University of Incarnate Word (UIW) is bracing itself for a showdown Monday between its 31-year president, Lou Agnese, and Board Chair Charles Lutz over the chairman’s controversial public statement voicing “considerable concern” for Agnese’s well-being following “sporadic uncharacteristic behavior and comments.”
Apologizing to offended employees and students, the Thursday statement claimed Agnese “has requested medical leave and the university has granted that request for a 90-day period.”
But according to former board member and Agnese’s decades-long friend, Jesus Rangel, Agnese not only “vehemently denies that he acted the way he is being characterized” or the presence of any medical issue. He also condemns the statement as a slanderous response to a conflict over his personnel practices.
Agnese, 65, threatened immediate lawsuit if the chairman doesn’t retract and apologize for his statement.
“The conflict is over a group of faculty complaining to Dr. Agnese that he favors Hispanic and African-American faculty and administrators over non-Hispanic and non-black ones,” Rangel told the Rivard Report shortly after a 15-minute conversation with the president. “Agnese rejected that.”
When a faculty member filed a complaint with human resources, Rangel says Lutz met with Agnese. The ensuing confrontation led to the president’s leave of absence and Lutz’s response, with Denise Doyle, provost emerita of the University, filling in as acting president. Like many aspects of the controversy, the specifics of the leave and how much of the chairman’s statement Agnese knew about are still unclear.
Lionel Sosa, San Antonio marketing legend and longtime friend of Agnese, told the Rivard Report the president “was upset with Chairman Lutz, because apparently there was no conversation with Lou before that memo was sent out to UIW.”
The Rivard Report has been unable to reach Agnese or Lutz to confirm this statement. UIW has generally not responded to the Rivard Report’s requests for comment following coverage of the Dec. 2013 fatal off-campus shooting of honors student Cameron Redus by a campus policeman.
With silence from Lutz and the university – Sosa says even Agnese couldn’t reach Lutz after the release – the UIW community is suspended in confusion. Would the board really publicly renounce the president’s behavior without ample complaints substantiating their concerns? And how could the release have been allowed to come as a surprise to Agnese?
The answers to these questions, if not explicitly made public, will naturally leak through the unprecedented cracks forming in the school’s leadership. Their resolution, however, will ride on an even larger question: Should the UIW community, whose 11,000 students start classes Aug. 22, really be concerned over Agnese’s physical or mental health?
Those who have spoken to him recently think not.
“I see no difference in him,” said Sosa, describing Agnese as “smart, shrewd, plainspoken, and caring.” “I don’t know what others have seen, but in terms of all my interactions with him, he’s the same person I’ve always known.”
Rangel likewise doubted any medical condition.
“No I do not believe that there’s any medical problem with him whatsoever,” he said. “If there were a medical issue, his family would have taken care of it. That family takes care of him to the max.”
When asked whether he noticed any personality changes, Rangel added, “Lou is Lou … He’s a very tough negotiator, he’s very demanding, he’s used to running the university that way because that’s how the board has always wanted it.”
Agnese became UIW’s eighth president in 1986 at age 33. With demographic challenges and plummeting enrollment threatening the university’s viability, he implemented bold marketing efforts that helped grow the university from 1,296 students in 1985 to 10,984 in 2015, according to the university website. UIW is now the third-largest private university in Texas.
Rangel suspects that the characteristic adamancy in negotiations behind his success may have fueled the board’s troubled perceptions when they disputed the reverse-discrimination accusation.
“I can imagine that it would have been a heated conversation and that they disagreed,” he speculated. “Why it got to the point it did, I have no idea. But I can imagine Agnese defending his role as president of the university being responsible for the personnel working at the university. Officially that’s not a board issue, unless of course it involves wrong-doing.”
But was there any wrongdoing?
Agnese’s expletive-ridden statements to the San Antonio Express-News may appear to support this possibility, as he seems to be losing his composure or even self-destructing.
But as Rangel explained, chuckling over a few eccentric stories, “That’s him. That’s his personality… Expletives do come freely. Not in board meetings or anything like that.”
Every new piece of information seems to support both sides. The board’s “prayers and thoughts” could as easily be a backhanded pretext to push out the school’s leader as an effort to delicately manage internal pressure spawned by a real health condition. Agnese’s outraged denial could be a natural response to – or a corroboration of – the characterization he deems unfair. And the board’s frustrating silence may as easily represent their sensitivity to Agnese’s condition as a shroud for insufficient evidence that the condition exists.
Nonetheless, if Agnese’s mental health is a serious question, it’s still unclear why publicizing this prior to medical confirmation, with language that mixes condemnation and pity, was necessary, given the confusion, division, and hurt it would likely arouse.
“I’m disappointed that this person that made the accusation didn’t give his name,” Sosa said, referring to a top-official’s anonymous criticism of Agnese’s behavior published by the San Antonio Express-News. “And I’m also disappointed that Lutz didn’t return his calls. I don’t think that’s fair.”
Amidst all these questions, however, one thing seems clear: In the showdown between Agnese and Lutz, someone will have to give. That might mean public apologies, a legal battle between the president and his board, or, perhaps worst of all, the gradual and messy emergence of the facts behind the board’s allegations of Agnese’s misconduct and deteriorating cognitive health.
Top image: University of the Incarnate Word President Lou Agnese. Photo by Scott Ball.