The University of the Incarnate Word (UIW) Board of Trustees unanimously voted to “immediately” and “permanently” remove longtime President Lou Agnese Jr. on Monday, which hardly came as a surprise to faculty, students, and others on campus after 11 days of revelations and headlines.
“I knew they were going to get rid of him because there’s no way they’d send him on medical leave, bring him back, and just be like, ‘Oh it’s all a misunderstanding,’” UIW senior Ana Gutierrez told the Rivard Report, after news of his removal spread across campus Monday. “Especially with all that was leaked about him.”
Trustees spent three hours discussing their decision to end Agnese’s 31-year presidency in the wake of “sporadic uncharacteristic behavior and comments,” as noted in the Aug 18. announcement of the president’s medical leave. The announcement included an apology for Agnese’s conduct, which triggered a series of expletive-filled legal threats from the president in an interview with the San Antonio Express-News.
Then an anonymous student letter was leaked to the Express-News which cited a series of alleged racist remarks made by Agnese. The board again distanced itself from him in its response: “Recent comments by Dr. Agnese are not consistent with the traditions and values of the university and cannot be condoned.”
Agnese made said comments during a luncheon in the physical therapy department, when he is said to have told a black student he was “lucky you’re black so you are in a way wearing Cardinal black,” and pointed out that, “Indian-red skin color would also count as wearing Cardinal red.” The student letter said he insulted a student’s intelligence, joked tastelessly about Mormons, and claimed a Hispanic faculty member “looked like a José.” Agnese defended his comments as unoffensive.
UIW Board Chair Lutz’s statement, read at a press conference Monday, eulogized Agnese’s “leadership, his vision, and his creativity” and claimed, “Our future has never looked brighter.”
At the end of a long list of Agnese and the school’s accomplishments, the letter explained, “Dr. Denise Doyle, who the board appointed as acting president when Dr. Agnese was placed on medical leave, will continue in that role with our full confidence. The board shortly will begin a national search for a new President.”
The Sisters of Charity of the Incarnate Word Congregational Leader Sr. Teresa Maya likewise read a statement thanking Agnese for his 30-plus years of service.
“We appreciate and respect his accomplishments and leadership during his tenure as president,” she said. “Our prayers and thoughts are with Dr. Agnese, his family, and the entire university community.”
No further comment was provided by Lutz or Maya on Monday. Agnese’s status beyond medical leave was not addressed. Many university administrators have contracts that guarantee them a tenured faculty position. Such was the case with Dennis Ahlburg, whose contract as Trinity University President was not renewed, but who later returned to campus as a tenured professor after taking a sabbatical and a series of fellowships abroad.
Whether trustees and Agnese reach an agreement on his retirement, actual termination of his contract, or his departure from the presidential on-campus penthouse will likely be left to the lawyers.
Some students interviewed on campus seemed unaware of the drama playing out in their university’s leadership. There has been no mention of developments on the school’s website, or on the online version of the Logos school newspaper.
Most of those privy to the email statements and news reports that have spread throughout the student body over the past two weeks voiced a sense of shock.
Describing Agnese’s speech at orientation this summer, freshman Nicole Maldonado said she noticed nothing unusual.
“He was talking about the future a lot for the class of 2020, like he was going to be with us along the way,” Maldonado told the Rivard Report. “So we were in shock when we read the email.”
That was the consensus among most freshmen and transfers who heard Agnese speak this summer. Some students who saw him in the weeks leading up to his leave mentioned being put off by racial and political remarks.
One freshman who attended the school’s Aug. 10 orientation described what she felt was an uncomfortable emphasis on the student body’s skin color.
“He was making comments like, ‘This school is mostly light-dark,’” she told the Rivard Report. “It didn’t offend me because I’m of a darker origin. But I think it may have offended someone who’s not.”
A number of others who took part in the same orientation took no notice of such comments.
Another freshman present at the Aug. 17 orientation, a day before the announcement of Agnese’s medical leave, claimed that Agnese singled out a female student for wearing a hijab.
“I just felt like, if I were her, I would not want to be there,” the freshman told the Rivard Report.
Both students requested to remain anonymous due to the story’s sensitive nature.
Bryanna Espinoza, who also attended the Aug. 17 freshman orientation, saw Agnese’s behavior as more innocuous, saying, “I just thought he was saying this is what her culture is, what she does.”
According to a student who attended the pharmacy school orientation luncheon, Agnese’s remarks took an odd political turn when he began advocating for Donald Trump and denouncing President Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, echoing a complaint that appeared in the anonymous student letter.
On the whole, however, feelings toward Agnese were positive.
“In every conversation I’ve had with him he’s been very relatable … his intentions are always positive. It’s always a good energy,” said Sylvestor Kilo, a finance major who said he has spoken with Agnese many times in his three years at UIW.
Nursing student Jamie Harrison said she could only understand Agnese’s behavior as caused by a sudden cognitive impairment, such as Alzheimer’s or a brain tumor.
“When I read the San Antonio (Express-News) article, I was very angry because I thought they were exploiting him,” she explained. “I felt bad because I’ve met him in person two or three times, and he was really nice.”
Often found smoking a cigar at a picnic table or walking his dog, Agnese was appreciated by many for his friendly, approachable, and idiosyncratic nature.
“It would be good for me to hear a statement from Agnese himself. Maybe there’s more to it,” said one junior, who does not believe the anonymous letter accurately described the situation.
Many spoke admiringly of Agnese’s blunt, down-to-earth style, labeled “Lou-isms” in the university’s vernacular, but others said he took it too far.
“He’s a straight-talking guy, but where is the line?” said a faculty member, who asked to remain anonymous. “He’s done a thousand great things and publicly said a couple lousy things.”
When asked why he wanted to remain anonymous, the faculty member admitted that across the university, “Maybe there’s a little fear.”
Another professor, who also requested anonymity, seconded this sentiment.
“It’s the first time I’ve been afraid,” she explained, referencing her experience in other university settings.
That said, she believed the issue was “being handled very well, very openly” by the board.
“The sisters care very much for the university,” she explained. “I’m sure they’re praying for him and hoping for a resolution… To have that stain when there’s so much good being done for the community… I’m sure the sisters are really hurt.”
Top Image: UIW Board Chairman Charles Lutz reads from prepared remarks after the board unanimously voted to remove longtime President Lou Agnese Jr. Photo by Scott Ball.