UT Arlington's sole finalist won praise for managing crises

Posted Sunday, Mar. 10, 2013  comments  Print Reprints
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Tale of the tape

A comparison of the University of Alabama in Huntsville and the University of Texas at Arlington

Enrollment

UAH: 7,636 (spring 2013)

UTA: 33,806 (spring 2013)

Faculty members

UAH: 309 full-time and 171 part-time (as of 2012). Officials say they have a large number of adjunct faculty members because the area has a high number of Ph.D.s who wish to teach.

UTA: 2,166 (as of 2011)

Academic programs

UAH: 33 bachelor's programs, 23 master's programs and 15 Ph.D. programs. It has five colleges.

UTA: 81 bachelor's degrees, 70 master's degrees, 30 doctoral degrees and one professional degree. It has 12 schools and colleges.

Mascot

UAH: Chargers

UTA: Mavericks

Athletics

UAH competes in NCAA Division II. Its men's basketball team is ranked No. 6 in the nation in that division. It does not play football. The men's and women's track teams are ranked No. 1 in the South Region.

But UAH's claim to fame is hockey, as the southernmost Division I program in the country. In January, it accepted an invitation to join the Western Collegiate Hockey Association, which includes schools as far away as the University of Alaska-Fairbanks. It won two Division II national titles in hockey before moving to Division I in 1999.

UTA competes in 14 NCAA Division I intercollegiate sports, including baseball, men's and women's basketball, men's and women's cross-country, men's golf, softball, men's and women's tennis, men's and women's indoor/outdoor track and field, and women's volleyball. It does not play football. The university moved to the Western Athletic Conference for the 2012-13 season and is moving to the Sun Belt Conference for 2013-14.

City population

Huntsville: 182,956

Arlington: 367,021

The Karbhari file

Born: Mumbai, India Age: 51

Education: University of Pune, India, bachelor's in civil engineering, 1984, master's in structures, 1985; University of Delaware, doctorate, 1991 (dissertation on composite materials)

Employment: Provost and vice president for academic affairs at the University of Alabama in Huntsville; professor in the UAH departments of mechanical and aerospace engineering and civil and environmental engineering; worked as a scientist at the University of Delaware and a professor at the University of California, San Diego

Family: Wife, Lisa, is an engineer

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HUNTSVILLE, Ala. -- Vistasp Karbhari's extensive research background as an engineer has been touted as one of his key attributes, but his defining moment at the University of Alabama in Huntsville had nothing to do with his work in the laboratory or the classroom.

On April 27, 2011, Karbhari was the top administrator on campus when tornadoes struck the area, knocking out power and damaging a number of homes in Huntsville. University officials say Karbhari, the provost and vice president for academic affairs, quickly took charge.

While the campus wasn't hit directly, Karbhari still had to decide which buildings would get backup power, including those that housed key research projects.

He postponed finals and graduation and opened the cafeteria to all of Huntsville, since most of the city was also without electricity.

Statewide the storm produced 62 tornadoes -- including three monster EF5s -- that killed 248 people and injured 2,200.

"It was Vistasp's chance to shine," said Brent Wren, Alabama-Huntsville's associate provost. "The calmness he showed. There is no handbook for how to do this. Tough decisions had to be made every day, and no one knew when power was going to be restored."

The storm came just 14 months after a shooting devastated UAH, leaving three faculty members dead and three others wounded.

Karbhari has been named in a lawsuit by the families of two deceased faculty members who say he should have known that the shooter, Amy Bishop, was upset about being passed over for a permanent faculty position.

In both instances, UAH officials say, Karbhari was accessible and dealt with the crises as best he could.

Those qualities, coupled with his push to add more degree programs, his hands-on approach with students and his support for new facilities, are just some of the reasons his supporters believe he will succeed as president at the University of Texas at Arlington.

Karbhari, who was raised in Pune, India, is the sole finalist to succeed President James Spaniolo, who announced his retirement in June.

Karbhari, who has said one of his biggest challenges will be "filling Dr. Spaniolo's shoes," could be officially hired as early as Tuesday, when the UT System board of regents meets to consider his appointment.

He will inherit a campus that recently topped 33,800 in enrollment and has been praised for its student diversity.

U.S. News & World Report ranked UTA the seventh-most-diverse university in the nation, based on fall 2011 enrollment figures.

"Right across the board there is something really vibrant about this university," Karbhari said.

The Tier One chase

UTA and several other universities are in a race of sorts to become the state's next Tier One research institution -- a status that university leaders say would be a plus for the entire region.

The University of Texas, Texas A&M University and Rice University are the state's only Tier One schools.

Karbhari praised UTA during a recent interview with reporters and a town hall meeting with faculty, staff, students and alumni.

"UT Arlington seems poised to be among the best in the nation in what it does," he said. "It's a very innovative university, and it has done a fabulous job in striking new ground in a variety of different areas."

Karbhari said gaining Tier One status can take years, but he wants to be in Arlington to see it through.

"I can't put timing on it. Tier One is a journey," Karbhari said "It's not something where you tick off all the boxes."

He said the first thing he plans to do is talk and listen carefully to the ideas of others at UTA.

"It would be presumptuous of me to come in and say I know all the answers," Karbhari said.

Karbhari warned against calling the Tier One effort a competition, saying the idea is to build "a great university" by excelling in many areas and even working with other higher education institutions.

While UAH, enrollment 7,636, is significantly smaller than UTA, it is a Tier One institution in one of the top research areas in the country.

Since the 1950s, Huntsville has been known as Rocket City. It is home to the Redstone Arsenal, which contains both the Army Aviation and Missile Command and NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center.

Huntsville also boasts that it has the most doctorates per capita in the U.S. and the second-most engineers.

The city is also home to the Cummings Research Park, which has more than 300 companies and 25,000 employees and sits just across from the campus. It is considered the second-largest research park in the nation and the fourth-largest in the world.

While Karbhari has an extensive research background, his ties with Cummings Research Park are limited. UAH has a separate vice president for research.

But Karbhari was instrumental in securing $1 million from Sigmatech, a Huntsville company, for an eminent scholar position in the UAH political science department.

Wren, the associate provost, said Karbhari has strong relationships with government agencies that fund research, including the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health.

"He is a researcher at heart," Wren said.

"He understands how you link applied research to basic research. Applied research satisfies the needs of companies and organizations while basic research is the scientific side of things. He understands how to link those two, and that creates funding opportunities."

Karbhari also helped create graduate programs in supply chain management and federal contracting and procurement management after the Army Materiel Command, which buys just about everything for the Army, moved to the Redstone Arsenal and brought 4,500 federal positions to the Huntsville area.

'Warmhearted'

While many officials have praised Karbhari's leadership, he hasn't entirely avoided controversy.

He has had to deal with fallout from the Feb. 12, 2010, campus shooting. Bishop, an instructor, killed biology department Chairman Gopi Podila along with professors Maria Ragland Davis and Adriel Johnson during a faculty meeting.

Joseph Leahy, an associate professor of microbiology, staff aide Stephanie Monticciolo and assistant professor Luis Cruz-Vera were wounded.

The families of Johnson and Davis sued, saying that Karbhari knew Bishop was upset over not being given a permanent faculty position and that he failed to follow university faculty procedures.

Leahy, who was wounded in the head, is back teaching. He doesn't blame Karbhari for not taking action before the shootings.

"Most of us feel the lawsuits are totally groundless," Leahy said.

He said the Bishop case shows that no mechanisms are in place to find help for people with mental and emotional trouble. He said Karbhari was "warmhearted" and was a constant presence after the shootings.

"He was there at the hospital ... for many days," Leahy said. "He was finding out how we were doing."

Wren said Karbhari was front and center.

"He was there. He was visible and present at a very hectic time for people," Wren said.

When UT System regents were discussing their choice for UTA president, they commended Karbhari for his "compassionate" leadership after the shootings.

Karbhari said it isn't clear what could have prevented such a senseless act.

"It's not something that will be forgotten on campus," Karbhari said. "I hope that no other campus in the future has to go through that."

Connects with students

Karbhari was hired in 2008 by UAH President David Williams, who was so unpopular that he barely avoided being censured by the faculty senate in 2010.

At one point, all 25 academic department chairs signed a letter warning Williams of sagging morale on campus.

Jennifer English, associate dean in the College of Engineering, said Karbhari was initially tarnished because he was hired by Williams.

"Our past president was not without controversy. He did not have the general support of the faculty," said English, who considers Karbhari a friend and mentor. "By default, the provost tends to get painted with the same brush. There were people who very upset with the president, and they tended to be harsh on Vistasp."

English, a former president of the faculty senate, said Karbhari is viewed far more favorably now.

"I would argue it has been mostly positive but mixed," she said.

For UAH students, Karbhari is a familiar figure seen often around campus, talking to them about their classes and grades.

Nandish Dayal, 26, who transferred to UAH in the fall, experienced it firsthand.

"I noticed that Dr. Karbhari is very visible in the student community," Dayal said. "You can see him walking the hallways and talking to students. He walked up to me and asked me about my studies. We had a very candid conversation."

Each semester, Karbhari would hold "Pizza with the Provost" meetings and answer questions about university policies, building projects and even something as trivial as a broken printer.

"It's like being at a press conference after the State of the Union," Dayal said. "He's so in touch with what happens on campus that he's able to answer those questions -- no matter what they are."

At the town hall meeting at UTA, Karbhari promised to bring that same open-door policy to Arlington.

"I have to be very accessible," Karbhari said. "If I'm not accessible, I'm not able to listen."

Mixed reviews

in San Diego

Before going to Alabama, Karbhari made a name for himself as a researcher at the University of California, San Diego.

Gilbert Hegemier, a distinguished professor at the school, said Karbhari was part of a core group that helped elevate the engineering program and research, including investments in the Charles Lee Powell Laboratories.

Hegemier said Karbhari's arrival will help UTA in its quest to become a Tier One university.

"I think you might get there with this guy in the lead," Hegemier said. "I think that will happen. I think you have the right guy there."

Not everyone in San Diego is so supportive.

On the website RateMyProfessors.com, which allows students to give high -- or low -- marks to professors, many hammered Karbhari's teaching style.

His overall rating, based on opinions from 50 students, was 2.1 out of 5.

One student wrote, "In my opinion, he is the ANTI-CHRIST OF LEARNING ..."

Another stated: "He is basically trying to make you hate life."And yet another: "He is arrogant and condescending."

A few comments were more positive, saying that "he really does root for his students and when they do poorly he feels like it's his fault" and that he "was the best I've had in my years here."

Karbhari, at the UTA town hall meeting, acknowledged that college is not supposed to be easy.

When asked how much he values the idea of people leading a balanced life, he told students that they are going to have to study.

"And sometimes, you are going to have to study hard," he said.

Colleagues say Karbhari is dedicated to his students.

Mohan Trivedi, a professor at UC San Diego's department of electrical and computer engineering, said Karbhari's selection is a point of pride among the Indian community.

But he was personally touched by how Karbhari honored a commitment to a Ph.D. student several years ago.

At the time, Karbhari was on the student's doctoral committee but was heading to Alabama for his new job. Trivedi told Karbhari that it was OK if he wasn't available for an upcoming exam -- and even offered to set up a videoconference.

"Professor Karbhari said: 'You don't have to do videoconferencing. I will come,'" Trivedi recalled. "That was such a touching and wonderful gesture. I think it shows a very special commitment and character."

So when the student presented his work, Karbhari was in attendance.

"He is a gentleman and scholar," Trivedi said.

Bill Hanna, 817-390-7698

Twitter: @fwhanna

Diane Smith, 817-390-7675

Twitter: @dianeasmith1

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