Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

New University of Iowa President Starts Job During Time of Transition

Justin Torner - Staff Photographer - The University Of Iowa/Office Of Strategic Communication
President Barbara J. Wilson

University of Iowa President Barbara Wilson has taken the helm at the state's flagship public university during a time of transition. After officially starting the job last week, Wilson says she's hit the ground running with a flurry of meetings, introductions, and visits as she gets her bearings on campus.

Stepping in to lead the UI in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, the resulting financial cuts, and ongoing movements for racial justice, Wilson’s term begins at a pivotal time.

Wilson says she's "forward facing," not second guessing

A media and communications scholar with decades of experience in academic administration, Wilson was most recently second in command at the University of Illinois system.

Coming into the UI following a round of budget cuts and consolidations meant to shore up the university’s finances due to pandemic-related losses, Wilson told reporters Tuesday she doesn’t plan to second guess the decisions of her predecessor, former President Bruce Harreld.

“I'm forward facing right now. I'm not inclined to go back and retread and re-analyze unless there are issues that come up,” Wilson said. “We have to think forward. Where are we going to go from here?”

Wilson has inherited a number of campus conflicts, including a lack of trust in Harreld’s administration. A former business executive with no experience in academia, his appointment rankled students and faculty.

Wilson plans to "strongly encourage" but not require COVID vaccines

Likely the most pressing issue before Wilson is the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, which remains a grave threat to the unvaccinated. With the spread of the more infectious Delta variant, hospitalizations are ticking up in Iowa and communities across the country. Some areas with lower vaccination rates, including neighboring Missouri, are seeing spikes in transmission.

Wilson told reporters it’s her understanding she cannot require students to be vaccinated in order to return to campus, following a decision by the Iowa Board of Regents, but she says she’ll be doing everything she can to “strongly encourage” getting the shot.

“The best thing we can do right now is get people vaccinated. And that's what we're going to encourage people to do, unless they have a medical or other reason, we're going to just encourage, encourage encourage,” Wilson said. “And to the extent that we can do that, we're going to mitigate a lot of issues this fall.”

When questioned about the Regents’ proposed tuition increases at the state’s three public universities, Wilson said the price hike is "reasonable," but said she will be looking at how financial aid and scholarships can “backfill” the added costs for students and their families.

“We'll be carefully looking at affordability, but also recognizing that this is a really reasonably priced place to go to school, even though it feels expensive to a lot of families,” Wilson said. “What I would like to do is to be able to have a tuition level that makes sense and that's competitive, but then also backfill with lots of financial aid for those students who can't afford to go to college otherwise.”

Wilson noted that even with the proposed increases, tuition at the UI remains lower than at many peer institutions, but warned that without more funding from state lawmakers, the cost burden on students may get worse.

The regents are expected to vote on the increases next week.

Wilson already meeting with Gov. Reynolds, state legislators

Wilson also made it clear she believes academic freedom is critical to the success of the institution, and a key to faculty and student recruitment. She takes the post at a time when some Iowa professors are getting pushback for their work. This year some state lawmakers sought to ban tenure at public universities.

“They're not going to come here if somehow tenure is threatened or their ability to do the kind of work that they need to do. And that will certainly be a really important part of my goal, is to help people appreciate that, not just legislators but taxpayers, families, students,” Wilson said.

“We might not always like what faculty are doing,” she added, “but they are experts in their field and we need to make sure that they have the freedom to explore what they need to explore in their discipline.”

Wilson says she looks forward to building relationships with state lawmakers and other community leaders across the state to help support the UI. In her brief time on the job, Wilson says she’s already met with some legislators and with Gov. Kim Reynolds. Wilson said the two agreed to be “partners” moving forward.

Wilson says she's open to reimagining public safety

Meanwhile, organizers on campus are still calling for action on racial justice and for sweeping reforms to how the university handles public safety, with some activists calling for defunding the school’s police force. The Reimagining Campus Safety Action Committee held a series of public events earlier this year to get feedback on proposed recommendations.

Wilson says she’s open to approaching public safety in new ways.

“My goal is to be a leader in this space to make sure that we have a community and a campus where people feel supported and where our public safety is at the best it can be,” Wilson said. “The path forward will look different than what it's looked like, because we can think differently about public safety.”

Wilson also inherits ongoing disputes in Iowa athletics. The school’s football program and some coaches currently face a federal civil rights lawsuit brought by former players alleging a pattern of racial discrimination and mistreatment.

In her time at Illinois, Wilson oversaw high profile firings of Athletics Department officials following allegations of abuse and medical mistreatment of student-athletes by a coach.

When asked whether personnel changes are needed at Iowa, Wilson said she’s not currently inclined to step in.

“Hawkeye Athletics had a great year last year. I'm not inclined to just jump in and think that we need lots of changes, but if issues arise and I need to pay attention to them, I will,” she said.