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IOWA CITY — When asked why she wants to leave the University of Iowa after only one year, recently-reassigned Montse Fuentes — now 'special assistant to the president' after stepping down from UI provost — told the Kent State University community 'I'm looking for the opportunity to have complete alignment with my core values — my commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion.'
'I'm very excited about the prospect of joining Kent State, where I feel like there is complete alignment with those values,' Fuentes said during an Oct. 20 public presentation for the Kent State community as part of its search for a new senior vice president and provost.
Fuentes — who started as UI provost in June 2019 and in July 2020 signed a settlement reassigning her to the role of special assistant to the president — was unveiled earlier this month as one of three finalists for the Kent State job.
When asked during her candidate presentation why she wants to make the lateral move to leave Iowa for the northeast Ohio institution, Fuentes said she likes that Kent State 'is an institution that puts the students first.'
'I'm very excited that you use your values — your commitment to diversity, kindness, respect — in guiding the institution,' she said, praising the campus for creating a strategy and following through.
'I do think it is critical to whatever we do to be able to have an understanding of what the priorities are and the strategic vision, because that would guide the financial allocation, that would guide our fundraising, that would guide how we develop programs,' she said.
Fuentes has declined to answer The Gazette's questions about her settlement with UI — which allows her to continue earning her $439,000 provost-level pay through June 30, 2021 while focusing on UI strategic planning.
When asked for details of how Fuentes is involved in updating the UI strategic plan — as her name is not listed among committees and groups assigned that task — UI Interim Provost Kevin Kregel confirmed she's still playing a role 'but her focus has shifted a bit due to the ongoing challenges of the pandemic.'
Fuentes now is charged with assessing COVID's impact on other higher education institutions and evaluating what they're doing to navigate the pandemic, in helping to inform Iowa's planning through the shifting landscape, according to Kregel.
And Fuentes did speak with a Kent State student reporter, who shared audio with The Gazette after asking the former UI provost — among other things — why she was reassigned at Iowa.
Stressing the importance of operating in 'complete alignment' with her values, Fuentes said she decided voluntarily to 'put myself in a position where I could speak in alignment of my values and the direction that institution is going.'
'That's where I am right now and that really goes back to why I'm excited about Kent State,' Fuentes told the student reporter. 'I think that Iowa is a wonderful community with amazing faculty, staff and students. It's more of a personality fit. A personal direction. I want to be able to put values into action and words into action and that's what I'm looking for.'
When asked how her ideology aligns with Kent State, Fuentes said she likes the 'students first' philosophy, its research-academic integration, and the 'alignment of the values of that institution with my own commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion.'
'And I'm also clearly excited about the recognition that institution is receiving due to that commitment to those values — being a best employer for diversity by peers, a great place to work by The Chronicle of Higher Education,' she said. 'Certainly that authentic commitment to ensuring that the institution provides a very welcoming and inclusive campus community.'
Fuentes has told The Gazette she considers herself a minority — as she's from Spain, earning her bachelor's of science degrees from the University of Valladolid in the European nation before earning a doctorate from the University of Chicago in 1998.
She began her UI tenure the same day as then-Associate Vice President for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion TaJuan Wilson began his short stint on campus. Wilson — having been hired after a lengthy yearslong search that necessitated two interims — abdicated his post after just six weeks on the job.
Like Fuentes would do nearly one year later, Wilson signed a settlement taking a special assignment in the UI Office of the President — where he continued earning his six-figure salary while being allowed to look for other jobs off campus.
In departing for Georgia Southern University earlier this year, Wilson prepared for UI a presentation on what other campuses are doing around issues of diversity, equity, and inclusion — similar to Fuentes' assignment, but for diversity measures.
In that presentation, Wilson posed questions about UI diversity efforts — including, 'Are we honest about where we are, and are we operating with integrity and transparency?'
He also asked whether 'organizational accountability' exists and whether diversity is reflected among senior leadership.
For a stretch after Wilson's departure, all of the campus' diversity units reported to Fuentes — rather than an interim — as the university fired up another search for Wilson's replacement. After Fuentes' reassignment in July, administrators appointed Liz Tovar as interim associate vice president for diversity, equity, and inclusion.
And then officials two weeks ago ended the UI search for a new diversity head — announcing several candidates withdrew or said they would after UI President Bruce Harreld announced his retirement. Officials have said Tovar will persist in the interim role, and they haven't said whether the campus has plans to relaunch a search.
Meanwhile the campus over the summer was the center of Black Lives Matter protests — with hundreds rallying on the Pentacrest and outside the UI president's office. And student, faculty, and staff diversity leaders on campus criticized the administration for its response to the protests.
'Faculty, staff, and especially students perceive you and many other university leaders to be oblivious to the intense fear, struggle, and trauma that permeates the University of Iowa community each day,' according to an open letter from seven UI diversity councils, reporting trust in the university's commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion 'has been decimated.'
Fuentes, in discussing her priorities with the Kent State community, repeatedly mentioned diversity but also noted a move to Kent State would be like 'going back home.'
'This is home for us,' she said. 'That's where my husband is from. So we have been looking for an opportunity for our three children to be back home. So it's really, in a way, like going back home.'
Kent State officials did not immediately provide a timeline for that campus' selection of a new provost.
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