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The second named finalist to become the University of Iowa’s 22nd president on Thursday demonstrated a deep understanding of issues facing higher education by touting ideas to address sexual violence on campus, diversity concerns, lawmaker relations and enrollment challenges.
Barbara J. Wilson, who serves as executive vice president and vice president for academic affairs with the University of Illinois System, said the campuses positioned to survive a projected drop in college-bound prospects are those thinking creatively.
“We have to think more about transfer students and about what we're going to do to educate older workers and people who want to return to college,” Wilson said at a Thursday public forum on the UI campus. “Wouldn't it be wonderful if before every student graduates we could commit to some sort of partnership over their career, where they could come back and learn more from us?”
She suggested a shift toward thinking about higher education as a “lifelong” endeavor — with plans in place for future certificates and advanced degrees.
“There are ways in which we can partner with students, no matter who they are or where they are in their educational journey, and bring them back to the university — either virtually or on campus,” she said. "I think we're going to have to get creative and open up our minds a little bit."
Although Wilson — a communications professor who’s been advancing through the administrative ranks at the University of Illinois for two decades — is rooted with that Big Ten campus, she said Iowa beckons as a “dream job” for its central and focused position in the esteemed conference.
“I work across three universities — the University of Illinois-Chicago, Urbana-Champaign, Springfield — and I'm much more outward-focused,” she said. “But really my passion is to get closer to faculty, staff, students, and donors.
“A position like this would afford me the opportunity to get closer to the kinds of things that really drive my interest and excite me about higher ed,” she said. “And I think that the Big Ten is in my blood.”
Wilson, 62, earned her undergraduate, master’s and doctoral degrees in journalism and communications from the University of Wisconsin in the late 1970s and 1980s.
She’s faced a broad array of challenges in her leadership posts at Illinois — including controversies involving diversity on campus, sexual violence, transparency and deep budget cuts.
Wilson drew from that experience and referenced it Thursday in tackling questions from the UI community during the second of four public forums scheduled this week and next with finalists to succeed UI President Bruce Harreld.
“It seems to me that you're looking for a president that has many of the skills and many of the commitments that I have,” Wilson said. “I'm a communication scholar, so I spend a lot of time thinking about outreach, engagement, how do you listen, and how do you actively listen and engage in deep listening — and then how do you bring people together to solve problems across different divides?”
As a leader, Wilson said she values her role as facilitator, translator, energizer and delegator in empowering collaboration and efficiency across campus.
“When I create teams, what I'm looking for is diversity of perspectives, people who will challenge me,” she said. “Frankly, I'm looking for people who are smarter than me. And most of the time I can find them.”
When asked how Wilson would support “faculty of color on campus,” she stressed the need to consider workload and “the kinds of invisible labor that many of them are engaged in.”
Referencing an African American faculty member she watched advise an increasing swath of students, Wilson suggested he’s not alone.
“He was a person that many of our students went to … because their numbers are small, and students want to interact with people who look and act and seem like them,” she said. “So I think we've got to find ways to acknowledge that work and reward it.”
Taking a question about promoting Asian Americans specifically into leadership positions and the central administration, Wilson referenced her personal life — as the mother of two adopted Asian American daughters.
“We've been spending a lot of time lately talking about, what does it feel like to be an Asian American in this country right now?” she said. “I'm very concerned about those issues for them, for my family. But I'm concerned about all kinds of diversity.
“I think the leadership teams have to be diverse, as do our faculty and our staff, frankly,” she said. “And that would be something that would be a high priority.”
During her forum, Wilson took questions on the budget, legislative relations and tuition — calling out the “constant challenge to keep education affordable as states have receded in their support.”
One person asked what Wilson thinks about mandating COVID-19 vaccines for those returning to campus in the fall. Although she’d like to do that, for those living in the residence halls, Wilson acknowledged legal and social limitations.
“We may not be at a place in society where that's going to work,” she said. “So I would like to think about ways to incentivize people to get vaccinated.”
When asked how she would engage the campus as a community member, Wilson said, “That’s the role of a president, frankly.”
“It’s to be out and about, to be visible, to be meeting people, to build relationships, it's the kind of thing I like to do,” she said, adding presidents should "be working hard all the time to build relationships.
“And it starts with the students. But it goes to the community and beyond.”
Vanessa Miller covers higher education for The Gazette.
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