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Karbhari 'is still our sole finalist' for UT Arlington post, UT regents declare

02/20/2013 11:38 PM

06/08/2013 11:54 PM

AUSTIN -- University of Texas System regents on Wednesday stood behind their choice of Vistasp Karbhari as the lone finalist to become the next president of UT Arlington, saying the Alabama educator is "extremely well-suited" to lead the fast-growing university.

The board also commended Karbhari, a top administrator at the University of Alabama-Huntsville, for his "compassionate" leadership after a campus shooting killed three faculty members nearly three years ago.

Former biology professor Amy Bishop pleaded guilty and is serving a life sentence. Three people were also wounded.

Karbhari, the university's provost and vice president for academic affairs, was named in a wrongful-death lawsuit brought by families of two of the slain faculty members.

After meeting for more than an hour by phone Wednesday, UT System regents issued a statement defending his handling of the crisis, saying Karbhari remains their top choice to head UTA.

The meeting was called after some regents learned about the wrongful-death suit for the first time.

Karbhari was chosen as the lone finalist during a regents meeting Feb. 14, ending an eight-month search for a new president. The appointment is scheduled to take effect at the end of a 21-day waiting period.

Karbhari was selected to replace James Spaniolo, who announced his retirement in June.

Spaniolo has been widely credited for an ambitious expansion program at UTA, and university supporters want the next president to lead the school to its long-sought goal of becoming a Tier One research institution.

"While all of the Regents were aware of the shooting incident on campus, not all were aware of the lawsuit at the time Dr. Karbhari was interviewed," the statement said.

"As we continue to discuss the lawsuit with Dr. Karbhari and his attorneys, he remains our sole finalist for president at UTA."

The regents also said they agree with the conclusions of a 16-member search committee that Karbhari is "the right person to lead UT Arlington, an innovative and unique academic environment that is a huge source of pride of our entire university system."

Regents convened about 4 p.m. Wednesday via phone and quickly went into a closed executive session. The calls were placed from the regents' headquarters in downtown Austin, where Chancellor Francisco Cigarroa and several other system officials were gathered to listen to the discussions.

All the regents except one, Steven Hicks of Austin, took part.

Karbhari also participated for much of the meeting, said UT System spokeswoman Jenny LaCoste-Caputo.

Lawsuit questions

The meeting was announced Monday, just days after Karbhari's selection as sole finalist.

After the lawsuit was detailed in news articles about the regents' decision to pick Karbhari, members of the governing body "wanted a chance to ask him some questions about the lawsuit," LaCoste-Caputo said.

In the 2011 lawsuit, family members accused Karbhari of failing to follow university protocol in ensuring the safety of faculty members.

The suit says Bishop had a history of severe and observable mental instability and violence and describes a campus where many people had expressed their concerns about Bishop's mental state. Yet she remained on staff.

The regents noted that Karbhari, as the university's chief academic officer, was named as a defendant because public universities have "absolute immunity" from being sued under Alabama law.

The tragedy was discussed during the interview for the UTA job, the regents said in their statement, "and Dr. Karbhari was heralded by his university for his leadership during such a critical time."

"He was described as compassionate, committed to taking care of victims' families and was praised for his ability to steer the campus through one of the most terrible experiences imaginable."

Karbhari emerged as the final choice for UTA after a nationwide search that initially reached out to more than 200 possible candidates.

Regents applauded the nominee when he was brought into the boardroom last week.

Regents announced the meeting Monday with a terse explanation that the session would involve "discussion and appropriate action concerning individual personnel matters related to the candidacy of sole finalist for president."

"I have full faith in the process," said Neer Patel, president of the UTA Alumni Association national board. "I don't think the board of regents would make a decision that would negatively affect the No. 2 academic institution in the system."

Dan Formanowicz, a UTA biology professor and search committee member, told the Star-Telegram that his committee was aware of the legal action but that he doesn't recall it being a "big issue."

The UTA selection process comes as regents are embroiled in a dispute with lawmakers over thorny relations with Bill Powers, president of the flagship University of Texas at Austin.

Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, the state Senate's presiding officer, delivered an emotional defense of the embattled president this week, accusing some of the regents of character assassination and micromanagement in their treatment of Powers.

Senators also adopted a resolution supporting Powers.

Staff writer Diane Smith contributed to this report.

Dave Montgomery is the Star-Telegram's Austin bureau chief. 512-739-4471

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