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Message from President Fenves: My first week as Emory's 21st president

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The following message was sent by President Gregory L. Fenves to the Emory community on Aug. 3, 2020.


Dear members of the Emory community,

This is my first week as president, and I wanted to write to tell you how thrilled I am to be a part of this extraordinary university. Throughout my transition to Emory, I have been amazed by the enthusiastic people I’ve met, your beautiful campus and the spirit of service and excellence that runs through your academic mission in every field and discipline.

I am profoundly aware that my arrival in Atlanta comes amid one of the most severe global crises in modern history. COVID-19 has reconfigured everything — from our daily work to the world we live in. The 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. It hasn’t altered our ability to achieve, transcend and lead.

In preparing for my new role, I read about one of Emory’s most prominent faculty members — President Jimmy Carter. I was awed by these words in his inaugural address: “We must adjust to changing times and still hold to unchanging principles.” There is no more succinct and relevant call to action for the challenges we face today than those 12 words. And what’s fascinating is that the line itself comes from President Carter’s high school teacher, Julia Coleman, in Plains, Georgia. In quoting her, President Carter recognized the limitless power of education, right in the opening moments of the biggest speech of his life.

Especially in recent weeks during the transition, I have seen the Emory community exemplify President Carter and Ms. Coleman’s guidance. As we adjust to these changing times, Emory will hold fast to the core educational purpose that has made this university thrive. But we will also make necessary adjustments to our operations to protect the health and safety of our students, faculty and staff. Our hope in June was for all members of our community to return this fall, but the current conditions in our region have made that approach untenable, so instead, we will welcome a significantly reduced number of students back to campus to create a more manageable environment.

For those students who remain at home and continue their education online this semester, please know that the faculty are working tirelessly to provide you with the exemplary, high-quality educational experiences you have always received at Emory. We will build on the lessons learned from the move to remote learning in the spring and innovate for the coming semester.     

During the last five 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 as well as its outstanding leadership. I want to thank President Claire Sterk for her guidance and partnership in facilitating a smooth transition. I also want to recognize the Emory University Board of Trustees and Chair Bob Goddard for charting a distinct and steady course forward for the university. I deeply appreciate the leadership shown by our three executive vice presidents who have provided immense support for our academic, research and health care missions during this time of pandemic and of transition. And, above all else, I want to thank all of the staff, faculty members and health care workers who have served the Emory and greater Atlanta communities while keeping the campus running. We wouldn’t be here today without you, and I am very grateful.

COVID-19 has been the backdrop against which all recent events have unfolded in our society. Throughout a summer defined by new physical restrictions and, for many, periods of personal reflection, our nation confronted difficult discussions, protests and critical reevaluations of the way Black Americans are treated by law enforcement, in business, in higher education — in daily life. With the killings of Ahmaud Arbery in Satilla Shores and Rayshard Brooks in Atlanta — along with the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor — this movement for anti-racism took on an added urgency for Georgians.

Here at Emory, we have an important role to play in advancing social justice and racial equality. But we cannot lead effective change in society until we have addressed the painful issues that have yet to be remedied on our very own campus. In recent weeks, I have engaged with student leaders and other community members in discussions on how we can take action to support equity, inclusion and diversity in all of its forms. I will continue listening closely and will share my thoughts about racial justice at Emory during the next several weeks.

And I’m excited to have my first conversation, albeit virtual, with the Emory community today at 4 p.m. on Zoom – “21 Questions with Emory’s 21st President.” We’ll be discussing a range of topics, and I hope you will be able to attend.

In closing, I want to let you know how proud I am to be here, serving you as Emory’s president. I have a lot to learn from you. And there is a lot of hard work ahead — for all of us. But I am strengthened, and inspired, that I am now a part of the Emory community and that your energy, passion and creativity will elevate all we do together.




Gregory L. Fenves


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