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Emory’s new president connects with community through online forum

Emory President Gregory L. Fenves began his first week in office connecting with the campus community, through visits both in-person and virtual.

After participating in a series of socially distanced drop-in campus visits, complete with face coverings, Fenves joined the larger community on Monday, Aug. 3, for an online forum dubbed “21 Questions with Emory’s 21st President.”

A higher education leader and civil engineer by training — his scholarship focuses on structural engineering for earthquakes — Fenves joins Emory following a 12-year tenure at the University of Texas at Austin, where he served as dean of the Cockrell School of Engineering, provost and, for the past five years, president of the state’s flagship university.

Speaking through a Zoom format with nearly 1,400 participants, Fenves said that he was honored and excited to begin his role as president of Emory University, and proceeded to answer questions presented in a public forum moderated by Anita Paye, director of Emory’s finance Compass support. 

Many questions stemmed from decisions that COVID-19 has required for institutions of higher education. From weighing how students can safely return to campus to answering queries about the quality of online instruction, Fenves fielded each question with assurances that, despite changes this semester, Emory’s mission and goals remain unwavering. 

“Universities exist to educate students,” Fenves said. “And so to our Emory students — from the first-year students who will be starting their education here soon to returning students to our graduate and professional students — 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,” he noted. “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 a discipline, and your goal to graduate from Emory, and really change the world as a result.”

Returning to campus

Though the nation continues to grapple with a pandemic, Fenves said that Emory is “as well prepared as any university in the country” to address the challenges posed by COVID-19. 

And with the help of a deep bench of Emory medical, nursing and public health experts, researchers and community partners, “we are managing that crisis and we will continue to monitor it,” he said. “We know what is needed for us to get through this.”

After talking with students, Fenves said it is clear they want to continue their education with an eventual return to campus. “Our goal has been to try and bring as many students as we can back to Emory, but to do it safely,” he explained. 

“It’s also going to require your work,” he said. “We have to be masked, we have to maintain social distancing, we have to watch personal hygiene.” 

“At this point, it all depends on each and every one of us. I think the university is prepared, and you all need to be prepared as we start to come back to campus.” 

Among the many factors that attracted him to Emory, Fenves noted that the strength, contributions and expertise of the Woodruff Health Sciences Center, Emory Healthcare and Emory’s schools of medicine, nursing and public health have been especially impressive during the current pandemic.

“Emory is one of the world’s leaders in the innovation that’s taking place in laboratories, the innovation that’s taking place in the hospitals right now in advanced clinical care, and some of the best outcomes in the world in treating COVID-19 patients,” he said. “It’s an example of what a great university does and it is a really excellent example of what Emory is doing for the world right now.” 

Creating connections

In adapting to changes across Emory’s campuses and classrooms for the new academic year, Fenves acknowledged that this year’s fall semester will look different.

In March, Emory faculty —  along with faculty at universities across the country — had to quickly pivot to continue the semester, he said. “It’s amazing what Emory faculty have done with a lot of hard work in a short period of time, to be able to provide a quality education through distance learning using technology. And we’ve all been adapting – our faculty and our students.”

Over the summer, knowing that the pandemic would still be with us, “our faculty have worked very hard in re-examining their pedagogy, re-examining how to teach through distance learning, how to make it as effective as possible,” he said.

Make no mistake — Emory is moving forward. “Humans are adaptable, they’re creative. And we’re figuring this out,” he said.

When it comes to building campus connections, “I’m going to be looking at doing the same thing with just different means, for the moment, and relishing when the time comes that we can spend more time in face-to-face interactions and working together,” he said.

Fenves noted that he has been impressed with “how students are using technology to continue these fundamental relationships that individuals have that are so important to college, but also important to life.”

“We will continue to work on that; we will provide the support for students. We’re going to re-imagine student activities, how student organizations function. Because we must adapt, we must be flexible, to be able to get through this pandemic.” 

Moving into a new semester 

While Fenves made a decision to come to Emory before “the dimensions and the depth of this pandemic were known,” he’s already been able to observe and participate in many decisions made in the wake of COVID-19.

And he expressed gratitude to former Emory President Claire E. Sterk and her executive leadership team for guiding a smooth course through uncertain times — ongoing work that has been strengthened by the dedication, humanity and hard work of Emory faculty, staff and students.

“Every unit of this university has had to adjust and make major changes,” Fenves said. “I just want to say thank you for the work that you are doing.”

Over the summer, Fenves also began engaging with Emory students, including a coalition of Black student organizations, who were moved to stand for justice and against racial violence after the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and Rayshard Brooks, among many others.

“There are too many Black men and women who’ve been killed by racist and hate-filled violence,” Fenves said. “This is a struggle that America has had to deal with, and continues to need to deal with, since its founding. And here in Atlanta, with its special role as the cradle of the Civil Rights Movement more than 50 years ago, Emory plays an important role.”

In response to those conversations, Fenves said that next week, he’ll announce the steps  that the university will be taking on issues that include policing, spaces for student organizations and Emory’s history — “how we recognize our history, how we understand our history and what we decide to celebrate,” he said.

Fenves also looks forward to sharing more dialogue with the Emory community as the semester advances. “The immediate business at hand is re-starting the fall semester over the next couple of weeks, and we’re going to get that underway,” he said.

“But soon after that, I want to start some conversations across the university, with our faculty, department leaders, deans and academic leaders … to re-think how we can be more effective, how we can make the college experience even more significant for our students and open up more opportunities for our faculty, both in the classroom and through their research.” 

“We are just getting started,” he said. “Let’s work together to make Emory one university and achieve our path to eminence.”

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