Education

'Disappointed' disbanded University of Iowa committee makes suggestions for next diversity search

A new hire needs 'authority, resources, job security, and regular access to senior leadership'

The Pentacrest on the campus of the University of Iowa including the Old Capitol Building (center), Macbride Hall (top l
The Pentacrest on the campus of the University of Iowa including the Old Capitol Building (center), Macbride Hall (top left), Jessup Hall (bottom left), Schaeffer Hall (top right), and MacLean Hall (bottom right) in an aerial photograph. (The Gazette/file photo)

IOWA CITY — The recently-disbanded committee charged with helping find a new University of Iowa diversity head was “very disappointed” by the search’s abrupt end this month and — before breaking apart — prepared guidance for a future search, as well as for the campus’ hunt for its next UI president.

“We are writing with recommendations based on our experience to strengthen the processes surrounding the next search,” according to an Oct. 22 letter that nine of the committee’s 19 members sent to numerous administrators — including retiring UI President Bruce Harreld, Interim Provost Kevin Kregel, and Associate Vice President of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Liz Tovar.

“Further, we make recommendations for the current presidential search, given the central role that our next president will play in the success of DEI efforts on campus.”

The group also suggested changes to the actual diversity leadership position at the center of the search, giving its next hire more power and “the necessary authority, resources, job security, and regular access to senior leadership to catalyze DEI-related change and help create an anti-racist campus and community.”

“It is critical for the person in this position to report to and meet regularly with the president; to serve as a vice president, rather than as an associate vice president; and to be a member of the president’s cabinet,” according to the group’s letter.

Those recommendations align with questions the university’s last, but short-lived, associate vice president of diversity posed in departing UI after just a few months on campus.

TaJuan Wilson, who in June 2019 took the associate vice president post after a yearslong search, resigned after just six weeks on the job — signing a settlement that allowed him to continue earning six figures while he looked for another job off campus.

He hasn’t responded to questions from The Gazette about why he stepped down.

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But before Wilson left in February for Georgia Southern University, he produced a report for UI on what other campuses nationally are doing around diversity, equity, and inclusion. At the end of the report, he left Iowa with a list of questions, including, “Will the future leader be organizationally aligned as a direct report to the university president?”

“Is diversity reflected at the senior leaders table?” he also asked.

And, “Do we have leadership in DEI and are they empowered to be successful?”

The university — before Wilson — went through two interims in that position and, instead of appointing another after his departure, directed all diversity units to report straight to then-Provost Montse Fuentes.

Fuentes, however, signed a settlement like Wilson’s in July — allowing her to step down and take a similar “special” assignment in the president’s office while continuing to receive her $439,000 pay to conduct research and investigate how other campuses are handing COVID-19.

Fuentes recently was a finalist to become Kent State provost, although that university went with an internal candidate.

UI didn’t immediately fill Fuentes’ void atop its diversity units with a temporary leader — although it did appoint Kevin Kregel as interim provost. Harreld eventually named Tovar interim associate vice president of diversity while he launched another search for a permanent replacement.

But after unveiling plans to retire this month, Harreld ended the diversity leader search — noting candidates had withdrawn because of his announcement or said they would.

“This is very disappointing to us,” the search group said of the move in its letter. “We recognize that efforts to achieve equity, diversity, and inclusion throughout our institution have fallen short of our aspirations, and we have been highly invested in helping to bring transformative, results oriented DEI leadership to Iowa over the last several months.”

Recommendations for diversity search by Gazetteonline on Scribd

Although many on campus have worked tirelessly to advance diversity initiatives on campus, the group wrote, “Our community and its leaders have struggled to live up to our stated values.”

“Given the importance of DEI, strong campus leadership is essential.”

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In that vein, here are some of the group’s suggestions for qualifications in a next diversity head:

“The most critical qualification for the DEI leadership position is demonstrated success leading large-scale, transformational change initiatives that advance equity, diversity, and inclusion;”

He or she should have experience working with students, post‐terminal degree trainees, faculty, staff, administrators, and the at-large community, and be prepared to address a range of issues related to racial, ethnic, gender, and sexual identities, disability, religion, national origin, social class, and military service;

Both faculty and non‐faculty with an advanced degree should be eligible for the job, “in an effort to remain open to a diverse array of potential change agents;”

And he or she “must be able to challenge our community and its leadership in a judicious manner, to present and discuss controversial topics, and to address conflict in a way that builds consensus and produces meaningful outcomes.”

Regarding membership of a future diversity search committee, the group suggested:

Diversity issues are just as important to students as to staff and faculty, and thus, “students need to be well-represented on the committee, and trainees should also have a voice.”

The disbanded committee included two students — representatives from the undergraduate and graduate student governments.

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“At a minimum, at least two undergraduate and two graduate student representatives should be included on the search committee, and consideration should be given as to whether representation based solely on the shared governance model is sufficient for students,” according to the letter.

The group also suggested search committee members complete training “on fair practices and the role of implicit bias in hiring decisions.”

“And we strongly recommend that the president and provost complete these trainings with the committee.”

The group’s suggestions for the UI presidential search, still in its infancy, include:

Hiring someone who is a “knowledgeable, engaged, and effective collaborator of and advocate for the DEI leader in the development of a more diverse, inclusive, and equitable climate for members of marginalized and oppressed groups;”

Finding candidates who have invested and succeeded in advancing diversity issues in prior positions;

And the group urged a committee for the UI presidential search should include broad representation with respect to diversity, equity, and inclusion.

“As we conclude our service on the search committee for the University of Iowa’s next leader of diversity, equity, and inclusion, we share these recommendations in the hope that adhering to them will increase the likelihood that UI ultimately can become the diverse, equitable, and welcoming community to which we all aspire.”

Comments: (319) 339-3158; vanessa.miller@thegazette.com

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