As Emory University President Gregory L. Fenves embarks on his fourth year leading the institution, he sat down with The Emory Wheel to discuss University leadership, mental health and student retention rates.
The Q&A has been edited for clarity and length.
The Emory Wheel: This semester, Emory College and Oxford College both have new deans. How does each deans fit your vision of University leadership?
Fenves: We’re just so thrilled with Dr. [Barbara] Krauthamer, who just started as the dean of Emory College, and Dr. [Badia] Ahad, who started as dean of Oxford College … I have a hand in the search process for the deans and, of course, the final decision with recommendations from the Search Advisory Committees. We got great leaders for both Oxford and the College.
Let me start with Oxford. Oxford … is really unique in having two pathways to an undergraduate degree. Dean Hicks did a fantastic job … I talked to Dean Ahad about how we strengthen Oxford in making clear to high school students across the country that you have these two pathways, and there’s nothing like Oxford. To be able to spend two years in a residential liberal arts, beautiful campus and still have all the opportunities of a big research university … This gives students the opportunity to have the advantages of both. And so, how to market that — that’s what we’ve talked about with Oxford.
For the College, that’s our biggest school at Emory … I don’t know if you followed one of my first addresses as president in March 2021, [but] I talked about improving retention and graduation rates. We are not where what I would call our peer universities are in terms of students coming to Emory, and graduating from it. Dr. Krauthamer comes from a university that has also gone through how to improve retention in a very different context … We had a meeting … with advisers and campus life … soon after graduation. Everybody’s excited after Commencement at the end of the academic year, celebrating students graduating. I said, well, we were just outside on the Quad and celebrating the graduation of the Class of 2023. While I was excited to confer degrees on the Class of 2023, I also was a little saddened because I knew 20% — one in five students who had started in 2019 — were not sitting on the Quad graduating in 2023. Our four-year graduation rate now is about 81%, approximately … That should be 90% of students who start at Emory who graduate in four years. It’s a very comprehensive look, from academics to financial aid to being able to get courses that a student wants for their degree to student mental health issues that can inhibit a student from completing or completing on time to students finding that they get to Emory and that it’s not quite what they thought it was and may want to think about alternatives. And how do we help them find that? So there’s a whole range of issues that we’re working on. That’s one of the most important areas for Dr. Krauthamer as the new dean of Emory College.
TEW: Toward the end of last semester, a student rally raised concerns about Emory’s Title IX process. How is Emory going to support survivors moving forward?
Fenves: “So a couple of things. The Office of Respect, we’re getting some new staff and counselors there. The hotline now is 24/7, so it doesn’t have a certain set of hours; it is always available … When a student has a report, we want to be able to address it as quickly as possible and provide the appropriate survivor support for any complainant, any student.
The Title IX office had a significant backlog of cases, and when I found out about it I was very unhappy about it, so we did some restructuring of the office and we have a new Title IX coordinator, Nicole Babcock. One of the things I did is we instituted a regular meeting of all the senior executives with Nicole just for reports on where progress is in specific cases. I don’t know any of the specific cases because they’re confidential, and I believe nearly all the backlog of cases, which is often a bit of a big complaint of students: They file a complaint and don’t hear anything for months. I think we have substantially addressed that backlog, and the progress of cases has been moving much more in line with what our expectations are and our standards are for cases. So those are the two things supporting survivors with a beefed up Office of Respect and being more expeditious, yet fair and thorough, in the Title IX review process.
TEW: I wanted to go back to one thing you said earlier about mental health in higher institutions. I know over the past couple years, the University’s Counseling and Psychological Services has faced heavy criticism from students, and I wanted to hear how you as a leader are hoping to set an example for mental health in higher education.
Fenves: Well, it’s been a problem at Emory and all universities. It’s pre-COVID. I remember my previous role, we were dealing with increased needs of students for mental health [services] and counseling. What we’re doing at Emory is last year we created a new position: Vice President for Student Wellness, Dr. James Raper, who is a clinical psychologist and had developed a very comprehensive program at Wake Forest University that encompasses wellness and physical health, mental health. So Student Health Services, CAPS, Offices of Respect, several other offices are now under his umbrella so that we can be very coordinated and integrated as to how we’re meeting the student needs.
We just recently announced the new director of CAPS, Dr. Tenille Gaines from Michigan State University, which you may know was in the news for some mental health issues of students, so she’s very experienced at actually a much larger university than Emory. As we think about student well-being — these are not my terms, but I’ll use them if it’s terms they use — they talk about “upstream” and “downstream.” So the downstream are the actual services provided to students: counseling services, other peer group, peer counseling, group counseling and [the] vision is to have a tiered approach … Most students have stress, many students have anxiety, and to be able to deal with the student needs and then elevate it as it’s clinically indicated for each individual student. That’s the program they’re putting in place with CAPS … I think I understand that they’re removing the session limits within CAPS, beginning this year. That doesn’t mean unlimited counseling, but it does mean that if a student needs a certain level of care, there’s not a counter that keeps track of what the quota is. It’s still managed, but it’s appropriate for the student.
On the upstream side is how can we reduce stress? I think it’s important for not just students, everybody, to learn how to develop resilience and self-care, and so that’s part of the more wellness programs that Dr. Raper is developing here. So we really want to look at the entire spectrum of what’s causing the increased levels of need for students for mental health and counseling and how can we best address it in a tiered format?
TEW: One thing that was on a lot of people’s minds in higher education this summer was affirmative action being overturned. You subsequently sent a letter to the Emory community. When you’re thinking about the University’s dedication to diversity, equity and inclusion going forward, how does this fit in?
Fenves: My letter was very discouraging and disappointing … We have to follow the law, but it’s not a decision that I think is the right decision for American higher education. So what are we doing? Well, that decision was then handed down at the end of June. Our application portal opened Aug. 1. We have had a month to really begin the aspects of the application process and the way our admissions office handles that because race could not be used as a factor. So we’ve put in place the new admission procedures … We all expect that there’ll be a smaller number of historically-underrepresented students in the admissions process. That’s why I felt, and many others felt, that race needed to be a factor in admissions. All students we admit are extremely talented. I mean, we have so many talented applicants to Emory … and there are lots of factors that go into admission and I believe race and ethnicity should be one of them.
So now that we can’t include [race as a factor], although we can look at each individual applicant through their essays and other information they provide about their life experience, the obstacles that they’ve overcome, barriers that they’ve had to address. Those are all factors that we can legitimately look at in reaching admissions decisions, but we won’t know until the admissions process is over in May about what the demographics are, so this is the first year. Now, once we’ve learned about that, we’ll start looking at … how do we recruit applicants to be able to have a diverse student body and have the educational benefits of diversity. We’ll be looking at financial aid: How does financial aid affect who’s considering coming to Emory? … It won’t be solved this year because this will take several years of finding out what is effective in recruiting and admitting students within the requirements of the law.
TEW: You’ve faced pressure from some Emory community members to step down from the Atlanta Committee for Progress due to its ties to the controversial Atlanta Public Safety Training Center. How do you respond to these demands?
Fenves: Well, first of all let me say something about the Atlanta Committee for Progress. This is a uniquely Atlanta institution. It was started by Mayor Shirley Franklin, when she was mayor to at first bring the business community together and what was important for her as leader of the city to make progress in Atlanta. Soon after … they invited universities to be part of the Atlanta Committee for Progress. So the three research universities — Emory, Georgia Tech and Georgia State — and most of the presidents of the AUC, so Spelman, Morehouse, Clark Atlanta, and Morehouse School of Medicine, are all on the Atlanta Committee for Progress. It’s really a unique Atlanta institution about bringing business and educational and some civic leaders together for what is important for the city, as it’s led by the mayor.
And so, I think if you look at a lot of the programs … for example on homelessness, a lot of organizations on ACP helping to address the fact that we have far too many individuals who don’t have homes, youth employment, so it’s a wide range of priorities for the mayor that these leaders across the city come together. I think it’s very important for Emory to be at the table … The training center itself is a very contentious issue. It has gone through a process of voting and the City Council, all elected members by residents of Atlanta … Emory doesn’t have a position. This is something elected leaders are making. I know there’s been a petition drive to put it on the ballot. I don’t know what the status of that is, but if it does make it on the ballot, it’s for the voters of Atlanta to decide what the future should be for that for the training center.
TEW: The movement has also made its way onto the Emory campus with a student protest last spring which was broken up by the Emory Police Department officers citing a violation of the University’s Respect for Open Expression Policy. There are still some lingering questions about the Policy’s application in this instance, as well as the Atlanta Police Department being brought onto the scene with EPD. Is that something that the University is going to address publicly?
Fenves: Well, certainly, open expression is an important part. I mean, this is the First Amendment but on the University campus. Being able to protest, disagree, demonstrate peacefully is all part of the Emory experience, as it should be for any university.
I think we have a very good open-expression policy. Now, I know there’s gonna be some discussion [if there] are changes that we should look at to support free speech even more, and I’m certainly open to those discussions. But free speech is not completely unconstrained, and I think we have very good rules here that are very wide open about protest and demonstration. But our open expression policy does limit it if it’s affecting the operations of the University, and having overnight camping affects the operations of the University because we have to keep students safe. We have to have staff available if we have anybody that’s overnight on campus, and so through the open expression observers, which are very well-trained staff, and many faculty volunteers as observers, there was very clear communication, as is with all the protests since I’ve been here, and the protesters decided that they weren’t going to abide by the agreement in the protest at 10 o’clock. We tried to give them many warnings, and then ultimately had to be clear that we weren’t going to allow overnight camping because under the open expression policy it would impede the operations of the University.
TEW: Just going back to the Atlanta Police Department’s involvement: In what instances are APD brought on to campus?
Fenves: Well, that’s a law enforcement decision about how to work with other agencies. Obviously, we’re in the City of Atlanta. I really hope this is never the case, but if we have an active shooter on campus, we’re going to call in local law enforcement to help with it because we don’t have enough EPD officers to deal with every situation, so that’s an EPD decision … I don’t get involved in law enforcement decisions.
TEW: One final question: What is the update on the University’s 2O36 fundraising campaign?
Fenves: The top-line goal for the campaign is $4 billion. We are making very good progress. We just closed the fiscal year yesterday, and so we have two years left in the campaign, so we’re now in the final push for the campaign … We had a quiet phase from 2017, and then I publicly announced the launch campaign in October 2021. So from the beginning of the campaign to today, we’ve raised $3.4 billion. We have $600 million to go in the final two years.
What I’m really pleased about is the progress we are making towards endowment for students and for faculty. We announced a faculty endowment match program … and we’ve already added about 10 new faculty-endowed positions. Hopefully, we’ll finish that match off in the next year and we’re working really hard to work with our committed and generous donors to increase endowment for student scholarships … so hopefully we’ll end the campaign Aug. 31, 2025, having exceeded the $4 billion goal.