Barbara Wilson has always been captivated by the power of words, recognizing that what we speak and write matter.
That fascination naturally drove her to become a book lover, communication professor, and researcher who has studied the impact of media on children. But Wilson never imagined her passion for words would one day lead her to Iowa City—a UNESCO City of Literature—where on July 15 she became the 22nd president of the University of Iowa.
Although Wilson didn't initially set out to be a university administrator, she says she's excited to lead the Writing University in its next chapter. She has discovered throughout her career that the same skills that make an effective communicator are also highly sought-after in leadership. "Communication researchers tend to think about issues from multiple perspectives and be good listeners," says Wilson, who previously served as executive vice president and vice president for academic affairs for the University of Illinois System. "It's what the discipline teaches you to do—to think not about forcing people to do things, but about how you build consensus, how you work with teams, and how you consider different values and perspectives when you solve problems."
An unexpected career path turned into a dream come true on April 30, when the Board of Regents, State of Iowa, unanimously selected Wilson to replace recently retired UI president Bruce Harreld. "I am delighted to be part of the next chapter of the University of Iowa," Wilson, a three-time graduate of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, said in her introduction. "In many ways, this is my dream job. I was born and raised in the Big Ten, and I’m a Midwesterner at heart. I’m all in and excited to be here. I'll be cheering for the virtues and fortunes of this university. Count me in."
Wilson already has the extensive leadership credentials to lead Iowa; now she and her family are working to meet all the Hawkeyes they can, navigate the hilly terrain of Iowa City, and build their black-and-gold wardrobes. Of her West Highland white terrier, Ollie, Wilson says, "He already has an Iowa dog collar and a little Iowa outfit from my sisters, so I think he'll be dressed appropriately."
Just before her arrival in Iowa City, Iowa Magazine sat down for a virtual interview with Wilson to get better acquainted with the new leader of the University of Iowa and how she intends to advance the institution.
I grew up in Appleton, Wisconsin, which is a relatively small town situated in the northeast side of the state. People know it because it's about 30 miles from Green Bay, so I grew up around Packer fans. I have two sisters I'm very close with to this day. As a child, I was accustomed to living in a strong neighborhood and having a strong sense of community, and I went through all the public schools in the area.
I remember my parents put a blackboard on the basement wall, and I have pictures of me teaching my two younger sisters at the blackboard. I remember being a strict teacher and wanting them to learn things that I knew, even at a young age. I'm sure I frustrated the heck out of them, but it probably meant I was destined to be a teacher.
I received all three of my degrees at Wisconsin, so I spent 10 very formative years of my life there. I went when I was 17 years old, so I was pretty naďve. I was the oldest in the family, and I remember arriving at Wisconsin and feeling completely lost and overwhelmed. I thought I might go to a smaller school, but I ended up picking this big, flagship Big Ten university that made Appleton look like a tiny little place.
I moved into a high-rise residence hall with a roommate I didn't know, and this is the honest-to-gosh truth: I did not know how to even access the meal plan. And back then, there were no orientations; there were very little activities or efforts to help students acclimate to this big university.
I ate at McDonald's every day for a week because I was too scared to ask how you get your meal tickets for the cafeteria. And I share that story because I think back then it was sink-or-swim; we'll do what we need to get you educated, but we're not going to worry too much about the whole student.
I think it's so different and much better today. Our goal is to graduate students, to make sure they not only survive but thrive, and I'm really interested to learn more about what we do at the University of Iowa, because we want all students to feel like they belong, connect, and feel a sense of community.
I'm really excited about the emphasis on writing and communication. Obviously, it fits right into my value system and the experiences that I've had. I'm eager to learn more about the writers' workshop and the screenwriting program and just how it is that we help students learn communication skills. If you look at what most employers want these days, it's often what I call higher-order skills, and those are often related to communication: how you work in teams, how you express yourself, and how you use analytical skills in problem-solving situations, so I love that emphasis at Iowa. I'm eager to learn more about how we weave these themes throughout the university, and of course I’ll be an avid spokesperson in favor of that.
But then there’s also this tremendous health care side of campus, just this huge UI Health Care enterprise—the hospitals, the clinics, and all these amazing health-related colleges on the west side. You’ve got this fascinating combination of the humanities and the arts, and then in the middle there's the social sciences, which is where I come from, and these tremendous STEM fields–medical and beyond.
It's just the type of blend that I’ve already fallen in love with, frankly. It’s the kind of rich, comprehensive set of disciplines that makes for a great university, so I love those aspects of it, and the fact that the health care enterprise affects every part of the state is a huge advantage in my mind. I’ll be eager to learn about all the things that are happening and then make sure people around the state know about the tremendous impact that the University of Iowa’s having on the health and well-being of its citizens in the state.
I’m also very excited about the community. It will be fun to be in a place where there are strong town-gown relations. We have to be good partners with the city, and I’m going to work hard to make sure those relationships just get stronger.
Last but not least, I’ve met a lot of people, and there’s this tremendous energy—a willingness to roll up the sleeves and work together to make the university and state better. It seems like there’s a lot of goodwill and sense of collaboration here.
The challenges that I see are challenges for higher ed broadly, so I wouldn’t single out Iowa in this regard. One of our challenges is the looming population changes. We know the number of high school graduates is predicted to drop in the next 5-10 years, and we have to ask what it looks like for institutions that have been built to take in a certain number of students and how we manage our enrollments. I don’t think that’s an impossible problem but one we have to be vigilant about.
The changing demographics of our students is something that’s challenging every institution like ours. How do we make sure that we’re inclusive, that we’re inviting, and that we’re open to students from all backgrounds? That includes students from different racial and ethnic groups, but also students from rural communities who are first in their family to go to college, and it includes students from other countries, and it includes students who are trying to find their way in terms of sexual orientation and gender identity. All of those demographics are going to become more diverse and complex as the years go by, and places like the University of Iowa have to ensure there’s no single view of what a student is, that we’re open to a lot of different experiences, and that we find ways to make people feel a sense of belonging right from the beginning. And the thing that students often don’t realize is that everybody feels a little insecure when they first come to college. You look around and think everyone in the room has it together and they know exactly what’s going on, but chances are the young person from the suburbs of Chicago feels just as uncertain as a young person from a farming community. Now one might look braver outwardly, but in the end, everybody feels, “Do I belong here? Am I going to survive here? Is this a good fit for me?” and I think our goal as a big research university is to make sure everyone feels a sense of belonging.
Another big challenge is the funding formulas for higher ed and especially for public institutions. States are challenged increasingly to find ways to support higher ed in the face of all their other commitments and costs. How do we make sure that our state partners appreciate the transformational impact that a big research university like the University of Iowa has on the health and well-being of the citizens, as well as on the innovative ecosystem and the workforce development? We want to be partners with the state, but we can’t do it if the state doesn’t see us as a public good and continue to support us in whatever way it can, so I don’t think we can be quiet about that. We have to be bold; we have to show what the return on investment is for every dollar that comes into us from the state.
Especially with the pandemic, mental health is a critical issue going forward. To be clear, it’s been a growing concern before the pandemic. If you look at national statistics, roughly one out of every three students comes to public higher ed universities with issues related to anxiety or depression or other mental illnesses or challenges, and it’s gotten more intense with the pandemic. The last survey I read said something like 80% of today’s college students are struggling with how to feel calm and optimistic in the face of the pandemic. I think that will get better as we come out of this pandemic, but some of the factors that cause anxiety and depression are not going to go away, and we need to be more community-oriented around mental health just like we are with physical health. We can’t hide these issues; we have to be more open, and we have to take a community perspective. And that’s not just students; that’s staff and faculty, too. If someone has cancer, we don’t hide it, but if someone’s suffering from anxiety or depression, we all pretend we don’t want to talk about it. But in fact, in many cases, there are physiological issues that can be managed well with good health care, and we need to be more open about it and more supportive of each other in these times where people are experiencing stress.
I’m looking forward to meeting people. I want to be tired at the end of every day. I want my days to be filled with as many things as you can fill them up with, because I really do want to meet as many people as I can, so I can learn about all the great things going on at the University of Iowa. So that’s a big part of it: getting to know the people, getting to know the fascinating research that occurs here, getting to know the student leaders and organizations, and getting to know the community. That’s No. 1.
Alumni are critical to the success of any university. The more alumni who want to be involved in supporting our university, the better. Tuition is a lot higher today than it was when I was in school. The state paid most of the bills back then. From funding scholarships to providing internship, career, and mentoring opportunities for our students, there are so many ways for alumni to get connected beyond athletics, and I’m eager to explore all those possibilities with our alumni.
Bachelor of Arts in journalism, Master of Arts in communication arts, and PhD in communication arts, all from the University of Wisconsin–Madison
Husband, John Lammers, a communication emeritus professor; daughter Isabel, 26, a physician assistant in Chicago; daughter Grace, 23, a student at the Fashion Institute for Design & Merchandising in Los Angeles; stepdaughter, Emily, and her husband, Rich, who live in South Carolina; and 4-year-old West Highland white terrier, Ollie
"I've been in a book club with a group of women for 18 years, and we read a book together once a month. I’m eager to learn about all the great books that have come out of the writers' workshop and to find ways to read as much as I can."
"Late in the afternoon, a piece of dark chocolate can really change my outlook."
"I spend most of my time thinking about college athletics these days, but I certainly have a soft spot in my heart for the Packers, because my dad was a huge Packers fan."
Abraham Lincoln and Eleanor Roosevelt
“She has the intellect, vision, and experience to be the University of Iowa’s president. We are thrilled to start this relationship and see how she can move this university forward.”
Michael Richards (71BS, 74MD), president of the Board of Regents, State of Iowa
“We expect that Barbara Wilson will bring her unique experiences and skills to forge partnerships that will make a lasting impact on the lives of everyone on campus and across the state.”
Sandy Daack-Hirsch (86BSN, 98MSN, 07PhD), co-chair of the presidential search committee and an associate professor and interim executive associate dean of the College of Nursing
“For more than 20 years, I worked with the top leadership of the Big Ten universities. Barb Wilson stands out as one of the most skillful and effective academic leaders I’ve ever had the pleasure to work with. Compassionate and direct, she’s fearless in approaching the big and vexing issues, whether they are systemic challenges or personnel related. She’s also a champion of what works and terrific at giving good people room to create.”
Barbara McFadden, retired executive director of the Big Ten Academic Alliance
“You have hit the jackpot. Barb is one of the most highly skilled and effective leaders with whom I’ve had the pleasure working. She has a deep understanding of what drives excellence in major research universities, borne of experience in multiple roles. She knows that academic excellence is built on an outstanding faculty, and she’ll ground her leadership firmly on sound principles of shared governance. Yet she also recognizes the critical role of academic professionals and staff. She is humble, a careful listener, and a gifted communicator. She brings people together.”
Ed Feser, provost and executive vice president at Oregon State University
“President Wilson is a woman of integrity and one of the most mindful, inclusive, strategic, visionary, and kind people I have ever known. She listens carefully, reviews the relevant information meticulously, weighs all the options thoroughly, and identifies creative solutions that put students, faculty, and staff first.”
Robin Kaler, associate chancellor for public affairs at the University of Illinois