With steady footing, new UT President looks ahead

Graham Dickie and Julia Brouillette

In his first three months as UT president, Gregory Fenves has called for the removal of a statue of confederate leader Jefferson Davis from campus, organized a working group to tackle issues related to the concealed carrying of handguns in university buildings and hired an interim athletic director for one of the largest college athletic programs in the country.

While pursuing such sweeping changes may seem daunting to some, it’s in Fenves’ nature – he said he is not one to back down from tough decisions.

“I want to get things done,” Fenves said. “I think I’m fairly decisive. I don’t agonize over decisions very much. … I make a decision, and then move on.”

Fenves, who delivered the State of the University address Thursday afternoon, said he had no second thoughts about choosing to come to UT from the University of California, Berkeley in 2008. He began his academic career at UT more than 30 years ago as an assistant professor of engineering. He then returned to Berkeley, his alma mater, as a faculty member — researching earthquakes, doing computer programming and eventually landing the top post in the engineering department.

After 20 years at Berkeley, Fenves said he was ready for new opportunities and changes in his career. Following a return to the U.S. from a brief research-related sabbatical at Kyoto University in Kyoto, Japan, Fenves opted to return to the Lone Star State due in large part to the reputation of sitting UT President William Powers Jr.

“Powers recruited me here, and certainly that was a big part of my decision to come to the University of Texas, was the opportunity to work with Bill Powers,” Fenves said.

Fenves served as dean of the Cockrell School of Engineering until Powers tapped him to serve as executive vice president and provost in 2013. While his academic career has been largely divided between teaching and administration, Fenves said he has identified clear overlaps between each of his roles.

“I think some people think these are very separate jobs, being a professor and being a university leader,” Fenves said. “I don’t really see those as starkly different jobs. The core mission of the University is academics, and that’s what the faculty do. Time is spent differently, but we’re trying to accomplish the same goal.”

Mary Comerio, a former architecture professor who worked alongside Fenves at UC-Berkeley, said she has always admired Fenves’ ability to apply creative thinking to every aspect of his job.

“He has the capacity to think way outside the box, and that goes for not just engineering but also administration and for all the kinds of other work that he has to do,” Comerio said. “He’s very principled and moral. That’s a huge part of his personality.”

Fenves is leading the University through tumultuous times, with an ongoing investigation into allegations of academic misconduct involving three former UT basketball players, a pending Supreme Court case that could alter the University’s holistic admissions process and vacancies in high-ranking leadership roles.

At Fenves’ inauguration ceremony, UT System Chancellor William McRaven called Fenves the “right leader at the right time” for the University.

“I have been in the leadership business for nearly forty years and I know a great leader when I see one — Greg Fenves is a great leader,” McRaven said. “He is both thoughtful and decisive. He has an inclusive style, but realizes that as president, the buck stops with him, that he is responsible.”

Maria Arrellaga, Fenves’ chief communications officer, said Fenves navigates stressful situations like these while maintaining his calm and collected demeanor.

“There’s been a lot going on that can get you really worked up,” Arrellaga said. “But when the leader is exhibiting a calm state, it just really helps keep things in perspective.”

Fenves accredits his early morning workouts, which start at 5:30 a.m., with helping him stay balanced — both mentally and physically. He also takes care of any writing he has to do around the same time while he’s “completely fresh.”

“Exercise reduces cortisol levels, and cortisol causes stress,” Fenves said. “I’m pretty organized with my time, I try to plan things out and not get too rattled when the schedule doesn’t hold up. It’s just part of the way I deal with life.”

He loves conversation, he said, and spends “95 percent” of his day once he gets to his office “listening and talking to people.”

“To get things done effectively — I think in any organization, not just universities — you have to listen to people,” Fenves said. “It’s not just sitting at the desk over there and making decisions.”

Despite the grueling schedule that comes with this kind of high-powered job, Fenves always manages to find time to read. He said he just finished a biography on Ronald Reagan written by UT professor H.W. Brands, which begs the question — Fenves 2024?

“I would be a terrible politician,” he said with a laugh.