Fenves Calls for an Excellent, Effective, and Efficient UT

fenves calls for excellent, efficient, and effective UT

To the sound of a choral choir, with the mace of leadership in his possession, and with a new class ring on his finger, Gregory L. Fenves, Life Member, officially became the University of Texas at Austin’s 29th president Thursday at a grand ceremony in the cavernous Bass Concert Hall. With hundreds of faculty, alumni, students, and administrative representatives in attendance, the new president laid out his vision for what UT should look like in 10 years and how he planned to reach it.

The speech centered on three themes: that the university’s goal must be excellence, its results must demonstrate effectiveness, and the methods by which the institution conducts itself must reach new levels of efficiency. How UT does each, Fenves said, should ultimately define a new standard for the way the American public research university operates.

“Texas needs a research university that pursues excellence in everything it does,” he said. “Our students need an education that effectively prepares them for life and for careers that might not exist today. And the taxpayers need to know that we efficiently translate their dollars into value.”

It was an auspicious official start for Fenves, who has already been on the job 100, how shall we say?, eventful days. The previous two had seen Fenves boot the men’s athletics director and replace him with a friendlier face. Some weeks ago, Fenves decided to relocate the statues of Woodrow Wilson and Jefferson Davis, an issue that had been controversial and festering for decades. This speech was Fenves’ first major opportunity to set an agenda, rather than react to one.

The new president did acknowledge the turmoil in athletics, pausing in his speech to directly address the legions of UT fans around the globe. Recognizing that athletics represents the first and often strongest impression people have of the university, he told those watching and listening that his goal was to make it “a more welcoming front door.”

Athletics may be the front door, but Fenves spent the vast majority of his speech talking about the rest of the house. A civil engineer by training, and a dean and provost after that, the new president outlined a series of initiatives plainly focused on academics. He said the link between teaching and research on the campus must be deepened and made more immediately available to undergraduates. He committed to competing for the nation’s best faculty, even with stressed budgets. And he announced the launch of a Faculty Innovation Center to further accelerate the transformation in teaching methods on campus using technology.

The university must also be responsive to the state’s needs, Fenves said. “Universities are the incubators where we gather the most talented people to solve the biggest problems.” He pointed to the Dell Medical School, which will open in 2016, as an example of how the university can address a problem on the scale of health care by rethinking how medical experts are trained and improving the health of whole communities.

Of all of his points, one that the new president stressed among the most was the need for interdisciplinary collaboration. Today’s problems don’t fit neatly into academic departments, he said, so to address them will take experts working from different vantages.

Bobby Chesney, a law professor and director of the Strauss Center for International Security and Law, welcomed Fenves’ emphasis on cutting across disciplines.

“The thing I was most excited about was the special emphasis on interdisciplinary research as a way of tackling the biggest problems we’re facing in the years to come,” Chesney said. “The disciplinary structure of universities has many benefits, but all too often it can inhibit very productive research collaborations.”

Chesney said that he thought faculty members would welcome interdisciplinary work, and the task force Fenves called for to identify strategically important topics that are ripe for collaboration would do much to focus campus efforts.

Drew Scheberle, MPAff ’02, a senior vice president of the Austin Chamber of Commerce, said that he thought Fenves’ vision would resonate with Austin businesses.

“In the business community, where biotech, software, devices, and engineering are all converging, you have got to be multidisciplinary,” Scheberle said. “The fact that he is looking bring a couple key functions under one umbrella is going to be really helpful toward that end.”

Several regents attended Fenves’ speech, most notably Wallace Hall, who was the lone regent not to vote in favor of hiring Fenves for president and who has clashed with UT-Austin in recent years. His presence at the speech, however, could signal a change in tone from the years of acrimony that have plagued the University of Texas System. After the speech, Hall, BA ’84, Life Member, mingled among UT-Austin supporters. When asked to comment on the new president’s speech, Hall politely declined, saying, “I can’t improve upon what [Fenves] said.”

Hall remains locked in a long-running disagreement about access to confidential records compiled during an investigation into admissions practices at UT while Fenves was provost, and he is presently suing Chancellor Bill McRaven, BJ ’77, Life Member and Distinguished Alumnus, to gain access to documents he believes he needs to fulfill his duties as a regent. McRaven believes those documents cannot be shared for privacy reasons.

Traditionally when a new UT president is inaugurated, the Texas Exes presents him or her with a Life Membership. Since Fenves already is a Life Member, board president Tony Garza, BA ’80, Life Member and Distinguished Alumnus, instead gave Fenves an official UT class ring. On the side, where there is typically a graduation year, it is inscribed 2015, the year Fenves began his term as president.

tony garza presents greg fenves with UT ring

Ambassador Tony Garza, president of the Texas Exes board, presents UT president Greg Fenves with an official class ring.

Photos by Marsha Miller. Read Fenves’ full speech below.

Fenves State of University Speech 2015


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