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University of Iowa names diversity officer after years of turnover, turmoil

Liz Tovar is shown Dec. 22 at the Gerdin Athletic Learning Center at the University of Iowa in Iowa City. Tovar this wee
Liz Tovar is shown Dec. 22 at the Gerdin Athletic Learning Center at the University of Iowa in Iowa City. Tovar this week was named the UI’s executive officer for diversity, equity and inclusion. She will continue as associate athletics director, where she is on the UI Athletics senior management team, (Andy Abeyta/The Gazette)

IOWA CITY — The same week dental students are protesting diversity failures in their college, lawmakers are shredding the school for free speech suppression, and new climate survey results reveal a vastly experience for campus minorities, the University of Iowa announced Liz Tovar will become its executive officer for diversity, equity and inclusion.

Tovar, who arrived at the UI in 2013 and had been associate athletics director for student-athlete academic services, was named interim associate vice president for diversity, equity and inclusion in August — after years of turnover in that post and a controversial departure in 2019.

TaJuan Wilson resigned the post just six weeks after his start in June 2019, signing a settlement with the university that allowed him to continue looking for work — which he eventually found at Georgia Southern University — while earning his $224,000 salary.

Before Wilson’s hire, UI’s diversity efforts were led by two interim leaders — Lena Hill, who left in May 2018, and then-UI Vice President for Student Life Melissa Shivers, who left in January 2020 — after its last permanent diversity leader Georgina Dodge left in 2017.

Rather than immediately launching a search for Wilson’s replacement in 2019, UI President Bruce Harreld assigned oversight to then Provost Montse Fuentes, who also stepped last year after signing a resignation settlement allowing her to continue earning $439,000 as a special assistant. Fuentes in December was named president of St. Edward’s University in Austin, Texas, a post she’ll assume July 1.

UI officials have not shared details about why she or Wilson resigned.

UI executives last March initiated a search for a permanent diversity leader, before August’s appointment of Tovar as an interim.

But after Harreld in October announced his retirement, several candidates in the campus’ search for a diversity leader “withdrew or indicated they would likely withdraw,” and the university ended the search.

At that time, the university’s interim Provost Kevin Kregel said the campus’ diversity office would move forward under the strong leadership of its interim Tovar. And this week’s announcement makes that permanent.

Under the new UI title of executive officer for diversity, equity, and inclusion, Tovar will report to both the provost and the president and serve on the president’s cabinet.

Wilson, before departing the UI, had asked — via a diversity report provided to UI leadership — whether his successor would be “organizationally aligned as a direct report to the university president.”

About tovar

Tovar earned her undergraduate, master’s and doctoral degrees in psychology, clinical psychology and educational leadership and policy studies, respectively, at the University of Kansas. She worked at KU, Ohio State University and Northern Illinois University before coming to the UI in 2013 as associate athletics director for student-athlete academic services,

In her new role, she will continue as associate athletics director and continue to serve on the UI Athletics senior management team. She assumes her new position Feb. 1.

“Iowa needs consistent and principled leadership in order to create a more just and inclusive campus,” Harreld said in a statement. “Over the past six months, Dr. Tovar has proved she is the right leader to move us forward, and doing another search will not yield someone more capable or dedicated.”

Tovar’s new salary will be $250,000, up from her interim pay of $234,000 and from her previous associate athletics director salary of $130,560.

In a statement, Tovar said she’s honored “to lead and be a part of such important work and important change on our campus. I look forward to continuing to break down silos and to build relationships across the entire university.”

She noted oversight of the Division of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion meshes well with her athletics role.

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“This strong connection between athletics and the university will be a trailblazing model in higher education. It is an example that members of our Hawkeye community can provide leadership in multiple areas,” Tovar said. “Constructing a structure that is broad, welcoming and connected is crucial to our success as it will allow us to seamlessly deploy best practices throughout our community.”

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

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