University of Iowa President

Iowa Press | Episode
Oct 14, 2022 | 27 min

On this edition of Iowa Press, University of Iowa President Barbara Wilson discusses updated university initiatives, research and funding.

Joining moderator Kay Henderson at the Iowa Press table are Stephen Gruber-Miller, Statehouse reporter for The Des Moines Register and Linh Ta, Des Moines reporter for Axios.

Program support provided by: Associated General Contractors of Iowa, Iowa Bankers Association and FUELIowa.



People from across Iowa and around the world are drawn to Iowa City for everything from sports to innovative research to top notch medical care and of course an education. We'll visit with Barbara Wilson, President of the University of Iowa, on this edition of Iowa Press.


Funding for Iowa Press was provided by Friends, the Iowa PBS Foundation. The Associated General Contractors of Iowa, the public's partner in building Iowa's highway, bridge and municipal utility infrastructure. Fuel Iowa is a voice and a resource for Iowa's fuel industry. Our members offer a diverse range of products including fuel, grocery and convenience items. They help keep Iowans on the move in rural and urban communities. Together we Fuel Iowa. Small businesses are the backbone of Iowa's communities and they are backed by Iowa banks. With advice, loans and financial services, banks across Iowa are committed to showing small businesses the way to a stronger tomorrow. Learn more at


For decades Iowa Press has brought you political leaders and newsmakers from across Iowa and beyond. Celebrating 50 years of broadcast excellence on statewide Iowa PBS, this is the Friday, October 14th edition of Iowa Press. Here is Kay Henderson. 


Henderson: Our guest on this edition of Iowa Press has been on the job as the President of the University of Iowa since mid-July of last year. Barbara Wilson's first degree, one of three, came from the University of Wisconsin. She has done stints at UC Santa Barbara, at Louisville, but she spent the most time at the University of Illinois. When she came here she was leaving the job there as Executive Vice President of Academic Affairs. Welcome to Iowa Press, Barbara Wilson.

Wilson: Thank you, Kay. It's great to be here.

Henderson: Also joining this conversation are Linh Ta of Axios and Stephen Gruber-Miller of the Des Moines Register.

Gruber-Miller: So students at the University of Iowa have already been told that tuition will be going up over the next couple of years. If the Iowa legislature doesn't grant the Board of Regents' request for more funding over those years could we see tuition rise even further?

Wilson: I think it could. This year we increased tuition by 4.25%, which roughly averaged about $355 for any student across the year. We're trying really hard to keep our costs down for students. But obviously it's a delicate balance. If the state supports us we can keep tuition flat. If it doesn't then we don't have as many levers to increase our funding to help support all of the things we're doing. I will point out we are the third lowest tuition for in-state students in the Big Ten. So we've done I think quite a good job historically in keeping costs down. We're committed to that. And we also have costs that we need to manage.

Gruber-Miller: Sure. And so is there a point at which you start pricing students out, when it becomes unaffordable for students to attend? And how do you avoid, what levers do you pull to avoid having that happen?

Wilson: Yeah, we think about that all the time and it's a great question. I Think the goal really is to make sure that we have plenty of scholarship funding for students who come from families with less resources. And so we talk to our donors all the time about the importance of scholarships for students and we give out over $100 million a year in our own funding for scholarships for students. So we're always trying to offset the price for families that can't afford higher ed.

Ta: President Biden announced up to $20,000 in student loan debt cancellation. How many students will this effect at the University of Iowa? And how are you explaining the program to them?

Wilson: Yeah, well we don't have the numbers right now because people are still trying to figure out who qualifies and who doesn't. The good news is we've got students calling every day to the financial aid office trying to figure out if they qualify, under what respects, whether they qualify for $10,000 or for $20,000. And we're there for them to try to help them sort it out. I think for me I am hopeful that at the federal level we really take a look at Pell Grants because if we can increase Pell Grant funding for students from low income families that will be a much longer path to affordability for students.

Henderson: You were at the University of Illinois for how long?

Wilson: 21 years.

Henderson: So that is of course a state-sponsored system. You're now working inside Iowa's state-sponsored system. How do you compare and contrast the two?

Wilson: That's a great question and I think about that a lot. I'm a product of the Big Ten obviously. I spent all of my undergrad, graduate years at Wisconsin. Then I spent many years at Illinois. I did a little time in California as you pointed out in between. But I really feel like the Big Ten schools are more similar than they are different. They have very similar structures, different kinds of -- similar missions, maybe different populations slightly. So coming over to Iowa felt in a way like I was staying within the Big Ten but then moving to a state that I didn't know as well. However, my mother was born in Winterset, Iowa so I have roots and ties to Iowa. And it has been great to learn about this state and to appreciate the differences here. It's more rural here. But the southern part of Illinois is very rural too. So lots of similarities and really proud legacy of educating students from across the state, which is really important.

Henderson: So can you tell us why there are so many Illinois residents who attend the University of Iowa?

Wilson: Well, I think it's because we're a great institution and we're cheaper in many ways for students. If we can add scholarship funding -- tuition at Illinois is much higher in-state than it is here for in-state students, but when we add scholarships we can attract out-of-state students. And I think that Illinois students are coming because we have great programs. We're the number 2 school in the country right now for writing across the disciplines in the U.S. News and World Report rankings recently and all the top 10 are small private institutions and there's Iowa number 2, tied with Yale. So I think a lot of students come because of our pre-med, because of our writing programs, because of our signature programs that are really nationally recognized, nursing and other programs as well.

Gruber-Miller: So we talked a little bit about tuition costs. I want to talk about housing costs, another area that has gone up and will continue to. You see new construction around Iowa City, spaces for students to live. What is the University of Iowa doing to sort of help students with housing costs? How do you balance -- students want to live in a nice location, a nice place -- how do you balance that with affordability?

Wilson: A couple of things. Financial aid and scholarships help with all costs. So it can go towards housing and books and other kinds of costs that students have. The other thing that we're really working on is creating more jobs for students on campus. It actually turns out that students who work on campus do better academically than students who work off campus. And so we're trying to create more jobs on campus and also to mentor students when they're in those jobs. We have a program called Iowa Grow, guided reflection on work and so what we do is we mentor students. If they're working in the food part, if they're CAMBUS drivers, whatever they doing we have staff who are mentoring them, talking about how the jobs are going to connect to careers later. So I think the goal is provide opportunities for students to earn some money and try to keep our costs down through scholarships.

Henderson: So what percentage of students have on-campus employment?

Wilson: I don't know off the top of my head but I can share one statistic that bothers me and that is that one out of ten of our students have both an on-campus and an off-campus job. And that is something we're trying to really change because that's really hard, juggling a full load of classes and then two jobs. So the goal is really to increase our financial aid scholarships and provide on-campus job opportunities.

Henderson: You're in a position of influence to the private sector housing market to sort of try to tell them, make some recommendations. What percentage of the student body live on-campus in university housing?

Wilson: It is primarily first year students, almost all of them, about 90% of our first year students live on campus and a smaller percent of our second year students choose to stay in the residence halls. They don't want to cook for themselves, they like the residence halls, a much smaller percent. So I think it's a little over 6,000 of our students are living in on-campus housing.

Henderson: So let's turn to the other part of the university community, faculty. Your predecessor spent a lot of time talking to legislators about the difficulty he was having in recruiting and retaining faculty in Iowa City. How are you going to fix that?

Wilson: Well, I don't think we're having a huge challenge right now recruiting and retaining faculty. We have programs to support that. We have launched a couple of programs this year to recruit tenured faculty from other institutions. That is one program we have created. We have also created a program to reward our mid-career scholars because we don't want them being poached by other institutions. So any good university is in a constant threat of retention. And if you're at a place where nobody is trying to steal your faculty then you're probably not a place that is as strong as Iowa. So we've got a lot of programs in place but I can't tell you how many faculty I meet who say I came here, I thought I would be here for a couple of years and look it's 10 or 15 years and I love this place. So we're going to continue to reward our faculty and to poach other faculty from other universities when we can.

Gruber-Miller: There have been discussions in recent years in the Iowa legislature about ending tenure at state universities and I think last year the proposal got further than it has gotten before. I've heard educators say that can have a chilling effect on recruiting. How do you deal with the impact of that? And how do you have conversations with state lawmakers on that subject?

Wilson: Yeah, I've had a number of good conversations with legislators about the importance of tenure and so has President Wendy Wintersteen. She and I have done some of these meetings together. I think we're trying to help our legislators appreciate the importance of tenure for world class research universities like ours. The fact of the matter is that tenure protects faculty's ability to engage in cutting edge research, to explore topics that may not be widely appreciated or maybe critiqued in some cases. And we want our faculty to have the freedom to pursue those kinds of subjects and not worry about their job security. On the other hand, there are responsibilities with tenure. And so we talk a lot with legislators about the review process for tenure, about what we do to ensure that faculty appreciate the responsibility of having tenure. So it's not just rights, it's also responsibilities and I think we have helped a lot of legislators appreciate that tenure is hard to achieve, it is managed very carefully by professional standards and if we didn't have it we would quickly sink in terms of our expertise and our excellence.

Henderson: We're going to circle back to the student body and Linh has a couple of questions.

Ta: Yeah, so college enrollment prior to the pandemic was down in the U.S. and then when COVID-19 hit obviously it deepened it. How do you convince students, especially now, that a college education is still worth it thinking of the cost?

Wilson: Well, I'm really proud to report that our enrollments are up this year by 13% over last year. So I know a lot of schools are concerned about enrollments but ours are very healthy right now. We welcomed the third largest class in the history of the University of Iowa this year. Part of what we're doing is helping students appreciate that we've got programs at Iowa that nobody else has. We can help them achieve their goals and become leaders and aspire to really important careers and teach them amazing things while they're with us. So our enrollments are quite strong right now. But we always think about affordability in the process. So again, thinking about what we can do on the financial aid front and making sure we don't increase tuition too much. One of the things that many people don't appreciate I think in the higher ed arena is that many of our institutions are keeping costs down. So you may or may not know this but 50% of our undergraduates graduate with zero debt, 50%. And so we tell students, come to Iowa, we will help with affordability and we will ensure that you leave here in a way that you can pursue your dreams without being stuck with a lot of debt. That's really important to us.

Ta: So speaking of the student body, some students, conservative students in the U.S. and including here in Iowa, have criticized colleges saying that their free speech has been stifled or chilled in the classroom and on campuses. Iowa City is known as a very progressive location. How do you ensure that conservative students are still being heard?

Wilson: We spend a lot of time talking about that. The Board of Regents recently approved a training for students and faculty and staff on First Amendment rights and on free speech. I think that has been really helpful to remind students what the premises of the First Amendment are and to remind students that dialogue that is open and free and respectful is the way we learn from each other. But our faculty are doing that work in the classroom as well. Probably if we have issues around free speech it is often outside of the classroom when student groups are getting together. And what we do is spend a lot of time talking to students about how you listen with your heart, how you be open to new perspectives, how you don't pre-judge and think about these are opportunities to build bridges with people who come from different backgrounds. So this is part and parcel of what higher ed should be doing and I think we do it pretty well at Iowa but we spend a lot of time on it.

Gruber-Miller: Iowa has a lot of workforce needs including in the health care field and the University of Iowa has a lot of professional programs undergrad and graduate. How do your programs, especially in the areas of nursing, mental health, help meet those professional needs in Iowa?

Wilson: Yeah, well I'm really proud that we place a lot of professionals around the state. So 8 out of the 10 practicing dentists in Iowa come from the University of Iowa. 5 out of the 10 pharmacists in this state have Iowa degrees. And 5 out of 10 doctors in the state have Iowa degrees. So we are constantly working on ensuring that we're training the next generation of health care providers across a variety of different domains. We've done some things to grow nursing right now. Nursing shortages are true across the state of Iowa and across the Midwest. We've developed some three plus one programs with community colleges so that we can allow nursing students to stay on ground in their communities and learn, get their RN degree locally but then get their BSN from us online. So that is one example of the kind of thing. But we were also asking this year for our state appropriation to be increased in order to support a bigger nursing school. We need equipment and we need faculty and we can grow our college of nursing as well. So we're in constant conversation with legislators and with leaders across the state. We know we can help with workforce issues as long as we can grow some of our programs.

Henderson: Former Iowa State President Gregory Geoffroy on this program once described sports as the front porch of the university. There are 70,000 fans who have gathered in Kinnick Stadium in Iowa City and they have actually booed the football program. There's a lot of discussion online about Kirk and Brian Ferentz. What is your message to those folks?

Wilson: Well first, I call it not the front porch but the corridor. So I'm hoping that when people come and enjoy athletics at Iowa that they come down the corridor and learn more about our university. And that's why I'm so proud of the wave because I think that tradition helps remind everybody in that stadium that we are not only playing football, we have a world class children's hospital where we are treating many, many young children and babies with very serious illnesses. I want people to appreciate that we're much more than athletics. But it is certainly a place for people to come into our university and learn more. In terms of football, Kirk Ferentz has been a coach, a successful coach with us for a very long time. We have a lot of fans who want change to happen immediately. And what I try to remind them is that we've got great expertise in our coaching staff and we've got student athletes that we need to support. And booing in the stadium doesn't really support our student athletes the way we probably need them to be supported. So we spent a lot of time talking about the role of student athletes on our campus and the fact that they're learning a lot of skills and they want to win just as much as everybody else. So let's figure out how to be supportive Hawkeyes in these contexts.

Henderson: You were at your first Iowa vs. Iowa State football game. Big Ten realignment, in other words expansion, may make that game impossible to hold in the future. What is your view of what is going on with Big Ten alignment? And even more schools have indicated hey maybe I want to join the Big Ten?

Wilson: Well, we've welcomed two new schools, UCLA and USC. The presidents and chancellors voted on that so lest anybody thinks this is only up to the athletic departments we were all very much involved in that decision. And I'm excited actually about the potential to bring Iowa to the West Coast in more dramatic ways. The student athletes will have opportunities to visit the West Coast. And television coverage of Iowa in Los Angeles will be a good thing, I'm convinced of that. So I think there are a lot of opportunities in the future with this expansion. We're not expanding without a lot of careful consideration about the merits and the appropriate impact on our student athletes. We're not on the cusp of doing a lot of changes right now. Everything we've decided we've been very careful. What are the athletic commitments at those institutions? What's the academic strength at those institutions? The Big Ten is a conference that is based on high quality academics as well as athletics. And so we've been really careful with expansion at this point.

Ta: Speaking of sports, the Governor signed a new law this year that bans trans girls and women from participating in sports at schools and at universities that align with their gender identity. How is the University of Iowa handling this new law?

Wilson: We're following carefully NCAA rules right now and regulations on that front. We haven't had any issues at this point but we'll make sure we consult with a lot of experts and work with the state when and if we do.

Gruber-Miller: There are a minority of university presidents who are women. Do you see a role for yourself sort of as a woman and in charge of a large university like this, sort of leadership in higher education?

Wilson: Yeah, that's a great question. Well, actually I'm the third woman president at Iowa. So just to compare, Indiana University hired its first woman this year ever and Penn State just hired its first woman. So Iowa is a little bit ahead of the curve I would say, which is kind of nice. When I accepted this position nobody said oh gosh, what's it going to be like to have a woman president, because I have two great women that served in this role prior to me. And so people don't say well, you're a woman. They say oh, you're Barb Wilson and you're doing this job and you've got this set of experiences. And I appreciate that. I think it's on us to have more diversity in our leadership ranks across the academy. But I will tell you a lot of women students say to me, it's really great having a woman president. In addition to that, I want to point out that 7 of our 12 deans are women. So we are a little unusual in our gender diversity at multiple ranks. And I think it's a conscious effort we have at the university to make sure that we've got a lot of women in positions of leadership. It's the right thing to do for our students, for our alums and the goal is to bring as much diversity to the leadership ranks as possible.

Gruber-Miller: So now that you've been in the job a little more than a year, what have been some of the biggest lessons or surprises that you have encountered here in Iowa so far?

Wilson: You know, I think one lesson I guess is that it's really important to get out around the state and meet people. You've already mentioned that Iowa City might be a little unique in the state of Iowa and I think I appreciated that before I moved here. But the more I travel around the state the more I really understand that deeply. So just in the last year we've been out and about quite a bit getting out into other communities, talking with legislators, meeting with city leaders, trying to understand how can the university help communities more? What kinds of things do you need from us that we can work with and partner with you on? So that has been a big lesson. I knew that was the case but experiencing it gives you a different sense of things.

Ta: We've been speaking a bit domestically about students in Iowa and students in surrounding states, but one of the things the University of Iowa is known for is the number of international students that it has attracted over the years. That declined a bit prior to the pandemic saying that they were having issues with visas and enrollments. I'm really just curious what does that look like now with the pandemic and how are you attracting international students again to Iowa City?

Wilson: Yeah, you're absolutely right. Numbers were going down during the pandemic and they haven't recovered yet to be honest. It's a concern of ours. I don't know how quickly those numbers will recover. If they do there are issues around the visa challenges you've mentioned, certainly the pandemic is still halting travel in some places. We certainly are getting our own study abroad experiences back into place because those have been on hold, students have done study abroad virtually, which is not quite the same as being on ground. But it may be that it's going to take a while for us to really get the international students back. And that is true of all institutions across the country, it's not just Iowa.

Henderson: We have about a minute left. The Board of Regents on behalf of all three state-supported institutions have asked for more money for deferred maintenance. How bad are things?

Wilson: You know, every institution that I've been at had deferred maintenance. So I would say Iowa is better off than several places I've been. We are careful about deferred maintenance and we have done a lot of work to reduce our footprint. If we have older buildings and older spaces I think in the last three years we have actually eliminated or removed 200,000 square feet of buildings and property that we don't need anymore that we couldn't possibly revamp. That is our commitment to make sure that our footprint is right sized. Every time we want to grow we look at what we've got and try to take things offline. I'm impressed by how much the folks have done on deferred maintenance but there's always deferred maintenance. There's deferred maintenance in our houses, there's deferred maintenance across cities. So we're not in a desperate state but I think we need some help, especially with the buildings on the Pentacrest. So those are classic old buildings that are going to take a lot of work to remodel and we know we can do it but we'd love the state's help in making that happen.

Henderson: Barbara Wilson, we are out of time for this discussion today. Thanks for joining us.

Wilson: Absolutely, thank you.

Henderson: And before we leave you we have a programming note. Coming up we have two Iowa Press Debates next week. On Monday we'll host the only televised debate in the Governor's race with republican incumbent Kim Reynolds and Deidre DeJear, the democrat in that race. And then on Tuesday we'll question the candidates in Iowa's new 2nd Congressional District, republican incumbent Ashley Hinson and democrat Liz Mathis. Both debates are live on air and online at 7:00 p.m. We hope you'll join us. For everyone here at Iowa PBS, thanks for joining us today.


Funding for Iowa Press was provided by Friends, the Iowa PBS Foundation. The Associated General Contractors of Iowa, the public's partner in building Iowa's highway, bridge and municipal utility infrastructure. Fuel Iowa is a voice and a resource for Iowa's fuel industry. Our members offer a diverse range of products including fuel, grocery and convenience items. They help keep Iowans on the move in rural and urban communities. Together we Fuel Iowa. Small businesses are the backbone of Iowa's communities and they are backed by Iowa banks. With advice, loans and financial services, banks across Iowa are committed to showing small businesses the way to a stronger tomorrow. Learn more at