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With Greg Fenves leaving, UT-Austin loses "steady" hand in unsteady times

Fenves’ five-year tenure as president brought a sense of stability to the downtown Austin campus. With the coronavirus pandemic upending the university and hammering its budget, his successor will face "trial by ordeal."

University of Texas at Austin President Greg Fenves talks with attendees after his state of the university address on Sept...

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Campuses have been emptied and budgets decimated as the novel coronavirus upends colleges and universities across the state. The resignation of University of Texas at Austin President Greg Fenves leaves the flagship campus assuming additional layers of uncertainty as the institution contemplates a long road back to normalcy.

Fenves, who will step down June 30 and become president of Emory University in August, has steered UT-Austin since 2015. He departs after a dozen years at the university, including stints as executive vice president, provost and dean of the engineering school. His departure coincides with the exit of another senior leader, Executive Vice President and Provost Maurie McInnis — who will soon become president of Stony Brook University in New York.

Fenves said his decision to leave predated the pandemic, which has prompted graduation ceremonies to be postponed and forced students to complete their semesters online. It is a tumultuous period for students and faculty even without a change in leadership, and Fenves said the timing was not what he anticipated or wanted.

“Since this crisis began in Austin a month ago, change has been the only constant,” he wrote in a Tuesday letter announcing his departure. “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.”

The dean of UT-Austin’s business school, Jay Hartzell, was named interim president Wednesday.

Fenves declined an interview request through a spokesperson.

Some students are nervous about the compounding changes and worried new leadership will endanger projects Fenves had prioritized.

There was already a sense of abandonment among students, said junior Lynn Huynh, as they face the pandemic and their new virtual education spreads across the state and country. Already stressed about the economic devastation of the virus, she said, thinking about what the campus will look like next fall — will there be in-person classes? who will be president? — adds worry.

Elena Ivanova, a senior and president of the student senate, wonders if the university will continue to prioritize efforts Fenves championed, like increasing resources for low-income students.

“He’s made these promises and commitments, but he won’t necessarily be here to see them through,” she said. “So it’s nerve-wracking to not know what’s going to happen to the state of those issues.”

When professor Charlotte Canning heard the news of his resignation, she was “utterly flabbergasted” she said, because Fenves seemed “like the very model of someone who was exactly where he wanted to be.”

Experts say Fenves’ departure tracks with a pattern of college presidents nationwide having increasingly shorter tenures, leading to instability in leadership.

Lynn Pasquerella, president of the Association of American Colleges and Universities, said pressures of the job have grown as the notion of higher education has shifted from a public good to a private commodity and as government funding has decreased.

“When you have transitions of presidents and provosts, it's very difficult for an institution to retain momentum in working toward a strategic plan or strategic goals," she said. A 2017 survey conducted by the American Council on Education found the average tenure for a college leader was 6.5 years in 2016, down from 8.5 in 2006.

The financial instability brought by the pandemic can make tumult at the top even more disruptive, Pasquerella said. Moody’s has downgraded the entire higher education sector from “stable” to “negative,” warning that universities’ response to the outbreak will “immediately reduce revenue and drive expenses higher.” Some schools, like UT-Austin, have issued partial refunds for students’ housing or meal plans.

Fenves’ successor will begin with a “trial by ordeal,” Pasquerella said, potentially starting a new job as global recession hits. “It can’t be business as usual.”

Adrianna Kezar, director of the University of Southern California’s Pullias Center for Higher Education, said there’s often a lag of a few years after a president leaves in which few “things advance.”

“Crises require decision-making,” she said of the pandemic.

Before the pandemic, faculty, students and observers say, Fenves’ tenure brought a sense of stability to the downtown Austin campus after years of strife between his predecessor, Bill Powers, and state leaders and regents who wanted to reshape higher education in the mold of a business.

“He was just an even-keeled leader at a time when we really needed that,” said Jenifer Sarver, who helped run the Texas Coalition for Excellence in Higher Education that was formed to push back on proposals to treat universities like for-profit businesses. Regents have since cycled off the board, and state leadership changed, lessening the outside political pressure that UT faces, she said.

“President Fenves was a strong, steady and measured leader for the university at a really important time. He led with poise through some tragedies, frankly,” said Sarver, who serves on an advisory council for the university’s Moody College of Communication.

Chief among those: the murder of Haruka Weiser, an 18-year-old dance student, in April 2016. She was assaulted and strangled on her way back to her dorm, and her death shook the university and spurred changes to its campus safety practices.

Kevin Helgren, a former student body president, remembered Fenves was “shaken up” by the murder and “responded first and foremost as a parent.”

“I met with him almost daily in the weeks after that happened, and you could tell that, more than anything, he wanted to do right by Haruka,” he said.

It was one of several times that Helgren, who graduated in 2017, was reassured by the president’s response to a challenge, he said.

“Be it funding from the Texas state Legislature” — slashed in 2017 — “be it the Supreme Court's ruling on the Abigail Fisher affirmative action case” — which upheld UT’s race-conscious admissions program — “be it the implementation of campus carry … when I think about his approach to those turbulent times, I consider it to have been an approach rooted in grace and poise and character,” Helgren said.

Former football coach Charlie Strong was fired and Tom Herman was hired under Fenves' watch. Fenves directed the university to remove multiple Confederate statues from a prominent mall on campus in 2017, prompting a lawsuit. A free-speech advocacy group also sued UT leaders, accusing the school of violating students’ First Amendment rights. Both suits were dismissed.

Fenves has touted his efforts to increase student success and make the college more affordable. The university announced last summer that a new endowment will help cover tuition and fees for all UT-Austin undergraduates whose families earn up to $65,000 in adjusted gross income a year, and give more aid to families earning up to $125,000 annually.

Four-year graduation rates — which were below 60% in 2015 — reached a high of 69.8% during Fenves’ tenure. Efforts to increase the rate began in 2011 as a way to prevent students from extending their time to get a degree, increasing their loan debt or dropping out.

But before the pandemic ground life on campus to a halt, both he and McInnis were subject to frequent protests from students disturbed that faculty members punished for violating sexual misconduct policies were still teaching.

Students staged sit-ins and stormed a class taught by one of the professors. Administrators formed a working group, hosted an emotional forum in which Fenves and McInnis both conceded they’d failed students, and ultimately committed to changing UT policies. They released a list of employees found responsible for sexual misconduct and agreed to make public information about certain offenders — a top demand of the protesters.

Students involved in that effort, like Huynh, say they’re anxious that two key administrators intend to leave before all of the changes have been formalized.

“I definitely feel worried. Now it’s like, who do we talk to? Who do we hold accountable now? Who do we try to engage with?” she said. “It all came down to the decision of those two people, and now those two people are gone.”

Disclosure: The University of Texas at Austin has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

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