Education

University of Iowa provost steps aside to become 'special assistant,' per settlement

Montse Fuentes will continue earning $439,000

Montse Fuentes, now the former provost of the University of Iowa, addresses the crowd Aug, 16, 2019, during the UI Carve
Montse Fuentes, now the former provost of the University of Iowa, addresses the crowd Aug, 16, 2019, during the UI Carver College of Medicine Class of 2023 White Coat Ceremony at Hancher Auditorium. (David Harmantas/Freelance)

IOWA CITY — After serving just one year as a University of Iowa vice president and provost, Montse Fuentes has been reassigned as “special assistant to the president,” according to settlement made public Thursday — the second time in under a year the university has struck similar deals to remove key leaders.

In her new role, Fuentes will lead a team updating the UI’s 2016-2021 strategic plan and spend time on research.

Fuentes’ reassignment takes effect immediately and runs through June 30, 2021, the end of the current budget year. After that, she could choose to assume a regular faculty position.

In the special assistant role, Fuentes will continue earning her vice president-level pay of $439,000 and keep receiving regular benefits, according to the agreement, which she and UI President Bruce Harreld signed Wednesday.

Neither she nor the UI would say what led them to make a deal for her to vacate the position.

UI Human Resources doesn’t list on its website “special assistant in the Office of the President” among its professional and scientific job classifications. It does list a “special assistant to the vice president” in human resources, showing a market range of between $50,012 and $106,086.

Harreld recently announced sweeping budget cuts in response to tens of millions in losses from COVID-19, including salary freezes for about 4,200 employees; hiring freezes for at least 32 positions; and a one-time 50-pecent cut of his own base pay for the rest of the budget year.

Individual colleges and departments also are cutting their budgets.

In response to questions from The Gazette about whether Fuentes’ pay will be hit by any of the cuts, UI officials stressed she’ll be paid according to her settlement.

ARTICLE CONTINUES BELOW ADVERTISEMENT

If Fuentes stays on after her special assignment, her salary will be converted to a regular nine-month appointment in which she’ll earn about $175,600.

In his initial letter offering Fuentes the job, dated March 4, 2019, Harreld noted her appointment was “at will,” meaning she served at the will of the president. But he intended her initial appointment to last up to five years.

The settlement removing her from that position points out the deal “shall not in any way be construed as admission by the University of Iowa, the State of Iowa, the Board of Regents for the State of Iowa … that s/he/it engaged in any wrongful acts against or with respect to Fuentes or that s/he/it violated any federal, state, or local law.”

The deal requires Fuentes and the UI to release a “mutually agreeable public statement” about the move.

In a statement Thursday from the UI Office of Strategic Communication, Fuentes stated: “The chance to serve our students and scholars in this new way is an exciting new direction. Being able to make an impact on our campus community by using my research and administrative skills is the best of both worlds.”

When contacted Thursday by The Gazette for an interview, Fuentes declined to comment.

Diversity concerns

Fuentes started in June 2019 — on the same day then-Associate Vice President for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion TaJuan Wilson began his short-lived UI tenure.

Wilson, 33, left the job after just six weeks, signing a similar settlement and taking a similar assignment in the UI Office of the President while he was allowed to look for other jobs off campus.

Wilson, in departing, posed questions about the university’s diversity efforts, asking among other things, “Are we honest about where we are, and are we operating with integrity and transparency?”

ARTICLE CONTINUES BELOW ADVERTISEMENT

Wilson, in a report he submitted before leaving, also asked, “Does organizational accountability exist?” and, “Is diversity reflected at the senior leaders table?”

Wilson, who is Black, reported to Fuentes, who is from Spain.

The university has been at the center of Black Lives Matter protests this summer — with hundreds rallying on the Pentacrest and outside the UI president’s office.

UI leaders have responded with statements of support for the protesters and their concerns — though Harreld hasn’t been seen on campus as most employees have been working remotely due to COVID-19.

In an open letter to Harreld this week, seven UI diversity councils criticized him and the administration for responses to the protests.

“Faculty, staff, and especially students perceive you and many other University leaders to be oblivious to the intense fear, struggle, and trauma that permeates the University of Iowa community each day,” the letter stated.

The councils said trust in the university’s commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion “has been decimated.”

After Wilson left, the university initially was unclear about plans to replace him, and officials said the diversity, equity, and inclusion divisions would report to Fuentes.

The divisions now will report to interim UI Provost Kevin Kregel, according to UI spokeswoman Jeneane Beck. The UI has launched a search to find a permanent diversity leader.

Two-year interim

In a statement, Harreld thanked Fuentes “for her service and contributions in her role as provost.

ARTICLE CONTINUES BELOW ADVERTISEMENT

“Montse’s work with the colleges to identify trends will provide a road map for the future success of our students and faculty, and I’m looking forward to her continued help in this planning,” he said.

In naming Kregel, the executive vice provost and senior associate provost for faculty, as interim provost, Harreld noted he “has served in multiple leadership positions across our campus for the past two decades, which will prove very valuable for Iowa going forward.

Kregel’s interim appointment will last at least two years. His salary will jump 63 percent from $269,205 to $439,000.

Kregel, who joined the UI faculty in 1993 after earning UI bachelor’s and doctorate degrees in physiology and biophysics, was appointed associate provost in 2014 and executive vice provost and senior associate provost for faculty in 2019.

“Our university is facing a set of challenges that will test each of us, but I know that we, as a community, are ready to stand together in the face of this adversity,” he said in a statement.

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

Give us feedback

We value your trust and work hard to provide fair, accurate coverage. If you have found an error or omission in our reporting, tell us here.

Or if you have a story idea we should look into? Tell us here.

Give us feedback

We value your trust and work hard to provide fair, accurate coverage. If you have found an error or omission in our reporting, tell us here.

Or if you have a story idea we should look into? Tell us here.