University of Iowa picks Spanish statistician as new provost

Montserrat 'Montse' Fuentes will start June 28

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. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette/file photo)

IOWA CITY — The University of Iowa has chosen a “razor-sharp” Spanish statistician and dean at the Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond from among three finalists to become its next executive vice president and provost.

Montserrat “Montse” Fuentes, currently serving as dean and professor in the College of Humanities & Sciences in Virginia, will start her term as UI provost post June 28, according to a message to the UI campus Tuesday morning.

“Dr. Fuentes brings to us impressive skills in fostering interdisciplinary research and academic programs across colleges and departments,” UI President Bruce Harreld said in a statement. “This makes her uniquely positioned to lead this great university to the next level in national and international recognition.”

Fuentes was one of four finalists a search committee selected for the job, which Barry Butler vacated in April 2017 to become president of Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach, Fla. Former UI College of Public Health Dean Sue Curry has been serving as interim UI provost for the past two years, as administrators took their time with a search — first focusing on a new strategic plan and budgeting model.

One of UI’s four provost finalists withdrew from consideration before his or her name was made public. The other two had UI connections.

The first, University of Pittsburgh Executive Vice Provost David N. DeJong, earned a UI doctorate in 1989 and served as a visiting UI associate professor in the Department of Economics in 1994. The second, University of Wisconsin Law School Dean Margaret Raymond, started as a UI associate professor of law in 1995 and worked up to full professor before leaving to Wisconsin in 2011.

During Raymond’s time here, she served as UI Faculty Senate president and helped search for a new provost — the job for which she was vying. She also was appointed to an investigative committee on the UI response to sexual assault allegations against a UI student-athlete.

Fuentes was the only named finalist without a UI connection.


Before her stint in Virginia, Fuentes served as head of the Department of Statistics and as James M. Goodnight Distinguished Professor of Statistics at North Carolina State University. She previously was director of the Network on Statistical Methods in Atmospheric and Oceanic Sciences — or STATMOS — a National Science Foundation-funded center focused on promoting multi-institutional and interdisciplinary research training related to statistics and atmospheric and oceanic sciences.

She’s authored more than 100 scientific publications and served as either principal or co-principal investigator on more than 20 research grants — totaling more than $25 million.

A first-generation college student, Fuentes earned a bachelor’s degree in mathematics and statistics and in music and piano from the University of Valladolid in Spain in 1994. She earned a doctorate in statistics from the University of Chicago in 1998 and completed postdoctoral studies in environmental sciences at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in 1999, according to the UI announcement of her hire Tuesday.

Former UI College of Law Dean and Professor Gail Agrawal, along with Obermann Center for Advanced Studies and Professor Teresa Mangum, led the search for a new UI provost. Mangum in a statement stressed the search committee compiled a pool of “very strong candidates” and said Fuentes stood out for her “extraordinary combination of talents.”

“She is a razor-sharp researcher and scholar who is also passionate about students,” Mangum said in her statement. “She is a warm and generous listener who has a stellar track record of inspiring her colleagues to work with her to turn good ideas into action.”

Mangum also praised Fuentes’ inclination toward cross-disciplinary collaboration along with diversity, equity, and inclusion. UI President Harreld similarly highlighted Fuentes’ deep commitment to “diversity, equity, and inclusion, and in particular to supporting first-generation students, which are all critical priorities for us.”

Fuentes’ research interested include big data, brain-imaging analysis, spatial data statistics, uncertainty analysis, and interdisciplinary applications in neurosciences, environmental sciences, and health sciences — among other things, according to the UI announcement of her hire.

She’s motivated, according to the university, by a desire to address scientific and societal problems in brain imaging, weather forecasting, climate change, and air pollution, along with effects of pollution on human health. She also is interested in pregnancy and pregnancy outcomes.


“We heard from the faculty across the colleges that they wanted a strong intellectual leader, and Dr. Fuentes will bring that leadership to the campus,” Agrawal said in a statement.

Fuentes in a statement said her visit to UI made clear the university is a “special place where faculty and staff build lasting relationships and care deeply about making a difference.”

“Higher education changed my life, and I’m excited to join a university that is transforming the lives of its students, the state, and in many disciplines, the world,” she said in the statement.

Fuentes will earn an annual salary of $435,000 — conditional on Board of Regents approval. Butler, when he departed, was making $413,972 a year. Curry’s salary in the 2018 budget year was $429,000, according to state records.

In a direct message to the UI community Tuesday, President Harreld said Fuentes will bring “new vision and energy to the University of Iowa.”

“I look forward to the exciting directions our academic life will take under her leadership,” he said.

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