Q&A | President Barbara Wilson talks campus free speech, mental health resources after her first year

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The Daily Iowan sat down with the University of Iowa President Barbara Wilson on Wednesday in Jessup Hall, three weeks before the end of the spring semester. With the end of her first year as president approaching, Wilson discussed the goals she set for herself that were reached and university-wide goals outlined in the 2022-27 strategic plan draft.

Wilson also discussed efforts to increase funding for mental health resources, meetings with various colleges and student groups, and improvements to Greek life.

Read the full transcript of the interview below. The transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

The Daily Iowan: At the conclusion of your first year on campus, what have you accomplished, what goals have you met that you set for yourself in the summer, and what goals are you still working to accomplish?

Wilson: What have I accomplished? Well, one thing I think I’ve accomplished is I’ve been really busy meeting people, which may seem like a small thing, but I think it’s a pretty important part of the role of the president. I’ve gone up to all the colleges, met with most of the centers and institutes, and met with lots of student groups. I think one of my challenges to myself going forward is to continue to get out and meet people because I won’t learn anything if I don’t get out of the office and talk to people. That may seem like a small goal, but I think it’s a really big part of how I make sure I’m thinking about all the different stakeholder groups that care about the university.

I’ve also been really working behind the scenes on the new strategic plan, which is in draft mode. So I think one of the things that I’ve been emphasizing to all of our colleagues here is the importance of having metrics as goals that sort of stretch us in different directions. And so the draft includes some pretty high reaching goals on several fronts: Student success, faculty recruiting and retention and staff recruiting and retention, and just even research dollars and things like that. So we want to continue to move forward. So I think those are big.

And then last but not least, I’ve been spending a lot of time, particularly before the session, getting to know legislative leaders around the state, making sure that I’m out and about letting people know how important the University of Iowa is all across the state. So those are things I think I’ve accomplished. Now, you always have goals, the strategic plan is a five-year document, and it sets forth some pretty ambitious targets around student retention and graduation around fundraising for scholarships for students, around faculty support, and research expenditures. So you can find a lot of pretty ambitious metrics in the plan. And that will be our next couple of years really, focusing carefully on those aspects of what we care about.

DI: I know you mentioned which groups you met with, what were their reactions? How have they been and why do you think it was important for you to meet with all these groups and what did you discuss with them?

Wilson: Well, it depends on when I meet with students. My first question is often why are you at Iowa? What brought you here? And I love the answers. They help me think about what we’re doing well and how we attract talent here. And then I also asked them a variety of questions about what can we do differently? How can we help students in the future? We’re in the process of thinking about renovating the IMU, for example. So that’s been a pretty regular conversation that we’ve had with student groups, what would you like to see in that building? How could it work more effectively going forward? We were under a FEMA moratorium where we couldn’t actually do anything with the building, other than what it already was functioning as. Well, now we’re past that deadline and we can open up our minds and eyes and say, what do we really want this Union to look like going forward? And obviously talking to students is a big part of figuring that out.

So, the UI Division of Student Life has been doing that, but I do it too when I talk to students and student groups. When I go out and talk with colleges, of course, the goal is to ask what are your aspirations? How can the president’s office help you? How can I make sure I’m talking about what you’re doing to legislators and leaders across the state? So it kind of depends on who I’m talking with, what kinds of questions I ask and what I learned, and what I do with that information. But it’s all helpful. And you know, some days and weeks are really strange. So, for example, this week, I met with a student organization for microbiology and biochemistry majors. There are acronyms for each of those, and I can’t tell you what they are right now. But I went over there, and they showcased some laboratory demos and talked about the importance of those programs and what they want to do with their lives, and why they’re in those majors. And then yesterday, I went over and met with the Hawkeye Wrestling Club, and so every day is different, and every group is different, but I learned something every time.

DI: Looking at renovating the IMU, what are things would you like to see? What have you heard from students specifically that they want to see?

Wilson: You can imagine there’s a lot of ideas floating around, so I probably shouldn’t get too in the weeds. I think one thing we’ve heard is the back of the Union could be repurposed in a way that would be an attractive outdoor area, for congregation, maybe for performances, food, that kind of thing. We’ve heard a call for better study and meeting spaces in the Union. Some students have really requested better areas for the student org meetings, so that’s a separate area of the building and things we could do to make that function more effectively for the student orgs that meet in that building. And then we talk a lot about food, if we’re going to bring some vendors in there, we’re going to change up the food options, what would they be? What do students want? So those are examples of the kinds of comments and questions that we entertained. One last thing, we often have professional and graduate students around the table, and they don’t use the IMU as much as undergraduates. And so, one of the conversations is okay, is there something we could do with that space that would attract graduate and professional students more? So that’s another audience that we often don’t think about, but we need to.

DI: DI reporters were in Washington, D.C. a few weeks ago and spoke with U.S. Federal Government Relations staff and told us that one of your federal priorities is securing more resources for mental health. Can you explain kind of why mental health is a federal priority? What do you hope the federal government can provide them provide in terms of funding?

Wilson: I’m curious about why they think the Feds should fund. I mean, for research, I think clearly giving more priority to research funding around issues related to mental health.

Absolutely. If that’s what they were talking about, then absolutely. And we can do all kinds of work to help faculty, staff, and students when they’re struggling. And wouldn’t it be great if we had a better understanding of the precursors and causes of mental health issues so that we could get at them earlier? And so I think we often focus on the treatment part and less on how do we actually prevent and moderate mental health issues and encourage more wellness. Some of that’s brain research, brain chemistry, it’s understanding the interactions between the environment and stress and physiological reactions, and we’re doing a lot of that here.

We have amazing faculty here looking at issues around brain chemistry and depression, just one example. So, fostering more research dollars is really important. But we’re also talking to donors and to alums about mental health, in part, because it’s a much different environment today than it was when they were students. And when they hear what we’re doing, I think they’re kind of amazed but also pretty impressed with our proactive approach. And thinking about embedding mental health professionals in every college, for example, we’re not there yet, but that’s a goal, thinking about how we introduce wellness early on to students so that we can help build resiliency skills. We don’t wait until things are really traumatic, but we try to help students read their physiological and mental states earlier and get help, and have professionals out there who are available to groups of students as well as individuals. So I think that’s part of what we’re doing locally, and it’s probably less dependent on federal dollars and more dependent on figuring out our own resources, but also inviting many of our donors and alums to help us as well.

DI: You touched on how you would like maybe to see a professional in every college, and we’re not there yet. It can be difficult to hire a lot more therapists, so with that in mind, how do you address student needs in the meantime? Even without those therapists, how would you go about that?

Wilson: I’m really proud of our 24/7, phone, chat, and text line. There aren’t very many universities that have that available, and on the other end is a mental health professional who understands issues related to students in college. And that’s available at all times of the day, every weekend, all night long. So that’s one way. It’s not perfect, but it can be a resource for friends, and for roommates. It doesn’t have to be the individual who’s struggling, it can be people around them trying to get advice and help about what’s available. We’re working with our faculty to talk about how we help faculty open up conversations around mental health and wellness. We’re not trying to turn our faculty into therapists. I think the first reaction is ‘I’m not a mental health counselor’, no, we don’t want you to be that, we know that. But talking within the context of academic work, about the importance of health and wellness, in terms of students’ success, is really a good thing, and reaching out to students who look like maybe they could use a conversation and perhaps some resources. So faculty are on the front lines, a lot of times they’re seeing things, they can be proactive, so that’s another thing we’re working on. Those are a couple of examples. Because you’re right, I mean, we can’t really hire enough counselors and therapists, so let’s get at it sooner. Maybe think about group activities, helping students, yoga, meditation. How do you eat better? What are you doing sleep-wise? Those kinds of things that might work in tandem with individual counseling.

DI: This year we’ve seen concerns with students about campus safety and Iowa City in general with students receiving a few recent crime alerts about things happening off-campus. What do you think of student safety concerns and how do you address them?

Wilson: We just had a big task force meeting looking at reimagining public safety. We’ve been working really closely with public safety on how do we make sure that we have accountability among our police officers, and that we’re proactive in having mental health specialists available for different kinds of calls because oftentimes, we don’t need police so much as we need mental health advisors and counselors. And so public safety has actually helped us fund a position that allows a partnership there that didn’t exist before. So those are some examples of some of the things.

That committee, or task force, has also put in there the importance of partnering with the cities around us. So Iowa City, Coralville, North Liberty, the public safety officers in each of those locales, to make sure we’re all working together, that we’re thinking about student safety, and even beyond the borders of this campus. So I think those are part of the things that we’re doing.

You’re always going to have issues. We’re in a city, and we’re going to have safety issues. The more we can help students think about safety, that’s what the purpose of those public safety notices are. Just to remind people, here’s some things you can do to continue to think about your own safety. Electric bikes right now seem to be an object of theft. So lock your bikes up, don’t leave them out in public spaces, it’s that kind of thing. So I think those are meant really as partly educational efforts to let people know and keep your mind open, keep looking, be observant, and, and exercise safety and precaution in your own lives.

DI: At a recent faculty senate meeting, some senators expressed that they feel burned out by the pandemic. Have any faculty and staff expressed this to you? Is anything in the works to help faculty and staff as they help students at the same time.

Wilson: Human resources has been working on a lot of mental health programming for staff and for faculty. They’ll go out to departments, they’ll work with different units around work-life balance issues, around stress releases, around the issues that you’re talking about. So I think part of our challenge is making sure people know that the resources exist for both individual health as well as whole departments that might need some support. It’s there, I just think we got to connect the services with the people, and we’re working on that. But I think it’s really important we talk about student wellness and mental health all the time. And we often leave out our faculty and staff and we’re a community and people can’t help each other unless they’re feeling strong and resilient themselves.

DI: Two fraternities were suspended this semester for alcohol-related events and hazing. What’s your plan for keeping fraternities accountable and making sure they follow anti-hazing and alcohol policies?

Wilson: Student Life is working really quite carefully and aggressively, if you will, on partnering with our fraternities and sororities around education related to hazing, sexual misconduct, alcohol, and drug abuse. I think we’re at a point now where the partnership is a little more mutual than maybe it has been in the past, we have a dashboard up that shows how our different chapters are complying with training and education, so there’s an accountability aspect to what we’re doing. But more importantly, the leaders of many of those organizations have stepped up and said, ‘We want to be part of the solution and not part of the problem’, and nothing will go well if we don’t have the leaders of those student groups at the table working with us. Is it perfect and we solved all the issues? No. But I think it’s important that we have examples of taking action when things don’t go well so that every group knows there’s accountability here.

DI: The campus climate survey came out a couple of weeks ago, and we saw that 66 percent of conservative students said they felt their political beliefs are not respected on campus. Do you see this as a problem and are those concerns warranted by those students?

Wilson: Yes, it’s a problem. Every student should feel comfortable expressing opinions and thoughts in a respectful way. The reason we do those surveys is so that we can find out what students are feeling and thinking, I would never judge those expressions as valid or not. They are the feelings and perceptions of students. So, we should be paying attention to those. Interestingly, if you drill down, those students don’t seem to be struggling as much with faculty or in classrooms, which leads me to think a lot of this is how comfortable students feel with each other expressing different viewpoints. And that may be outside the classroom in our 600 student orgs, for example, or in a residence hall and so I think one of our challenges going forward is to figure out where those feelings of discomfort reside from and do the kind of work we need to do to make sure that students feel comfortable.

This is one of the reasons we did the first amendment training because many students’ first reaction when they hear something they don’t like is they want it to be punished, or shut out, or pushed away. You all know as journalists that a lot of times we’re going to hear things we don’t really like, and how do we get to the point where we open up our hearts and our minds to difference and try to learn from those instances, and try to find common ground, even if there’s a lot of differences around the edges. And so, I think our work now is to figure out where are those perceptions coming from and how do we work on them. If they’re not necessarily all in the classroom, then we’ve got work to do helping our student leaders think about the diversity of viewpoint, and how do we encourage those conversations and I’d love for you all to think about that, too, because you’re really in the midst of it as writers and as journalists, how do we create safe contexts for difficult conversations?

DI: Have you received feedback on the free speech survey from student orgs?

Wilson: I’ve heard from some of our students that they took it, and it wasn’t too long, so they were glad about that, that they actually learned some things. So that’s what I heard.

DI: So with the top two University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics personnel leaving this year, what’s your vision for UIHC as new leaders take up those positions, and what does the process look like now moving forward to fill those?

Wilson: We’re focusing on the VP position first, and once that’s filled then we’ll turn our attention to the CEO position. We have a search committee that’s already been announced. That’s a very robust and I think diverse group. They’re working with a search firm, so we have hired an outside firm to help us to ensure that our pool is robust and talented and comprehensive. The process is like any big search, we’ll go through a very robust effort to get a very diverse pool, the search committee will narrow down the candidates, do some interviews, and eventually wind up with a group of finalists and they’ll be brought to campus and they’ll meet with lots of stakeholders. So it doesn’t happen overnight, but it’s a good process that hopefully will result in a really great person who wants to come and lead this incredibly important organization, which includes UI Health Care, and the dean of the Carver College of Medicine. So, lots of hats in one in one person’s job description.

I’m very optimistic. This is a nationally recognized healthcare enterprise here, we’ve got top 10 and top 20 and top 30 programs here, we’ve got an incredible health care operation. We are world-renowned in many ways. So coming to lead us into the next let’s say 10 years, is, I think, a really exciting opportunity. The next leader is somebody who’s going to have to have a vision. You asked me what my vision is, if I create the vision, we’re in trouble, it shouldn’t really be up to me. But I think healthcare is changing constantly. It is a rapidly changing environment, the finances, the trying to attract talent, the keeping up with the safety and well-being of patients, and then just trying to figure out the competition out there, as well as the partnerships. So we are partnering with healthcare across the state. And so this person has to really be thinking about where’s healthcare going in the future? How’s it going to be funded? How do we make sure we have the ability to help rural communities around the state? Because they can’t all come here when we’re turning away 2000 patients a year that need tertiary care and we’re out of space, out of beds. This person is going to have to think about growth too and the North Liberty Hospital, the tower that we’re going to build, so it’s an exciting opportunity.

DI: The strategic plan has been one of your goals. How’s the new plan going, who was involved in drafting the plan, and what are the new core values?

Wilson: I think it’s going well, there’s certainly been a lot of opportunity for input. I can’t even tell you how many groups have been involved in this project, because it started before I got here. But there have been lots of groups around each of the different areas and working constantly. And then also holding sessions with other stakeholders to make sure we’re representing a lot of voices in the plan. I think right now, there’s, I don’t know if I want to call them pillars, but there’s five focal areas, if you will, I don’t have them all memorized, so forgive me, but you can find them on the website. And they’re really focused on the main things that we care about: students’ success, learning, and teaching, which is really student-focused research and discovery, which of course, is critical to us as an R1, member of the AAU, but also just because that’s what we do. We do research here, and we’re trying to change the world. I think well-being is in there, I can’t remember what the title of it is [wellbeing and success.] I love that because it’s really bringing all parts of health and well-being to the surface, and it’s actually signaling that this is a value and a critical focus of our success. Transformative societal impact is in there. We can’t ever lose sight of the fact that we’re a public university, and that we’re partly supported by the state, our role is to be an engine of good things in the state. And so that pillar really reminds us of our commitment to being a great public institution in the state of Iowa and in the Midwest. So I think each of the pillars kind of lays out what our foci will be, and then there’s metrics throughout.

DI: Why are these core values the most important to the UI and how did you come up with these five key priorities?

Wilson: Well, I didn’t, the groups did that were working on them. But I’m certainly very supportive of where we’re headed. I might have tweaked a few things along the way, but again, a plan is really only going to work if it motivates lots of people to want to work on the plan. The plan doesn’t work if one person creates a bunch of stuff, and then puts it in the document and hopes everybody follows it. So the good news about this is, if it’s really truly a working document, people are already behind it because they’ve been involved in it and they’re excited by it. And it’s going to drive us to work together to even greater levels of excellence.

DI: The COVID-19 mask mandate on transit and services was recently rescinded. What are your thoughts on keeping students safe and COVID-19 as we are finishing up the semester?

Wilson: I think about this all the time. Obviously, we encourage students to get vaccinated, we hope all of you are. And that, to the extent that it’s possible, getting booster shots is really important as well. Right now cases are rising a little bit. And what I can say is, be vigilant, wear masks, if that makes you comfortable or if you’re not feeling very well, but you’re still testing negative, it’s not a bad idea to wear a mask. If you’re not feeling well take a COVID test, and if it’s positive, stay home, follow the rules, stay out of circulation so that you can help us limit the spread of the virus. Even though most students aren’t going to get very sick when they get it, we’d still like to crush this thing and get rid of it. Now, we probably won’t ever do that. But we need to now be vigilant when things start going up that were not part of the transmission process.

The good news is the hospital numbers are not going up right now. There are a few more COVID cases in the hospital but they are coincidental COVID, so people are there for other reasons and then they get tested and they find out they have COVID. So, they’re not there because of COVID. So we’ve really done a lot through vaccines and through various treatments and other things and this variant seems to be less virulent, if you will, most cases seem to be quite treatable right now, but we’d like to keep people safe. And we don’t want people out for a week at a time getting sick. And you don’t want that either I’m guessing, especially right now, when there’s three weeks left in the semester. So I think just exercise caution and be thoughtful and be a good Hawkeye. If we’re good at this we care about each other, and we’re trying to make this a really safe community.

DI: How has the approach to the pandemic changed throughout your time being president?

Wilson: I don’t think it has changed a lot. One thing is I’m not getting COVID numbers every morning when I wake up. That was probably the first six months of being in this position. Every morning, I wake up to the hospital numbers and to the self-reports. We’re still collecting those data, but we’re not at a point where we need to be tracking it every day because things are on the rise or we’re really worried about a new variant. Every meeting I was in, COVID was the first topic and we would spend a lot of time on it. And now, I have many meetings where we don’t even talk about COVID. I guess that’s one change. But we’re not forgetting about it. It’s just not the first and maybe in some cases only topic that we talk about.

DI: What is your reaction to the amended discrimination lawsuit by former football players that added Seth Wallace as a defendant, and then added a retaliation count also against Kirk Ferentz?

Wilson: Well, I don’t talk about lawsuits. Generally speaking, it’s not what I should be doing or want to do. But I will say, when I’ve talked with coach [Ferentz] and the coaching staff and worked with them around DEI issues I can say that I think football is taken all the issues related to DEI very seriously. I know Coach Ferentz has put into place some changes in football that I think have been good changes. And he’s got lots of people around him that are working with him to think holistically about students and about their well-being and about DEI as part of that. And that’s what you’d expect any of our leaders to do. We’re doing that in every unit on campus. So I’m quite heartened by how seriously they’ve taken DEI in football as well as all of athletics.

DI: Is there anything else you’d like to comment further on or add anything?

Wilson: I don’t think so. Let’s just get through the semester in a good way. I’m sure you’re all feeling a little stressed out in these last three weeks, and it feels like people are juggling a lot right now and the weather isn’t helping us. We could use some sunshine and some warmth. But I’m excited about commencement. It’s a great time of celebration, I’m going to be doing 11 commencement ceremonies this spring, and there are only 17 of them, so I’m hitting most of them. And the only ones I can’t go to are ones that are double booked. So I’ll be doing a lot of hand-shaking and a lot of cheering. I’m excited about it. It’s one of the best times of the year is to celebrate students’ success that culminates in a degree, it’s the best thing.