When Gregory L. Fenves helped a friend build a brick driveway for a three-car garage, he attacked the project like the engineer he is.
Twenty years later, the driveway is still in great shape, thanks in part to precise measurements Fenves made to ensure accurate saw cuts and a snug fit for 5,000 interlocking pavers.
He is expected to bring that same penchant for high standards, attention to detail and organizational skills to the presidency of the University of Texas. UT System regents named him sole finalist last month for president of the Austin flagship and are all but certain to firm up the appointment Monday following a 21-day waiting period required by state law.
Currently the university’s executive vice president and provost, Fenves would become its 29th president at an unsettled time. Bill Powers, who is stepping down in June after leading the university since 2006, did not get along with some members of the Board of Regents or with former system Chancellor Francisco Cigarroa, who wanted him out sooner, citing a breakdown in trust.
If that isn’t enough to put better relations with the governing board high on the to-do list for Fenves, there’s also this: Three of the nine regents voted against him, breaking a long custom of unanimous selections of campus leaders. Sources say those three believed in part that he should have been more forthcoming with information last year when the UT System looked into favoritism in admissions.
Another unusual aspect of Fenves’ rise to sole finalist is that he was the last man standing of three candidates recommended to the regents by a search committee. Andrew Hamilton, vice chancellor of Oxford University, opted to become president of New York University. Joseph Steinmetz, executive vice president and provost at Ohio State University, withdrew from consideration. A fourth candidate, UT-Dallas President David Daniel, was in the mix only at the request of some regents.
Fenves declined to comment for this story because his appointment is not final. Interviews with friends and colleagues, as well as his record as an academic and an administrator, suggest he will bring a kind of yin-and-yang approach to leading the state’s most prestigious public university at a time of tight budgets and turmoil in governance: flexible yet decisive, detail-oriented yet strategic, diplomatic yet assertive.
Paying for excellence
At 58, Fenves has compiled an impressive résumé: bachelor’s degree from Cornell University; Ph.D. from the University of California, Berkeley; elected to the prestigious National Academy of Engineering; faculty member at Berkeley for more than 20 years; dean of engineering at UT; and provost, essentially the university’s second in command, with broad authority over faculty salaries, enrollment, libraries and myriad other aspects of the academic enterprise.
Oh, and he had a major hand in developing the open-source software used widely to fortify buildings and other structures against earthquakes.
“To be honest, I didn’t think there was a snowball’s chance in hell he would be a candidate for president because of being so associated with Bill Powers,” said Hillary Hart, who teaches in UT’s civil, architectural and environmental engineering department and formerly chaired the Faculty Council. “I think it’s a testament to Greg. The guy is so smart. He’s an engineer, so he’s very organized and linear in his thinking. But he’s also very innovative and figures out ways to make things work.”
A case in point: his “faculty investment initiative.” Assuming the regents sign off on the plan later this year, $30 million of the endowment proceeds allocated to the university would be used to boost faculty salaries and graduate student stipends.
Supporters describe the initiative as a product of his ability to think in bold, strategic strokes and to also burrow into the details. But the plan has left some on campus disappointed or grumbling because it would create winners and losers.
The plan has multiple components. It would fund merit raises, with deans and department chairs deciding which faculty members get a boost. It would underwrite salary increases to counter offers that highly regarded faculty members sometimes get from other schools. And it would fund faculty hiring and more competitive graduate student stipends in high-priority departments within five of the university’s 18 colleges and schools.
“The key thing about Greg is that he is utterly committed to building excellence,” said Randy Diehl, dean of UT’s College of Liberal Arts, which is one of the five units. “He feels that for that to happen you have to have great faculty.”
Diehl, who served on the presidential search committee, said he felt Fenves was tied with Hamilton, whose experience at Oxford and as Yale University’s provost “gave him a kind of cachet I thought was notable. I think Greg’s going to be a terrific president.”
Fenves’ plan to provide more resources for a select handful of UT’s colleges and schools has “created some friction,” but that is eased by the hope of future expansion and by the merit raises that would benefit some faculty members in all academic units, said Douglas Dempster, dean of the College of Fine Arts.
Dempster replied, “Heck, yeah,” to the question of whether he was disappointed that his college wasn’t among the five.
“But I make decisions like that all the time at my college, and there’s a whole bunch of people who don’t feel good about it, including me,” Dempster said, citing the elimination of majors that were small or not top-ranked, such as music theater, music business and recording technology. “Greg’s very transparent. You know exactly what you’re getting and he doesn’t gloss over or finesse his decisions.”
Thomas Palaima, a professor of classics, agrees with Fenves’ broad goals but worries that there will be a tendency to recruit academic “superstars” at $300,000 salaries, fostering a sense of unfairness among current faculty members who make far less — and especially among those who won’t get merit raises.
“I call this high-altitude bomber syndrome,” Palaima said. “Administrators don’t see how it plays out on the ground.”
Gregory Louis Fenves is the oldest of four children. His father is a Holocaust survivor and structural engineer — like the son — who taught at the University of Illinois and Carnegie Mellon University. His mother is a retired social worker. He grew up in Urbana-Champaign, Ill., and Pittsburgh.
Fenves met the woman he would marry when the two went sailing on a mutual friend’s boat on San Francisco Bay. They have two daughters, now adults. His wife, Carmel Martinez Fenves, is a partner with a friend in Walker Hall Design, a shop in Austin that sells home furnishings, fabrics and baby gifts.
Back in Berkeley, Fenves often attended Golden Bears basketball games but wasn’t keen on football.
“Football just wasn’t his thing,” his wife said. “Finally, when we knew we’d be going to Austin, the girls insisted we go to one football game.”
At UT, where football has an outsized presence in campus culture, Fenves thought it wise to attend some games.
“I think he realized how important it was to the alumni base and he realizes what you have to talk about to form a common bond,” said Sharon Wood, who succeeded Fenves as engineering dean.
He soon became quite the fan. “I’ve been surprised at how much he’s embraced Longhorn football,” Wood said.
Fenves is interested in art and architecture and likes to travel, Wood said. He is especially fond of Paris, where he spent time a year or so ago visiting the d’Orsay, a museum known for its collection of impressionist works.
A Honda kind of guy
Fenves won’t be Powers Part 2. True, they share many views of higher education generally and UT in particular, including the lofty if unrealistic aspiration, given current financial realities, of making UT the best public university in the nation. It is currently ranked No. 17 among such schools by U.S. News & World Report and has hovered in that range for years. Berkeley is No. 1.
Fenves comes across as more serious in his demeanor than Powers. The current president sometimes shows up at the office wearing a burnt orange polo shirt and loafers. He drives a Porsche. Fenves drives a 10-year-old Honda Accord. Engineering students at Berkeley once voted him best-dressed professor for his suits and ties, a wardrobe that remains his uniform du jour at UT.
Powers shines in small-group and one-on-one settings, where he likes to weave discussions into philosophy, literature and other topics. Fenves strings his sentences together more smoothly than Powers, is quicker to make a point and is at ease speaking in front of large groups.
“He’s a very pleasant person,” said Frank McKenna, who earned his doctorate under Fenves and now works at the Pacific Earthquake Engineering Research Center, based at Berkeley. “He’s a Midwesterner, an approachable kind of person, combined with a sharp intellect. It’s a perfect combination of smarts and being able to get along with people.”
Fenves has been at UT since 2008 — although he taught at the university for three years in the 1980s before joining Berkeley — and therefore can’t match Powers’ network of alumni, donors and legislators assembled over four decades. Powers raised $3.1 billion in a capital campaign that coincided with a recession, a tough act to follow.
Fenves nonetheless proved an able fundraiser as dean of the Cockrell School of Engineering, pulling in $356 million, more than any other campus unit in the campaign, and clearing the way for construction of a new engineering building.
As provost, one of his signature initiatives is the “campus conversation,” which began as a series of workshops and is intended to produce improvements in undergraduate education by taking advantage of UT’s status as a major research university — for example, by fostering more team teaching and more hands-on, project-based learning.
Mary Comerio, a professor at Berkeley who worked with Fenves on earthquake engineering research, described his interactions with people this way: “He isn’t a schmoozer in the classic definition of backslapping, glad handing, always with a joke. But he is someone who listens and really hears what people have to say. That is an incredible skill. And it doesn’t matter if it’s an undergrad, a research assistant, a colleague or a donor.”
Admissions questions linger
Fenves would take the university’s helm at a time when admissions practices have emerged as a low-level scandal. It’s an open secret that many college and university presidents throughout the nation put a hand on the scale from time to time to favor an applicant related to a governing board member or major donor, touted by a lawmaker or otherwise benefiting from connections.
But it took two investigations, one conducted by the UT System and a second by an outside firm, before Powers’ role in admissions came to light.
A report by Kroll Associates Inc., which conducted the second review, revealed that a “select handful” of applicants to undergraduate programs have been accepted each year at Powers’ insistence over objections of the admissions office. The report said Powers and Nancy Brazzil, his chief of staff, appear to have misled the earlier inquiry by failing to disclose the practice as well as a system of letter-coded “holds” whereby the admissions office could not reject an applicant before conferring with the president’s office.
The university’s public explanations of how admissions works, including its filings in a U.S. Supreme Court case, never mentioned these matters.
Powers has defended his actions as being in the best interests of the university, noting also that he added students to the incoming class and didn’t displace others.
As provost, Fenves oversees the admissions office, which raises questions: If he knew about the president’s involvement, why didn’t he disclose it? Why didn’t he point out the error when the UT System’s report concluded that there was no “overt pressure on admissions officials” by Powers or his staff? And if he wasn’t aware of these matters, why had he not quizzed admissions officials for details when the UT System began asking questions?
Fenves has not addressed the issue publicly.
“The provost’s review of the UT System’s initial report was limited to the areas he had previously discussed with system General Counsel Dan Sharphorn, which primarily were scatter plots of admissions data and interpretations of them,” UT spokesman Gary Susswein said in a statement.
UT System officials did not respond to a request for comment.
“Greg has been provost since October 2013,” said Hart, the former Faculty Council chairwoman. “I can fully believe that he didn’t know about overt pressure. And I have not heard faculty say, ‘I am just appalled. How can our president do that?’ With all due respect, it does seem like making a mountain out of a molehill.”
Phil Weismehl, whose driveway Fenves helped build in Walnut Creek, Calif., spent five days in January with his old friend. They and their wives took a brisk walk along Lady Bird Lake and watched the men’s basketball team play West Virginia University. Fenves taught his guests the hook ‘em sign.
“He’s still the same guy I knew 20 years back,” Weismehl said. “I would expect and hope that Greg at some point would win over the regents who opposed him by his performance. He’s a very personable, likable and capable individual.”
Gregory L. Fenves
Born: March 1, 1957.
Currently: Executive vice president and provost, University of Texas, since October 2013.
Previously: Dean, UT Cockrell School of Engineering; chairman, Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, University of California, Berkeley.
Education: Ph.D. and master’s in civil engineering, UC-Berkeley; bachelor’s in civil and environmental engineering, Cornell University.
Specialty: Structural engineering, including computer science applied to earthquake protections.
Family: Two adult daughters; wife Carmel is co-owner of Walker Hall Design, a retail boutique in Austin.
Worth noting: He was elected last year to the prestigious National Academy of Engineering.