In the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, the Board of Regents will have a critical decision to make about the leadership of the University of Texas at Austin after news broke on Monday evening that president Greg Fenves is leaving for Emory University, according to Bobby Burton of Horns247.
The Board of Regents will vote on an interim president next week before beginning the search for the 30th president in school history. The Texas Tribune expects an official announcement on the departure of Fenves this week as he takes a “similar position” at Emory.
On Tuesday, the school announced that Fenves will remain in his current position through June 30 in efforts to help navigate the coronavirus pandemic as he was named president of Emory.
“I am proud and honored to have served as dean of engineering, provost and, for the past five years, president of UT. I am grateful for the trust you placed in me as leader of this great university that improves the lives of Texans and changes the world every day,” Fenves wrote in a letter to the university community.
If Fenves arrived at a fraught time for the university, he leaves at an even more fraught time as the school adjusts to the new reality of education in a pandemic and the athletics department faces the possibility of significant revenue reduction if the football season doesn’t happen at all or happens without fans in the stands.
“The timing of this news in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic is not what I had expected or wanted,” Fenves wrote. “Our dedicated faculty and staff have striven to make the spring 2020 semester meaningful for our students. I want you to understand that I remain singularly focused on continuing that work, completing the semester and getting our community back to normal before my presidency ends on June 30.”
Fenves wrote that he made the decision earlier this year and had discussed it with the Board of Regents.
“President Fenves’ vison and leadership have made our flagship university even stronger and changed the lives of thousands of young Texans,” Board of Regents Chairman Kevin Eltife said. “On behalf of the Board of Regents and the State of Texas, I thank Greg for being a great Longhorn and true partner. He opened a new medical school, steered us through challenging times and made the Forty Acres more accessible and affordable for highly qualified Texas students. Thanks to his efforts, the value of a UT Austin degree has never been higher, and our graduates have never contributed more to the state.”
“President Fenves has been a passionate leader and an effective advocate for The University of Texas at Austin,” Chancellor James B. Milliken said. “As dean, provost and president, he has worked tirelessly to advance the interests of the flagship campus and to support its students, faculty and staff. Longhorn Nation will miss Greg and Carmel and their enthusiastic embrace of all things UT, and we wish them all the best in their next chapter.”
Some immediate reactions on Twitter criticized Fenves for not doing enough for students impacted by closing campus and for his failure to remove two professors who violated the university’s sexual misconduct policy.
Those criticisms will understandably and necessarily impact evaluation of the five years that Fenves spent as the president of UT Austin, but his tenure unquestionably had some key successes academically and athletically.
The administration successfully defended the school’s affirmative action program early in his tenure, then increased the four-year graduation rate more than 17 points between 2012 and 2018.
Meanwhile, Fenves worked to make a degree from UT Austin more affordable by creating the Texas Advance Commitment endowment to expand tuition coverage up to $65,000 gross adjusted income and tuition support up to $125,000 gross adjusted income. The new program helps transfer students and first-time-in-college students. He also started efforts to increase the availability of student housing on campus.
The Dell Medical School also opened up with its inaugural class in 2016 after Fenves helped oversee the school’s development during his three years at the provost that preceded his term as president. No other top-tier public research institution in the country had built a medical school from scratch in nearly 50 years.
From the wide-angle perspective, the best thing that Fenves did athletically was bring a sense of stability to the department following the disastrous tenure of Steve Patterson as athletics director. Fenves took a calculated risk by bringing in former football letterman Mike Perrin to rebuild relationships with key donors, then convinced Chris Del Conte to leave TCU to take on the challenge of numerous capital projects on the Forty Acres.
The vision of Fenves led to a unique solution to fund the most expensive project — the public-private partnership formed with Oak View Group, C3 Presents/Live Nation, and Matthew McConaughey to bring a world-class concert venue to campus that will also serve as a 10,000-seat basketball venue. Texas made some revenue concessions in the agreement, but won’t have to foot the $388 million bill for the arena.
As Fenves worked to implement the Athletics Master Plan with Del Conte, the university finished construction on the new tennis center, the baseball player development facility, and is working to complete a similar softball development facility and the $200 million south end zone project at Darrell K Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium.
In 2016, Fenves made several difficult decisions in concert with Perrin — firing head football coach Charlie Strong in 2016 after only three years on the job just months after Augie Garrido was reassigned following 20 years and two national championships at the helm of Longhorns baseball.
Since then, Del Conte has made new hires in track and field, softball, men’s tennis, and women’s basketball.
With his accessibility on Twitter to answer the concerns of fans and a successful gameday revamp for football, Del Conte has become a popular figure who has worked to end the dysfunction that defined the athletics department for years.
Before serving as the provost, Fenves served as the Dean of Engineering after four years as an assistant professor in that department. Prior to coming to Texas, Fenves spent 20 years at Cal-Berkeley, where he made a name for himself as a structural engineer. He earned his Master’s degree and Ph.D from Cal-Berkeley after graduating from Cornell.