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Top Georgia State University Admin Interviews For UI Presidential Post

University of Iowa Presidential Candidate Wendy Hensel gives opening remarks at a public forum, Monday, April 19, 2021, in Iowa City, Iowa. Hensel currently serves as provost and senior vice president of academic affairs at Georgia State University. (Ryan Adams/The Daily Iowan via AP, Pool)
Ryan Adams/AP
Pool The Daily Iowan
University of Iowa Presidential Candidate Wendy Hensel gives opening remarks at a public forum Monday in Iowa City. Hensel currently serves as provost and senior vice president of academic affairs at Georgia State University.

The third candidate vying to be the next president of the University of Iowa has spent much of her career teaching and writing about disability and employment rights law. Wendy Hensel is currently serving as the provost and senior vice president for academic affairs at Georgia State University in Atlanta, and is presenting herself as an innovator who’s spent her career focused on equity and problem solving. She was on the UI campus Monday, meeting with leaders and taking questions in a socially-distanced public forum.

As the chief academic officer at Georgia State, Hensel oversees all academic programming and curriculum and university funding allocations, and supervises deans and associate provosts at one of Georgia’s largest public universities.

GSU serves more than 54,000 students across six campuses in metro Atlanta, with more than 250 degree programs spanning A.A.’s to Ph.D.’s. The university prides itself on both its ethnically-diverse student body and its success in conferring degrees to students of color and economically disadvantaged students at higher rates.

Hansel wants to use data to improve student success, close demographic achievement gaps

Hensel highlighted these efforts during a public forum Monday afternoon, detailing how GSU has used data and AI-assisted technology to track risk factors and connect students to the support systems they need during critical times of transition and adjustment.

“I am here to say that the evidence is clear at this point: we can eliminate all barriers to student success if we look at ourselves, rather than the students and ask what barriers we have intentionally…or rather unintentionally erected that keep them from success,” Hensel said, adding that improving student success is a “moral imperative” that also helps improve overall efficiency, which cuts costs.

“Georgia State is a leader in that space, and graduates students in our university at the same rate, regardless of race, gender, or socioeconomic status, despite educating more Pell-eligible students than the entire Ivy League combined,” she added.

According to U.S. News, GSU ranks #8 among the country’s most ethnically diverse universities, and ranks #9 in the nation for advancing social mobility, a metric which tracks enrollment and graduation rates for disadvantaged students who are eligible for federal Pell Grants.

Hansel says “there is no question” that diversity improves decision-making

Hensel highlighted her efforts to further diversity, equity and inclusion at GSU, by helping implement a university-wide plan to increase faculty diversity and establishing a Task Force on Racial Equity made up of faculty, staff and students in the wake of the nationwide racial justice protests last summer. Hensel also helped develop a comprehensive action plan aimed at creating a more diverse and welcoming campus environment.

She emphasized the importance of not only listening to the campus community but developing actionable steps of significance, paired with specific metrics and timelines to ensure accountability and measure success.

“We make better decisions, there is no question about it, when there's diversity of viewpoint, diversity of race and gender in the room making the decisions,” Hensel said. “And so I would expect that as part of a diversity initiative that we would develop those accountability measures together, that we would discuss it routinely, that we would measure what we care about.”

Hansel presents herself as a ‘change agent’

Hensel has taught at the GSU College of Law since 1999, climbing the ladder from instructor to full professor to ultimately become dean of the school. Her research and teaching interests include disability law, education law, employment discrimination law, and public health law.

Before taking the teaching post at the GSU, Hensel worked at the Atlanta law firm Alston & Bird LLP, advising companies on how to make their workplaces more accessible and how to comply with labor and employment laws. She also clerked for U.S. District Judge Orinda Davis and interned at the U.S. Supreme Court.

She describes herself as a passionate advocate for people with disabilities and has published academic papers on issues such as the impact of the Americans with Disabilities Act on schools and universities; the legality of denying people with disabilities scarce resources during public health emergencies; and how to square state vaccine requirements for children with the individual rights guaranteed by the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

Hansel argues that throughout her career she has been a “change agent” and a “problem solver” with a focus on equity. She says she hopes to use those skills to help the UI use more data, analytics and AI technology to create efficiencies and identify ways to improve students’ educational experience, as well as embracing the opportunities presented by the surge in online education brought on the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We have a key challenge on the horizon, and that's declining enrollment. The demographic cliff is coming and it will be coming particularly to the Midwest. And it will be critical to the long-term health of this university and others like it to stem the tide,” Hensel said. “Creating a destination of choice is really about creating the most exciting dynamic environment that is student-centered and research-oriented, and very clearly has its finger on the pulse of the future.”

Fourth and final candidate will visit campus later this week

The fourth and last candidate selected as a finalist for the presidential post will visit campus this week, with the final public forum scheduled for Thursday afternoon. The name and CV of the candidate will be released the day before their interview.

The next president of the UI will take the place of outgoing President Bruce Harreld, who is slated to retire in May. Harreld had previously committed to staying in the job until his successor was ready to start. Harreld has since reversed this, and UI Associate Provost and Graduate College Dean John Keller will serve as Interim President until the next one is ready to start their term.

The presidential search committee is currently taking feedback from the broader campus community on the finalists. The deadline to submit comments on the candidates for review by the Board of Regents is Monday April 26 at 5 p.m.

The state Board of Regents is on track to hold a special meeting April 30 to hire the next president after considering the recommendations from the search committee and interviewing the finalists.

Kate Payne was an Iowa City-based Reporter