Education

University of Iowa's Tovar takes diversity, equity and inclusion from athletics to campus

'We can't just sit back and say 'These problems are going to fix themselves'

Liz Tovar, interim associate vice president for diversity, equity and inclusion for the University of Iowa, poses for a
Liz Tovar, interim associate vice president for diversity, equity and inclusion for the University of Iowa, poses for a portrait Dec. 22 at the Gerdin Athletic Learning Center in Iowa City. (Andy Abeyta/The Gazette)
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IOWA CITY — Liz Tovar wasn’t a collegiate athlete, but she understands an athlete’s drive and commitment.

The University of Iowa’s top diversity, equity and inclusion officer monitored study tables for University of Kansas football players when she was an undergraduate student and married former college and professional football player Steve Tovar.

“No. 1 is their competitive spirit,” Tovar said. “It’s not just about the sport itself, but where they are trying to go five, 10 years down the line. Helping them balance both of those worlds, I really enjoy that.”

Tovar has been the UI associate athletics director for student-athlete academic services since 2013, coordinating academic and personal support services for student-athletes in 24 sports.

But since August, when she was named interim associate vice president for diversity, equity and inclusion for the entire campus, Tovar has been thinking more broadly about how to make diversity, equity and inclusion more than just buzzwords.

“We are at a place in Iowa Athletics and as a country, we can’t just sit back and say ‘These problems are going to fix themselves,’” Tovar said.

Time of change

Iowa City, like many cities across the country, was the site of Black Lives Matter protests last summer after the May 25 killing of George Floyd in the custody of the Minneapolis police.

In June, more than 55 former UI football players spoke out about what they saw as a racist and bullying culture in the Hawkeye program. Strength and conditioning coach Chris Doyle, named by many players, resigned June 15 after the UI agreed to pay him more than $1 million.

Tovar serves in a high-profile role at a time of flux for the university.

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TaJuan Wilson left the job in August 2019, just six weeks after taking the post. The UI also has an interim provost and has started the search to replace retiring President Bruce Harreld.

Tovar said she isn’t overwhelmed by the circumstances.

“I wish there were more opportunities for people on campus to take on responsibilities outside their normal job duties,” she said. The university can learn from ideas tried in departments, she noted. And when those leaders go back to their units, they have new skills and personal connections.

Athletics work

In the Athletic Department, Tovar administers and analyzes the exit survey student-athletes take when they graduate or leave the UI. Results have shaped department decisions, such as the June hire of Broderick Binns as executive director of diversity, equity and inclusion for the Athletic Department.

Binns, who reports to Tovar, has been working with each UI team to come up with its own diversity, equity and inclusion plan.

Head Women’s Basketball Coach Lisa Bluder said at the Nov. 5 Presidential Committee on Athletics meeting that her team had decided to read “So You Want to Talk About Race” by Ijeoma Oluo as a way to think about race and culture.

“We need to be better. I need to be better,” Bluder said. “We identified things are team needs to talk about, things we need to learn.”

Campuswide

In early 2021, Tovar will review results of a campus climate survey to see where changes might be needed campuswide. She plans to appoint an advisory board to bring in new ideas and improve communication.

“We want individuals around us who can help us understand what the priorities are,” she said. “We all want to be rowing in the same direction.”

Tovar, who has a master’s degree in clinical psychology and a doctorate in educational leadership and policy studies, wouldn’t say whether she wants to become the permanent chief diversity officer.

“I’m taking it one day at a time,” she said.

When Tovar gets some downtime, she exercises or goes to her painting room, where her oil and acrylic paintings line the walls. Some of her favorites are a portrait of Robert DeNiro and a painting of a red barn that reminds her of her extended family’s farm in Kansas.

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Husband Steve Tovar, an All-American linebacker at Ohio State University who played eight years in the NFL, makes sure Tovar has fun once in a while. “My husband, Steve, helps me to relax and not take it all seriously,” she said.

Comments: (319) 339-3157; erin.jordan@thegazette.com

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