A Q&A with President Fenves

First one hundred days timeline
First one hundred days timeline
First one hundred days timeline
First one hundred days timeline

There’s no question about it. Forging a path forward through a changing higher education landscape—amid unprecedented challenges brought by COVID-19—demands creativity, vision, and decisive leadership. Within his first months, Emory President Gregory L. Fenves firmly embraced that mission, launching an ambitious schedule that has included connecting and engaging with communities across Emory and Atlanta.

On campus since August 1, he’s faced a spectrum of timely, pressing issues: racial equity and social justice; the new demands of remote learning; keeping faculty, staff, and students safe during a global pandemic; and supporting cutting-edge research and health care that holds the promise to change lives, just to name a few.

Here President Fenves, in Q&A format, offers a recap of his first one hundred days on campus, as well as a look at the near future for Emory. 

Q: This year brought a great national reckoning concerning issues of race and justice. What is Emory’s role in advancing this important conversation?

PRESIDENT FENVES: This summer, a new chapter in our nation’s history was written. The murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and other African Americans sparked an awakening to the malignant effects of anti-Black racism—amplifying horrific experiences that for many African Americans are an inescapable part of life. Our community, and especially our students, came together to share their voices in solidarity with so many inspired people across the nation—to fight racism and police violence and call for action throughout society and at Emory.

Over the past few months, I joined other Emory leadership in meeting with student leaders to discuss the university’s path forward, and I also listened to heartbreaking stories of racism, fear, and frustration in other ways. Let me be clear that racism has no place at Emory. I want to recognize all those students, along with staff and faculty, who bravely shared their experiences and who have taken this historic moment and helped turn it into a movement for justice.

Black students have organized, worked together, and recently presented the university with a number of important initiatives. Other student groups and faculty across schools have also made their voices heard. Inspired by the vision, energy, and guidance of our students and community, we’ve announced a series of actions the university has taken—and will continue to take—to improve the Emory experience and live up to our values so that everyone feels a sense of belonging and shared purpose. 

Those actions include establishing a director of diversity and inclusion education and outreach, creating a committee to evaluate honorific names used on campus, the renovation of affinity group spaces, and next fall’s planned rollout of a new general education requirement for undergraduate students that focuses on race and ethnicity, among others. 

Q: COVID-19 presents extraordinary challenges for universities across the globe. How do you envision moving Emory forward in its educational mission?

FENVES: I am profoundly aware that my arrival in Atlanta comes amid one of the most severe global crises in modern history. The COVID-19 pandemic has changed what we can do and how we educate students at a top research university. It’s also had economic repercussions, requiring our community to make very difficult decisions. But it hasn’t changed us. It hasn’t changed our mission nor our values.

During the past six months, Emory has been tested in extraordinary ways, but our students, faculty, staff, and alumni have remained strong and united. That is a reflection of the power and spirit of this community.

In particular, I’ve been deeply impressed with what Emory faculty have achieved with a lot of hard work in a short period of time, to be able to provide a quality education through technology-driven distance learning. Meanwhile, our students have demonstrated amazing resilience. We will build on the lessons learned this fall and innovate for the coming semester.

Q: What gives you confidence that Emory can serve students safely amid a pandemic?

FENVES: We’re following what’s happening across the country at universities, and we’ve made some difficult decisions. Over the summer we decided to significantly reduce the number of students living on campus for the fall semester, so that the students who are here can learn as safely as possible. Right now, about 80 percent of our undergraduate students are learning completely online and 60 percent of our faculty are teaching completely online. 

Testing of residential students at frequent intervals has helped us maintain the health of our community this semester. For spring 2021, the university plans to move to a saliva-based COVID-19 test, which will allow the tests to be done more frequently and with much less discomfort. This will also allow us to modestly increase the number of students in residence on both the Atlanta and Oxford campuses while maintaining one student per room this spring. For most students, courses will continue as a mixture of in-person and remote classes, and many students will still have a majority, and possibly all, of their courses taught remotely.  

As I walk around the Atlanta and Oxford campuses, everyone seems to understand that we are in this together, that we have to work together to continue functioning, achieving our mission. So we are wearing masks, staying physically distant, being careful about washing hands and cleaning surfaces. And that’s happening every hour, every day. 

I’ve had the opportunity to work at more than one university during this pandemic, and I’ve talked to a number of other university presidents, and I believe that Emory is as well-prepared for what we now face as any university in the country. Our dedication to safety is guided by the expertise of the Woodruff Health Sciences Center’s schools of medicine, public health, and nursing, as well as Emory Healthcare and our researchers and clinicians working on treatments and vaccine testing. That has helped in establishing campus safety protocols for testing, contract tracing, and how we will care for students if they test positive. 

But it will also require everyone’s commitment. This is simply not a pandemic that will be conquered with a single drug, a single vaccine. Emory’s success depends on each one of us. 

Q: One of your responsibilities will be to appoint a new provost to help guide Emory’s academic mission. What are your plans on that front?

FENVES: Academic excellence is the foundation of Emory’s mission. As the chief academic officer, the provost provides essential leadership for education and research at Emory and will partner with me as we all work together to achieve that mission. In September, I announced the appointment of a search advisory committee, which includes faculty members from Emory’s nine schools and colleges, two students, two deans, and one trustee.

Given that the appointment of the provost will be one of the most important decisions in my tenure as president, I have decided to chair the committee, so I can continue to learn more about the academic needs, aspirations, and challenges across the university. Emory has retained Ilene H. Nagel of Education Executives to work with the advisory committee as it identifies a pool of outstanding, diverse candidates and moves forward through the search process. I hope to have a new provost in place at Emory no later than the start of the fall 2021 semester. 

Over the past year of transition and pandemic at Emory, the university’s academic mission has advanced, in no small part, because of the incredible work of Interim Provost Jan Love, who will continue to provide crucial direction. I am grateful for her continued willingness to serve until our next provost can join us.

Q: What would you like Emory students to know at this extraordinary moment?

FENVES: Universities exist to educate students. And so to our Emory students—from the first-year students who have started their educations here at Emory this fall to our returning undergraduate, graduate, and professional students—know that our mission has not changed. Our goal to prepare you for the future, to provide the highest quality education, has not changed. But we all face a unique situation in history; it’s unique for every one of us. And we’re going to work together to continue that mission. So your goals shouldn’t have changed either—your goals to learn, to become experts in a field or discipline, and your goal to graduate from Emory prepared to change the world. 

President Fenves in blue polo shirt and jeans with mic boom and lighting for speech
President Fenves, masked, walking through convocation hall
President Fenves seated talking with students

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