CEDAR FALLS — Purpose and passion drive Jim Wohlpart’s work at the University of Northern Iowa.
So even as the provost and executive vice president for academic affairs begins his final semester there Monday, he is focused on what still needs to be completed.
Among those tasks is a March visit from the Higher Learning Commission, UNI’s accreditation agency. Wohlpart promised President Mark Nook that he would remain at the university long enough to see the effort through.
“We are really well prepared for HLC accreditation, and that has been a real community approach,” he noted.
Wohlpart praised Nook’s leadership, after four years as president, along with the teams of administrators, deans, and department heads who have helped guide UNI’s direction in an interview last week with The Courier.
“I feel like I’m leaving the institution in great hands,” he said. “The University of Northern Iowa is a remarkable institution and I’ve been honored to be here for six years.”
In June, Wohlpart will leave the position he’s had since 2015 to become president of Central Washington University in Ellensburg, Wash., which had 15,818 students during 2019-20. But he didn’t start the school year searching for a way to leave UNI behind.
“Let me be clear that I have not been looking for a presidency,” he said. “This was the only presidency I applied for in the fall.”
When Wohlpart began considering the position, he recognized some of the same qualities that attracted him to UNI.
“Central Washington University, much like UNI, has a very strong emphasis on student engagement and student success,” he said. Its faculty provide rigorous instruction and the public university receives strong support from the state.
At UNI, Wohlpart has worked to enroll more “traditionally underrepresented populations,” such as racial and ethnic minorities. Those students have grown from about 8% to 12% of enrollment since he first arrived. Such students already make up 40% of Central Washington’s enrollment.
“So that mission of access, broad access that really is being transformative, is being lived out at Central Washington University,” he said.
“I don’t think about the world in terms of challenges, I think of it in terms of opportunities,” Wohlpart explained. Increasing the number of underrepresented people at UNI has been one of those opportunities.
The university has “not always done well” at promoting diversity and inclusion in a way that would allow students to “bring their whole self to campus,” he said, admitting to his own mistakes.
He noted that ongoing work is being advanced through the website quest.uni.edu and the launch of “Cultivating Justice: A Quest Towards Racial Equity.” Members of the university and Cedar Valley communities can register online for a six-week guided “Quest” starting Monday and again March 8 that can be done individually or in a group. Those who register will receive a weekly newsletter, but materials are also available now on the website.
Wohlpart said an important focus when he first arrived at UNI was building trust with faculty. He referenced its 2012 vote of no confidence in former President Benjamin Allen and Gloria Gibson, whom Wohlpart succeeded as provost. The vote occurred after the closure of Malcolm Price Laboratory School and the elimination of dozens of academic programs.
He commended leaders of the faculty senate and union for working with him to help move forward from that point. “They’ve just been great colleagues of healing that rupture,” he said. Wohlpart has also worked with them to elevate the shared governance process at the university and accomplish other changes in the institutional culture.
“One of the things that we have done is to build leadership at very high levels,” he said. Prior to the pandemic, UNI offered a Leadership Academy for four years that worked with a different group of 15 faculty, staff and administrators annually. They gathered four times per year, ending with a retreat.
In regards to dealing with COVID-19, Wohlpart said “it’s just been an amazing lift” on the part of the university, which detected no community spread of the virus on campus during the fall semester. “I hope that’s the same with the spring,” he said.
“For the spring semester, we actually have spaced our students out more than they were in the fall. We really have elevated our mitigation efforts, but we hope that we will be able to continue to operate as we did in the fall.”
Wohlpart expressed regret that he and his wife, Sasha, won’t likely be able to gather and “give people long deep hugs” as they leave the Cedar Valley amid pandemic-related restrictions. But even without a proper goodbye, he’ll remember those who have been part of his time at UNI.
“This community has shaped me and I will carry that with me where ever I go,” he said.
Photos: Northern Iowa men’s basketball vs. Bradley, Jan. 11, 2021