Iowa president Barbara Wilson discusses admin athletic support, COVID-19 vaccines, football lawsuit

New University of Iowa president Barbara Wilson provided a glimpse of her vision for the relationship between her office and the school's athletic department in a lengthy sit-down with The Register this week. 

Wilson, hired on April 30, previously served at the University of Illinois, most notably as the interim chancellor. She began at Iowa on July 15 and expects to be closely involved with athletics director Gary Barta during her tenure in Iowa City.

She sees the athletic department and the university as intertwined pieces, not separate entities. 

"Big Ten athletics and athletics in general is like a corridor to the university," Wilson said. "Some people say it's the 'front porch' but I want people to not just sit on the front porch, I'd like them to come in and come down the corridor and learn more about the university. 

"Many of our donors that start by supporting athletics come down the corridor and start talking to deans, learning about the other colleges. And I can show you data that shows directly donors that are excited about athletics will then commit money to the vision research institute, to scholarships, because they'll stop, have a conversation about the importance of funding our students.

"For me it is part of how we celebrate what the University of Iowa is. ... Do I think athletics is important? Absolutely. Do I think they need to be partners with us? Absolutely."

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University of Iowa president Barbara Wilson sees the athletic department and the university as intertwined pieces, not separate entities.

In an hour-long meeting with various reporters from The Register and Iowa City Press-Citizen, Wilson spoke on a range of topics that included her support of Barta, vaccination rates within the football program and more.

Here are some highlights from what she had to say:

Topic: How much will you and your office will oversee athletics? 

WILSON: "I talk to Barta probably once every two or three days. He's on the cabinet. He's a critical part of the leadership team. I think he's got the right set of ethics and values and we have to work together. Athletics is not separate from the university." 

(Iowa athletics started providing direct support to the broader university in 2016. Wilson added that she believes that arrangement will continue.) 

WILSON: "Up until COVID they actually have been contributing to scholarships separate from the athletes. Ideally it would be great if that could happen more, but right now we're just trying to get them through COVID." 

Topic: What's your confidence level in football coach Kirk Ferentz and Gary Barta navigating the racial bias fallout?

WILSON: "I feel very confident at this point. I'm still learning and I want to make sure going forward we're doing the right thing by our student-athletes. Gary's done a nice job of creating a group of student-athletes that are coming together to think about (diversity, equity and inclusion) and work with him directly. He's convinced me that there's lots of ways for our students to have access to alternative paths if they need to talk to someone. They don't have to go to the coach; we have alternative methods for that. I think we're working very hard on (diversity, equity and inclusion) with our student-athletes. And I've met with all of the coaches; my goal is to attend a practice of every sport."

MORE:Court denies Iowa's motion to dismiss football racial bias lawsuit

Topic: How much focus is there on raising Iowa football's vaccination rate (less than 70% of team two weeks ago)?  

WILSON: "A lot. I said it when I went over there, I said it to the coaches: 'Vaccinate, vaccinate, vaccinate.' I've talked to Gary about it. I think our rates are going up as players came back to camp. Our quarterback (Spencer Petras) was very helpful in that discussion. This is a social norm situation more than anything and as I said to many of our students: 'Help us get the word out that this is what we expect of everybody.' We want people to be safe, we want to be on campus, we want to play sports, we want to be in the classroom. … That means people need to get vaccinated." 

MORE:Kirk Ferentz says Iowa football's COVID-19 vaccination rate is climbing as season nears

University of Iowa president Barbara Wilson sees the athletic department and the university as intertwined pieces, not separate entities.

Topic: The COVID-19 delta variant is presenting a lot of new challenges to fall plans. Do you feel confident in the ability to have full football stadiums in a safe manner? 

WILSON: "We're going to work very hard on it. Do I feel I confident? I'm nervous every time big groups of people get together. If I wasn't a little anxious then I probably shouldn't be in a job like this. We're going to work hard on encouraging people to get vaccinated. We have vaccine clinics all over campus. We'll be encouraging people to wear masks. Johnson County looks great right now but we know we'll have a lot of people coming in from other areas and that will be our challenge." 

Kennington Smith is the new Iowa Hawkeyes beat writer for the Des Moines Register. You can connect with Kennington on Twitter @SkinnyKenny_ or email him at ksmith@gannett.com