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Emails show some pushed University of Iowa to fire AD Gary Barta after football settlement
Barta shared talking points with news of settlement
IOWA CITY — In the hours after State Auditor Rob Sand in March refused to approve another University of Iowa Athletics Department settlement until UI Athletics Director Gary Barta was gone, UI President Barbara Wilson heard from members of the public asking her to heed — or not heed — Sand’s call.
“Leaders such as yourself have to make tough decisions. THIS one is easy,” according to one email Wilson received that day, according to redacted documents the university provided The Gazette in response an open records request. “The entire state of Iowa will applaud you for getting rid of Mr. Barta and his legacy of a toxic culture at Iowa.”
Wilson didn’t immediately respond to that person, whose name the university redacted. She did respond to another emailer who took the opposite view and urged her not to fire Barta.
“He has been a very successful athletic director through some very difficult and challenging times,” the person wrote. “I have gotten to know Gary very well over the years, and I think he’s done one hell of a job. I think it would be horrible to terminate him.”
The email writer, citing 48 years practicing law and trying cases in “many jurisdictions and being involved in huge litigation matters,” acknowledged the range of issues that must be considered when settling a lawsuit.
“I’m confident that whoever made the decision to settle the case carefully weighed those factors,” the person wrote, adding, “I wish you good luck in managing through this and would help in any way.”
Wilson, about two hours later, responded, “Thanks much! We may give you a call. There are so many aspects to this situation, and I am grateful for your support.”
She did not immediately respond to or forward on to her staff an email from another undisclosed sender who suggested, “Barta’s time should be finished.”
“I don’t think I need to get into the specifics of his less than stellar history of discrimination lawsuits, nor do I need to dwell on his poor communication skills via repeated gaffs on news releases,” the person wrote to Wilson on March 6, after a day of public discourse on the settlement and a narrow State Appeal Board vote approving it.
Wilson did forward on to her Vice President for External Relations and Senior Advisor Peter Matthes — with the comment “FYI” — an email from an unknown sender who wrote, “Read today that the state auditor won’t sign off on the $4 million settlement unless Gary Barta is fired. This is a good thing as he should have been fired for not firing Brian Ferentz anyway!”
'Without our knowledge’
The lawsuit — which 12 former Hawkeye players filed in November 2020 — stemmed from stories shared and comments made on social media in the summer of 2020 accusing the UI football program of fostering a culture of racism, bullying and discrimination.
The lawsuit named not only the UI and Board of Regents as defendants but also Barta, head football coach Kirk Ferentz, his son and offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz, former strength and conditioning coach Chris Doyle and others on the staff.
After years of legal wrangling and delays, attorneys for both sides in late February agreed to a settlement — a fact Kirk Ferentz highlighted in a message to former Hawkeye football players the afternoon of the settlement news, according to documents obtained by The Gazette.
“While I appreciate that the coaches named are no longer facing these untrue allegations, the lawsuit was settled without our knowledge or approval,” Ferentz wrote. “The settlement negotiations took place between plaintiff's counsel and the Iowa Attorney General's Office, which represents the University of Iowa and the Board of Regents.
“In fact, the coaches and I fully believe that the case would have been dismissed. It is unfortunate that members of the staff had their character and reputation tarnished by former players who said one thing and quite the opposite when under oath.”
In that message, Ferentz stressed Hawkeye pride “runs deep” and continues.
“We have an inclusive and welcoming environment and young men who are invested in reaching their full potential. The atmosphere is supportive, and the coaching staff is focused on developing men of great character who excel on the field and are prepared for when they hang up the jersey.”
‘Positive path forward’
On March 6, the day Iowa’s three-member State Appeal Board was to vote on the proposed $4.2 million settlement — with taxpayers on the hook for $2 million and the UI responsible for the rest — appeal board member and State Auditor Rob Sand publicly condemned the deal and the state’s role in paying it.
And he refused to approve it so long as Barta remained employed.
“We have to, at a certain point, demand more personal responsibility for this kind of thing,” Sand said, citing several other discrimination cases against UI Athletics in recent years totaling nearly $11 million on Barta’s watch.
“You're costing the athletics department and costing taxpayers money when you do this kind of thing,” Sand said. “And we're going to hold people accountable.”
Two hours after Sand went public with his concerns — but before the State Appeal Board voted 2-1 to approve the agreement — Barta sent an internal email to athletics staff, coaches and UI deans alerting them to the finalized settlement, which players signed Feb. 23; UI and regent officials signed Feb. 24; and the State Attorney General’s Office sent to the appeal board Feb. 27.
“Today a settlement agreement was finalized related to the lawsuit brought forward by a group of former football players in 2020,” Barta wrote. “This issue has been difficult for everyone involved. We will move forward with a continued commitment to provide every student-athlete, coach or staff member involved with the Hawkeye Athletic program a welcoming and inclusive experience.”
Barta attached to that email some “talking points,” highlighting details of the settlement and reiterating actions the department has taken in response to concerns — including Doyle’s separation from the program in 2020, an independent review of the program’s culture and a “commitment from the entire football program to improve.”
“The university will not tolerate a culture that demeans individuals or inhibits them from being themselves and is committed to visible change that improves the experience for all students at Iowa,” according to Barta’s talking points. “The football program and the Department of Athletics have worked hard to improve the culture since 2020 and this settlement provides a positive path forward for the team and the department.”
Although the state of Iowa initially paid nearly half the settlement, lawmakers pushed back by proposing legislation that would henceforth and retroactively require Iowa’s public universities to reimburse it for costs associated with athletics-related settlements. That compelled the UI to agree to pay back the state.
On March 9, Wilson released a statement, “After listening to the concerns of Iowans, and in consultation with Board of Regents leadership, I have determined that the University of Iowa Department of Athletics will reimburse the state general fund for the $2 million due to the recent settlement.”
Lawmakers are still pursuing the bill, which gained committee approval March 14.
Vanessa Miller covers higher education for The Gazette.
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