First Choice or Not, Fenves Isn't Seen as Consolation Prize

University of Texas at Austin provost Gregory Fenves may not have always appeared to be the top choice in the search to replace UT-Austin President Bill Powers, but faculty leaders say he has the skills to thrive in the top spot.

University of Texas President Bill Powers speaks to Provost Gregory Fenves during a board of regents meeting on July 10, 2014.

Whatever Gregory Fenves' academic accomplishments are — and there are many — a bit of luck played a key role in his ascension to the presidency of the University of Texas at Austin.

Just a few weeks ago, two other candidates appeared to be in line ahead of Fenves, 58, to replace Bill Powers atop the flagship institution. But Joseph Steinmetz, executive vice president and provost at Ohio State University, withdrew his name when the short list of candidates was released to the media. Then Andrew Hamilton, the University of Oxford vice chancellor, accepted the presidency at New York University.

Fenves, UT-Austin's executive vice president and provost since August 2013, was the last man standing after it became known that regents were not seriously considering the only other remaining official candidate, UT-Dallas President David Daniel.  

“There is definite feeling that because so much of this became public there is pressure on Greg Fenves because, if one accepts the news reports, he was not the first choice,” said William Beckner, a UT mathematics professor and chairman of the faculty council.  “That’s always a tough place for an individual. But there is a feeling that he has the potential to be an outstanding president.”

It is not official yet. On Friday, Fenves was named the sole finalist to replace Powers, but the regents must wait at least 21 days before they can formally give him the job. In a brief statement, Fenves said he was "humbled and tremendously excited" to be named the sole finalist. A UT spokesman said Fenves would not comment further until he is officially appointed.

Three regents voted against Fenves — Wallace Hall, Alex Cranberg and Brenda Pejovich. Five regents voted for Fenves, with Chairman Paul Foster not voting. Foster said afterward that while it is customary for the chairman to abstain, Fenves had his support.

Faculty leaders at UT-Austin rejected the idea that Fenves is a consolation prize. As provost, they said, Fenves has earned admiration and respect for soliciting advice from across campus, and making decisions thoughtfully.

“We’re getting a world-class president in Gregory Fenves,” said Hilary Hart, a former UT faculty council chair and civil architecture and environmental engineering senior lecturer. “As provost, he’s come to see the university as a whole big ecosystem with a lot of moving parts — each of which is contributing.”

Fenves, an engineer, is a "numbers guy" who still appreciates the liberal arts, Hart said, but isn't "a hugger." 

"This is Texas," Hart said.  "So he's just going to have to learn more of that."

As provost he has held a series of meetings with faculty he coined “Campus Conversations,” to listen to faculty ideas and concerns, and he worked closely with the development of the Dell Medical School. Faculty leaders find him personable.

"If you were going to take a long train trip, he'd be a delightful person to ride along with," Communication Dean Roderick Hart said. 

Fenves was promoted from dean of engineering to provost and executive vice president right in the middle of conflict between UT's administration and the regents. Powers tapped Fenves to become his second in command in August 2013, just a few months after then-Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst made passionate remarks in front of the full Texas Senate, saying some were attempting to smear Powers' reputation.

Lawmakers would go on to accuse the UT System Board of Regents of attempting to oust Powers, singling out Hall and accusing him of conducting a “witch hunt.” Hall, who spurred investigations of admissions practices at UT-Austin, has said he's duty-bound to look into suspicious activities at the university. An external review released in February said that Powers helped secure college admittance for some students over the objections of the admissions office.

As a dean, Fenves was close to Powers. They grew even closer when Fenves became provost. Sources told The Texas Tribune Fenves was Powers’ top pick for his successor. Just this past week, Powers praised Fenves during a luncheon in Midland. 

“I hired him about seven years ago as dean of engineering, then asked him to be provost about a year and a half ago,” the Midland Reporter-Telegram reported Powers saying. “We’re more than close — we’re friends.”

As the College of Engineering dean from 2008 to 2013, Fenves raised more than $350 million toward UT’s $3 billion capital fundraising campaign — more than any other college. 

“He really helped grow the culture of innovation and entrepreneurship,” said Sharon Wood, who replaced Fenves as dean of the engineering school when he became provost. 

Fenves oversaw the creation of a “master facility plan” for the engineering school — which outlined six new buildings for the school. He was key in raising funds for the Engineering Education and Research Center — the biggest and most expensive project in the plan.

Unlike many administrators, faculty said Fenves is comfortable outside of a suit and jacket. He didn’t wear a tie everyday, and was even known for asking students occasionally for advice about running his own Twitter account

Before becoming an administrator, Fenves was a highly successfully academic engineer. He is a member of the National Academy of Engineering, an honor Wood said a small portion of engineers can claim "one-tenth of one percent of engineers," she said. He is a structural engineer, who has closely studied earthquakes.  

At the University of California, Berkeley he was the chairman of the department of civil and environmental engineering. Georgia Tech engineering professor Reginald DesRoches said Fenves was his adviser when he was attending University of California, Berkeley to get his PhD from 1992 to 1997. 

“As I’ve moved on in my career, I’ve always consulted him and he’s been incredibly thoughtful — he’s always willing to help,” DesRoches said. “He has all the skills and talent and temperament to be a president of any top tier institution — I’m not surprised at all.” 

Disclosure: The University of Texas at Austin is a corporate sponsor of The Texas Tribune. Paul Foster is a major donor to the Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.