Disbanded University of Iowa search committee recommends top DEI position report to the president

After UI President Harreld announced his retirement, candidates for associate vice president for DEI withdrew, which led the search committee to be disband. In a letter to administrators, the search committee laid out recommendations for structuring the position.


Jenna Galligan

The Old Capitol is seen on Thursday, March 12, 2020.

Sabine Martin, News Reporter

The search committee to fill the University of Iowa’s top diversity job has disbanded, but many members first made recommendations for upgrading the position’s status at the UI. 

In response to the end of the search for the associate vice president of diversity, equity, and inclusion at the University of Iowa, members of the disbanded search committee addressed a letter to the UI’s central leaders, shared governance groups, faculty, staff, and students on Oct. 22. Nine of the 19 committee members signed the letter, which called for the next person to hold the position to have “necessary authority, resources, job security, and regular access to senior leadership to catalyze DEI‐related change and help create an anti‐racist campus and community.”

The group recommended the UI change the reporting structure of the head diversity officer, which leads three campus units, to report to the president instead of the provost, as is the structure now.

In the statement the committee wrote that their work has been highly invested to help bring transformative results in DEI leadership to the UI over the several months.

“We recognize that efforts to achieve equity, diversity, and inclusion throughout our institution have fallen short of our aspirations,” the committee wrote.  

Russell Ganim, associate provost and dean of International Programs and DEI search committee co‐chair was one of the members who signed it. 

“The purpose of the statement is to provide a forward-looking, constructive document that serves as a campus resource for future searches,” Ganim said in an email to The Daily Iowan.

Moala Bannavti, a former Graduate Professional Student Government DEI Chair and a DEI search committee member — said that as an individual committee member — she thinks that the disbandment of the committee was the right thing to do given the circumstances of the search. Candidates for the position — the names of whom are customarily not made public until a campus forum — withdrew after UI President Bruce Harreld announced he planned to retire.

When Bannavti first learned about the committee’s disbandment, she said that she felt shocked and a little disappointed. 

Bannavti, a signatory to the letter, said that everything that the UI deems as important, such as the UI vice president of student life and the UI vice president of research offices, has a vice president’s office, but the Division of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion does not.  

“When the position is an associate vice president position, compared to a vice president position, it doesn’t mean that it’s not important. Things that have an AVP [associate vice president] are important, but they are just less important in my opinion,” she said.  

As a recommendation for the future of the three-unit Division of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, the letter writers stated that the position should act similarly to other high‐level administrators at the UI. 

“It is critical for the person in this position to report to and meet regularly with the President; to serve as a Vice President, rather than as an Associate Vice President; and to be a member of the President’s Cabinet,” the letter read. 

The associate vice president for DEI position, previously titled chief diversity officer, did report to the university president for some time at the UI — as recently as 2017 when Georgina Dodge filled the role.

During the search process for the associate vice president of diversity, equity, and inclusion — which began in order to fill the role after Tajuan Wilson stepped down after a two-month stint in August, 2019 — several campus community members expressed that the next director of diversity, equity, and inclusion should report to the president instead.

Before Liz Tovar’s summer appointment as an interim associate vice president for diversity, equity, and inclusion, UI President Bruce Harreld wrote in a message to campus that the search committee did not want to delay the search for a permanent candidate any further by changing the reporting structure, which would have triggered a new search.

In a 2019 DI review of the UI’s peer universities’ organizational charts — which outlines the reporting structure of university administrators  — 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 when making 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 relate to faculty.

The search committee praised Tovar for stepping into the role as an interim.

“Given the importance of DEI, strong campus leadership is essential.  Although we are dismayed by the close of this search, we thank Dr. Tovar for admirably serving as Interim AVP‐DEI, and we pledge our continued support for her in this role,” the letter stated.

As one of the letter signatories, Paul Gilbert, committee member and assistant professor at the college of public health, said that the DEI position reflects a movement across academic institutions to raise the status of the position in proximity to the President’s cabinet.

“Having the future DEI leader serve as Vice President instead of Associate Vice President would underscore the central role of the position on campus,” Gilbert wrote in an email to The Daily Iowan.  

Ruth Kahssai, the undergraduate representative of the search committee and former Undergraduate Student Government Director of Justice and Equity said that the letter from the committee shows that the DEI is a tangible priority on the UI’s campus.

“[The] University of Iowa has real, consequential struggles with DEI, the positionality of our leadership should reflect and acknowledge that fact,” Kahassai wrote in an email to the Daily Iowan.