stand in stark contrast to that of her predecessor President Bruce Harreld, a businessman whose appointment outraged many on campus.

Wilson beat out 79 other applicants to become the next president of Iowa’s flagship university. Currently serving as executive vice president and vice president for academic affairs at the University of Illinois system, Wilson is the number two administrator overseeing more than 90,000 students and 6,000 faculty across three public universities.

Speaking to reporters Friday, Wilson said she feels very prepared for the role of president.

“I’m not going to have a very difficult transition to the presidency because of my experience as EVP and as interim chancellor,” she said. “I feel like I understand the role but I don’t know Iowa. So that’s going to be the fun part, getting to know the people here and understanding what their passions are.”

A researcher, educator and administrator, Wilson came up 'through the ranks'

A native of Appleton, Wis., Wilson earned all three of her degrees from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She describes herself as born and raised in the Midwest and says she feels at home within the Big 10 system, which had a “transformational” impact on her.

Describing her current role as an outward facing one requiring more time spent with state lawmakers, donors and board members, Wilson says she relishes the opportunity to spend more quality time with students. She envisions her first months being spent establishing relationships across the campus, the city and the state.

“An hour with students sort of reenergizes and recharges my battery and right now I only work with our three trustees students, so…so I'm really excited about this opportunity to get back to what I love: to meet with students,” Wilson said.

“I’m eager to meet with faculty and staff and of course with the great students here,” Wilson added, "both undergraduate and graduate and professional. And all the people affiliated with the city of Iowa City. I want to meet people who love this place as much as I’m going to learn to love it as well.”

Introducing Wilson at a press conference Friday, Board of Regents President Michael Richards highlighted her “long and distinguished career” in higher ed.

“She has come through the ranks, including time a faculty member, department chair, vice provost, dean and interim chancellor,” Richards said. “She has the intellect, vision, and experience to be UI’s President.”

Wilson will start the role following a year of historic suffering and disruption

Slated to take on the new role during a time of historic change and following a year of profound suffering, tumult and loss, Wilson will also be coming to a campus where students and advocates are demanding equitable treatment and calling for concrete efforts to counteract systemic racism.

Following the announcement of Wilson’s appointment, a coalition of activists, including members of the graduate student union COGS, Iowa Student Action, Iowa Freedom Riders and Sunrise Iowa City, held a rally at the Pentacrest calling attention to issues like the cost of tuition and campus policing.

“It doesn’t matter if the face of the administration changes, until concrete policies and practices change, our community will still face all the same issues,” Dulce Escorcia of Iowa Student Action said in a written statement.

Wilson acknowledged that the university community seems ready for new leadership, following Harreld’s tenure. His appointment process in 2015 was broadly criticized for not sufficiently valuing input from the campus community, and resulted in the American Association of University Professors sanctioning the UI.

“I've met so many people, faculty, staff and students and I think the one message I got from all of them is people are ready,” Wilson said. “People are ready for this presidency and for the next phase. And they're excited about helping move this great university forward.”

A president ready to be "involved in everything" on campus

Wilson also detailed her past efforts to reform hiring structures and establish mentoring programs to foster and promote diverse leadership among faculty. She highlighted the need to improve graduation rates and spoke of the importance of equity across campus.

“We're working across lots of different fronts on that and thinking about how we hire more diverse faculty and staff, how we think about what our climate is like, and how we think about how we all become more educated about diversity,” Wilson said. “I'm very committed to thinking about diversity in all ways, aspects and forms.”

Questioned about her management style, particularly when it comes to athletics, Wilson said it’s important be “involved in everything” at the university, though she said she wouldn't micromanage. During her time at Illinois, she oversaw the firings of the athletic director and two football coaches following allegations of mistreatment of student-athletes.

“I think it's really important that the president is walking lockstep with the athletic director on values, on integrity, on making sure students graduate,” Wilson said, “and ensuring that we're running an athletic program we can all be proud of.”

She will also be tasked with navigating relationships with state lawmakers at a time when public universities across the country are struggling to keep costs down as their state funding is slashed. Iowa lawmakers also drew outcry from the campus this session when they introduced a bill that would eliminate tenure at Iowa’s public universities.

“One of my goals will be to get out to the districts and to meet with legislators, to get to know them, to hear what's on their mind,” Wilson said, adding that getting more students in front of lawmakers would be a “game changer."

Wilson will be the third woman to serve as the UI’s president. During her tenure she says she’ll take seriously what she sees as a responsibility to broaden and diversify leadership roles at the university.

Wilson’s first day on the job is July 15. Harreld is slated to retire May 16 and will not stay on until his successor begins her tenure, as he had previously said he would. In the meantime, UI Assistant Provost and Dean of the Graduate College John Keller will serve as interim president.

Kate Payne was an Iowa City-based Reporter