ARLINGTON — Commencement at the University of Texas at Arlington was bittersweet for James Spaniolo, who stepped into ceremonial robes for the last time as campus president this month.Im going to shake every graduates hand, he promised. I think there is a kind of closure.Graduation carries deep meaning for university presidents as well as students, but this years seven ceremonies were even more special for Spaniolo, 67, who is retiring Friday after nine years at UTA.The university becomes your family, Spaniolo said. Its your identity. Its in your bloodstream.Spaniolo will be succeeded by Vistasp Karbhari, outgoing provost and vice president for academic affairs at the University of Alabama in Huntsville.Spaniolo, who has served as UTA president since 2004, steps down as the campus reaches a record: The Class of 2013 had the highest number of graduates, at about 4,500. That is 14 percent higher than in spring 2012.Earlier this year, UTA marked record enrollment, with 33,800 students. Spaniolo leaves a campus that is now the second-largest member of the UT System.The 2013 statistics fold neatly into Spaniolos list of accomplishments from inspiring faculty and students to pursuing projects aimed at giving UTA and Arlington the feel of a college town.Its been amazing the change from when I was a student to now, said Neer Patel, president of the national board for the UT Arlington Alumni Association.Spaniolos most visible achievement is the College Park District, a 22-acre development that features restaurants, apartments, a park and a $78 million complex for basketball, volleyball and entertainment.The complex will be showcased in 2013-2014 thanks to the national exposure that comes with a shift to the Sun Belt Conference.Students and alumni gush over the facility, saying it proves that UTA no longer takes a back seat to the flagship campus in Austin.Right now, we are standing where a 7-11 and washateria stood, said Patel, a 2006 graduate, said during the Graduate Celebration. Now, you have this amazing facility.The campus transformation is helping create a vibe that many believed was missing at UTA.Reace Alvarenga Smith, who graduated in 1996, said it wasnt too long ago that an alum might hesitate a bit at the mention of his or her alma mater. But no more.I loved President Spaniolo, Smith said. He brought energy to the university.The College Park Center also symbolizes how cooperation among the university, city and community can help revitalize the citys downtown area.We all kind of talked about it long before it ever started, Arlington Mayor Robert Cluck said. He convinced me that it was going to be a huge success.Cluck said Spaniolo tightened the relationship between the city and school, and he hopes it will continue.There will always be more to do for UTA and the city of Arlington, Cluck said. We are partners.Spaniolo is described as a champion of adding UTA to Texas list of Tier One research institutions. The University of Texas at Austin, Texas A&M University and Rice University are the only such institutions in the state.Spaniolos era saw the opening of a new engineering building, faculty recruitment and increased endowments. Research activity has more than tripled over the past decade, to $71.4 million last year, according to the university.Hes got wind behind the sails and the momentum is building up, said UT System Chancellor Francisco Cigarroa.Students successCigarroa said Spaniolo worked to help students succeed, opening access to learning and emphasizing retention through programs such as the University College.That resource, which opened in 2010, offers advising, tutoring, counseling and more starting in the freshman year.Under Spaniolo, the academic profile of UTA students grew. For example, first-time, full-time students reached a high in fall 2012 with an average SAT score of 1088.Additionally, he was one of the first UT System presidents to push for more online learning opportunities. Cigarroa said that effort resulted in significant enrollment growth, especially in the area of nursing.Enrollment at the College of Nursing has grown from about 1,900 students in fall 2008 to about about 8,000 students this spring.Spaniolos ability to bring partners to the table and an unassuming manner stand out for leaders who worked with him. He is described as a keen listener who isnt afraid to ask questions when he needs to know more.Ive learned a lot from Jim, and his legacy will always be with us, Cigarroa said. What he has done for UT Arlington will continue to grow.Spaniolo often wore his signature royal blue and orange ties. He wore one again when he welcomed students to this years Graduation Celebration, which kicks off the universitys graduation season each year.At the Graduation Celebration, Spaniolo told students that he is one of the older members of the Class of 2013.You personify the definition of Maverick, he said. Its not easy to get here, but you have. Thats what Mavericks do.Student Congress President Varun Mallipaddi joined those praising Spaniolo.All I can say is, Thank you, Mallipaddi said. His leadership has been amazing.Michigan rootsBefore joining UTA, Spaniolo was dean of Michigan State University's College of Communication Arts and Sciences, and was vice president and chief program officer for the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.Spaniolos father, Victor Spaniolo, was a newspaper publisher for a group of weeklies in Michigan. The younger Spaniolo grew up loving the written word and developed a passion for the power of ideas and public debate.Spaniolo was a newspaper executive and attorney for The Miami Herald and the Detroit Free Press. He earned a bachelor's degree from Michigan State University, a master's in public administration from the University of Michigan and a juris doctorate from the University of Michigan Law School.Spaniolos future includes spending time with his twin 20-month-old granddaughters.Spaniolo, who was born in Greenville, Mich., plans to move back to Michigan. But he said he will keep a place in North Texas and continue supporting UTA.Spaniolos days as president typically began about 7:30 a.m. He relied on notecards that listed each days events and kept him on schedule.He will miss the university, he said. But not the scheduling cards.Im ready to pass the baton, he said.
Diane Smith, 817-390-7675 Twitter: @dianeasmith1