February 11, 2013

UT regents expected to name a finalist for UTA president

UT System regents meet in Austin this week where they are to interview candiates for the Arlington post. A final decision won't be made until the candidate meets university stakeholders.

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AUSTIN - The eight-month search for a new president at the University of Texas at Arlington is nearing an end as the UT System board of regents prepares to meet Thursday, likely to choose a lone finalist to replace President James D. Spaniolo.

Spaniolo, who has been UTA president for nine years, announced his retirement plans in June. He has remained at the university pending the appointment of his successor.

Officials at the UT System announced Monday that the regents will meet in closed session Thursday to interview the remaining handful of candidates. The regents, who oversee UTA and other universities in the system, are widely expected to choose a finalist at the end of their daylong closed deliberations.

A search committee narrowed the choices from 16 to six in November. It was unclear Monday how many remain in contention, but the number of final candidates may be no more than two or three. UT officials and members of the search committee have steadfastly kept the candidates' names under wraps.

UT System spokeswoman Jenny LaCoste-Caputo told the Star-Telegram that the announcement of a finalist late Thursday afternoon would start a 21-day period in which the candidate will come under further scrutiny in a series of meetings in Arlington with UTA officials, community leaders, and student and faculty representatives. The candidate will also meet with Arlington residents and members of the campus community in a town hall meeting.

At the end of the 21 days, the spokeswoman said, the regents will conduct a closed interview and announce their final decision.

The UTA presidency is the final item in a two-day meeting Wednesday and Thursday to discuss a host of other agenda items. The schedule calls for regents to go into closed session at about 10:30 a.m. Thursday to deal with "personnel matters related to the presidential search at UT Arlington." They are expected to return to open session about 5 p.m. to make their decision.

LaCoste-Caputo said the finalist will probably not be given access to the media but would likely issue a statement in a news release.

Whoever gets the final nod, Arlington officials and UTA boosters say, will have big shoes to fill. During his nearly decade-long tenure, Spaniolo has won praise for dramatically boosting the university's pedigree and presiding over spectacular growth.

UTA has added nearly 10,000 students over the past decade, with enrollment growing from 23,821 in 2002 to 33,806 for the current spring semester. UTA is now the largest public university in North Texas and the second-largest in the UT System, which includes nine universities and six health systems.

Under Spaniolo, 66, UTA has tripled research expenditures, recruited new faculty members, 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.

"We've said we wanted a clone of Jim Spaniolo," said Wes Jurey, president and CEO of the Arlington Chamber of Commerce. "We want someone who will continue leading the university on its current path in terms of academic excellence and achieving our community's aspiration that it be recognized as a Tier One research university."

But UTA, like other public-funded universities, also faces challenges. Draft legislative budgets would cut spending $2 million to $4 million over the next two years. Spaniolo is expected to testify before the House Appropriations Committee today along with other UT System officials as they make their case for boosted state funding in the 2014-15 biennium.

Rep. Diane Patrick, R-Arlington, a former UTA faculty member and vice chairwoman of the House Committee on Higher Education, said the university's president should be a good communicator who is skilled at collaborating with community leaders and working with state politicians.

"In Texas, the understanding of the political process is very important for the promotion of the university," said Patrick, who credited UTA with making "great strides" under Spaniolo.

Allan Saxe, an associate professor of political science who has been at the university 45 years, said the presidential choice is "going to be very important because President Spaniolo has left such a positive impact both on the community and the university."

"The new president is really going to have a very demanding tenure because he's going to assume the presidency at a period when UTA is reaching for the top," Saxe said. "Many times, when a university brings in a new president, it's at a time of crisis or when the university is foundering around.

"This time, it's the opposite," he said. "The new president is really going to have a full plate, and that itself is a big challenge. It's like a football coach trying to take over from [coach] Nick Saban at Alabama." Under Saban, the University of Alabama has won three national championships in four years.

Dave Montgomery is the Star-Telegram's Austin bureau chief.

Twitter: @daveymontgomery

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