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IOWA CITY — During her yearlong $439,000 “special assistant” to the president assignment that ended Wednesday, former University of Iowa Provost Montse Fuentes was charged with assessing the impact of COVID-19 across higher education and reporting on the best practices she found for navigating the pandemic.
Fuentes this month submitted a 26-slide presentation summarizing research from various higher education commissions, advisory groups and companies related to enrollment trends and the pandemic’s impact on disadvantaged populations, faculty and staff, and on the student experience.
It includes unspecific recommendations — like advising the UI to “demonstrate care and compassion,” “increase collaboration to ensure that students are at the center of all decisions” and use “on-campus resources to safely meet students’ basic needs” in hopes of fostering a sense of student belonging.
“This assessment will help the UI inform its ongoing development of the new strategic plan given the changing landscape we are facing in a post-COVID world,” UI spokeswoman Jeneane Beck told The Gazette June 4 -- the day Fuentes submitted her report but before Interim UI President John Keller had discussed it with her June 11.
Last July, after just a year as UI provost, Fuentes signed a settlement with the university removing her from that position and reassigning her as “special assistant in the Office of the President,” where she would continue making her six-figure vice president-level pay and regular benefits.
Per the settlement, Fuentes was to lead the team updating Iowa’s strategic plan and commit a portion of her time to research. The yearlong special assignment was to end Wednesday, when she could remain on faculty at 60-percent reduced pay, according to the agreement.
Neither Fuentes nor UI officials have shared details about why she was reassigned or why there was a need for a settlement.
Although Fuentes’ settlement said she’d be “leading the team to update the university’s strategic plan,” Beck more recently said Fuentes is “charged with assessing the impact of COVID on institutions of higher education (and) evaluating what other schools are doing as they navigate through the pandemic.”
Fuentes’ name was not included on the university’s 2016-2021 strategic plan development group, nor was she listed as a member of the UI strategy team charged with developing, implementing and evaluating the campus’ new 2022-2027 strategic plan.
As a finalist for the job of senior vice president and provost at Kent State University in October, Fuentes took questions from that community — including one asking why she wanted to leave Iowa.
“I'm looking for the opportunity to have complete alignment with my core values — my commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion,” Fuentes said in response.
Fuentes’ settlement came less than a year after the university signed a similar agreement with its then-Associate Vice President for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion TaJuan Wilson — who started the same day as Fuentes but resigned just six weeks into the job.
He, too, was given a special assignment earning him a six-figure pay — during which he was tasked with researching best diversity-related practices across higher education.
In Wilson’s final report before he left for another job, he asked, “Are we operating with integrity and transparency?” and “Does organizational accountability exist?”
Fuentes’ report addressed four topics: enrollment projections, teaching and learning, disadvantaged students and the student experience.
In her enrollment section, Fuentes included charts and facts from a December 2020 Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education report that found high schools are graduating an increasingly diverse population.
She reported Hispanic undergraduate students were the only growing enrollment demographic in 2019.
“By Fall 2020 due to the impact of COVID-19 related sickness and job losses, the number of first-time freshmen Hispanic was reduced by 20 percent,” Fuentes wrote. “It is key for universities to respond to students from underserved populations that are not ready to come back to college, and focus not just on recruitment but on retention and elimination of equity gaps in student success.”
She cited research on inclusive teaching indicating, “As colleges and universities make a priority to focus on a new digital imperative, students need more support.” The same is true for faculty who experienced widespread fatigue and anxiety during the pandemic.
“What would improve faculty members’ job satisfaction?” Fuentes asked. “A study from Course Hero of more than 570 faculty during Fall 2020 provided some answers.”
She reported sampled faculty wanted, in order of importance, better compensation, modified teaching schedules or loads; new technology or access to tech support; and more staff and teaching assistant support.
Fuentes’ report found disadvantaged students were hit hardest by the pandemic and more students across the board are questioning the value of a college degree. She suggested universities make career planning part of the student experience and start offering more career certificate options.
She summarized her findings by noting COVID-19 exacerbated higher education concerns about cost, mental health, social inequities, success gaps and recruitment.
“COVID-19 for all its unwelcome and devastating effects, may provide the needed push to a more sustainable future for those institutions that place students at the center of decision making and serve all students well, embrace technology and the future, and align strategies to a clearly defined institutional identity and mission,” Fuentes wrote.
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