UI Interim VP for Diversity Equity and Inclusion looking to expand initiatives at Iowa

Former Associate Athletics Director Liz Tovar is adjusting well to her new interim position. Tovar said she hopes to focus on communication and providing a support system to every student on the UI campus.


Ayrton Breckenridge

University of Iowa Interim Associate Vice President for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, Liz Tovar, poses for a portrait on Oct. 7.

Mary Hartel, News Reporter

Following her appointment to Interim Associate Vice President for Diversity Equity and Inclusion at the University of Iowa, Liz Tovar said she is focusing on the division’s support, communication, and engagement efforts.

In her eighth year at the UI and former associate athletics director, Tovar said she is adjusting well to her new role because she has already worked with different entities and units across campus within diversity, equity, and inclusion. She is currently prioritizing communication, Tovar added.

“I think sometimes when you don’t communicate, people think that you aren’t doing anything, and that’s quite the opposite,” Tovar said. “We have staff members all over campus who are engaged in DEI work.”

Tovar added she hopes to do this on a broader scale.

“So even though we’re the Division of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, I think our role is to network and to really help folks in different organizations and units across campus –– help them with their strategic goals and serve as a resource for them,” Tovar said. “And then also kind of promote to them our vision for DEI campus-wide and to make sure that we’re all on the same page and saying the same thing.”

As a result of recent social unrest regarding systemic racism nationally and across the UI campus, Tovar said, people are engaging in conversations about diversity, equity, and inclusion now more than ever before.

This subject has taken a lot of time in her interim role, Tovar said, and she thinks it is a good thing because people need to learn how to respond to what’s going on in the community and at the national scale.

“Cross-cultural communication is key to our success,” Tovar said. “And we want to make sure that people aren’t just talking but they are also educating themselves on topics that they may not have previously thought about in the past. And then also it’s all about movement. What are you going to do differently now than what you have done in the past as well?’

Though the UI paused its diversity, equity, and inclusion training to evaluate its compliance with a White House executive order, Tovar wrote in an email to The Daily Iowan that the values and goals discussed in this article remain the same.

“…the core principles that guide DEI efforts on campus, including our DEI action plan has not changed,” Tovar wrote.

RELATED: Harreld to retire, opening search for new University of Iowa president

In a Faculty Senate meeting Sept. 2, Tovar said the UI has trouble retaining a diverse staff and faculty. Tovar said this is an issue a lot of higher-education institutions face that is not unique to the UI.

“How do we address any barriers that we have, in terms of people, one, seeing Iowa as a place where they want to be?” Tovar told the DI. “And how do we address that, and then also make sure that those folks stay here, feel welcome here, and become a part of our community and a part of the fabric of our community. So, you know, that is one of the key issues that I think we all need to address and be honest about.”

On top of the social unrest, Tovar said navigating individual circumstances brought on by COVID-19 and the upcoming elections is also a priority.

Underrepresented groups who may lack access to technology or be experiencing financial hardships, or how individuals or families might be suffering are things to be mindful of, Tovar said.

“That’s not just one group of students,” Tovar said. “I mean, we’re all impacted by that. But we also know that to be successful on campus, people need resources, people need support behind them.”

Currently, the majority of the Division of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion’s initiatives are virtual, in an effort to maintain safety amid the pandemic, but its work cannot be stopped, Tovar said.

“In order to make progress in the way that we want to make progress, we need to continue to remind ourselves, ‘How are we getting better? How are we challenging ourselves to get better in terms of DEI?’” Tovar said. “So, it’s a daily routine.”

Chief Human Resources Officer and Associate Vice President Cheryl Reardon said in an email to the DI that Tovar is an asset in making progress toward diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives at the UI.

“I serve with Dr. Tovar on the diversity, equity, inclusion, and collaboration Path Forward workgroup and am always impressed by her collaborative approach and the guidance and counsel she provides the group,” Reardon said. “She helps us have difficult conversations, conversations that need to have to make this a more inclusive community.”

The search for a permanent associate vice president for diversity, equity, and inclusion began last spring and is expected to conclude in spring 2021.

In an interview with the DI, UI President Bruce Harreld said he thinks the university needs to start shifting its efforts to fill administrative positions such as Tovar’s internally.

“I think in every case that we’ve actually reached in and found an interim, who is on our campus, we’ve ended up saying we should rip that interim off because these are really good leaders, they know us, they fit our culture, they have a lot of experience,” he said.

Harreld said he believed those in interim positions could serve as a stepping stone to permanently filling the role. Harreld himself announced his retirement in an effort to more smoothly transition a new president, once selected, onto campus without needing to appoint an interim.

“Liz Tovar in DEI has been with us for a long, long time in athletics but has a great skill set,” Harreld said. “And I’m ever so hopeful that she’ll throw her hat in the ringer for the permanent position.”

Tovar said that she’s taking everything day-by-day right now.

“I try and focus on the job that I have at hand — and I have a big job right now,” Tovar said. “So, I’ll focus on that and whatever comes up later, comes up later, but that’s my goal; focus on the here and now.”