Leaders on Leadership podcast featuring Montserrat Fuentes

Leaders on Leadership featuring Dr. Montserrat Fuentes, President of St. Edward’s University

Interview recorded February 2024

Episode Transcript

Jay Lemons:

Hello, and thank you for listening. I’m Jay Lemons. Welcome to Leaders on Leadership, brought to you by Academic Search and the American Academic Leadership Institute. The purpose of our podcast is to share the stories of the people and the forces that have shaped leaders in higher education and to learn more about their thoughts on leadership in the academy. Today we’re delighted to be joined by Dr. Montserrat Fuentes. Montse is the President of St. Edward’s University in Austin, Texas, a role she assumed in 2021. Prior to joining St. Edward’s, Montse served as the Executive VP and Provost at the University of Iowa. She began her career as a researcher, spending time as a scientist with the EPA, the National Center for Atmospheric Research, Lucid Technologies and AT&T, Bell Labs before finally moving into a faculty role at North Carolina State University.

When it comes to research, Montse’s interest include big data, brain imaging analysis, statistics for spatial data, uncertainty analysis, computer models, interdisciplinary applications in the neurosciences, environmental and health sciences.

Montse, you and I share one thing in common that I’ll reveal to you in a moment and I want to follow up with you about that. She earned her undergraduate degrees, bachelor’s degrees, in music and piano and mathematics and statistics from the University of Valladolid in Spain and her Ph.D. is in statistics from the University of Chicago. The one thing that I know we have in common is I too have two undergraduate degrees and people always laugh when I tell them that I have a B.A. in philosophy and a Bachelor of Science in Physical Education. It all makes sense to me. You have this wonderful, rich combination of music and mathematics, and I am one who believes that these two disciplines are linked in beautiful, wonderful ways, but I’d love to hear you reflect on that for a moment.

Montserrat Fuentes:

I absolutely believe that music and math, they really came together. They are not an odd couple, because in music there is so much math, all the harmony, all the series that you have, you need to know exactly fractions to hold the sound of a note. There’s so much music in math and the other way around, there is math in music, music in math, they certainly come together. But most importantly, the way I see music is a way to express myself and math helps me to make sense of the world around me and find solutions.

Jay Lemons:

They are both languages expressed in different human form in a powerful and important way. Well, back to your bio, thank you for taking that short journey with me, but as Montse’s career progressed, she’s been noted for her work in advocating and helping women and persons of color and disadvantaged students reach their full potential. She’s also received recognition for her contributions, earning North Carolina State’s Equity of Women Award for major contributions to the equity and wellbeing of women in 2013, and the Medal of Distinguished Achievement by the American Statistical Association Environmental Statistics Section in 2017. Montse, it is a great pleasure to have this opportunity to become acquainted and to have you with us on this program.

Montserrat Fuentes:

It’s such a great pleasure to be here with you today, Jay. Thank you. Thank you so much for the opportunity.

Jay Lemons:

Thank you. Well, as I’ve explained to you in preparation for this opportunity to talk, one of our goals is really to ask leaders to reflect a bit on your own journey, your own pathway with a hope that something you may have experienced or shared will be inspiring to others. I’d love for you to tell us a little bit about the major events or people, opportunities that have helped to forge who you are as a leader in American higher education.

Montserrat Fuentes:

My pathway to leadership has been an evolving and dynamic adventure and certainly all it started with my parents. My parents instill in me values of commitment to one another, service, very, very hard work, not taking things for granted, and they had a great appreciation for what education could do to open doors to a future of possibilities. I have the amazing opportunity to be the first in my family to pursue an education, to go to college, and I wanted to make sure that that was going to make my parents proud, but that was going to bring great opportunities in my life. I did pursue two different majors, music and math, because I wouldn’t imagine a life without music and I always loved math as a way, again, to really bring logic and solutions to the world around us. But through that experience, such a new world for me of higher education, I wanted to make the most out of it.

I had the great fortune of having individuals who believe in me and the potential that I could have that guide me through that journey and expose me to opportunities for research even to study abroad. I was able to get a grant to study in Italy at the time in Perugia, and that’s when I had the opportunity to meet faculty from the University of Chicago that introduced me to the opportunity of graduate school, which was a very new concept for me, and they helped me to navigate through the journey of applying to opportunities to continue my education. I was not only the first in my family to go to college, but I had the great opportunity to also go to graduate school.

Then when I arrived here to the United States, I was a first generation immigrant. From my life, I’ve been the first in many things. Again, being here, I wanted to continue not taking for granted the privilege of being here and having access to an amazing education, so when I graduated and I was able to appreciate the incredible opportunities that I had since in my life due to an education, that was my purpose in life, I wanted to bring that gift to others. I wanted to spend the rest of my life being able to give an education in particular to those that come from more underserved communities because I truly believe that education is the most powerful mechanism to advance and elevate the lives of the members of our society. But even in navigating through higher education, also I was able to appreciate quickly the lack of representation that we have in particular in the sciences.

After giving birth to my first daughter, I quickly realized how women are underrepresented. Though women have access to all the different aspects of society, we do have clear underrepresentation, in particular when we look at women of color. It doesn’t need to be just in higher education, but even 500 Fortune companies, the largest companies in the context of the revenue, we have only ever had two Latinas being CEOs of those companies. That matters because not seeing individuals that look like you, sound like you, can relate to makes it difficult to navigate and to be successful. Again, I was inspired to really be in a position where I could challenge cultural norms and help others to elevate their expectations, to not live down to the expectations that maybe have been set for them by others. While my passion was always being with the students in the classroom, then when opportunities to take leadership roles were introduced to me, I had a sense of responsibility of taking those roles because I wanted to make a difference.

I wanted to break those barriers and challenge some of the stereotypes that we have in particular in leadership roles. I became department head of statistics, then dean provost, and when St. Edward’s University reached out for this amazing opportunity to lead this incredible place as president, I came here again as the first Hispanic president of a community that is primarily Hispanic, and it has been a Hispanic serving institution for over 30 years. Again, I do take the privilege and the responsibility of being the first, and I have done that throughout my career to be able to showcase different stereotypes. One of the challenges in going through the opportunities that it presents to be a pioneer to be the first is that you have to be able to continuously really showcasing your credentials and competencies through life, and that requires resilience.

That’s one of the things that I work hard to really … as we bring more representation, my goal is that it becomes easier for others. I may be right now the first Hispanic president, but I’m certainly not going to be the last. I want to make sure that in my role, one of the main things that I do is to open doors to others. To mentor, to empower individuals, to achieve their full potential. It’s just an incredible opportunity and such a joy to be able to do what I do because I truly believe in it.

Jay Lemons:

Thank you. Thank you very much. It takes me to a different place. There are heavy burdens with being in a pioneering role as you just described. Every leader needs to find a way of caring for themselves. What do you do to keep your bucket filled, keep you healthy and whole?

Montserrat Fuentes:

Music. I have music.

Jay Lemons:

I love it.

Montserrat Fuentes:

Takes me to a different place.

Jay Lemons:

Are you listening?

Montserrat Fuentes:

No, I play, I play, and it takes me to a different place where there are no limits and you think about the role of possibilities. It’s truly transformative.

Jay Lemons:

Wonderful. Montse, would you share with us what in your mind makes a good leader? By good, I don’t mean grade B. I mean virtuous, effective, successful.

Montserrat Fuentes:

I believe that to be a good leader, you need to learn first how to serve others. This is something that I learned very early on from my parents, and it’s important in particular when you are in a leadership role that you understand that it is not about you. You have to be able to put the interest of others and the enterprise that you lead before your own. Right now serving on my role as president, I always reflect on the fact this office was here before I arrived and it will continue here when I leave. It’s important really to have a self-awareness and commitment to others and I really think that it starts there with a commitment to serve others. It’s important that as a leader you set a vision and a path forward, but that’s not really the difficult part. The important part is to be able to influence others, to inspire others, to continue advancing along the path for the future of the institution, that they share the goals and the vision.

That’s one of the main roles of the leader of a very effective leader when you can empower, influence and inspire others by building community. That’s required to really gain satisfaction from the collective accomplishments of a team, of a community, and to be able to have that positive impact on the community. Really the way I think about leadership, and this is an example provided by a very well-known conductor, Benjamin Sander, that he described his role as conductor, which is really the way I see the role of a leader. When you have an orchestra and you are the conductor, if you think about it, the conductor is the only individual who would not produce a sound. At the end of the day, the orchestra is there to create music and a beautiful melody, but the conductor in a way could be irrelevant because it’s not generating any type of sound.

You think about the role of the conductor, the main thing, and really the only thing, that a conductor should do is to really help each of the musicians to be the best that they can be and be in alignment with the piece that they are going to produce, with the tempo and what the expectations will be for that piece. I think a lot about leadership along the same ways, that as leader, the main role that I have is that I empower others to be their best in alignment with the priorities for the institution.

Jay Lemons:

Thank you. But of course, Montse would use Benjamin Zander. Art of Possibility is absolutely one of my favorite texts about leadership.

Montserrat Fuentes:

Mine too.

Jay Lemons:

That’s special. Another one of the science of leadership is Rosabeth Moss Kanter, and she says leadership is not a solo act, using the musical metaphor. It’s duets and trios and quartets and small ensembles. That is so true and it takes me to the creation of teams and leadership teams. What do you look for in those people who are part of the presidency along with you at St. Edwards?

Montserrat Fuentes:

Certainly I always want to make sure that they have the skills, competencies that are needed for the different operations that they will have to lead, but the most important thing is what I call the AAA, which is alignment, action, and accountability. With a team, you need to be able to … each one of the individuals of the team would need to be able to be in alignment again with the priorities and the goals and the mission and vision of the institution, working together in alignment that is not about just each one of them, but working together to really be able to advance the institution. That alignment is critical and it needs to be followed by action. Looking for individuals that are solution oriented type of mindset, that they are problem solvers, that they are able to just walk the talk that put the different initiatives into action.

Then the final A, the accountability. Taking accountability and being also humble and accepting when we didn’t really deliver on what it was expected, but we have put all the effort together and operating with transparency. In the team, I always emphasize again the alignment, action, and accountability and a spirit of always trying to continue to learn because in particular, if we are in higher education, we continue to evolve. That agility in being able to learn and acquire knowledge and advancing is also critical.

Jay Lemons:

Amen. You just added a fourth A there. That’s good. That is good. When we think about the audience that are out there that are interested in this podcast, I go to AALI and its commitment to growing the next generation of leaders and really welcome the opportunity to hear from persons like you, what your advice is for new leaders or those who aspire or think about the possibility of leadership positions.

Montserrat Fuentes:

I think it’s always important to know your why, to have an authentic purpose, because the stakes are so high. It shouldn’t be about power of the title, of being the president’s office, CEO. It really should be an authentic, genuine desire to really make a difference because that’s what it brings ultimately is an stability. Authenticity and purpose, to me that’s critical for long-term stability and success. Certainly the resilience, the effort to continue to learn and being able to embrace opportunities, but to me, what is also critical beyond the authenticity is bringing hope. There are always challenges, always, but there are also a lot of possibilities.

To me, one of the most important things that I could do as leaders is to continue having that hope alive every day. For that, you had to get a lot of joy from what you do. I always say that I never ever have a bad day. I cannot have a bad day. I’m here with the students. Challenges? Yes. Plenty every day. But a bad day, never. It’s important that you really are able to find that joy and never lose it from what you do with an authentic purpose and commitment.

Jay Lemons:

Wonderful, wonderful. I hear an important plea towards mindset and attitude and the place of optimism. I don’t have bad days. I have days where I have more challenges. That’s valuable.

Montserrat Fuentes:

But it matters. You had to really bring hope to the community, keeping them together, and they’re looking at you. If you only have challenges on bad day, it does impact them morale.

Jay Lemons:

Absolutely true. I think one of those principle challenges of leadership is how to leaven challenges with the optimism that we will get through this. Many of our colleagues in many of our institutions face really considerable difficult challenges and you must shine a bright light on it, but then chart the pathway to try and work your way through. Excellent. What are the biggest challenges in your mind facing leaders in higher ed today? And there are many.

Montserrat Fuentes:

Well, how much time do I have, Jay? We don’t lack of challenges, but also we have a lot of opportunities. One of the main things in particular in higher education that brings great challenges that we are very slow to change and adapt and respond to the needs of the world around us. As result, we get to a situation where we have to bring action and initiative and changes, and it’s difficult to get to the community to really embrace change. We are at that point right now because with the changes that we have in the developments in technology, access to data and information, and then the demographic changes that are happening, and we are not adapting, reacting in a proactive manner or really fast enough. I think that a lot of what is happening right now is a result of that. Furthermore, there is really an expectation of responding on real time with decisions due to the very easy access to data, information, social media.

I think that one of the main things that we need from the leadership to really be proactive in how you are going to respond and leverage these opportunities. Really technology can be a really great opportunity and it needs to really enhance the training of our students rather than resistant to it. They change in demographics, it requires change of curriculum, change support for the students. We need to really take the time to understand how we better serve student demographics that are very different, that what used to be a traditional student. For me, it’s one of the things that I appreciate the most is that since I’m an immigrant and in a different culture, a different community, a different language, I embrace that and I see the great potential and the opportunities that it brings, but that’s not really necessarily the case in higher education. There is great resistance to what is happening in the world around us.

Furthermore, I think that one of the main really responsibilities that we have in higher education is not really offering a degree, is really being able to create democracy, to create a democratic society. We are responsible for preparing our global and responsible citizens, and we need to deliver on that. There is a great need right now for that, but it becomes really harder when the perception of education is more as a private good, what it’s doing for me, for my own investment, but it’s really for society. I really see that our role is building these citizenship, really democratic citizens of the world around us. It’s just an amazing opportunities, but we have to do things differently. That’s not really the way higher education operates, so leaders need to have initiative, they really need to be able …

Going back to the foundational leadership principles, that you need to be able to get the community to embrace the path forward, which is one of the key things that we are doing here at St. Ed’s. We are advancing, we are ahead, we are prepared, we are preparing our future leaders and responsible citizens, which requires responding to the demographics, the demands, and we are embracing all that because we know the path forward. It’s really about the leaders, because the leaders, they build that community.

Jay Lemons:

Good for you for trying to get ahead and make the most of that, and you are so right. There is a very strong conservative strain to hue to that which we are confident about in the canon of knowledge that has come to each of us. There have been historically probably some benefits. There are some fads that come and go, and yet we do … feels like we are in a period where thinking about that is ever more important and how we are responsive. But I love that you brought it back to trying to prepare students to be the citizen leaders that a civilized society must have, so thank you for that.

I want to move us kind of into what I’ll call a little bit of a lightning round. That means I’ll try and make the question shorter. You can speak as long as you want, but I’m going to modify the first one just a tad. Who’s most influenced you professionally? You gave a great tribute to your parents, but in terms … and maybe it is your parents. I should not eliminate them from being perhaps that professional inspiration as well.

Montserrat Fuentes:

Well, it would always be them, but in the context, I have had really individuals that influence me greatly, and I need to acknowledge them, in particular when I arrived here again as an immigrant to United States. I want to recognize my faculty advisor, Michael Stein from the University of Chicago, as someone who believe in me before I believe in myself and introduce me to this role of possibilities and opportunities that I could have never imagined, but he truly believed in me. When I graduated from the University of Chicago and I asked him how I could possibly express appreciation for everything that he had done for me, he said, “Go and do what you think I have done for you for others.”

Jay Lemons:

Wow.

Montserrat Fuentes:

That’s what I have to spend the rest of my life doing.

Jay Lemons:

Wow. That is awesome. Is there a book that’s influenced you most?

Montserrat Fuentes:

Oh, you probably can already guess that. The Art of Possibility, Rosamund Zander. I absolutely love that book because it’s all about the mindset, moving from this scarcity to abundance, which that’s the way I operate in all the possibilities in the world around us. I absolutely love that book. To me, it’s a book about the true essence of leadership.

Jay Lemons:

Thank you for that. It is truly one of my all time favorites and yes, I think about the month of August, everybody starts with an A in our classrooms. The possibilities are there and you can feel that human energy on a campus, can’t you? The bounce in the step?

Montserrat Fuentes:

Oh, absolutely. It’s so exciting, so exciting when they arrive. It’s not just the students, but it’s the families and what they don’t know about it. For me, that’s the way it was. I didn’t know what it was going to be or what it was going to do for me, but I do know what we can do for them. It’s so incredibly exciting.

Jay Lemons:

Absolutely. Do you have a fondest memory of your own undergraduate days? By the way, did you get those two degrees done in three years time or did you extend it just a little?

Montserrat Fuentes:

Yeah, I did get that double major.

Jay Lemons:

Wow.

Montserrat Fuentes:

Yes. With regard to my undergraduate experience, I do want to highlight when I was introduced to research. I have talked about education and its passing knowledge, but when I was introduced to the creation of new knowledge being in a research lab in mathematics, since that day had never left that lab. The concept of the creativity, which is part of music every day, but the advancement of knowledge, to me, that’s what it opened the doors to great possibilities with graduate school and throughout my career to the point that one of the main challenges that I have always had is I love so much the creation of new knowledge and sharing that with the students through research, that taking that time away from the research has been difficult for me as I’ve been taking leadership roles because truly that’s my passion. But I find incredibly rewarding being in leadership roles because of the opportunities that I’m bringing to all this. But absolutely the introduction to research as part of my undergraduate experience truly transformed my life.

Jay Lemons:

Thank you for that. How about a favorite campus tradition at a place that you’ve attended or served?

Montserrat Fuentes:

When I was in North Carolina, we started this beautiful tradition of celebrating different cultures, and it was a very nice event called the International Dinner. But for me, it was so meaningful because it was the very first time when I was here in the United States that I was appreciated for who I truly was and people wanted to learn from me. Because I would be my own dish from Spain and I would share the meaning of it, and people were curious and truly interested. I still remember how it felt that people really were interested in me and what I really represent because I spent so much time trying to adapt and learn language and learn a culture that I wanted to be part of and during that event, people wanted to learn about my own culture. It just was so incredibly impactful and I have always carried that with me.

Here at St. Edwards, we just were celebrating the different cultures that we have here most recently with the celebration of the Lunar New Year, and it was a beautiful celebration or celebrating our Black authors. I put a lot of effort making sure that we not only acknowledged, but we truly learn. We just were celebrating during the Black History Month the work of Black writers and authors and poets by reading the books, just really trying to learn about other cultures, other communities. I think that that’s so important because that’s really what it helps us to build these responsible citizens. It should not just be others adapting to who we are, a particular culture, but celebrating the opportunity to learn from one another.

Jay Lemons:

Beautiful. Wonderful. Now I’m going to ask you this next question. You’ve had a career outside of higher ed already, but if you hadn’t found your way to higher education, what else might you have been tempted to do?

Montserrat Fuentes:

Oh, Jay, you should already know that. Musician, a pianist.

Jay Lemons:

I was going to say, you’re playing Carnegie Hall or some great European cathedrals.

Montserrat Fuentes:

That’s right.

Jay Lemons:

The piano is your primary muse?

Montserrat Fuentes:

Yes. Piano performance. Yes. Music, again, is always part of who I am, and really it has helped me so much. I really think in the context even of my leadership role right now. When you are a performer, you have to be out there. It really helps you to develop confidence and certain skills that I think they are really very essential when you are in a leadership role. But most importantly, it’s a great form of therapy too. It really allows you to just go home and just take one day at a time and enjoy all the great things that we have in life.

Jay Lemons:

Well, not to pry too much, but what is the instrument that you have in your home there in Austin?

Montserrat Fuentes:

Piano. Piano.

Jay Lemons:

What kind of piano?

Montserrat Fuentes:

Oh, what kind of piano? Well, at work we have a grand piano that I can play here, and I have my training piano at home.

Jay Lemons:

I’m not surprised. Well, one of the traditions that I appreciate having the opportunity to explore here is to ask our guests to talk a little bit about the distinctive organizational DNA of their own home institutions. In this case, that would be St. Edwards. What is it about St. Eds that makes it a special place you call home and that you are serving those who are studying and working there?

Montserrat Fuentes:

From the start, it was clear to me that St. Edwards, it’s a very special place because the authentic commitment to the mission of higher education, which is to prepare responsible citizens and to offer an education that elevates the lives of the communities that we have the privilege to serve. Here at St. Edwards, that commitment, that dedication to that mission is real. It’s real, it’s part of what it really brings the leaders to campus, the faculty, the staff. It’s an institution where the students are always prioritized and there is great intentionality on how we serve the students. As an institution, we really represents the world around us. Our students that come from all different backgrounds, walks of life identities, and we celebrate that. We are a minority-serving institution, which means that the majority of our students are students of color. We have 42% of our students that are Pell recipients, which means that they come from very disadvantaged financial backgrounds, and the majority of our students are Hispanic Latino.

We celebrate that, how we learn from one another. That’s really the sense of community that we have at St. Edwards. Even in the middle of the pandemic, when I came here, that community still was alive and we were here for one another. That’s what it makes this a very, very special place, really the community. We are truly a community, and there is this hope because that’s really part of how we were created. We’re created or established by the congregation of Holy Cross and it’s all about bringing hope to our world. It’s here and it’s so alive, and I see it every day that we appreciate the limitless possibilities of education. It’s such a privilege to be part of this special community that lives every day with our actions and dedication to our students, the mission of higher education, which has always been my driver and my purpose in life.

It’s a beautiful campus in the amazing city of Austin, and we leverage Austin. Our students have access to the city, and certainly Austin is better because we are here, but we do leverage all the opportunities that bring to our students as part of their education by being here part of this dynamic city.

Jay Lemons:

Indeed, indeed. Well, I am happy for this chance to spend this time together. I’m happy that you have answered a call to leadership at St. Edward’s. You are right. St. Ed’s is a place with a distinctive mission of its own. A sense of hope is a part of that Holy Cross charism and how beautiful it is to see it paired and matched in you as its steward at this time. I want to just say thank you, Montse, for joining us. I really appreciate your insights and really I’m grateful for this chance to become acquainted.

Montserrat Fuentes:

I’m very grateful for you and what you are doing to really continue bringing together as leaders in higher education and inspire others to really pursue this path. So grateful for what you do, Jay.

Jay Lemons:

Thank you. Well, we are all blessed to find our lives committed to serving the cause of higher education, and I am grateful for the ways in which I learn in each of these conversations. I want our listeners to know that we welcome your suggestions, and I would note that Montse is a product of one of those listeners saying, “You need to get acquainted with Montse Fuentes”, and I’m grateful for that. If you have thoughts or suggestions, please let us know. You can send those suggestions to leadershippodcast@academicssearch.org. You can find our podcast on the Academic Search website and wherever you find your podcasts.

Leaders on Leadership is brought to you by Academic Search and the American Academic Leadership Institute. Together, our mission is to support colleges and universities during times of transition and through leadership development activities that serve current and future generations of leaders in the academy. What a great joy it’s been to host Montse Fuentes on our show today. Thank you again, Montse, for joining us.

Montserrat Fuentes:

Thank you, Jay.

Listen to More Episodes

Enjoy our content? Join our mailing list.

Leaders on Leadership with Larry Schall
AALI President in Residence: Katherine Conway-Turner