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IOWA CITY — In contrast to her predecessor, who was chosen for his work in private business and his outside perspective, the University of Iowa’s next president is a seasoned academic leader with a doctorate and nearly two decades of administrative experience in academia.
Having served as second-in-command for the last five years over the sprawling three-campus, $6.74 billion University of Illinois System, Barbara Wilson — after being introduced Friday as the UI president-elect — said she’s more than experienced, prepared and excited to lead the campus through this unparalleled time in higher education.
“I'm all in,” said Wilson, 63, who had been executive vice president and vice president for student affairs with the University of Illinois System since 2016. “I'm excited to be here, and I'll be cheering along with everybody for the great virtues and fortunes of this university.”
She takes the reins July 15 from retiring UI President Bruce Harreld, who started in September 2015 and wraps his tenure May 16. Outgoing Graduate College Dean John Keller will serve as interim during the two-month gap.
Wilson will become the university’s third female president — following Mary Sue Coleman, who served from 1995 to 2002, and Sally Mason, who served from 2007 to 2015.
The Board of Regents, which voted unanimously to hire Wilson, is extending her a five-year contract paying an annual salary of $600,000. As a tenured professor for decades, Wilson will receive tenure at Iowa, too, plus a five-year deferred compensation plan with annual contributions of $400,000 — amounting to $2 million total.
Harreld, who had been a top executive at IBM but never an academic administrator before leading the UI, earned $590,000. He’s forfeiting his $2.33 million in deferred compensation by leaving before his contract expires.
Wilson shared her vision Friday for a forward-thinking UI — committing to involve students in every aspect of her leadership, including efforts to engage lawmakers, expand scholarship and address diversity, equity and inclusion.
“I'm very committed to thinking about diversity in all ways, aspects and forms,” she said, stressing commitment to racial and ethnic diversity along with “gender diversity and diversity in terms of disabilities.”
“What we want for all of these great universities is to be a welcoming environment that brings people in and transforms their lives,” Wilson said. “To do that, we have to be diverse."
‘Back to what I love’
Wilson grew up in Wisconsin and earned a bachelor’s in journalism, a master’s in communications and a doctorate in communications from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She spent a stint as an assistant professor at the University of Louisville and then 12 years at the University of California Santa Barbara before joining the Illinois faculty in 2000.
Upon her return to the Big Ten, Wilson advanced through the ranks as professor, department head, vice provost for academic affairs, executive vice provost for faculty and academic affairs, College of Liberal Arts and Sciences dean, interim chancellor and then executive vice president of the entire system in 2016.
“One of the things I miss most in my current role at the University of Illinois is working with students, because I'm at the system level now,” she said. “But what I tell people is an hour with students sort of re-energizes and recharges my battery … So I'm really excited about this opportunity to get back to what I love.”
Wilson said she was nominated for the UI job by colleagues and took some time deciding whether to apply.
“I didn't apply right away because I needed to learn a little bit about the position and make sure it was a great fit for me,” she said. “But as soon as I figured that out, I put my application in and the process started.”
Wilson is married to John Lammers, and they have two grown daughters. Her research interests include the social and psychological effects of the media, particularly on children. She has co-authored or coedited four books and written 80-plus research articles, book chapters and technical reports.
‘A long process’
Wilson has faced a broad array of challenges at Illinois — including many that the UI also has tackled — like diversity concerns, athletics controversies, sexual violence, transparency, budget cuts and enrollment shifts.
She stepped in as interim chancellor of the Urbana-Champaign campus in 2015 after Phyllis Wise resigned for her handling of a professor who made anti-Israel tweets and her use of a private email to conduct university business. During that interim, Wilson fired two football coaches and an athletic director after one coach was accused of mistreating players, Illinois Public Media reported. Wilson told reporters Friday a president should be involved in all aspects of a university’s operations, including athletics.
Her hire follows Harreld’s controversial appointment in 2015, when the regents disregarded broad campus concern over his candidacy by appointing him anyway. That move slapped the UI with a sanction from the American Association of University Professors, which eventually removed the university from its blacklist after a set of best practices was developed with the regents.
And Wilson praised the UI search experience.
“It's been a long process, a very transparent process, but one that I think will really help me as I enter my beginning few months,” she said. “I've met so many people — faculty, staff, and students. And I think the one message I got from all of them is people are ready. People are ready for this presidency and for the next phase.”
22nd president of the University of Iowa
6 years under UI president Bruce Harreld
16th day of May will mark Harreld’s last day
3 female finalists
1 male finalist
2 deans were finalists
1 provost finalist
1 executive vice president finalist
1847, the year University of Iowa was founded
12 colleges on the Iowa City campus
31,730 undergraduate, graduate, doctorate and postgraduate students
9 members of the governing Board of Regents
(Source: The University of Iowa)
In response to Friday’s announcement, lawmakers and faculty sounded off, including Rep. Christina Bohannan, D-Iowa City, who is a UI law professor.
“President-elect Barbara Wilson is an outstanding and highly-qualified choice to lead the University of Iowa,” Bohannan told The Gazette in an email. “As both a faculty member and a state representative, I look forward to working with her to help the university achieve its greatest potential. ”
Similarly, Sen. Joe Bolkcom, D-Iowa City, congratulated campus leaders and the regents “for conducting an open, inclusive presidential search and selection process.”
“Barbara Wilson is a terrific choice and will make a great new University of Iowa president,” he said.
Teresa Marshall, a dentistry professor and Faculty Senate president, said she's pleased the board chose Wilson.
“She is a true scholar with a long tenure of academic administrative experience,” Marshall said. “Her experience at a sister Big Ten institution has prepared her to address both the challenges and recognize the opportunities facing the University of Iowa.”
Joe Yockey, a law professor, past Faculty Senate president and search committee member, mentioned Wilson’s experience with crisis management.
“I’m confident whatever is thrown at her, she’ll handle it thoughtfully and get us where we need to be,” he said.
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Erin Jordan of The Gazette contributed to this report.