First Impressions

Greg Fenves took office this summer as the 29th president of UT-Austin. We spoke with him about his plans for the university and his emphasis on what he calls “innovating excellence.”

First Impressions

Greg Fenves is a fan of the French Impressionists. The weekend of July 4th, he visited the National Gallery in Washington, D.C. They had the usual Reniors and Monets, he says, but it was a lesser-known artist, Gustave Caillebotte, who caught his eye.

“I tweeted it, in fact.” On his feed, sandwiched between Independence Day well-wishes and Fenves signing a research agreement with the Mexican government, is a photo of a softly textured garden and a wispy scene of oarsmen by Monet. “No photos allowed of amazing Caillebotte’s,” he wrote.

The show at the National Gallery is a kind of coming-out party for Caillebotte, whose influence is stitched into the history of the Impressionist movement, but whose art, which includes scenes of Paris street life and many bent-perspective looks at men standing on balconies overlooking the city, has only recently garnered major attention of its own.

When Fenves took office as UT president on June 4, public opinion was already in his favor. News had leaked the month before that Fenves negotiated his salary down from the $1 million he was offered to $750,000, writing in an email, “$1 million is too high for a public university.” More good PR followed when Fenves symbolically started his first day by serving breakfast tacos to the university’s Facilities and Maintenance workers, followed by a visit with black community leaders in East Austin.

There are ample challenges ahead, though: Controversy brewed over the summer about the Confederate statues on campus, as well as a cheating scandal and a personnel shuffle in UT Athletics. Fenves will also need to make several high-stakes hires for the university, including a new provost and several deans. And then there’s the challenge of following Bill Powers, who was well-liked in the corridors of the State Capitol and on campus, and whose forced resignation came after a long, ugly political battle. For his part, Fenves says he is focusing on the tasks at hand.

“The university is all about excellence: doing the best we can in how we educate students, research that is addressing important questions or solving critical problems,” Fenves says. “But we’re also living in very challenging times for higher education. We can’t keep doing the same things we did 10 years ago, 20 years ago.”

Since taking office in June, Fenves has promoted an agenda he calls “innovating excellence.” “It’s being creative,” he says, “trying out new things, seeing if they work—and if they don’t, seeing what we’re going to move on to and try next.”

Excellence at research universities comes from their joint missions to educate as well as create new knowledge. “It comes down to this question: What’s the value of a student getting an undergraduate education at a research university, like UT, compared with a very fine teaching college?” Today, that value might come from learning directly from faculty who are working on big questions, from the university’s ability to draw world-class speakers, from field experience, access to archives and libraries, or work in labs and research centers. But Fenves wants to expand, and yes, innovate those opportunities for every undergraduate.

“It’s making sure that every student in every degree program is actually getting a direct benefit of an education at a research university, not just the indirect benefits that we’ve traditionally assumed are important enough,” he says.

When it comes to research itself, Fenves wants to look beyond traditional disciplinary silos. Big problems are rarely solved just by engineers, or psychologists, or mathematicians, but by experts working in concert. During his more than 20 years at UC-Berkeley, Fenves contributed to the Pacific Earthquake Engineering Center, a consortium of West Coast schools that brought together civil, structural, and environmental engineers; geologists; public policy scholars; librarians; and more to study methods for building for and after seismic events. Now he wants to bring that kind of approach to UT’s broad research interests. “The big questions that we face as a society, as a nation, and as a state, don’t fit into neat disciplinary boxes,” he says.

An example close to Fenves is energy. “We don’t have a Department of Energy here. We have 15 departments that deal with the various aspects,” he explains. Solving these problems will not necessarily come from new departments, which Fenves says can become “calcified” in and of themselves, but by thoughtfully coordinating the work of scholars and students, who often don’t know they’re working on projects that intersect.

Perhaps the clearest example of where Fenves’ leadership will be felt is in the new Dell Medical School, an institution that has unfailingly been described as transformative. So what does that mean? The Austin area has a number of unmet health care needs, and in response, UT could have built a traditional medical school.

“But if we had done that,” he says, “we would have missed this opportunity at a very crucial time in the U.S., and I would say the world. Let’s use this opportunity we have at a major research university to rethink the whole health care business. And we can do it because we’re starting from scratch.”

Fenves’ office, on the fourth floor of the Main Building, was originally a reading room. It’s ringed on the inside by a second floor of bookshelves, chock-a-block with rare books that the new president hasn’t yet had much time to read. On the outside, balconies flank the office, looking down on the Main Mall and toward the Capitol, like Caillebotte’s countless Paris scenes. The painter re-created the City of Light at a time of reinvention, as the medieval city gave way to the manicured boulevards of the looming 20th century.

Now, the man on the balcony looks out on the future of the public research university.

“Ultimately, we’re responsible to the public. We’re accountable to the citizens and taxpayers of Texas,” Fenves says. In carrying out its mission, an elite public university recruits the best students it can and, ideally, trains them well.

“In my view, our role is to prepare them to become leaders,” he says. “That has the biggest impact, the biggest return to the state of Texas.”

Photo by Sandy Carson


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