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IOWA CITY — Overnight Wednesday, the University of Iowa updated its Office of the President website to reflect its new leadership — presenting Barbara Wilson as its 22nd president.
On Thursday, she officially took the helm, promising to usher in a “new era of excellence” for the Hawkeyes.
“I cannot envision a more remarkable university to lead,” Wilson wrote in a welcome message on the UI presidential homepage. “I am ready and eager to work with our incredibly talented university community to make life better for everyone who is touched by this institution.”
From her long academic and professional tenure in the Big Ten — earning undergraduate and graduate degrees from the University of Wisconsin and serving as faculty and administrator in the University of Illinois System for 21 years — Wilson said she’s come to know the UI as a leader on many fronts.
She praised Iowa as an institution “that leads with imagination and innovation, educates with student success at its heart, serves the public with dedication and enthusiasm, and believes deeply in the centrality of diversity, equity and inclusion.”
And she noted her arrival comes a year shy of the campus’ 175th anniversary — with origins dating back to 1847, a handful of faculty, a few dozen students, and a single building.
Today, the UI boasts top-tier colleges, a world-renowned health care operation, more than 30,000 students, and cutting-edge research programs — and finds itself at “another crucial inflection point,” Wilson said in her message.
“As we emerge from a historic global pandemic,” she said, “much of my effort will be focused on making sure we keep our momentum moving forward at the same time we remain vigilant about the ongoing COVID-19 situation.”
Acknowledging the UI has faced crises before, Wilson praised the campus’ ability to “always come out stronger” and committed to ensuring that holds true.
In addition to a new first-year class, she shared excitement for the upcoming opening of the Stanley Museum of Art, scheduled in 2022; a new Iowa Center for School Mental Health; an expanded “experiential education” program; and new interdisciplinary space research.
“As I don the black and gold and join the Hawkeye family, I very much look forward to collaborating with our university community and meeting with alumni and friends, the citizens of Iowa, our state’s leaders, and anyone who has an interest in this extraordinary institution,” Wilson wrote. “I am here to help make the University of Iowa the best it can possibly be.”
In campuswide communication Thursday, the university shared a video it took of an interview with Wilson — asking her get-to-know-you questions like, “What is the last great book you read,” “What are you most looking forward to,” and “What is the best advice you’ve ever been given?”
“Probably one of the things that I remember the most, and I use almost every day, is advice from my Ph.D. adviser back in graduate school,” Wilson said in the video. “She used to say, ‘Everything that comes out of this lab has to be the best it can be. We have to check, double-check, and triple-check everything for accuracy and for impact.’ And I carry those words with me in every job I’ve had since.”
To the question about a great book, Wilson said she reads a lot and shared the book she’s reading now — “The Color of Water” by James McBride.
“It’s full of little nuggets, treasures and lessons about how to live life in a multicultural world,” Wilson said.
To a question about what she thinks one of the biggest misconceptions of the Midwest might be, Wilson suggested the coastal perception the heartland is a “sleepy” collection of “flyover states” is untrue and needs correcting.
“The energy here is endless,” she said. “And so one of my goals would be to try to lift up what we do here so the national arena knows more about the University of Iowa and how it’s changing the world.”
In the video, Wilson said her first job was babysitter and then at the cash register of a discount store called Treasure Island.
As UI president, Wilson said she sees herself taking many roles — including listener, as she meets students and colleagues.
“I’m a communications scholar, so I focus a lot on listening, learning and understanding people’s perspectives,” she said. “I’m going to facilitate what people want to have happen, their goals, their dreams, their aspirations, and work really hard on collaboration.”
Wilson, 63, was chosen April 30 to succeed former UI President Bruce Harreld following a national search that netted 79 applicants, 12 semifinalists, and four finalists who visited campus and participated in public forums.
She most recently was serving as second-in-command over the sprawling $6.74 billion three-campus University of Illinois System.
At the UI, Wilson will receive tenure and earn an annual base pay of $600,000 — plus a five-year deferred compensation package worth $2 million.
Vanessa Miller covers higher education for The Gazette.
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