February 14, 2013

UT regents select a finalist for UTA president

Vistasp Karbhari, a top administrator at the University of Alabama-Huntsville, is selected as finalist for the position of eighth president of at the University of Texas at Arlington to replace outgoing president James Spaniolo.

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AUSTIN--Vistasp Karbhari, a top administrator at the University of Alabama-Huntsville, is poised to become the eighth president of the University of Texas at Arlington after an eight-month nationwide search for a replacement to outgoing UTA president James Spaniolo.

Karbhari, provost and vice president for academic affairs at the Alabama university, was selected by the University of Texas System board of regents on Thursday. Although Karbhari was officially designated as the lone finalist, the regents' action positions him to become Spaniolo's replacement at the end of a 21-day waiting period that will include visits with the UTA community in Arlington.

"Extraordinary leadership is crucial for our institutions and the unique and innovative environment at UT Arlington calls for an effective and visionary leader," Chancellor Francisco G. Cigarroa said. "Dr. Karbhari is extremely well-suited to lead UT Arlington and I am thrilled to welcome him to the UT System."

The nine-member UT governing board announced its choice after interviewing Karbhari and another finalist 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.

After the more than three-hour closed session, regents returned to open session late Thursday afternoon and applauded as Karbhari was brought into the room after being announced as the regents' choice. He chatted with university officials after the meeting but was not permitted to talk to the news media, in keeping with university policy for the 21-day waiting period

Pedro Reyes, the UT System's executive vice chancellor for academic affairs, said Karbhari was chosen in part because of his "incredible leadership and managerial skills.

"He's a great individual and a great human," Reyes said.

Dan Formanowicz, professor of biology on the UTA campus and a faculty member of the search committee, said Karbhari seemed very interested in helping UT Arlington meet its goals.

"He's got a lot of experience. He has handled some difficult situations in Huntsville," Formanowicz said.

The Huntsville university, which has an enrollment of about 7,100 graduates and undergraduates, is one of three institutions in the University of Alabama System. The others are the University of Alabama at Birmingham and the flagship University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa, home of the national champion Crimson Tide football team.

Karbhari was provost when the University of Alabama-Huntsville made headlines during a campus mass shooting involving faculty. The shootings took place in February 2010.

Karbhari was named in a 2011 wrongful death lawsuit filed by the spouses of two people killed at a faculty meeting at the university. The New York Times reported that the families said Karbhari violated a safety policy he helped write as university provost and should have done more to protect the faculty before professor Amy Bishop allegedly shot and killed three colleagues.

The university, in a statement at the time, said it was “saddened by the decision to sue Dr. Vistasp Karbhari and does not agree that Dr. Karbhari, or anyone associated with the university, could have predicted or prevented this random act of violence.”

Karbhari also has an engineering background, which is deemed appropriate for UTA. He received his bachelor's and master's degrees at the University of Poona in India and his Ph.D. from the University of Delaware.

Before his current position, he served as professor and vice chairman of the structural engineering department at the University of California-San Diego. Karbhari is a noted researcher and scholar and a published author or co-author of over 200 scientific papers.

"I think we expect to continue the upswing," Formanowicz said "This is an individual who is going to help us do that."

Tom Ingram, associate professor of advertising and vice chairman of the Faculty Senate at UTA, was also on the search committee and said he was "very pleased" with the candidate. He described Karbhari as "very affable, very gregarious, very astute."

"He's just a good guy," Ingram said. "I think he will be a good fit and take us to the next level."

Reyes, who coordinated the search, said the 16-member search committee contacted more than 250 people nationwide to seek potential contenders for the post.

"We cast a huge net around the nation," Reyes told the Star-Telegram.

Arlington Mayor Robert Cluck said he received a pledge from Chancellor 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 from more than $1 billion in cuts imposed by the 2011 Legislature. Spaniolo and other university presidents 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 state budget for the next two years.

A key challenge facing the next UTA president is to achieve the school's 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.

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 was an integral part of the discussions with the candidates for Spaniolo's post.

From the outset, the search committee kept its work secret, never revealing candidates or applicants until the finalist was announced.

The search produced a "really good number of applicants," Reyes said..

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.

Spaniolo became president after Robert Witt left in February 2003 to become president of the University of Alabama. Witt strove to improve the campus as it struggled with sagging enrollment, racial unrest and low morale, according to a 2003 UTA Magazine article. He's credited with reversing an enrollment dip and working with African-American and Hispanic leaders to recruit more minority faculty and students.

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

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

Twitter: @daveymontgomery

Diane Smith, 817-390-7675

Twitter: @dianestar

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