On April 7, the Emory University Board of Trustees announced that Gregory L. Fenves would become Emory’s next president on Aug. 1, 2020. Since President Claire E. Sterk’s retirement announcement, the Presidential Selection Committee has invested considerable energy into interviewing candidates and soliciting student feedback. As we welcome Fenves to the Emory community and introduce him to the student body, we implore him to prioritize diversity and inclusion, and in doing so, encourage students, staff and faculty of color to lead University-wide diversity initiatives.
Fenves has served as the president of the University of Texas at Austin (UT Austin) since 2015. As president of UT Austin, Fenves garnered national acclaim for his leadership when the university’s race-based admissions policy came before the U.S. Supreme Court in Fisher v. University of Texas. In a statement, Fenves asserted that “race continues to matter in American life” and it warrants consideration during the college admissions process. As we wrote earlier this year, the next president must implement substantive diversity initiatives for students and faculty alike.
A 2016 Class and Labor Report revealed that both women and racial minorities are significantly underrepresented in Emory’s tenure-track faculty. As Emory transitions to a new administration, we have a unique opportunity to right institutional wrongs. In 2018, under President Sterk, the Wheel continually raised concerns about implicit biases and wage gaps within the higher echelons of Emory’s administration. Many of these concerns have yet to be fully addressed. While Fenves has demonstrated an ability to uphold equitable policies in his previous role, he must create space for marginalized groups at Emory to help implement diversity initiatives like hiring more faculty of color, effectively addressing minority and low-income student concerns and implementing faculty implicit bias training. Fenves must lead not just with talk but action in ensuring that historically underrepresented voices are heard.
Fenves has an accomplished academic and professional background as a university leader and engineer. As the child of a Holocaust survivor, Fenves has stated that his upbringing instilled in him a belief in the power of education to overcome intolerance and hate. After an illustrious career in earthquake-resistant engineering at the University of California, Berkeley, Fenves served as the eighth dean of UT Austin’s Cockrell School of Engineering and then as UT Austin’s executive vice president and provost. In 2015, Fenves was named president of UT Austin.
Fenves also improved UT Austin’s financial aid policies by waiving tuition for all students coming from households earning $65,000 or less annually. His commitment to increasing higher education affordability is admirable, and we hope he will bring a more compassionate perspective on socioeconomic inequality to Emory than that of the current administration. While Emory’s financial aid policy is relatively generous, some low-income students feel as if the current administration does not adequately listen or address their concerns. One prominent example of this poor relationship between students and University administration came with the recent breakdown in communications regarding the Student Support Stipend.
While Fenves’s tenure at UT Austin was characterized by considerable success, it was also not without controversial decisions. In his final year as president, Fenves’s administration faced student protests over the university’s mishandling of sexual misconduct. The first protest occurred in October 2019 after UT Austin students grew frustrated with the fact that two professors were allowed to continue teaching courses after they were found to be in violation of the University’s sexual misconduct policies. At the time, UT Austin’s sexual misconduct policies mandated neither termination nor suspension as punishment for such violations.
One month after the protest, Fenves announced that his administration would form a working group to revise UT Austin’s Title IX policies, and he hired a third-party law firm, Husch Blackwell, to oversee the group’s efforts. Fenves demonstrated careful leadership by listening to students’ demands for reform and using the school’s resources to hire an external firm to audit the University’s efforts. The result of Husch Blackwell’s consultancy was a slew of recommendations to revamp UT Austin’s Title IX protocols, including immediate termination for any faculty or staff member found to “have committed sexual assault, sexual harassment, stalking or interpersonal violence.” Fenves accepted all of the firm’s recommended policy changes.
Fenves’s response to student protests was exemplary. He seriously considered their concerns and acted upon them, thereby demonstrating a strong commitment to students’ safety and input. We wrote about the Emory community’s pressing need for a leader willing to engage more with students to address their grievances and prevent unrest. Fenves’s navigation of UT Austin’s sexual misconduct scandal gives us confidence that he will actively engage with and be responsive to Emory students as well.
We look forward to welcoming Fenves to Emory this fall. Based on his personal background and tenure at UT Austin, we hope he will create space for all racial, gender, ability and class identities and help implement substantive, equitable policies with the help of marginalized groups. Fenves’s response to student protests surrounding sexual misconduct and his defense of race-inclusive admissions is promising. We hope he translates these lessons to Emory.
The above editorial represents the majority opinion of the Wheel’s Editorial Board.
The Editorial Board is composed of Sean Anderson, Brammhi Balarajan, Zach Ball, Devin Bog, Jake Busch, Meredith McKelvey, Andrew Kliewer, Boris Niyonzima, Nick Pernas and Ben Thomas.