In a definitive move to distance the Board of Trustees from longtime President Lou Agnese Jr. and the disturbing racial remarks he directed at students during a luncheon last week, University of the Incarnate Word (UIW) Chairman Charles Lutz confirmed Agnese is on leave in a statement Friday, saying that “recent comments by Dr. Agnese are not consistent with the traditions and values of the University and cannot be condoned.”
The Board now seems headed for a Monday meeting and resolution of its tense standoff with Agnese, who last week defied a Board decision to place him on a 90-day medical leave and told the Express-News in an interview that he was not on medical leave and intended to “sue the pants” off Lutz and the Board unless the press release was retracted and Agnese was allowed to return from a Hawaii vacation to assume his regular duties after some further time off.
Until today, the drama between UIW and Agnese has unfolded in a series of stories written by Express-News investigative reporter John Tedesco, a UIW graduate and former editor of the school newspaper who himself was the target of Agnese’s wrath many years ago, but this past week has produced a series of exclusive stories based on several conversations with Agnese and others in the university community.
Lutz and other trustees, however, did not respond to Agnese’s public statements until today, following an Express-News story published Thursday that was based on a leaked copy of a letter that upset students sent to the Board. The letter detailed a string of offensive racial comments delivered by Agnese as he singled out students of color in the luncheon audience and denigrated them for the color of their skin or ethnic names. He also reportedly offered an impromptu endorsement of Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump and some intemperate remarks critical of Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton and President Barrack Obama.
The Board issued a brief statement Thursday afternoon that simply stated, “To confirm, Dr. Louis Agnese is on leave. The University does not condone conduct and comments that are contrary to its Mission.”
Then on Friday afternoon, the Board convened to discuss the situation and afterwards issued a second, longer statement announcing a Monday Board meeting:
“The Board of Trustees of the University of the Incarnate Word met this morning to discuss the situation regarding the University’s President, Dr. Lou Agnese.
“Since becoming President in 1985, Dr. Agnese’s tireless work with the Sisters of Charity of the Incarnate Word, the Board of Trustees, the entire campus community, alumni and philanthropists has transformed the University in size, scope, endowment and academic standing. Today, UIW is one of the pre-eminent Catholic universities in the United States, and Dr. Agnese’s innovation leadership has been vital in that achievement. His contributions have been immeasurable.
“However, recent comments by Dr. Agnese are not consistent with the traditions and values of the University and cannot be condoned. Inspired by Judeo-Christian values, the Catholic Intellectual Tradition and Catholic Social Teaching, UIW’s mission is to educate men and women who will become concerned and enlightened citizens of faith within the global community and who will have learned and witnessed the importance of treating each person with respect.
“As stated previously, Dr. Agnese is on leave from his position as President. Dr. Denise Doyle is serving as Acting President and the Board fully supports her and has high confidence in her abilities and commitment to the University.
“The Executive Committee of the Board will make a recommendation on this matter to the full Board on Monday.”
The statements follow a drama-packed week in which Agnese, placed on medical leave Aug. 18 for “sporadic uncharacteristic behavior,” threatened to sue the board of trustees for slander, thumbed his nose at the faculty Senate, and embraced a series of racially charged statements leaked by the San Antonio Express-News Thursday.
The board of trustees, for its part, remained silent the entire week until the leaked comments made that position untenable.
Agnese’s remarks, exposed in an anonymous letter written by concerned students and sent to the Express-News, came at a luncheon in the physical therapy department. Agnese is said to have told a black student he was “lucky you’re black so you are in a way wearing Cardinal black,” pointing out that “Indian-red skin color would also count as wearing Cardinal red,” insulting a student’s intelligence, and offering a tasteless quip about Mormons.
Ironically, Agnese originally rejected the medical leave as the board’s meddling response to reverse discrimination charges against him, according to a friend’s statement to the Rivard Report.
Perhaps most remarkable is the contrast between Agnese’s expletive-riddled comments to the Express-News and the school’s eight-day silence on the issue. Not only did university spokesperson Debra Del Toro refuse to release any information, but the Rivard Report received no response from the office of the president, Lutz, the leaders of the faculty Senate, or the many others contacted.
Rivard Report interviews with dozens of students on the UIW campus confirmed the university’s unwillingness to deal with the issue publicly. Many students were unaware of the situation, while others expressed fear that speaking openly could get them in trouble.
Several students had seen Agnese speak at freshmen orientation ceremonies as late as Aug. 10, reporting no unusual behavior. But one student, who did not feel comfortable giving her name for fear of retribution, claimed that at the pharmacy school orientation the week of Aug. 15, Agnese focused his speech on censuring Hillary Clinton and Pres. Obama and praising Trump.
Lutz’s original Aug. 18 statement, acknowledged that over the prior two weeks Agnese’s “interactions with some students, faculty and administrative staff during this time have provoked considerable concern for his well-being.”
The school apologized for his behavior, but, “out of respect for both Dr. Agnese and for employees and students,” made no further comment.
Agnese’s friends and past colleagues vouched for his mental health and well-being shortly after speaking to him.
“Lou is Lou,” Jesus Rangel said, dismissing concerns over Agnese’s aggressive tone and expletives in his Express-News interviews, saying, “That’s him, that’s his personality.”
Rangel described Agnese as a tough, demanding negotiator, who, when laying out faculty responsibilities, would say things like, “If you don’t like the process we’re talking about, you are welcome to leave the university and you don’t belong.”
But Agnese appeared to take this attitude a step further Tuesday after the Express-News released a private vote by the UIW faculty Senate that “fully (supported) the decision of the Board of Trustees to ask Dr. Agnese to take medical leave.”
“I didn’t think anything about it, because who cares?” Agnese told the Express-News. “They don’t have any right to vote on whether I take a leave or whether I go to the moon.”
Becoming UIW’s eighth president in 1986 at age 33, Agnese helped reverse declining enrollment and grow the university from 1,296 students in 1985 to 10,984 in 2015, making UIW the third-largest private university in Texas, according to the university website.
Lutz’s most recent statement recognized “Agnese’s tireless work,” claiming, “UIW is one of the pre-eminent Catholic universities in the United States, and Dr. Agnese’s innovative leadership has been vital in that achievement. His contributions have been immeasurable.”
While Agnese’s fate looks unpromising, Lutz refrained from confirming any decision yet.
“Dr. Denise Doyle is serving as Acting President and the Board fully supports her,” the statement says. “The Executive Committee of the Board will make a recommendation on this matter to the full Board on Monday.”
Top image:President of Incarnate Word College Dr. Lou Agnese Jr. speaks about the importance of providing opportunities for high school students interested in careers in the healthcare field. Photo by Kathryn Boyd-Batstone.