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IOWA CITY — A former University of Iowa provost who resigned without public explanation after just one year — hinting on her way out she wanted to serve a campus aligned with her diversity, equity and inclusion values — is being accused in a lawsuit of taking that mission too far in her new job.
Montserrat Fuentes — according to the federal lawsuit filed Feb, 28 in Austin, Texas — “misled the university community and the general public into believing that she had stood up to white racism and demonstrated her commitment to ‘social justice’ by terminating a high profile white coach whom she falsely led the community to believe had engaged in acts of discrimination.”
Fuentes, who started as UI provost in June 2019, signed a settlement with the Iowa Board of Regents in July 2020, reassigning her to “special assistant to the president” through June 30, 2021. She declined to answer The Gazette’s questions about what prompted her resignation and settlement, which allowed her to continue earning a $439,000 provost-level salary for a year.
In her search for a new job while still employed at UI, Fuentes in October 2020 — as a finalist to become senior vice president and provost at Kent State University — was asked during a public forum why she wanted to leave the UI.
“I’m looking for the opportunity to have complete alignment with my core values — my commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion,” Fuentes told the Kent State community.
Fuentes didn’t get the Kent State job but later was unveiled as the president of St. Edward’s University in Austin, which touted her, a native of Spain, as its first Hispanic president.
‘Remove Coach Penders’
Just over a month into her tenure there, Fuentes found herself facing the issue of discrimination allegations against the school’s longtime baseball coach, Rob Penders. Former player Jacques Palmer — for whom St. Edward’s had declined to seek another year of eligibility — made the complaint against Penders.
According to the lawsuit, Penders was accused of using a racist epithet in front of the team; telling Black athletes to remove head coverings; and being insensitive to the experiences of Black people by sharing his own family’s racist history.
The school hired an external investigator to look into the accusations, and the inquiry exonerated Penders of discrimination or wrongdoing, according to the lawsuit.
The investigation found Penders actually had rejected a “walk up song” for Palmer’s at-bats that included racist and misogynistic lyrics; told all players clothing couldn’t protrude from their body or alter their uniform during games; and talked about his family during a frank discussion following George Floyd’s murder in 2020, the records show.
In sum, according to the lawsuit, the external investigator concluded Palmer’s allegations against Penders were “without merit,” and Fuentes agreed.
After the investigation, according to the lawsuit, Fuentes emailed Penders saying, “I am so excited about the bright future of our baseball team under your leadership!”
But Palmer launched an online petition and TikTok campaign seeking Penders’ termination. Instead of disclosing more details about the allegations and findings, the suit asserts, St. Edward’s barred Penders from defending himself and Fuentes issued a statement confirming an investigation had occurred.
“Following the investigation, the university has taken actions, and there have been consequences which are consistent with the university’s mission and policies,” Fuentes said in the statement.
“Fuentes’s dishonest and self-aggrandizing response only fueled the activism,” according to the lawsuit against the university, filed by Penders. “Students and faculty, misled by Fuentes and in the dark about even the most basic facts underlying the generalized allegations in the ‘Remove Coach Penders’ petition, escalated their calls to fire Penders.”
Riding that wave of outrage, according to the lawsuit, another former player who had quit the team in the middle of a game three years earlier emerged with new allegations of discrimination. A separate investigation again exonerated Penders.
“Fuentes was again met with a chance to tell the truth,” according to Penders’ lawsuit. “Yet again, Fuentes decided to mislead students, faculty and the community. Fuentes fired Penders and issued a public statement again concealing that Penders had been exonerated and again falsely glorifying herself as someone fighting for ‘social justice.’”
Penders, 48, remains unemployed, according to his attorney, Tom Nesbitt, of Austin. He’s suing the university for race discrimination, noting, “But for his race, Penders would not have been terminated.”
'Implausible and speculative’
Fuentes didn’t respond to The Gazette’s request for comment.
The university this month filed a motion asking the court to dismiss the lawsuit, asserting it is “completely devoid of factual allegations that could support his race discrimination claim.”
“According to Plaintiff, (St. Edward’s University) embarked on a campaign to oust him as SEU’s baseball coach for one reason alone: Penders is white,” the motion stated. “Penders’ entire lawsuit hinges on the implausible and speculative theory that the term ‘social justice’ equates to ‘racism against white people.’”
St. Edward’s, in its motion, asserts investigations into Penders’ conduct “did not exonerate him of all impropriety” — although it doesn’t go into detail on that assertion. And even if it did exonerate him, according to the motion, Penders’ allegations don’t “suggest that he was terminated because of his race.”
In response to questions from The Gazette, Penders’ attorney Nesbitt accused the university of twisting his client’s argument.
“That is a total distortion of our claim, and St. Edward’s knows it,” he said.
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