Spaniolo announces surprise retirement from UTA

ARLINGTON -- James D. Spaniolo, who led a surge in enrollment and development as president of the University of Texas at Arlington for eight years, including construction of the acclaimed College Park District, announced Monday that he plans to retire.

The 66-year-old administrator and attorney, who took over as UTA's seventh president in February 2004, said that he loves the university but that it is time to make room for new leaders.

"I have had a great opportunity to serve, and hopefully, make a contribution to the growth and development of UT Arlington," Spaniolo said. "I need to look at my future."

Spaniolo plans to stay until the University of Texas System board of regents finds a successor, which is likely several months. He said he doesn't intend to seek any other university post and is looking to spend time with his new twin granddaughters.

"I'm looking forward to having a continuing active engagement in higher education and maybe in other areas, but not on the same schedule that you have to have when you are a university president," he said in an interview.

His decision surprised Arlington leaders, who described him as a visionary who raised the image of the school through an added emphasis on research and new facilities.

"It's a huge, huge loss for Arlington and UTA," said Mayor Robert Cluck, who said he learned the news in an e-mail he opened at 12:12 p.m. "He's done a remarkable job."

But Spaniolo credited much of the campus gains to the work of others.

"There isn't anything that I alone can do, first of all," he said. "You have a limited window of opportunity to serve and provide leadership. I feel the whole university has accomplished a lot during the time I have been here."

Spaniolo made his announcement in a "Message from the President" e-mailed to students, faculty, staff and alumni. The announcement, including a link to his message, was posted on the UTA website late Monday morning.

"I am so proud of where the University is today," Spaniolo said in his message. "UT Arlington's record-setting achievements demonstrate what we have accomplished together. No matter the measure, our institution has made great progress in the past decade. UT Arlington is thriving and is well positioned for the future, and the transformation we have ignited will guide the way for years to come."

Spaniolo's leadership is credited with UTA's evolution from a campus known as a commuter school to a four-year institution where students want to live. He led during a period when state funding for higher education was reduced and when tuition and fees at public four-year colleges increased nationally. Indeed, over the last decade, tuition and fees increased at an average rate of 5.6 percent beyond the rate of general inflation, according to a report by the College Board Advocacy & Policy Center.

In this climate, Spaniolo was forced to oversee spending cuts. Still, in November, he proposed holding the line on tuition, saying unprecedented enrollment growth and new revenue sources made it possible.

"His ability to build the academic stature of UT Arlington and recruit and retain excellent faculty without requesting any undergraduate tuition increases this year is a testament to his excellent stewardship of resources," said Wm. Eugene "Gene" Powell, UT System regents chairman. "He has served with distinction, and the Board of Regents is grateful for his vision, leadership and collegial spirit."

Growing enrollments became the norm for UTA, boosted by new programs and an economy that prompted more people to return to school. Since 2008, enrollment increased 34 percent, to about 33,500 this spring, making UTA the second-largest university in the UT System.

Spaniolo has also pushed to position UTA as an emerging research institution, tripling annual research expenditures to about $66 million last year. An Engineering Research Complex opened in 2011 with the aim of expanded research space.

The campus also underwent a face-lift with development of College Park, a 20-acre mixed-use development anchored by a new arena for the school's basketball and vollyeball teams. The UTA Mavericks basketball games moved from Texas Hall this year, where they played on a performance stage, to the 7,000-seat College Park Center.

Nearby, College Park also has residence halls and apartments for 600 students, more than 27,000 square feet of retail and restaurant space, a parking garage with 1,850 spaces and the new Dan Dipert University Welcome Center. The development connects the campus with Arlington's central business district.

In a statement, UT System Chancellor Francisco Cigarroa thanked Spaniolo for his service, saying he led "significant transformations at the UT Arlington campus in teaching, research, student life and athletics."

TCU Chancellor Victor J. Boschini Jr. said Spaniolo helped elevate UTA's profile.

"I think he has been great," Boschini said. "He was a good advocate for UTA. He is very student-centered. I think students responded to that. He's really good about advocating for UTA. He was involved in Arlington community and that was good."

Cluck said Spaniolo has so many achievements that they can't all be listed, but his work to help connect the campus to the redevelopment of downtown is high on that list.

"College Park is a huge development, which wouldn't have happened without James Spaniolo," Cluck said, recalling how the UT System regents complimented them for working together when they pitched the project in Austin.

"The board said that was very rare," Cluck recalled. "It showed the depth of our relationship and the depth of the relationship between UTA and the city of Arlington."

Spaniolo is also credited with building a strong relationship between the campus and neighbors at First Baptist Church Arlington, which conveyed property to UTA to help build the north garage at College Park.

"This is going to be a huge loss to us because of his leadership," said Terry Bertrand, the church's associate pastor for administration. "He has a huge impact on the community."

Bertrand said Spaniolo isn't the type of person who exists in his own world. Instead, he created partnerships with Arlington neighbors to make projects work, he said.

"He has the ability to put people around him who can implement the vision he has," said Bertrand, who also worked with Spaniolo through the Downtown Arlington Management Corp.

Jennifer Fox, UTA student body president, said that while she too was shocked, she was also somewhat prepared because Spaniolo gave her a heads-up before the e-mail was distributed. Fox said he has maintained strong ties with student government.

"We are definitely going to miss him," Fox said. "We can only support him and look to the future."

Before 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. He 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.

Diane Smith, 817-390-7675

Twitter: @dianestar

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