With President Barbara Wilson leading the institution and a majority of colleges led by women, the University of Iowa was named a national leader in gender equality in a 2022 study by the Eos Foundation.
Iowa ranks fourth of 130 institutions, public and private, across the country.
The Women’s Power Gap Study, published in January, examines the top universities in the country and reports which schools are leading and which are lagging in respect to gender gaps. The study assessed institutional leadership and broke it down into four categories: Top leadership (president, provost, board chair), academic deans, president’s cabinet, and governing boards. Points were assigned based on representation in each category.
The UI’s 84.8 total points rank fourth overall and first of the Big Ten’s 14 institutions, behind only University of California-Santa Cruz, City University of New York–Graduate School, and University of New Hampshire.
But the UI’s history of placing women at the forefront is nothing new.
In 1855, Iowa was the first public university in the nation to admit men and women on an equal basis. Other notable firsts for women came in 1870, when Iowa was the first medical school in the country to admit women, and in 1873 Iowa Law was among the first law schools to award law degrees to women. In 1968, Iowa hired its first and only women’s athletic director, Christine Grant, who became national leader in the gender equity movement in sports.
“The University of Iowa has had a long, proud history of elevating the role of women, stretching back to its earliest days,” says UI President Barbara Wilson. “I am excited to see women at this university develop into our next leaders, and I hope to serve as a role model as their university’s president.”
President Wilson became Iowa’s third woman president in June 2021 joining three other women in the Big Ten, including the University of Minnesota, the Ohio State University, and Indiana University, and her counterpart at Iowa State University, Wendy Wintersteen. In January, the University of Michigan named Mary Sue Coleman — who was Iowa’s first woman president — its interim president.
President Wilson’s cabinet includes five women, also the most in UI history, including Liz Tovar. Tovar was named executive officer and associate vice president of the Division of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DDEI) in February 2021.
“It is a testament to the fantastic work our administration has done in investing in female leadership and bringing multiple voices to the table to lead our institution,” Tovar says of the cabinet’s makeup. “Having a more diverse and inclusive decision-making body enables the university to provide the best experience possible for our students, faculty, and staff.”
As the head of the DDEI office and senior associate athletics director overseeing Student-Athlete Academic Services, Tovar’s dual appointment gives her a unique perspective on many issues.
“I can see challenges others may not be able to see, and one of the core issues is how our diversity, equity, and inclusion impacts the entire University of Iowa experience,” says Tovar. “I do not take for granted that female students are continually learning from our female leaders by watching everything we do.”
Tovar herself says she has watched women leaders on campus earn their positions, and then university provides the resources to help them do more than simply meet expectations. They exceed them.
“Women on this campus are leading change, evolving our teaching, learning, research, and culture,” says Tovar. “It takes the trust to do the job, build the relationships, and use the tools we have to move our university forward.”
Iowa leads the nation
Opportunities like Tovar’s shine a light on a national shift in higher education, one in which more women are taking on leadership roles, and this is no more apparent than at Iowa.
Dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences Sara Sanders joined the UI faculty in 2003 in the School of Social Work. While she saw Iowa as a great place to enter the job market after earning her PhD, Iowa saw the makings of a future leader.
“I was really lucky that from an early stage in my career, there were key people who saw something in me that, frankly, I didn’t see in myself and were willing to step into that place with me,” says Sanders.
Sanders was named dean in March 2021 after serving in the role on an interim basis, and she continues to elevate women to and prepare them for leadership roles.
It is a constant practice—even with students.
“I am very deliberate in terms of the words that I use with female students and the way we talk about their career in terms of stages, the way we start to think about the things that they want to achieve to reach their goals,” says Sanders. “We need to be doing that with more women on campus. How do we work with our junior female faculty at this period of their career and how do we build upon that for the future?”
While Sanders found the support to become a leader on campus, dean of the Tippie College of Business Amy Kristof-Brown found similar support that kept her at Iowa when other schools came calling.
“The state slogan is ‘Fields of Opportunity.’ I have always found that to be true here,” says Kristof-Brown. “At Iowa, you are judged on the merit of your work and opportunities are available if you’re interested.”
As an associate professor at Iowa, Kristof-Brown was offered a position at another Big Ten school but she reconsidered after a conversation with the dean and associate deans at Tippie.
“They said, ‘Well, what is it that you want to do?’ and I said, ‘I would really like to work more with doctoral students.’ And they said, ‘OK, let’s talk with the department chair and let’s find a way for you to get more involved with that.’”
Kristof-Brown took over as the director of graduate studies the following year.
Then came an opportunity from former Tippie Dean Sarah Gardial that Kristof-Brown initially resisted. It was an opportunity for three women leaders from Tippie to attend a conference or aspiring women deans at Northwestern University.
“It was very geared toward higher level department chairs or associate deans who were interested in becoming deans,” says Kristof-Brown “We all said we didn’t want to be deans and didn’t want to go to this conference. But Sarah (Gardial) insisted.”
When the three-day conference ended, Kristof-Brown’s mindset had changed. She learned that she was able to be the dean that she would want to be.
On Dec. 1, 2020, Kristof-Brown was named dean of Tippie College of Business after serving as interim for nine months.
“What’s always been important is having the encouragement of the people above you, being exposed to the issues and the problems that are going to be in front of you if you take the next step, and then pushing you to do it and try it out,” says Kristof-Brown. “I am grateful I found all of that at Iowa.”
The President’s Cabinet
The President’s Cabinet is composed of senior institutional leaders who represent all aspects of the university. The cabinet provides advice and counsel to the president on all strategic and operational matters. For the first time in Iowa’s history, five of the 12 members are women:
Sarah Hansen, vice president for student life
Lynette Marshall, president and chief executive officer, UI Center for Advancement
Laura McLeran, senior advisor to the president and associate vice president for administrative affairs
Carroll Reasoner, vice president for legal affairs and general counsel
Liz Tovar, executive officer and associate vice president for diversity, equity, and inclusion; associate athletics director of academics
Starting with the fall 2021 semester, women are leading seven of Iowa’s 12 colleges:
Amy Kristof-Brown, Tippie College of Business
Harriet Nembhard, College of Engineering
Edith Parker, College of Public Health
Sara Sanders, College of Liberal Arts and Sciences
Amanda Thein, Graduate College
Tanya Uden-Holman, University College
Julie Zerwic, College of Nursing