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Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
IOWA CITY — Stepping into the University of Iowa presidency as her campus emerges from an historically tumultuous year that stressed the budget and prompted her predecessor to trim programs, eliminate sports and move toward severing financial support for Hancher Auditorium, Barbara Wilson said she’s unlikely to revisit past decisions.
“I'm forward facing right now, I'm not inclined to go back and retread and reanalyze — unless there are issues that come up,” Wilson told reporters Tuesday during a sit-down in her first full week on the job. “Decisions were made with lots of smart people around the table, and we have to think forward. Where are we going to go from here? We've got a lot of issues to focus on.”
Those issues, she said, include advocating for legislative support for the esteemed research university; promoting UI’s national and global contributions; addressing issues of diversity and inclusion; ramping up mental health supports; balancing tuition revenue needs with accessibility concerns; and returning the campus to pre-pandemic norms — among many other things.
“We are going to be strongly encouraging vaccines,” Wilson said to a question of whether the UI plans to mandate COVID-19 vaccination for students, faculty and staff returning to campus for the upcoming fall semester.
Board of Regents President Mike Richards in May issued a statement that also encouraged campuswide vaccination but barred the universities under its purview from requiring their respective communities do so.
“The institutions under the jurisdiction of the Board of Regents (with the exception of University of Iowa Health Care) may not impose any requirement that students, faculty, or staff receive or provide evidence of having received a vaccination for COVID-19,” according to Richards statement.
“Our goal is to vaccinate as many people as we possibly can,” Wilson said Tuesday. “That will be the path we take right now.”
With the Board of Regents next week scheduled to approve tuition increases for the fall — amounting to a 3.5 percent hike for in-state undergraduates at the UI and Iowa State University and a 1.5 percent across-the-board at the University of Northern Iowa — Wilson acknowledged the need for more financial resources.
“COVID hit all universities pretty hard,” she said, conceding affordability is crucial.
“But when you think about higher ed and the costs that we face, if the state isn't going to increase our budget, we don't have very many other places to support the university,” Wilson told reporters. “If we don't have other ways to fund what we do, we're going to get stuck looking hard at tuition increases.”
Lawmakers in the last session rejected the regents’ funding request for an $18 million increase — $7 million extra each for the UI and ISU and $4 million UNI — plus restoration of an $8 million appropriations cut delivered in the throes of the pandemic. Instead, the state kept funding levels flat for the public universities, a move regents cited for the proposed rate increases.
A new Board of Regents report made public just hours before Wilson sat down with reporters shows the UI now gets 63 percent of its $738 million in general university revenue from tuition — with just 29 percent coming from state appropriations. Those proportions were the opposite decades ago.
Thanks to the proposed tuition increases and other cost recoveries and interest income, the UI is expecting a $10 million revenue increase in the new budget year over last. But enrollment losses are limiting the potential gains.
“For the fall of 2021, the university is anticipating a smaller incoming freshman class with a smaller percentage of non-resident students,” according to the board report. “The smaller freshman class in the previous year will also have an impact on overall undergraduate enrollments.”
When asked about enrollment management and goals, Wilson said Tuesday she’s not yet prepared to comment on goals or expectations of growth.
“But I can tell you there's been strong interest this summer” in students considering the UI, she said. “I was just told this morning that we opened on-campus visits in June, and we are averaging 250 visits a day. We're at capacity. We can't do much more than that.”
She said enrollment considerations will — among other things — involve assessment of the UI residence hall system, which the board report revealed is facing less revenue than expected and took a hit from COVID-19. Where net revenue after debt service and mandatory transfers in the 2020 budget year — a more typical year to compare — was $12.6 million, it’s budgeted in this 2022 budget year to be just $4.7 million.
Looking across the campus, UI officials — according to the report — aim to “identify, evaluate, and possibly discontinue or close activities in which state resources are no longer sufficient to support these functions.”
But Wilson said she’s optimistic about her campus’ future and focused now on meeting members of her new community, listening to their needs and keeping an open mind. She’s also developing talking points in her mission to raise the university’s profile.
“The challenge for all of these institutions in the Midwest is to figure out how to make sure people across the country know about all the great things that are going on here,” said Wilson, who came to the UI presidency from her post as second-in-command over the $6.74 billion three-campus University of Illinois System.
“I want to make sure that the state knows that, I want to make sure that the Midwest knows that, and the nation knows that,” she said. “What do you get if you come to the University of Iowa that you might not get somewhere else?”
Among the well-wishes Wilson said she’s received in beginning her tenure as 22nd UI president have been messages from the campus’ past female presidents — Mary Sue Coleman and Sally Mason.
“I got a lovely card from Mary Sue Coleman and a nice email from Sally,” she said. “Both welcoming me and saying they’re committed to do whatever they can to help.”
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