During his tenure in Texas, Fenves faced a 2016 U.S. Supreme Court challenge to the use of race and ethnicity as admissions factors, a case in which UT Austin ultimately prevailed. Following the deadly 2017 protests in Charlottesville, Virginia, Fenves removed Confederate statues from the Austin campus, saying, “The historical and cultural significance of the Confederate statues on our campus — and the connections that individuals have with them — are severely compromised by what they symbolize.” More recently, his challenges have been closer to home: His wife tested positive for COVID-19 in March.
“I am deeply honored to be named president of Emory University by the Board of Trustees,” said Fenves in a statement. “It has been a privilege to lead UT Austin, which I believe is among America’s best public institutions of higher education. I am excited to join one of the country’s finest research universities. Optimistic about Emory’s future, I am convinced that working together as one university, we will move Emory from the outstanding institution it is today to one of eminence.
“But today, our universities face extraordinary challenges. In Atlanta and Austin, as well as across the country, courageous health professionals and brilliant scientists are caring for the stricken and searching for a vaccine, while our faculty are educating students at a distance. I stand with them, and we must continue with the immediate job at hand. Accordingly, for the next few months, I will devote my time and energy to leading UT Austin through this crisis. My wife, Carmel, and I look forward to the day when we can begin the next phase of our lives at Emory,” he said.
Fenves has led UT-Austin since 2015, after serving as executive vice president and provost, and as dean of the Cockrell School of Engineering. He earned a bachelor’s degree from Cornell University and a master’s and doctorate from the University of California, Berkeley, all in civil engineering. He began his career in 1984 as an assistant professor in UT’s Department of Civil Engineering. He then served more than 20 years on the faculty of the University of California, Berkeley, where he became an internationally renowned expert on structural engineering for earthquakes and chair of its top-ranked Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering.
Fenves will be the second engineer to lead Emory in the 21st century. Engineer James Wagner headed the private university for 13 years before stepping down in August 2016. Emory replaced Wagner with the university's first woman president since the school's founding as Emory College in 1836 in Oxford, Georgia. A renowned public health researcher, Claire Sterk was provost and executive vice president for academic affairs at Emory before she became its 20th president.
Wagner was 62 when he made his decision to leave, the same age as Sterk when she announced in November that she would retire this summer after three years, telling the Emory community, “Serving as president is a seven-day-a-week job. I’m excited about teaching at Emory again, and I’m equally excited about having more time for friends, family and travel.”