Education

University of Iowa appoints interim diversity leader after years of turnover

'We are not without our challenges,' interim leader Liz Tovar says

IOWA CITY — Having gone a year without a permanent leader atop its Division of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, the University of Iowa on Thursday named Liz Tovar to serve as its interim head while a 19-member search committee hunts for a replacement.

The interim appointment continues a cycle of turnover and temporary or short-lived leadership for the division with immense responsibility and broad oversight over, for example, federal funding for underrepresented students and UI compliance with diversity policies and federal and state laws — including those barring discrimination, harassment and sexual harassment.

Tovar, UI associate athletics director for student-athlete academic services, will begin her new full-time role as interim associate vice president for diversity, equity, and inclusion on Aug. 17 — while continuing to engage with the UI Department of Athletics “as part of her new responsibilities.”

The university in June 2019 had hired TaJuan Wilson as its new associate vice president for diversity, but he left after just six weeks via a settlement that allowed him to continue earning his $224,000 salary while he looked for another job, which he eventually found at Georgia Southern University.

Instead of immediately launching a search for his replacement or appointing an interim dedicated to that division, the university assigned its oversight to then-Provost Montse Fuentes, who just weeks ago stepped down from her position and signed a similar settlement allowing her to continue earning $439,000 as “special assistant to the president.”

UI officials have not said why Wilson or Fuentes resigned from their respective roles.

The university in March initiated a search for a permanent diversity head, and UI President Bruce Harreld two weeks ago announced plans to appoint an interim diversity, equity, and inclusion leader “in order to have someone commit 100 percent of their time to leading our campus efforts.”

Before Wilson’s hire, the university’s diversity division had been led by two interim leaders — Lena Hill, who left in May 2018, and then UI Vice President of Student Life Melissa Shivers, who left in January 2020 — after its last permanent diversity head Georgina Dodge left in 2017.

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In a statement, UI Interim Provost Kevin Kregel said the campus’ new interim diversity leader Tovar “has demonstrated great capacity for guiding and uplifting both students and her colleagues.”

“I would also like to thank her for agreeing to fill this crucial role during a particularly challenging time,” Kregel said. “Our community is not exempt from the systemic disparities and harms that current events bring to the public eye, and although we are welcoming a new leader, we must remember that the responsibility for advancing diversity, equity, and inclusion belongs to us all.”

Tovar, in her new role, will be making $234,000.

In her athletics position, where she was earning $130,560, Tovar supervised daily academic services operations and managed academic and personal support services for student-athletes across the campus’ 24 sports. She also serves on the athletics senior management team, numerous campus committees, and oversees diversity educational efforts for UI athletes.

In a statement, Tovar thanked UI Athletics Director Gary Barta for his “continued and unwavering support” during this “temporary move.”

“I truly look forward to fulfilling the role and responsibility of the associate vice president for DEI, as well as assist university leadership with finding a permanent leader,” she said.

As the university proceeds with that search, it last month had to name a new co-chair of its search committee after Nadine Petty, executive director of the UI Center for Diversity and Enrichment, left to become chief diversity officer and associate vice president at the University of New Hampshire.

Tiffini Stevenson Earl, associate director of Equal Opportunity and Diversity, has taken Petty’s role atop the search committee, and Kregel on Thursday announced Tabitha Wiggins has stepped in as Petty’s interim replacement leading the campus’ diversity and enrichment center.

Wiggins, who came to campus in 2011, had been serving as associate director of Multicultural and International Student Support and Engagement — making $62,930. She’ll earn $85,000 in her interim role.

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The shuffling comes amid heightened racial tensions both nationally and locally, with Black Lives Matter protesters frequenting campus this summer — spray painting prominent buildings, like the Old Capitol and Kinnick Stadium, and listing demands of the city and university.

Tovar, in accepting her new role, stressed the importance of maintaining UI diversity, equity, and inclusion conversations and initiatives during this historic time of civil unrest.

“I am keenly aware that while the UI has made great strides in setting DEI standards, we are not without our challenges,” Tovar said in a statement. “I firmly believe the foundation and decisions we set forth can positively impact the UI now and for years to come. A key component of this is working with campus and community leaders on incorporating more transparency and accountability.

“I welcome the opportunity to listen to all members of the community, including underrepresented and marginalized groups, whose voices have not always been heard, and enact change where possible.”

The UI search for a permanent diversity leader is expected to conclude in the coming spring.

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

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