“I’m not surprised anymore,” he told the American-Statesman during a recent interview. “It’s just normal operating procedure.”
His second academic year leading the Texas flagship begins Wednesday, and it’s clear that Fenves has faced an extraordinary set of challenges since he became the university’s 29th president on June 3, 2015. And, indeed, there is no sign of letup.
His first month on the job seemed to set the pace. Allegations of academic misconduct involving men’s basketball players prompted him to commission an outside investigation. Then, amid national backlash against public memorials of the Confederacy, someone vandalized three statues of Confederate leaders on the South Mall. Next came word from the U.S. Supreme Court that it would review, for the second time, the university’s consideration of race and ethnicity in undergraduate admissions.
Now Fenves is being sued in what could evolve into an epic court battle over the scope of professors’ academic freedom. A federal judge is expected to rule any day in the first phase of a lawsuit filed by three faculty members who want to ban concealed handguns from their classrooms. Fenves, like every other public university president in the state, has taken the position that a prohibition on guns in classrooms would run afoul of the state’s campus carry law.
Meanwhile, the Dell Medical School has opened under Fenves’ watch without any major glitches. And like most new presidents, he has reshuffled the leadership team, appointing several vice presidents and deans. Various academic initiatives are underway as well.
Moreover, in his dealings with the UT System Board of Regents, Fenves has dialed back the tension level. That’s no small achievement considering that his own appointment was initially opposed by three regents, in part because of their strained relations with his predecessor, Bill Powers, who had appointed Fenves to the second-ranking position of executive vice president and provost.
But when it comes to challenges, nothing has tested Fenves like the slaying in April of Haruka Weiser, a freshman theater and dance student. She was the first person slain on the UT campus in nearly 50 years.
Fenves responded earnestly but calmly, quickly calling on the Texas Department of Public Safety to review campus safety and security, and even going out on a limb a bit by pledging in advance to follow the department’s recommendations on mechanical and electronic security systems, video monitoring, lighting, landscaping and the role of security personnel.
“I think Fenves has done quite well,” said Texas Higher Education Commissioner Raymund Paredes. “He’s handled the issue of guns on campus about as well as he can — that’s not to say everybody’s happy. He handled the murder of that student with great compassion; this could have easily turned into a matter of campus-wide panic. And the political climate is not nearly as negative as it was during the last year of Powers’ tenure, not that Powers was responsible for all of it. Fenves hasn’t taken a significant misstep I’m aware of.”
Linda Hicke, UT’s dean of natural sciences, said, “I’m not sure I would have expected a civil engineer to grow into such an outstanding communicator in times of crisis. One of Greg’s great strengths, which is particularly valuable in the presidential role, is that he is probably one of the most calm, cool-headed individuals I’ve seen in academia.”
Paul Foster, chairman of the UT board, said Fenves has handled the various challenges “extremely well,” adding: “He gets along with the board great. He’s very good at giving us a heads-up if something’s going on that’s going to be newsworthy or controversial or just something we need to know.”
It’s too early in Fenves’ tenure to take the full measure of his presidency, but he is pursuing a number of long-range initiatives that could have a lasting impact on the university’s academic standing. Among them is Project 2021, an effort to redesign the undergraduate curriculum with, among other features, opportunities for students in all degree programs to participate in research, internships and other mind-opening experiences.
He has also embraced some of his predecessor’s goals, such as lifting graduation rates that lag behind those of other leading public universities. A multibillion-dollar fundraising campaign is certain to land on the to-do list.
The UT president’s leadership style is consultative, measured, articulate and thoughtful — sometimes to a fault. Some of his associates occasionally wish he would pound the table to make a point.
“Greg is very, very cautious about the decision-making process, but once he makes a decision, it’s clear,” said John Massey, a businessman and lawyer from Dallas who is the current president of the Ex-Students’ Association, also known as the Texas Exes. “He doesn’t seek out confrontation. He seeks consensus; he seeks conciliation. He has a very presidential bearing. I like him. I find him to be a really good listener and communicator.”
At an institution as large and complex as UT, part of the challenge for a president is to pivot back and forth from the big-picture goals to the various crises that inevitably crop up. Only workaholics need apply. Fenves, who says time is his “most precious resource,” is time, took his family to St. Thomas in the U.S. Virgin Islands for a week but still conducted UT business from the beach “when there was cellphone reception,” as he put it.
Despite the job’s unremitting pace, or perhaps because of it, Fenves says he’s having the time of his life. At 59, with salt-and-pepper hair and a quick smile, he is resolutely upbeat.
“I’ve been in academics my entire career, over 30 years, in every position from professor to department chair on up to this job, and this is the best job I’ve ever had at a university,” he said. “I’m able to articulate a vision for the University of Texas. People pay attention to the president in a way that they don’t pay attention to a dean necessarily or a faculty member. I’m able to get things done that only a president can get done and able to set priorities that I think are important.”
Clark Kerr, the late president of the University of California, defined a university president as a “mediator-initiator” who must “face in many directions at once.” A president must also be “a devotee of opera and football equally,” Kerr wrote.
If the fine arts come naturally to Fenves — after all, his idea of a great time is checking out the impressionist masterpieces at the Musée d’Orsay in Paris — football is an acquired taste. In more than 20 years teaching at UC-Berkeley, Fenves attended just one game, and then only because his daughters insisted on it before the family decamped to Austin.
First as UT’s dean of engineering, then as provost and now as the head of Longhorn nation, Fenves has evolved into quite the fan. He attended 10 of 12 football games last season, as well as numerous men’s basketball games, some women’s basketball games and several volleyball games.
By his own admission, Fenves wasn’t that familiar with athletics when he became president. He learned quickly that it’s an aspect of the enterprise that bears close watching. The investigation into academic support for athletes found no wrongdoing, and the NCAA said no further inquiry was needed. When it became apparent that the men’s athletics director, Steve Patterson, wasn’t working out after nearly two years on the job, Fenves forced him out.
The UT president will eventually have to decide an athletics-related matter of generational impact: where to build a replacement arena when the Erwin Center, a multipurpose venue, is demolished to make way for expansion of the Dell Medical School. Fenves is open to the notion of an off-campus location but conceded that there is no proposal on the table.
“In the absence of that, we would build an arena on campus,” he said, most likely in what is now a parking lot just south of the soccer stadium. “My view is it’ll be a basketball-only arena. It won’t be designed to be a multipurpose arena. It becomes much more expensive to construct a multipurpose arena.”
Asked what has been the high point of his presidency thus far, Fenves said there were three.
“In athletics, winning the game against Oklahoma in the Cotton Bowl. That was an emotional high,” he said. “Recruiting our two top leaders — Maurie McInnis (provost) and Darrell Bazzell (senior vice president and chief financial officer); universities run on great people and talent, and being able to recruit outstanding individuals is really important.
“My proudest moment as president,” Fenves said, “was standing behind Christle Nwora, one of our students, speaking on the steps of the Supreme Court about the importance of diversity for education of all students at the University of Texas.”
The high court later upheld the university’s race-conscious admissions program, 4-3.
The low point, of course, was the slaying of Weiser, 18, whose body was found April 5 on the bank of Waller Creek near the UT alumni center. She had also been sexually assaulted. Meechaiel Khalil Criner, a teenage runaway from a foster home in Killeen, has been charged with capital murder.
“It was awful,” Fenves said. “I have two daughters, and this is a parent’s worst nightmare, to get a call in the middle of the night with some tragic news.”
He nonetheless describes UT as “a historically safe campus in terms of violent crime,” but with the caveat that he is referring to the past half-century. It was on Aug. 1, 1966, that Charles Whitman, an engineering student, opened fire from high up on the UT Tower in a rampage that ultimately left 16 people dead.
Fifty years to the day later, Fenves hosted a moving ceremony on campus at which a granite monument to the victims was dedicated. That was the same day that the state’s new campus carry law took effect. Although Fenves has said repeatedly that guns have no place on a college campus, he has also said that he is duty-bound to obey the law. And so his implementation rules bar concealed handguns from most dormitories and some labs but permit them in classrooms and some offices.
The question of what to do, if anything, about statues of Confederate figures on campus proved easier to resolve. Responding to a Student Government resolution, recommendations from an advisory panel and a shift in the nation’s tolerance for displays of Confederate pride, Fenves decided a year ago to move a statue of Confederate President Jefferson Davis from the Main Mall into a history center on campus. He decided to leave the bronze likenesses of a few other Confederate figures, including the commanding general, Robert E. Lee, on the South Mall because they had greater ties to Texas.
An upcoming challenge for Fenves involves Lions Municipal Golf Course, which the federal government recently added to the National Register of Historic Places because it was one of the earliest, if not the first, municipal golf courses in the former Confederate states to be desegregated. The 141-acre, city-operated course is part of a 350-acre tract in West Austin donated to the university in 1910 by George Brackenridge, a banker and regent.
The future of Muny, as the course is known, isn’t entirely the UT president’s call. The UT board has long contemplated leasing it for commercial and residential development, with proceeds benefiting the campus. Indeed, regents voted in 2011 to let the city’s lease for the golf course expire in 2019.
The National Register listing doesn’t prohibit destruction of Muny, but Fenves might not want to go down in history as the UT president who won an affirmative action case at the Supreme Court, only to pave over a place where blacks advanced their civil rights.
“The university and community must continue to discuss how to honor the important civil rights history at the site while fulfilling our obligations to Col. Brackenridge, our university and the state of Texas,” Fenves said.
Fundraising and legislative relations occupy a growing amount of Fenves’ time these days, and the latter will ramp up sharply in January when lawmakers converge on Austin for their regular session. During the summer, Fenves hosted alumni events in New York City, London, Shanghai and Seoul, South Korea. He also treated himself to a new car, replacing his 2004 Honda Accord with a BMW 528.
And despite the demands on his “most precious resource,” time, Fenves gets to the gym five days a week on average.
“It’s really important for my health, mentally and physically,” he said. “I have very low blood pressure, and I’m sure that’s because of exercise.”