Interim Chancellor Barbara Wilson balances career, family and passion


Jun Suh Park | The Daily Illini

Chancellor Barbara J. Wilson talking about her career on October 7, 2015.

By Frances Welch

Two baseball hats sat on her bookshelf. One black, that read ‘dean,’ the other red, which read ‘chancellor.’ The two hats sat next to an hourglass, filled with sand, measuring time.

Time is something that interim chancellor Barbara Wilson rarely has to spare, but she said she’s figuring out a routine.

Wilson holds many titles in addition to her chancellorship. She’s the Dean of LAS, a mother of two, an aunt, wife and friend — all full-time jobs that need undivided attention.

Aside from her daily duties during the week, being Chancellor involves much more than a typical desk job; according to Wilson, it’s a position that requires seven days a week. University spokeswomen Robin Kaler said it’s not uncommon for Wilson to be in her office at 8 a.m. and have back-to-back meetings until 5 p.m. Oftentimes, she then attends a dinner followed by an event, which involves anything from interacting with donors to fundraising for the University.

Having worked with Wilson for several years now, Kaler said that Wilson’s hardworking qualities are just a part of who she is.

“There’s no job that is too unpleasant, complex or urgent for (WIlson) to say no. She has always been a very good colleague, and she does more than her share in workload,” Kaler said. “She leads by doing, she leads by example.”

But this leadership isn’t unfamiliar for Wilson.

Wilson has been with the University for 15 years — a quality that’s given her confidence to carry out her role as interim chancellor. But, if she had not worked in the provost office for five years, she said accepting the chancellorship would have been a much more radical decision.

Before she was dean, Wilson was a communications professor, and Kaler said that background is exactly what the University needs right now. She said that part of communicating is speaking; however, most of it consists of listening to what people say. Kaler said a quality that makes Wilson unique to her position is her ability to listen to what people have to say, and then incorporate that into a creative solution.

“Most of what I do (as dean) is really focused on the academic mission of the departments and units in the college. As chancellor, I have to think much more comprehensively, broader,” Wilson said. “Those five years (working with the provost) helped me see the campus pretty broadly. I had to think about the whole campus in the provost office.”

Wilson was first approached about the position when she received a call from President Timothy Killeen, asking her if she would fill in as interim chancellor, just after former Chancellor Phyllis Wise resigned in August.

She remembered feeling shock and anxiety at that exact moment. When asked about accepting the offer, a sense of exhaustion surfaced as a result of the past six weeks.

But exhaustion is to be expected. Wilson has a daughter that is a University student, as well as a daughter that is a senior in high school; the blossoming and transitional years into young adulthood that require extra attention and dependence on parents.

“It’s not easy, I’ll just be honest with you,” Wilson said, who gave a gentle gaze with tired eyes. “My days are pretty long, but everybody in my family is adjusting.”

Her days might be busy, but it’s clear that Wilson’s family is what keeps her motivation strong. Her desk is lined with several picture-frames of happy moments shared with her family, an additional factor that keeps Wilson as closely tied to the University as the University is to her.

Wilson’s daughter, who is a current student at the University, has allowed her to gain a different perspective of the Illinois campus.

“(My daughter) keeps me informed with what she thinks needs work on this campus. She’s a good pipeline for me, to remind me what the student experience is here, which is great,” Wilson said. “(My daughter) is thriving, that’s been fun for me to watch. But it also keeps me on my toes because I feel like I have an additional set of responsibilities. I think like a parent.”

Thinking like a parent is a quality that Wilson naturally has. She eludes a sense of warmness and comfort, something you only feel when you’re ‘home.’

That warmness is the first word Isabel Lammers, Wilson’s daughter and junior in AHS, used to describe her mother, a person that Lammers said the University values.

“She puts 110 percent into everything she does,” Lammers said.

Even before her mother became Chancellor, Lammers said as she was growing up, her mother was known for staying at work till 7 or 8 at night.

“I’ve seen what my mom has accomplished through her job and I want to make it just as far. I want to have an impact on people’s lives.”

But for now, Lammers wants to use her direct connection to the Swanlund Office to allow Wilson to be aware of issues that might not be so transparent to higher administration. Issues that not only affect Lammers, but the entire student body.

Around this time last year, the campus was battling a disruption of gang activity and incidents of random battery through all hours of the night. Lammers told her mother, who was the Dean of LAS at that time, that there needs to be a way for students — especially female students — to feel safe on campus.

“I think about this campus differently now that I have a student here, now that I’m a parent of a student on this campus,” Wilson. “It gives me a richer lens to think about student welfare, and student academic enrichment, and I’m proud of this campus because I see this place through (my daughter’s) eyes.”

For Wilson, this consists of wanting to be more readily available to students, and making the gap between higher administration and the student body more transparent.

Each month, Wilson meets with a group of students that are working to raise awareness of a cause on campus. Two weeks ago, she met with a large group of students involved with the prevention of sexual assault. It was a conversation that Wilson said consisted of how students would like to see the campus respond to programs such as FYCARE, and the awareness that these programs raise.

But it’s also a time for Wilson to connect directly with students on campus, a time that she says is important for her to stay in touch with the student experience.

She has also become connected with the A Cappella community at the University. Her niece, Maddi Wethall is an active member of No Comment A Cappella, another tie that brings Wilson close to the University.

“I’m honestly super proud of (Wilson) because she loves this university more than anyone,” said Wethall, sophomore in Business.

According to Wethall, Wilson’s closet is overflowing with orange and blue.

“(Wilson) lives and breaths U of I, and she always has, and I think that’s incredibly important.”

In terms of being more accessible to students, Wethall believes that Wilson, or Aunt Bobby as she knows her, is extremely approachable and honest, qualities that Wethall said will make Wilson succeed in her chancellorship.

For Wilson, the biggest takeaway is working at a University that she refers to as a “tremendous institution of excellence,” and one with a long and enduring history.

“(The student’s) experience isn’t about what I do, it’s about what all the people across this great institution do. We’re just a robust and wonderful place,” Wilson said. “Even if the provost and chancellor positions turn over on occasion, it doesn’t really take away from what’s so great about this institution.”

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Editor’s note: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that Barbara Wilson is a mother of three. The article should have stated that she is a mother of two. The Daily Illini regrets the error.