University of Iowa ends search for associate VP for diversity, equity, and inclusion after candidates withdraw

Elizabeth Tovar was named an interim lead of the three-unit Division of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion in July. The UI said the division would “continue under her leadership.”


Ayrton Breckenridge

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

The University of Iowa ended its search for the next associate vice president for diversity, equity, inclusion after candidates for the position announced they would withdraw “in the wake of President Bruce Harreld’s retirement announcement,” UI officials said in a campus update Thursday.

UI officials said several candidates either withdrew or indicated they would likely withdraw after Harreld’s retirement announcement Oct. 1. 

“In light of these developments, the search firm strongly recommended ending the search,” search committee co-chair Tiffini Stevenson Earl said in the release.

According to the UI, Isaacson, Miller, Inc., the firm assisting with the search, reported to the search committee that withdrawals during a leadership change are not unusual.

“Changes in senior leadership often greatly disrupt searches for open positions, and what has occurred for Iowa is no different from what occurs at other universities across the country,” Russell Ganim, co-chair of the search committee, said in the release.

UI officials named Elizabeth Tovar, former associate athletic director of student and academic services, to the interim position in August, and “campus will move forward under Liz Tovar’s leadership,” the release stated. When asked whether Tovar would continue permanently in that role, Director of Media Relations Anne Bassett pointed to a paragraph in the release and statement from Interim Executive Vice President and Provost Kevin Kregel which said campus would continue under Tovar’s leadership as a long-term interim.

“In the short time since Dr. Tovar was appointed interim associate vice president for diversity, equity, and inclusion, she has already made a significant impact by listening to and engaging with many parts of campus,” Kregel said in the release. “I am grateful for her service and leadership, and look forward to her continuing in this role.”

Kregel, who was appointed as a two-year interim himself after Monsterrat Fuentes stepped down from her position, announced Tovar would fill the position after the UI Diversity Councils sent a letter to campus administrators urging administrators to name an interim associate vice president for diversity, equity, and inclusion.

Tovar told the DI in an interview earlier this month when asked whether she would continue permanently that she was taking the job day-by-day.

“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.”

The UI began the search for a new leader in its diversity, equity, inclusion efforts after Tajuan Wilson resigned in August 2019, after six weeks in the position per a settlement agreement. Before his brief tenure, two interim officers filled the role after Georgina Dodge stepped down in 2017. 

As the DI previously reported, Wilson’s search cost the UI $81,999 for search expenses and an additional $21,592.21 to reimburse travel and advertising expenses. Wilson’s resignation triggered a free search as the UI’s agreement with the search firm stated that the employee left for any reason except death or disability, or change of ownership, within one year of the start date, the firm would restart the search at no cost.

After Wilson’s departure, the three leaders of the Division of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion units — the Center for Diversity and Enrichment, Diversity Resources, and the Office of Equal Opportunity and Diversity — began to report through the Provost’s Office. Dodge, who held the same role under the chief diversity officer title until the summer of 2017, reported directly to the president.

The UI held campus forums in spring 2019 with the search firm to gauge what campus was looking for in the next chief diversity officer.

During the search process — which began in order to fill the role after Wilson stepped down in August, 2019 — several campus community members expressed that the next director of diversity, equity, and inclusion should report to the president instead of the provost.

Before Tovar’s appointment, UI President Bruce Harreld wrote in a message to campus that the search committee did not want to delay the search any further by changing the reporting structure, which would have triggered a new search.

Tovar told the Faculty Senate in a Sept. 1 meeting that the new reporting structure to the provost has likely been a drawback to attracting candidates to the position, according to the meeting minutes. 

In a 2019 DI review of the UI’s peer universities’ organizational charts — which outlines the reporting structure of administrators at the universities  — similar roles in seven of the 10 schools report to the president instead of the provost or a vice chancellor. The UI often looks to peer institutions for comparisons on funding-per-student to make pitches to state lawmakers.

Harreld told the DI in September 2019 that the UI embraced this reporting structure of reporting to the provost instead of the president so the position can better advance the areas of the campus Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Action Plan that pertain to faculty. 

According to the September Faculty Senate meeting minutes, Tovar said the new reporting structure “may also inadvertently send the message that DEI is not valued at the highest levels by the UI.” 

Tovar added, according to the minutes, that she was aware of recent conversations regarding moving the position under the president, but a final decision had not yet been made at that time. Bassett wrote in an email to the DI that the reporting structure was not cited by the candidates in their reasons for withdrawal and added “according to Dr. Tovar, the reporting structure is not an issue but something that has been evaluated in the past and the current structure is working well.”

Other searches are continuing on campus for vacant positions, Bassett wrote in an email response to questions from the DI, including for Tippie College of Business Dean, College of Liberal Arts and Sciences Dean, and Director for the Center of Diversity and Enrichment. The dean of the College of Dentistry also signaled his retirement earlier this year. Bassett said these searches will continue as planned.

When asked whether the athletics department had filled the role of Associate Athletic Director for Student-Athlete Academic Services, where Tovar had been previously, Bassett wrote “Tovar is continuing to engage with the Department of Intercollegiate Athletics as part of her new responsibilities.”