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Top University Of Illinois Admin Interviews For UI Presidential Post

University of Illinois executive vice president and vice president for academic affairs Barbara J. Wilson answers questions, Thursday, April 15, 2021, in Iowa City, Iowa. (Katie Goodale/The Daily Iowan via AP, Pool)
Katie Goodale
Pool The Daily Iowan
University of Illinois executive vice president and vice president for academic affairs Barbara J. Wilson answers questions on Thursday in Iowa City.

The second candidate interviewing to be the next president of the University of Iowa comes from the state university system in neighboring Illinois. Barbara Wilson, a top administrator at the University of Illinois system visited campus Thursday, taking questions and meeting with school leaders.

Wilson currently serves as the second-most senior executive and the chief academic officer for the University of Illinois system, where she helps oversee three state universities, including more than 90,000 students, more than 6,000 faculty members and a budget of some $6.74 billion.

A communications researcher by training with two decades of administrative experience

Before transitioning into academic leadership roles, Wilson was a communications professor and researcher focused on the social and psychological effects of media, particularly on children and families, making stops at the universities in Wisconsin, Kentucky and California before arriving at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, the flagship school in the U of I system.

Wilson answered a slate of questions posed by campus community members in a socially-distanced session, where she touted her administrative experience at the Illinois system, which she said would enable her to hit the ground running at Iowa.

“I would say this job, this position is daunting for many. Someone said to me the other day, ‘how would you manage all of these stakeholders?’ And I’m doing that already,” she said. “So in many ways this is…it’s a great opportunity but I’m second to the president in our system. I’m working for and on behalf of 90,000 students.”

She remains a communications professor at the UIUC, and has co-authored and co-edited multiple books and published dozens of journal articles and chapters on media impacts and policy implications.

Faced past controversies

Wilson has weathered controversy while at Illinois and made critical leadership decisions during times of pressure, overseeing the firing of two football coaches and an athletic director following allegations of abuse and medical mistreatment of student-athletes by one of the coaches.

The situation did not come up during Thursday’s forums. At times, Wilson also seemed hesitant to weigh in on issues of a more political nature. When asked how she would protect international students from immigration and customs enforcement, she replied that university presidents have little impact on the issue.

“How will I do that?” she said with a laugh. “Well I think that's a really important question but I don't think the president of any institution can do that alone.”

During the forum she highlighted her work to expand support for faculty of color, who she said often do significant “invisible labor” mentoring and advising students, labor which often goes unrecognized and uncompensated.

“So we're spending time thinking about that and talking about that and we’re trying to rewrite our tenure and promotion documents now to try to embrace a broader view of excellence and faculty work,” Wilson said. “So I think that’s a big part of it. The other thing I think is to ensure that they feel included and that's a challenge when departments aren't very diverse.”

In her two decades of administrative experience at the University of California, Santa Barbara, the UIUC and across the University of Illinois system, Wilson has balanced a host of responsibilities, from advising and mentoring students, to overseeing budgets, strategic planning and fundraising, to lobbying local, state and federal elected officials, and leading system-wide initiatives on mental health, sexual misconduct prevention and education, and the promotion of leadership opportunities for women faculty.

At the public forum Thursday she said she remains “deeply committed” to sexual misconduct prevention and education and spoke of her efforts implement new sexual conduct polices at Illinois

“We're one of the few universities in the country I think that has a strict policy that says that we will not allow intimate relationships between faculty and staff on the one hand and undergraduates on the other. I can tell you this was not an easy policy to get through,” Wilson said. “But we have an institutional commitment and I think priority to ensure the safety and wellbeing of our students. And oftentimes those relationships have power imbalances and are deeply problematic when they go wrong.”

Two more candidates slated to interview next week

Wilson is one of four candidates are interviewing to replace outgoing-president Bruce Harreld, who will depart in May, after initially pledging to stay in the post until his successor was ready to assume the position. Dean of the UI Associate Provost and Graduate College John Keller will serve as the interim president until the new one starts their term.

The first candidate to interview for the position was Hari Osofky, currently the dean of Penn State Law and the Penn State School of International Affairs.

Two more candidates seeking to be the next president of the UI are slated to visit campus next week, with public forums scheduled for April 19 and 22. Their names and CVs will be released the day before their interviews.

A presidential search committee is on track to make their final recommendations to the Board of Regents by the end of the month, with the board members slated to hire the next president on April 30.

Kate Payne was an Iowa City-based Reporter