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IOWA CITY — In a prerecorded video for the Friday installation ceremony of Barbara Wilson as the University of Iowa’s 22nd president, her oldest living predecessor Willard Lee “Sandy” Boyd was asked what advice he has for the campus’ new leader.
“She doesn’t need advice,” Boyd said of Wilson, who started work seven months ago on July 15. “She’s had a great deal of experience. She’s out meeting people and understanding about the ethos of Iowa and the University of Iowa.”
Given Wilson’s Big Ten Conference background — earning bachelor’s, master’s and doctorate degrees from the University of Wisconsin and then becoming executive vice president of the University of Illinois System — the UI is “very fortunate to have her here,” Boyd said.
“She will lead us well.”
Wilson’s official installation ceremony was held on the UI’s 175th anniversary — kicking off a series of celebrations in the coming days commemorating the university’s many milestones, including groundbreaking appointments of women to leadership roles.
“We’ve welcomed a new president to lead our institution 21 other times in our history, and today we are installing our third woman as president,” UI professor Ted Abel, director of the Iowa Neuroscience Institute, said. “For 16 of the last 27 years, the University of Iowa has been led by a woman. That's a record to be proud of.”
The UI is one of just six top research universities to have had three female presidents and among the 22 percent who have female presidents presently.
And UI Student Body President Regan Smock boasted of her confidence Wilson isn’t afraid to continue breaking new ground.
Sharing an anecdote about an early meeting she had with Wilson, Smock said she had been hesitant to bring up an issue her government wanted to pursue — because no other Big Ten schools had done it.
“I hesitantly told her, ‘You know, I don't know if it's going to work because other Big Ten schools don't have it,’” Smock said. “And she said something absolutely mind- blowing to me. She said, ‘Well, maybe we could be the first.’”
In speaking about how far the university has come over the years — from its 124 students and 50 library books when instruction began in 1855 to more than 31,000 students and a library of more than 5 million volumes today — Wilson said she believes the UI has formulated a “secret sauce.”
It’s comprised of three C’s — comprehensive excellence, creativity and community.
“Where can a student easily pursue a double major in math and theater arts in the same college? At Iowa,” she said. “Where can faculty members from diverse fields such as medicine, biostatistics, law, anthropology, psychiatry, epidemiology, dentistry and engineering all collaborate through a genetics cluster? Here at Iowa.”
Where other colleges and universities might lean heavily toward certain disciplines, the UI has a “balanced portfolio of strengths.”
“We have nationally recognized programs that range from nursing to neuroscience to non-fiction writing,” Wilson said.
While the UI is known internationally for things like “creative writing,” Wilson said, “creativity, I would argue, is the engine of innovation across all of our disciplines.
“Our faculty and student researchers and creators are doing amazing things here,” she said. “They're working to restore sight for those with congenital blindness. They're working to treat cancer using the body's own immune system. And 19 creative writing students have just signed a film option for a revolutionary collaborative rewrite of F. Scott Fitzgerald's classic, ‘The Great Gatsby.’”
Despite the broad reach of the UI and its faculty, staff, students and alumni have had across the state, nation and globe, “we are girded by a powerful sense of community,” Wilson said.
"We are big and comprehensive, but we're small enough to enjoy a warm community feel, both on campus and throughout this wonderful city and region,“ she said.
In summarizing his comments to Wilson, Boyd gave a nod to her “vigorous“ character and strong leadership prowess.
“Give ‘em hell, Barbara,” he said.
Vanessa Miller covers higher education for The Gazette.
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