UI Professor Lena Hill discusses her new appointment as senior associate to the president
Monday, September 12, 2016

Lena Hill has taught at Yale University, the University of North Carolina School of the Arts, and Duke University, but she says that the University of Iowa has a unique and contagious work ethic.

“Many of us who teach and work here aren’t from Iowa, but we come and we seem to soak up that Midwestern willingness to roll up one’s sleeves,” she says. “And I like that. I like that a lot.”

UI President Bruce Harreld appointed Hill senior associate to the president effective Aug. 1 and charged her with providing a faculty perspective on administrative decision-making and improving interaction between administration and the collegiate and academic units.

The two-year appointment was first established under President David Skorton in 2005, but was left vacant when David Drake, a professor in the College of Dentistry, completed his term in 2013.

Hill has taught at the UI since 2006 and was tenured in 2013. In 2011, she co-organized “Iowa and Invisible Man: Making Blackness Visible,” a multimedia and multidisciplinary project examining the African American experience at the UI, which culminated in a staged reading of a theatrical version of Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man.

Hill is a member of the Strategic Plan Development Group, has won the James N. Murray Faculty Award, and is co-editor of the essay collection Invisible Hawkeyes: African Americans at the University of Iowa During the Long Civil Rights Era, which details the unexpected role the UI played in the national civil rights movement. Invisible Hawkeyes is slated for publication in October by UI Press.

Hill recently sat down with Iowa Now to re-introduce herself to campus and discuss her new position.

How do you see your role as senior associate to the president?

I see my role as providing a faculty perspective in the president’s office, and I think that retaining my split appointment is crucial to doing this effectively. I will continue to function as an active faculty member—teaching, maintaining my research, and serving on a range of committees—in order to work in this office and retain an accurate sense of the pulse of campus. 

We are fortunate to have a strong tradition of shared governance, both historically and currently. I see my role as complementing that work from a different vantage point.

What priorities have you set for this role?

My initial priorities will reflect the experiences that I’ve had during my 10 years here. I’m passionate about undergraduate and graduate education, and I look forward to supporting the excellent work that goes on in the classroom and beyond it. This includes ensuring that faculty and staff who want to be innovative have resources and support. Our students are talented, they are generous, and they want to affect change. We have to create avenues for them to do so.

My commitment to issues of diversity, inclusion, and campus climate also will shape my priorities. As a professor of English and African American studies, I have a great deal of experience with approaching topics of race and identity.

I am also a dedicated advocate for the humanities. I look forward to bringing my perspective—as someone who does humanities research and understands the many fascinating ways the humanities shape student experiences—to my role in the president’s office.

What are some issues facing universities across the nation, and what are some ways that the UI is addressing them?

Budgetary matters are high on the list of national and local concerns. For state institutions in particular, the budget model has changed radically. Fifteen years ago, we received maybe two-thirds of our general fund revenue from the state, and now it’s about one-third.

The opportunity I see here is a greater incentive for our university community to understand the budgeting process. When faculty, students, and staff gain a clearer sense of this process, they will be empowered to advocate more advisedly for their priorities. 

Other issues: Race, diversity, and academic free speech may constitute the most charged issues on campuses across the nation. These are fraught issues, but we’re taking concrete steps to address them. I cannot tell you how many students have sought me out to share their excitement about the Young, Gifted, and Black Living Learning Community.

The president has been visiting the UI Cultural Centers and LGBTQ Resource Center, and I have had opportunities to join him. The conversations we’ve had with students have been fantastic. 

I don’t mean to suggest that students said everything is perfect. No, the conversations were fantastic because of the sense of cautious optimism the students articulated, the frankness with which they both assessed their current experiences and voiced their desires for the near future. Many campuses have seen communication break down between students and administrators, but at the UI, we are listening and we are committed to acting. Real challenges lie ahead, and I feel fortunate to be in a position to help address them.

What is something that surprises people about you?

As an undergraduate I played rugby for one semester—I was a wing—and most people who know me would probably not have seen that coming. 

But I think that many people on campus have fascinating and surprising roles they fulfill as part of the UI community. Both of our children were born with sickle cell anemia, so our family spends a good deal of time at the hospital. For the most part, I just feel like a mother when I’m there, but those doctors are also my colleagues, and witnessing their extraordinary work makes me proud of our institution’s complexity and collective excellence.

Two years ago, my daughter was a Kid Captain. Her favorite part of that experience was holding hands with the football players and walking out of the tunnel at Kinnick. That moment reminded me of all our student athletes do—they work hard in the classroom, on the field, and as Hawkeye ambassadors. 

I look forward to discovering much more about the people at the UI, and I’m thankful for the varied perspective I bring to my position, because everything we do at this university is made possible by the people who are here.