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The University of Texas-Austin continued its march toward a new normal on Friday, as university President Gregory Fenves marked his last day of leadership after five years in office—the final two months of it dominated by sweeping pandemic-era changes on campus.


As he heads to Atlanta to lead Emory University, Fenves passes the torch on Monday to Interim President Jay Hartzell, dean of the McCombs School of Business, who takes the helm just three months before classes start on Aug. 26.


Greg Fenves(Marsha Miller/University of Texas)


Hartzell faces a term marked by new protocols aimed at containing the spread of COVID-19 among students, faculty and staff on campus. University officials said that the transition, even in such uncertain times, is expected to be smooth.

"Even though this is a challenging time for higher education nationally, UT-Austin has prepared well for the transition in leadership to President ad interim Hartzell," Kevin P. Eltife, chairman of the UT System Board of Regents, told Austonia on Thursday, saying he has "full support" of the university leadership.

Depending on his own plans and how long it takes university officials to name a permanent replacement, Hartzell will almost certainly also be called upon to play the roles of politician and advocate in the Texas Capitol, just two miles away, when UT faces budget cuts during the Legislature next year.

But officials say Hartzell's immediate mission is to ensure the campus is ready for its approximately 40,000 students to return to a safe, productive learning environment that is as valuable as it was before the pandemic caused so many changes.


Jay Hartzell(University of Texas)


"Our number-one goal at this time is to ensure that UT institutions are prepared to educate students, serve patients and conduct critical research in environments safe for students, faculty and staff," UT System Chancellor James B. Milliken told Austonia on Thursday. "[Hartzell] has very successfully led one of the largest colleges on campus, and for the last couple of months, he has been involved in all major decisions as the institution navigates the challenges of the pandemic and budget reductions. We need this kind of experienced leadership in the months ahead."

Neither Fenves nor Hartzell were available to comment this week.

The news that Fenves was leaving came less than two weeks after the university officially closed to contain the spread of coronavirus. It capped a term marked by success in financial aid and graduation rates, and no headline-grabbing scandals or damaging public infighting.

His announcement was a surprise to many because Fenves' candidacy at Emory, whose president vacated the role late last year, was not made public until both universities made official announcements on April 7.

It was not long after Maurie McInnis, then the provost, said she would leave at the end of the semester to become president of Stony Brook University.

Even Hartzell expressed surprise at his new role, joking last month that he was hurrying to organize his office so the new dean of McCombs, Lillian Mills, could easily take over when he moves to the tower leadership offices.

Fenves wasn't specific about his reasons for the move, but given the nature of the two vastly different jobs, Fenves likely heads to higher pay, better decision-making control, more privacy, less meddling by politicians and an overall less-public role at the prominent private research university in Georgia.

Former UT Chancellor Mark Yudof describes the post as "a great job," but one that is highly accountable to taxpayers, lawmakers, and the media in several ways—particularly as it comes to campus policies and budgeting.

Testifying before the state Legislature and fighting for funding, for example, is a vital part of the role—one Yudof relished, as a lawyer who spent his career at public institutions. By contrast, the focus of private school leadership tends to more "inward" on education and internal campus issues, he said.

"It's very different," said Yudof, who served as president of the University of California after UT. "I've never held a high post in a private school, but I did for a time think about whether I should make the move."

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