Confidence in pick for top UT Arlington job is limited

Posted Thursday, Feb. 21, 2013  comments  Print Reprints

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University of Texas System Regents say they really want people to get to know their nominee to be president of UT Arlington before they formally hire him in a couple of weeks.

But their enthusiasm only goes so far. It does not include allowing him to participate in news media interviews.

Here's what the regents said in a news release Wednesday after a meeting in which they reaffirmed their selection of Vistasp Karbhari, currently provost and executive vice president for academic affairs at the University of Alabama-Huntsville:

"Under Texas law, university governing boards must name finalists for a presidency a minimum of 21 days before making an appointment. We will use this time to get to know Dr. Karbhari better and we hope the UT Arlington community will take the opportunity to do so as well. We welcome all feedback on this important position."

There's a hint of a red flag buried in that statement. After an eight-month search, multiple interviews and meetings to consider and reconsider their pick, apparently the regents don't know Karbhari yet. But they invited everyone else who considers themselves part of UT Arlington to get to know him while they continue to work on it.

Karbhari plans private meetings with UTA faculty and students and at least one public meeting, university officials have said.

But on Wednesday, when the Star-Telegram Editorial Board requested an in-person or telephone meeting with Karbhari, this was the response from UT System spokeswoman Jenny LaCoste-Caputo:

"Normally, finalists don't do one-on-one interviews with the media or editorial board meetings. Once they are officially named president, of course, they are free -- and encouraged -- to engage with the media. We will be sticking with that policy. As soon as we have a schedule for Dr. Karbhari's UTA visit I'll share that with you."

The regents and others have praised Karbhari as "extremely well suited to lead UT Arlington."

He's been lauded for compassionate and competent leadership at the Alabama university after a 2010 shooting spree in which Amy Bishop, a biology professor who had been denied tenure, killed three of her colleagues and injured three others during a faculty meeting.

There's no reason to doubt Karbhari's talents or skills. But the Editorial Board has another concern that's not sure to be addressed in Karbhari's public meeting at UTA.

Family members of two people killed in the shooting have sued Karbhari, saying he failed to follow university policy and notify police of Bishop's disturbed mental state. Informing police would have triggered other action by university personnel and the shooting spree might have been prevented, the suits say.

There's no reason to take the suits' accusations as gospel, and the legal process there is still in its early stages.

But there is reason for concern that the suits will be a distraction for Karbhari at a time when UT Arlington would deserve his full attention.

These suits are more than a nuisance. The attorneys representing the families are led by Douglas Fierberg and Peter Grenier, whose Washington, D.C., firm specializes in what it calls "school violence law."

The two attorneys also represented families of shooting victims at Virginia Tech University and at Columbine High School in Colorado.

If Karbhari doesn't devote a lot of his time and attention to these suits, he's not as smart as he has been described. If he does, he will be distracted from the work he should be doing if he is named president of UT Arlington.

He should be made available to talk about it.

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