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IOWA CITY — In meeting with University of Iowa constituents — and researching the campus she hopes to soon lead — Georgia State University Provost Wendy Hensel on Monday mentioned several spaces in which the UI “has work to do.”
“We can do everything right,” Hensel, the third of four finalists to succeed outgoing UI President Bruce Harreld, said during a public forum. “We can be as forward looking as we can possibly be. And if we do not create a diverse, inclusive environment, none of those things will take us where we want to go.
“A foundational component of my leadership has been building an equitable, inclusive environment of belongingness for everybody on campus,” she said. “It's no secret that Iowa, like everywhere else, has work to do in this.”
Hensel — who has spent her entire academic career at Georgia State, first as a non-tenure-track instructor; advancing to a tenured professor; and escalating more recently to the top-tier administrative post of provost and senior vice president for academic affairs — said she’s also heard campus concern about recent internal promotions done without campus input.
“I’ve seen on your campus some have been concerned about some interim appointments that have gone forward without input,” Hensel said. “And I think it is not helpful to the person in that position not to have the legitimacy that a national search brings.”
Hensel reported having to learn the importance of process the hard way in several instances at Georgia State — either by skipping national searches or by preempting a task force for racial equality by announcing a new Presidential Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion before the task force finished its work.
“They were furious,” Hensel reported. “And rightly so. They felt like it was lip service. When I asked them to sit down and think about solutions, and then acted without consulting them, it was an unforced error that reinforced distrust that had been built with the administration.”
It wasn’t that the task force disagreed with the move to create a DEI office.
“But the way in which we went about it created and fostered a sense of disconnection,” according to Hensel, who said she spent two hours apologizing and admitting wrong to right the committee’s course and continue its collaboration.
Hensel faced a range of questions from the UI community Monday, including how she would handle deepening divides with lawmakers, how she’d address concerns of free speech on the campus, and what she would do about professors who “constantly fail to deliver the expectations from their students.”
“I think you have to take action — in fact, I more than think it. I do it,” she said, acknowledging some professors do their best but still fall short — especially in situations like COVID-19.
“It's a different situation with a professor who no longer cares, who's phoning it in, and is not responsive to students,” she said. “That is an unacceptable situation.”
Referring to recent legislative proposals to eliminate tenure across Iowa’s public universities, Hensel noted the detrimental impact that could have not just for the campuses but the broader communities in which they sit, and the state.
“If you hurt this university in ways that are material, you will also harm the economic engine that is created as a result of the activities taking place in this campus,” she said, noting tenure is “just fundamental.”
But addressing concerns with lawmakers can be done “as friends, with data and common goals.”
“The answer to all of these issues, like all the different bills that have come forward, is not to stand up and say, ’You're wrong, you're wrong, you're wrong,’” she said. “It's to say, ’Let us use data to come together as friends and explain to you why this doesn't only hurt this university, but why it is antithetical to what you need as the state of Iowa and the goals that you're trying to advance.’”
About free speech on campus — which has become a prime point of contention among Republican lawmakers concerned about suppression of conservative voices — Hensel suggested finesse in tackling the increasingly fraught issue.
“Very delicately and not perfectly,” was how she answered a question about balancing free speech with the desire to create a welcoming and inclusive environment.
“Free speech is a cornerstone of a public university,” she said. “It is a legal requirement of a public university. And that means that we can't be afraid of ideas that we don't agree with. We can't censor them. We can't preclude them. We can't punish them. And more importantly, we shouldn't try.”
But, Hensel said, she has sat with students pained by speech on her campus. And she touted her work increasing success among minority groups at Georgia State, stressing that as a major goal she’d tackle as UI president.
“I believe strongly — as I think all of you do too, based on what I've heard today — that it is a moral imperative that anybody that we admit as sufficiently talented to be in this university, we commit to get them through to graduation,” she said.
“You've done a good job of focusing on this over the last years, but there's more work to do in this space,” she said. “It is our job as educators to identify every barrier that exists to that success and eradicate it to allow everyone to succeed.”
Vanessa Miller covers higher education for The Gazette.
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