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Vacancies Give New UT President Room to Build

When Bill Powers’ second-in-command was appointed to replace him as president of UT-Austin this year, it would have been reasonable to expect continuity in the school's upper ranks. But that's not the situation Greg Fenves inherited.

Current UT-Austin Executive Vice President and Provost Greg Fenves will take over as president of the university on June 3, 2015.

Outgoing President Bill Powers was occasionally besieged during his nine years running the University of Texas at Austin, but the school's leadership team remained notably steady during his tenure.  

Until recently, more than half of his nine executive officers had held their jobs just as long, if not longer, than Powers

That continuity will end when Greg Fenves takes over the position next week. Fenves is Powers' second-in-command, but many of the current president's other top lieutenants have left or are leaving. And one of Fenves' first tasks will be building a team reflecting his own style, ideas and priorities, some quite different than Powers'. 

“He is a legal philosopher; I am an engineer,” said Fenves.

Because of resignations, retirements and departures for jobs at other universities, Fenves should be able to build without much strife. In the first year or so, he'll need to fill four vice president-level vacancies — provost, chief financial officer, vice president of research and vice president of development. There are also openings for deans of the schools of public affairs, communications and business.

"It's an enormous opportunity," he said.

In an interview in his old office last week, Fenves said he and Powers have a strong relationship, and similar visions about the school's mission. But Fenves described himself as his own man, with his own way of thinking. 

His current job is provost, but before that he was dean of engineering. He has worked for UT-Austin since 2008, but most of his academic career was spent at the University of California, Berkeley. Those roles gave him a valuable outsider's perspective — something he says he'll be looking for when he is filling out his staff. 

"A president demonstrates their leadership by the team they build, so right in the first year I will have a lot of opportunities," he said. "And I know the university pretty well, so for most of these positions I expect we will be bringing in people with different ideas and experience from the outside."

His motto, he said, is simple: "Get things done."

Fenves says he wants people with different perspectives who can work together. But most importantly, he wants leaders who have creative ideas for implementing his vision.

He said he will emphasize four main goals touching on the school's varying missions.

Those include continuing the schools' transformation of undergraduate education to incorporate more undergraduate students into research. Other goals are to expand the entire research enterprise, and focus on ushering in the university's new medical school. He said he also wants to try to grow the school's presence in Austin, the state and even the international community. 

Meanwhile, he has already started working to build a stronger relationship with the UT System Board of Regents. Powers clashed with regents in the final years of his term over enrollment numbers and proposed market-based reforms, often putting his job at risk in the process. 

Fenves appears to be trying to avoid that. When he was named the sole finalist for the president's job, three regents voted against him — the same regents who were Powers' biggest critics. Powers' most visible adversary, Regent Wallace Hall, later said he had a "strong and unambiguous desire for fresh leadership from outside the university."

Before the final vote on his presidency, Fenves met with each regent, and he was confirmed with an 8-0 vote, with Hall abstaining. 

The faculty has been easier to win over. Hillary Hart, a professor who worked under Fenves when he was engineering dean, said Fenves was popular among faculty when he was provost. He held regular meetings with professors that generated strong turnout and productive discussions. 

“I have rarely seen such energy among a large group of faculty,” she said of those meetings. 

As Fenves builds his team, the faculty is closely watching, said Hart, a past chairwoman of the Faculty Council. But members have been pleased with the number of professors he has included in the search committees. And they expect good things from the team he builds, she said.  

“If anybody can really reinvent 21st century education at a large public institution, it’s Greg Fenves,” she said.  

Disclosure: The University of Texas at Austin is a corporate sponsor of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here. 

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