Official from U. of Alabama at Huntsville named to head UTA

Posted Thursday, Feb. 14, 2013  comments  Print Reprints

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AUSTIN -- Concluding an eight-month nationwide search, the University of Texas System Board of Regents on Thursday selected Vistasp M. Karbhari, executive vice president for academic affairs at the University of Alabama at Hunstville, to replace James Spaniolo as president of the University of Texas at Arlington.

Although Karbhari was officially designated as the lone finalist, the regents' action positions Karbhari to become the university's eighth president at the end of a 21-day waiting period that will include visits with the UTA community in Arlington.

The nine-member UT governing board announced its choice after interviewing Karbhari and another candidate in a closed executive session. He would become UTA's first new president since Spaniolo became head of the university in 2004.

Spaniolo, who announced his retirement plans in June, has been credited with leading UTA through a period of innovation and surging enrollment to move the Tarrant County campus within reach of becoming a top-tier research university.

The other candidate was not identified.

Pedro Reyes, executive vice chancellor for academic affairs, said the 16-member search committee contacted more than 250 individuals nationwide to seek potential contenders for the post.

"We cast a huge net around the nation," Reyes told the Star-Telegram. "We reached out to every single part of the country.''

Arlington Mayor Robert Cluck he received a pledge from UT System Chancellor Francisco Cigarroa that the search would produce " the best available candidate in the country."

"We need somebody who will partner with the city, who is kind of a dreamer, who understands UTA and understands that their dream and our dream is to become a status one university," said Cluck. He said he also wants the incoming president to be "out in the community helping us help them because it's going to take all of us to pull this big boat."

The move toward new leadership comes at a time when all state-supported universities are still struggling to rebound past more than $1 billion in cuts imposed by the 2011 Legislature. Spaniolo and other university presidents have recently appealed to members of the current 2013 Legislature to restore at least some of the money and avoid further cuts as they prepare a new state budget for the next two years.

An over-arching challenge facing the next UTA president is to achieve the campus' long-sought goal of becoming a national research university. Currently, only two public universities in Texas - the University of Texas at Austin and Texas A&M - are recognized as tier one universities, but UTA and seven other Texas schools have been reaching for that stature under a tier-one expansion program created by the Legislature in 2009

Two other area institutions are in the running for tier one status - the University of North Texas and the University of Texas at Dallas. To qualify, candidate schools must reach a number of criteria, including having more than $100 million in research activity and endowments of at least $400 million. UTA has grown closer to the criteria by boosting research to $71.4 million but is considerably below the endowment level with $93 million.

Reyes said the goal of moving UTA into tier one status was an integral part of the discussions with the candidates for Spaniolo's post.

From the outset, the search committee kept its work cloaked in secrecy, never revealing candidates or applicants until the finalist was announced after the regent's executive session.

The search produced a "really good number of applicants," including some who discreetly visited the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex and the UTA campus, Reyes said..

Booming university

The new president will be expected to build on the momentum that Spaniolo brought to the campus during his nearly decade-long tenure. UTA has added nearly 10,000 students over the past 10 years, with enrollment growing from 23,821 in 2002 to 33,806 for the current spring semester. UTA is now the second-largest university in the UT system, which includes nine universities and six health systems.

Under Spaniolo, UTA has tripled research expenditures, recruited new faculty, increased student retention and expanded online and international education programs. A vigorous construction program has included the development of the College Park District, a 20-acre mixed-use development, and a new Engineering Research Building.

Testifying this week before a legislative budget hearing, Spaniolo said the university leadership is committed to keeping UTA "as affordable as possible" and hopes to avoid raising resident undergraduate tuition or fees for a second year in a row.

In addition to seeking restoration of funding cuts from 2011, he also asked for an increase in the state's Texas Grants program and has joined other university officials in asking the Legislature's help to defray the growing costs of providing free tuition for veterans and their dependents.

Dave Montgomery is the Star-Telegram's Austin Bureau chief

Twitter: @daveymontgomery

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