Q&A: New Provost Montserrat Fuentes speaks on starting at the UI

Fuentes, who started in her new position June 28, sat down with the Daily Iowan to talk about her time on campus so far and initiatives that she’s working on.


Katie Goodale

Provost Montserrat Fuentes speaks during an interview with The Daily Iowan in Jessup Hall on Monday Sept. 30, 2019. Fuentes addressed topics including diversity of campus and student enrollment.

DI Staff

Fuentes: I wanted to share with you some exciting initiatives that I would like to start working on with the campus community. As a university, we are committed to excellence in who we are and what we do, making sure that we offer a world class education to our students, that we build a world class faculty, and that we are committed to help each individual achieve his or her full potential.

As part of that effort, we want to make sure to address some gaps that we have in being able to ensure that all our students have access to truly transformational education and experience while they are with us and we help them to make timely progress towards a degree.

We celebrate the diversity in our students, we are so proud that we have a portion of our students are first generation, coming from different parts of the state and beyond here to get access to that education, but what we really need to make sure that we are ready to offer the support that is needed for them to be successful.

So at this point, we have some work to do. Those students, they are not graduating at the same [rate], we lose them quite early when we look at our retention from year one to two. For student success for the overall population, it’s about 87 percent. Those are the students who are falling behind in all different groups we have … We need to start, again, building that infrastructure even before they arrive so we can help them to be successful.

So, we’d like to work with the campus community at least as something, maybe not in a few weeks, we can have the opportunity to talk to you and show you some strategies to help our students, again to make timely progress towards a degree… In a very similar manner of strategies that we have in place in athletics that we engage with the students prior to their arrival, when they are here they have access to a coach or an advisor all the time by the student side to ensure they are making progress.

So these are initiatives that will very soon be in a position to stand in place and I’m excited to mention that because we are here for our students so we want to make sure that we have the opportunity to help them be successful.

DI: Since you are new to campus, people are still learning who you are. Can you tell us a little bit about yourself and your journey to coming here and how you’re settling in?

Fuentes: Yes. I first want to say how privileged I feel to be here, to be a part of this energized and talented community at the University of Iowa. Through my trajectory, I’ve continued to learn, [I’ve] always [been] passionate about numbers. I’ve always liked the logic in math and being able to use numbers to solve problems, but at the same time music was always a way for me to express myself so I’ve always had that interest in music and math.

What really is exciting to me is to be able to address and put that knowledge to [processes]. That’s why I started to get more involved in statistics, which is a branch of math that helps you interpret numbers and data into knowledge. Through an opportunity to study abroad when I was an undergrad, I went to Italy and that was truly transformative for me.

I was able to meet individuals from the University of Chicago and have a full ride to come to the United States and the opportunities that this country has to offer was simply overwhelming and I simply never left. I continued my engagement in academia and I never left academia.

I was presented with opportunities as a faculty member that allowed me to work with students and lead research and at some point I also felt an obligation to take some ownership of my role in being able to serve as a role model to others. My interest was exclusively in working with students and research and I never really had an interest in leadership roles.

I felt that I should put myself out there to really bring more diversity to leadership and again to help others. So in that process I learned quite a bit about myself and I realized I was getting so much more satisfaction from the success of others than my own and  that’s how I am where I am now, as I was given the opportunity to come to this truly incredible place here with a commitment to do anything that I can to make a difference and helping students to continue.

DI: At your candidate forum, back when you first visited campus in the spring, you talked about the Three I’s — innovation, integrated programs, and interdisciplinary teams, so how will that shape your work as provost and your priorities?

Fuentes: I truly believe that in this society that we live in right now, as our world becomes smaller, we are all interconnected, that it is critical that we focus into that integration of how we become successful. So as we move forward as an institution with a new path for the future, we will plan the integration rather than talking about silos or pillars that support the institution when we focus on student success and in research and engagement, the key is integration.

The research is a part of everything that we do. We don’t isolate it. It is supporting part of our identity. To make sure that our commitment to the research mission is reflected in our instruction and education of our students we have to make sure that our students have access to research.

When we talk about DEI it’s not something separate, it has to be integrated and part of our DNA. I believe that to be success we really need to integrate the different areas of focus or the core of our mission as an institution. That’s the context of integration in innovation.

The students know to be successful as part of the training, they have to be exposed to opportunities and training to be innovated. There is quite a bit of focus right now in being able to present our students with opportunities to learn how to become more interpretable, more innovative in the context of the education.

Again, the research and everything that we do in the interdisciplinary. We must be able to address some of the biggest societal problems we need to be sure that we bring in individuals from different areas of expertise and bring them to the table.

As a part of the [action] plan, I anticipate seeing a great effort in promoting interdisciplinarity and making sure that we address potential barriers that we have in place that could stop those opportunities from coming together. It is still really the focus of everything that we do and what we are doing.

DI: Circling back to first-generation students, you’re a first-generation college student yourself. How has that part of your identity shaped your experiences in academia and frame your leadership?

Fuentes: I believe it has certainly helped me to understand how I can ensure that all our students of all different backgrounds are able to be successful.

In some cases, when you come from a group that there is an understanding that you don’t come without preparation or support, expectations can be lower and one of the things that I had to learn to do through life is to not lead myself down to expectations that were set for me, to elevate expectations. So that is something that I learned to do. In some cases we are not successful to elevating expectations set for you.

Furthermore, when you come from a group where expectations are potentially different, it impacts your identity. You start losing a little bit of your identity. Those are the two things I learned myself when going through a process where I have always been either a minority or a part of a group that was perceived as potentially not being able to achieve the expectations that were set.

I think my message would be to be true to yourself and to set high expectations and to make sure that everybody, our first gen students, are truly committed to achieve the very high expectations that are set.

DI: The UI has taken steps such as first-generation task force and the UISG First Generation summit so what is some work that you think the UI could advance on in helping first-gen students?

Fuentes: We should set a little more of an infrastructure. I think it’s important that we engage with those students before they arrive on campus. We know that that works. We have the Iowa Ed program, for instance, where we engage with underrepresented minority students before they arrive and we are able to retain those students at a higher rate.

Here’s an example: we lost 40 students in the first week of classes and it really broke my heart to lose all of those students so quickly. The majority were first gen students and they were not minorities. We really need to do something at a really early stage where we reach out.

The feedback that we got from these students was very overwhelming and I can understand why. When you arrive here to campus with 5,000 other students, if you’re coming from a background where you are used to a small class and it’s more of a small community, it can certainly be overwhelming.

I mean it’s difficult to think that this is going to be your home. We need to engage with students prior to arriving to campus to make sure that we provide a strong and solid support for them.

Furthermore, when they are here we need to also have very strong advising. That personal contact, too, in many cases with course combinations, it’s difficult for students to go through very demanding course as the same time [as this transition].

We need to set a roadmap for each student for more engagement and you’re going to see all these initiatives in place because we know these are things we can do to help and I know we are committed to bringing them to the university. I know that I have the support of the entire campus community. 

DI: When the US News rankings came out earlier this semester the UI data showed that the graduation rate for Pell Grant recipients is 64 percent, which is 9 or 10 percent lower than it is for the university. How do you plan to work to improve the graduation rate there?

Fuentes: Yes, we do have equity gaps in graduation rates and part of it where we have these gaps is first gens, Pell Grant recipients, underrepresented minorities, so the best way to improve graduation rates is focus our attention there, there’s no question about that.

[We need] much more engagement throughout the process, some students we lose when they have only a few credits until their degree, we need to ensure there is financial support at the end and not just the beginning. And again we need to have a roadmap for each student.

A lot of the students come here with an idea of what direction they want to go and you know that’s maybe not the best fit, but to make sure throughout the entire process there is enough support when you change majors, [if students change majors] many times … you have a higher potential not to graduate, so we need to make sure we focus on each student as an individual when they arrive here and understand where they want to get and have a roadmap for success.

We also need to focus on courses that have very high rates of failure and we lose students there potentially in that this is not for them. There are different things we are going to do, some from the retention aspect to make sure that they come and that this is home for them and we encourage them to stay.

On the financial aspect, we support them and that they have a roadmap for each student who comes here. That would be my priority right now, to focus on the success of the students with the metrics and graduation rates and retention rate, but those are just metrics. We want to make sure that this is a great experience for every student who arrives here at the University of Iowa. 

DI: Another thing that the university recently announced was that you’ve made changes to the promotional pay raise model for faculty to make sure UI stays competitive with its faculty and their salaries, but what room do you think the university has for improvement to remain competitive with peer institutions?

Fuentes: We need to make sure we include and focus on quality. We need to focus on talented faculty and that we retain that here. The promotional raises are a way to encourage that and it’s a powerful tool for retention that we want to make a part of attention and also recruitment, but we need to make sure that we are able to compete in a national market.

We need to focus on salaries of our faculty, but also to make sure that this is a good home, that we are going to keep them here, that we are going to retain our faculty. We need to recognize them. We need the initiatives that we are working on through endowments and opportunities to support our faculty in particular to support our diverse faculty and to encourage them to stay here with that.

So it’s going to be quite a bit of work on that and the retention and the support of our faculty. To be able to help them succeed and help them come to a place where they know they are going to succeed and they are going to be successful and have the support needed.

Mentoring plays a very important role so our faculty members have the opportunity to have clear expectations the same way we do for students.

I would like to increase the diversity in our faculty, so I’ll come back to talk to you soon about other initiatives in place to increase diversity and a part of that will be cultivating some of our own students to offer support and encourage specifically women and underrepresented groups a path to pursue a career in academia, to incentivize the training.

There is quite a bit of work to do focusing on the talent, bringing out our diverse population, as well as the financial aspect is very important because we need to be competitive, but that’s not all. We need to ensure we are being competitive and that this is a very good home for all of our faculty.

DI: Since you’re touching a bit on diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts, because you’re now overseeing the department of diversity, equity, and inclusion and those three unit directors are reporting to you, can you share how you hope to advance DEI throughout the whole institution and move forward after TaJuan Wilson’s resignation?

Fuentes: The primary focus right now is to make sure that we continue the momentum we have in place, that we focus on action. We are focusing on implementing the action plan that this community has developed and share the percent of the progress that we are [at] in that regard.

We have great talented and devoted individuals within our division of diversity, equity, and inclusion. We are committed to help the institution in that regard, but what I would like to say is that part of the focus is to make sure that we understand that we all need to take ownership of [the action plan]. Our efforts need to become … more inclusive [and] diverse, promoting equity across campus.

Those efforts don’t belong to us within a particular entity or division, they lead, coordinate, and help us to determine additions, but we all need to work on that. One of my goals has been to make sure that we all embrace our commitment, that the division works closely with all the different central units and the colleges because one of the challenges is getting feedback from our students from what is happening at the departmental level.

We want to make sure that there is an understanding that we all have a responsibility to make sure that this is a very welcoming community … This is in part helping the division take leadership to help us to integrate diversity, equity and inclusion as part of everything that we do at this institution. We are very fortunate to have three outstanding leaders and it’s been a wonderful experience working with them. 

DI: When we sat down with President Harreld last week, he mentioned that you had some concerns about what faculty expressed when the university initially compiled the Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Action Plan about progress that they would like to see with faculty. Can you share work that’s being done specifically?

Fuentes: Yeah. Some of the concerns from the faculty side has been not very different from the students. Our minority faculty perceives the campus as less welcoming and the majority of them are thinking about leaving this institution. We have lost a significant number already. I think this is a significant area of concern.

The inclusion is needed to bring the faculty, when you bring diversity but don’t work on inclusion you will not really be able to benefit from having that diverse community. The inclusion aspect is a key area and that’s one of the reasons why I’m thinking of different opportunities to reward and recognize our faculty, but for all of us to be part of that effort, a lot of the action happens at the departmental level so it has to be that each department is a good home for all our faculty.

There are expectations set for faculty in regards to our commitment to DEI. Some of the conversations have been about recognizing, as part of the annual evaluations’ show, to set an expectation for all faculty to show a commitment that can mean different things, but a commitment to DEI initiatives. Then, once you have expectations as a part of evaluations for faculty members you can move forward.

Those are the conversations that I’m having and have been able to have to reward and set expectations for our commitment to make a very inclusive campus. A significant concern coming from the students is … that the diversity of the faculty is not reflective of the diversity of the student population.

So again we have to increase the diversity of our faculty and that’s why I was mentioning before that we need a cultivating sign of our own in a very competitive market that we will have tools so that we can be ready when it comes to hiring and that’s also something that we will be working on. 

DI: When it comes to advancing DEI throughout the whole institution, structurally, what do you think is the best way to do that? Does that mean different committees at the college level tasked with increasing diversity, equity, and inclusion? What does that look like?

Fuentes: I do believe each one of the colleges, each one of the central units should have some type of initiative in place, some type of representative in different roles within the college. There has to be coordination. I see our division of DEI playing a critical role in setting divisions and leadership, but also coordinating those efforts.

We already have in place different sorts of committees and groups that get together to find opportunities to begin the integration and celebrate different initiatives that are working in Nursing and can be adopted in Engineering. There are opportunities to work together.

I see the model as being a division that plays a critical role that coordinates and leads everybody in having ownership and being able to identify who takes leadership within a given unit or college. 

DI: This was kind of touched on in the faculty promotional raises policy, but one of the effects of that is to help with enrollment and make the university a destination university. How is the UI branding itself as being a destination that people can come to?

Fuentes: Since we are focusing on excellence, for us it is all about the quality. We want to make sure that this is an opportunity and a choice for all of our students and beyond. So for that, we need to have in place infrastructure that will help our students to be successful.

We have to meet the demand to help students be successful when they graduate. We want to be more innovative, access to research and everything that we have to offer to sell the quality of who we are with that purpose, to make sure that this is a destination university and a university of choice for our state and beyond.

What I would expect, is that we are not focusing on the size increasing, but the quality… Each college is looking at the capacity of the strategic enrollment plan to see areas that we still have capacity, but what I anticipate seeing is that we are going to be a very attractive destination for our state and beyond.

An area to work on is the international presence on campus. For that we need to be more proactive in creating partnerships with different countries and we also have great potential.

One of the things I am doing right now is working with our international programs … we are in the process of defining the new leader for international programs so I see an area where we also have the potential to bring students from across the world to this institution.