Working the Problem: Gregory L. Fenves Is Making His Mark On UT

By Dorothy Guerrero

Photograph by Jeff Wilson

Bob’s Steak & Chophouse is just off Madison Avenue on East 52nd Street in Manhattan. The name is oddly rustic for a Midtown fine-dining fixture where guests eat jumbo shrimp cocktails atop sharply creased white tablecloths and a womb-like glow emanates from walls lined with backlit wine bottles. Such was the setting of a meeting that likely went unnoticed by the non-Longhorn diners and servers keeping warm on a frigid evening last December. They might have paid no attention to the two men sitting in a corner of the dark bar for nearly two hours, gamefully hammering out a deal they each wanted very much to make. But if a diehard Longhorn fan had been in the restaurant that night, the sight of these two particular men getting acquainted would have been as heart-stopping as that of Bigfoot and the Abominable Snowman casually sharing a hulking porterhouse.

It would be safe to conclude that Gregory L. Fenves, the 29th president of The University of Texas at Austin, and Chris Del Conte, one of the most sought-after and promising athletics directors in the nation, were not spotted that night, because Fenves kept the biggest horse trade in college football secret for at least five days. He had managed to scoop up the man whose tenure at TCU, which began in 2009, had transformed the school’s athletic program by getting it into the Big 12 Conference — and who had raised more than $300 million to fund projects like a new football stadium and basketball facility.

Fenves, Life Member, was visiting New York City for a College Football Hall of Fame conference. By the time they left the restaurant, he and Del Conte had it all worked out. A few more texts and phone calls would be necessary to get the terms finalized, but the men left New York with a mutual understanding and a plan to announce Del Conte as the next vice president and athletics director for one of the most powerful and storied programs in the country. Fenves was very late to a dinner that evening at the 21 Club with several prominent UT alumni and donors. He had kept them waiting, but for a very good reason.

This was a pivotal moment in the presidency of Fenves, and one that displayed his ability to be a quick study of any subject put in front of him. After being promoted from vice president and provost of the university in 2015, he was now making the highest-of-profile athletic hires and deals almost entirely on his own. Even if he didn’t start out as a certified football guy, he was one now. “Well, I do enjoy sports,” Fenves says later for the record, “that’s a bit of an urban myth. But it’s like almost anything. It comes down to looking at the facts, looking at the big issues we’re facing, and then hiring the people who have the right vision.”

Exactly one week after the New York meeting, on Dec. 11, 2017, Fenves, Del Conte, and a limited entourage meet in one of the Centennial Suites in Bellmont Hall inside DKR-Texas Memorial Stadium. The room has an extraordinary view of the field below. The furniture is ornate ranchalia, with polished steer horns for chair legs and armrests. Del Conte is pacing back and forth in front of the massive window and that view beyond it as he speaks to mega-booster Red McCombs, ’48, Life Member, Distinguished Alumnus, on a cell phone. “Thank you, sir,” he says, “I’ll look forward to that, too.” This is one of many congratulatory calls from UT’s Mount Olympus he’ll answer today. Meanwhile Fenves and his team are preparing for the press conference, now only minutes away, where the university president will introduce his newest hire to a throng of sports reporters who have been tweeting, posting, and chewing over this news since it was first announced 48 hours ago.

At the press conference, Fenves tells his version of the events that led to this big day on campus, and how, without the aid of a search committee, he had zeroed in on Del Conte as his first and only choice for this all-important leadership role. “I wanted to be ahead of any other potential searches,” he tells the crowd. “Chris Del Conte is a hot commodity. I wanted to get him here to Texas before he had too many other alluring offers.” The moment is reminiscent of another big day for Fenves, when he and Mike Perrin, BA ’69, JD ’71, Life Member, announced the signing of a five-year deal with head football coach Tom Herman, MEd ’00, a candidate who had been sitting at the top of his list for a while. While he takes questions from reporters, Fenves seizes an opportunity to politely rib Brian Davis, BJ ’98, Life Member, who covers UT football and men’s basketball for the Austin American-Statesman and has written about Fenves’ non-sports-nut persona. “As you guys know I didn’t know a whole lot about athletics when I became president, so I’m still learning. Right, Brian?” he says with a quick grin.

For his turn at the podium, Del Conte, an exceedingly tall man in stylish, thick-rimmed glasses who wears his self-confidence like a beautiful Italian suit, adds some colorful commentary to Fenves’ steady, precise account. He talks about his humble beginnings and thanks his mentor and family with a few much-noted-by-the-press tears. (“By the way, I’m an amazing crier,” he says. “I cry when we win, I cry when we lose.”) There are no waterworks from the business-suited, 61-year-old Fenves, but he and his new hire make a good tag team. Del Conte shines like a newly installed scoreboard and his boss, whom he has affectionately started calling, “El Jefe,” looks securely and happily in command.

Fenves introduces Del Conte as UT’s new athletics director on Dec. 11, 2017. Photograph courtesy of UT Athletics.

Fenves has been president of UT Austin for only two and a half years, but it has been a remarkably eventful, painful, and consequential period of time. The Dell Medical School opened its doors. Two wrenching, unthinkable murders happened on campus. A major Supreme Court opinion affirmed UT’s use of race in admissions. The battle over the ever-dwindling funding levels from the legislature raged on. And a record-shattering hurricane and subsequent biblical flood affected almost a third of the student body. When Bill Powers, Life Member, resigned the office in 2015, the complexities of running The University of Texas didn’t resign with him. If you could have peered into the future and seen the volatile times ahead, an unflappable engineer may or may not have seemed like a good fit. But people who know Fenves personally and professionally see him as the right person for the job: someone who is utterly unintimidated by knotty bureaucratic issues, battling constituencies, and the constantly looming possibility of a full-blown, public controversy.

Reflecting on the sheer enormity of the job itself, Larry Faulkner, PhD ’69, Life Member, Distinguished Alumnus, who was president of the university from 1998–2006, says the casual observer may not appreciate just how many stakeholders Fenves deals with on a daily basis. “A wide body of expectations exists for the university and its service to the public,” Faulkner says. “Most people approach the institution from the point of view of their interest, which is usually much narrower than what the president has to contend with. The president has to balance it all in order to shepherd the institution into the future.”

The people in his circle say Fenves addresses this never-ending onslaught with pragmatism and consistent preparation. His entire career has been an exercise in methodically solving whatever problems pop up in front of him. He makes decisions he knows he can live with and then, rather undramatically, moves along with his day. In a national period of so much division, with constant disagreement about basic facts, worry over the future of higher education, and even an uneasy distrust of experience, Fenves projects the out-of-times aura of a guy who just knows what he is talking about.

“He’s very honest,” says Robert Frachtman, BA ’74, an Austin-based gastroenterologist who has been close friends with Fenves and his wife Carmel for more than 30 years. “He doesn’t play around. He’ll tell you what he’s thinking, and he’ll tell you if he can’t tell you. He has this great dry wit, but he grew up in the Midwest so he’s not out there trying to catch attention. He’s analytical and he thinks before he speaks.”

Fenves was recruited to UT Austin in 2008 by then-president Powers to be dean of the Cockrell School of Engineering. He had previously worked a stint on the Forty Acres in the 1980s as an assistant professor in civil engineering, and then went on to build an impressive academic career at UC Berkeley. He served on the faculty there for more than 20 years, becoming a leading expert in structural engineering, specifically designing buildings to withstand earthquakes. He was elected to the National Academy of Engineering in 2014.

“He just has this wealth of knowledge,” says Reginald DesRoches, dean of engineering at Rice University. Fenves was DesRoches’ thesis advisor at UC Berkeley. “What drew me to him was how organized and accessible he was and how great he was at explaining complex things. He’s a very thorough person. As students we would always joke that every day he would read the newspaper front to back, including the obituaries.”

“He certainly stood out,” recalls Sharon L. Wood, who is dean at the Cockrell School and was a faculty member on the search committee that hired Fenves. “I remember thinking he would be very strategic. He had a vision to strengthen our position as one of the very top-ranked engineering schools in the country.”

One physical manifestation of Fenves’ ambition is the Engineering Education and Research Center (EERC), the recently completed, thoroughly modern 430,000-square-foot engineering building on the north end of the campus. It’s an edifice of soaring atriums and spaceship-like details that replaced a previous facility that had not seen a major upgrade in more than 20 years.

The EERC was an immediate passion project for Fenves when he became dean, and took more than a decade to complete. “The first thing we had to do, before we even designed anything, is think about how we wanted to teach,” he says. “A lot more research now is interdisciplinary or multidisciplinary. We needed to be able to deploy space very quickly, and then in a month or two, completely reconfigure it. The new building hasn’t even been open for five months and I’ve had faculty and students tell me that it’s already changing the way they work and the way they think.”

Fenves has also brought his engineering mind to another ambitious project: streamlining the various intricate and often redundant systems that make up a public university. In years past, the colleges, schools, and units on campus had been criticized for operating as their own entities, with separate, conflicting operations. Fenves has looked at the big picture and, wherever possible, pulled everything into one central system — from fundraising and development to budgeting for capital projects. His focus on fundraising has brought in some of the biggest donations outside the context of a capital campaign in recent memory — $50 million to create the Mulva Clinic for the Neurosciences at Dell Medical School, a $25 million naming gift to christen the Hildebrand Department of Petroleum and Geosystems Engineering, and $25 million for the Steve Hicks School of Social Work, just to name a few.

In 2011, the university committed to the moonshot goal of raising its four-year graduation rates from 51 percent to 70 percent by 2017. With rising amounts of student debt waiting for graduates, college needed to be not just affordable, but efficient. And efficiency means keeping the production line moving, steadily producing an educated and motivated workforce for the state.

To hit that goal, Fenves and his administrative team have worked to update the curriculum to be more supportive of a four-year track. Programming to help students forge an identity with their graduating class has been implemented across the board. In 2017, UT saw a record jump of 5 percent in grad rates, which enables the school to admit 1,000 more freshmen each year. The number of students who graduate on time has now reached 66 percent. The golden mark of 70 is fast approaching.

Not that Fenves views students as widgets in a societal factory. He knows they’re here to pursue a better life. “Students are more aware now, more than I was when I was in college, that their university is important to them — as an institution of opportunity, of change, of social justice, and equity.”

“He’s made it a priority to use the university to address a serious, large-scale societal problem,” says Steven Hoelscher, chair of the university’s faculty council. “He’s looked at large amounts of empirical data and seen how great public universities like ours really do give people from lower economic classes the opportunity to rise above their social and economic origins. I’m a professor of American studies. When I hear that, I’m thinking, you know what that is? That’s the American dream.

While Fenves has been vocal about his administration’s priorities of diversity, inclusion, and new opportunities, he has been very private about his own life story. In November of 2017, Fenves and The University of Texas were honored by the Holocaust Museum Houston. At the luncheon, Fenves gave a speech that was unlike anything he had delivered before. It was personal, illuminating, and emotionally wrought. “Today, I want to tell you a story,” Fenves said, “a story that helps define who I am, and a story about our nation — my father’s story.”

He told a crowded ballroom that when he was 8 years old, his mother explained that his father was a survivor of the Holocaust. Shortly after, he noticed the tattoo on his father’s forearm. In 1944, at the age of 13, Steven Fenves was taken to Auschwitz with his family. He was smuggled out on a transport five months later, but spent the rest of World War II at another camp in the town of Niederorschel. He ultimately survived a death march to Buchenwald, where he was liberated by American forces. As Fenves recounted his father’s story to his hushed audience, he was repeatedly overcome by emotion and had to pause several times to compose himself. Toward the end, he described his father’s love for his adopted country: “My father understood what this nation was about long before he [immigrated here], when he was at Buchenwald, opening his eyes to see U.S. soldiers caring for the sick and the dying. Fighting for justice. He saw that then. When he brought his sister food and clothing at Auschwitz, he was already an American. When he helped sabotage German planes in a slave labor camp, he was already an American. And when he came to this nation for the first time as a refugee, he was already an American. The American spirit is not bound by blood, skin color, religion, or place of origin — it is based on a set of ideals found within courageous people.”

“The speech showed a rarely seen side of someone who is very private,” Hoelscher says. He remembers watching the video and sharing it widely with colleagues. “He has important ideas of how to change things for the better, but he is not self-promoting. We are living in a very challenging political environment. The message that came away for me was his strong stance against intolerance, against racial discrimination, and against the hatred we see flashing up in this country.”

Just three months before he gave the speech about his father, Fenves made a careful but controversial decision to remove four statues from UT’s Main Mall (Jefferson Davis and Woodrow Wilson had already been removed.) After the devastating events in Charlottesville, Virginia a week earlier, when white supremacists turned a protest against the removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee into a lethal riot, Fenves revisited a task force report from 2015 and decided to complete the recommendations that had been made by a group of students, faculty, and alumni. Statues of Confederate leaders Lee, Albert Sidney Johnston, and John Reagan were removed the night of Aug. 20. The statue of former Texas Gov. James Hogg was also removed, though it will likely be reinstalled elsewhere on campus. In a statement to the UT community, Fenves insisted that Charlottesville had made things very clear: Confederate monuments, now more than ever, had become symbols of modern white supremacy and neo-Nazism. The next day, the sun came up to a heated debate about the erasure of history and tradition in higher education, and the rise of what some saw as overactive political correctness.

But many months later, sitting in his office in the Tower, Fenves is sure he made the right decision. “I’m not trying to navigate decisions that get a certain percentage of popularity. I’m trying to do the right thing for the university,” he says. “These statues are part of the history of the state, and the university, and the country, but it’s a question of how we represent that history. I felt it was in the best interest of the university that history not be represented in the symbolic heart of the campus. And like many aspects of our history, we study and learn about it in our collections and our museums, and I felt that was the best place for them.”

The statue controversy came on the heels of a violent and unsettling chapter in UT’s history, one in which there were two horrific murders on campus in the span of a year. There had not been a murder on the Forty Acres since the Tower shootings in 1966. Haruka Weiser was attacked and murdered while walking alone back to her dorm on the evening of April 3, 2016 and Harrison Brown was stabbed outside of Gregory Gym on May 1, 2017. In response to the first murder, Fenves asked for a complete audit of campus safety, which led to more lighting, video monitoring, landscaping changes, an overhaul of access systems for buildings, and more UTPD officers. It also opened a line of communication, as Fenves started emailing parents directly for the first time ever. “The murders of Haruka Weiser and Harrison Brown were tragedies that affected our campus in unimaginable ways,” Fenves says. “As president — and as a parent — I struggle to comprehend the immense loss that their families, friends, and the UT community endured. Every memory shared about them has been moving. They gave so much to UT in their much-too-short time on the Forty Acres.”

Haruka’s parents, Thomas Weiser and Yasuyo Tsunemine, helped UT sponsor its Walk With Me campaign, which encourages Longhorns to stick together for safety at night. “A lot of students feel that when they’re on our campus they’re in a bubble,” Fenves says when asked about the lessons learned. “It’s good they feel safe; this has been a safe campus. But we’re in the middle of a city, and we all need to be more aware of our surroundings.”

In January, as students come back to campus from winter break and an ice storm cancels the first day of classes, the Forty Acres is much as it has always been — though without its statues on the South Mall, and with a painful awareness that it cannot be a sanctuary from the frightening realities of the outside world. On Jan. 24, the Statesman reported that UT had declined to sanction Richard Morrisett, a pharmacy professor who pled guilty in 2016 to violently attacking his girlfriend. The story led to students tweeting #firemorrisett and expressing their disbelief at a university policy that allowed a convicted felon to remain on campus. Two days after the story broke, Fenves announced a review of the policies that led to this decision. His statement read in part: “The university has policies and procedures that require us to determine whether off-campus conduct has a direct impact on an employee’s on-campus duties. Our response to this incident reflected those policies. But it is time to review these policies, to make them clearer and stronger. Violent action by any member of the university community is unacceptable.”

In addition to the pressing issue of campus safety, there is also a growing scrutiny in that outside world over whether higher education is a public good or merely a biosphere for out-of-touch elites. While the value of a college education is clear to Fenves, he is presiding over the flagship public university in Texas during a period when this belief is by no means universally acknowledged. “Public faith in higher education has been reduced relative to the time when I was president,” Faulkner says. “There was widespread belief in the value and efficacy of higher education and the main debates were about how to get it delivered to more people in a more effective way. Now there’s a lot more questioning about how much of it is even desirable.”

A recent article in Politico suggested several university presidents had been “blindsided” by this negative perception of higher education, but Fenves points out that a systematic divestment in funding goes back to the 1990s. “In a longer term perspective,” he says, “it’s not terribly new. Now, the divisiveness has increased over the last year, but I view that as an opportunity. We need to be doing a better job of communicating what we do and the research mission of universities. I think that somewhat in higher ed, there has been a sense of complacency. We just all assume everybody values what universities do. We’re one of the few institutions where we can talk about it, where we can discuss it, where we can debate, where students can learn so that when they graduate they can be informed and participate and help direct their communities to what they think is important.”

As each legislative session becomes less predictable than the last, Fenves has approached legislators in a personal way, frequently traveling to their districts to understand where they are literally coming from. “He has totally embraced Texas politics,” Wood says.

Fenves has sometimes been characterized as stoic and cerebral, but when he talks about the university and what it means to him, he can access a sea of emotion. When the conversation turns to the highlights 
 of his presidency, he is even brimming with it. It was June of 2016 and Fenves and Carmel had just landed in Singapore on his way home from a work trip to China. A decision from the U.S. Supreme Court in Fisher v. University of Texas, a challenge to the university’s race-conscious admissions policy, commonly known as affirmative action, was expected at any minute. “When we landed,” Fenves says, “I turned on my phone. No text messages. No information.” They got off the plane and made their way through customs. While he was in line, an alert popped up on Fenves’ phone that said the court had ruled in UT’s favor. “So, I’m yelling across the immigration hall in Singapore to Carmel,” Fenves says. He recreates the dramatic moment with a muffled shout that’s straight out of the end of an Oscar-winning movie: “We won Fisher!”

He is smiling, and there is a catch in his voice. When asked why the case makes him emotional, even now, he says that it’s all about opportunity. The verdict kept a heavy door cracked open for students from all backgrounds.

“That was the best day of being president.”

As quickly as the moment comes, it’s gone. “Sorry, I’ve got to take this,” he says glancing at his phone. And it’s back to solving problems.

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