Wednesday, December 26, 2012

ALLAN SAXE: UTA presidential legacy a powerful one that should continue

James Spaniolo, the outgoing President of the University of Texas at Arlington is rightly acclaimed as one who changed the physical and academic face of this university. He is so accomplished that he could easily assume a prominent role within the University of Texas System if he desired; or a prominent position within a large corporation. However, at this moment his desires seem to be to travel and be with his family.
To place his tenure as university president in some perspective it is interesting to examine the academic atmosphere that preceded him. When I first arrived at UTA it had just emerged from the Texas A&M System into the University of Texas System. There are many persons who deserve and have been given credit for this transition, most notably then-Mayor Tom Vandergriff.
The newly named University of Texas at Arlington would take its place as an Arlington icon along with Six Flags, General Motors Plant and the soon-to-be Texas Rangers. Little could anyone imagine the elaborate new UTA campus of today or the Dallas Cowboys stadium. 

 In addition to the political leaders there were faculty members who were struggling to boost the university’s standing by attracting new academic programs. Among the faculty members were professors Luther Hagard, Sam Hamlett, George Wolfskill and John Hudson. Hagard, Hamlett and Wolfskill were in liberal arts while Hudson was head of library.
Allan Saxe
 They pushed to remove Arlington State College from A&M, believing that there was little hope for an independent and proud university unless it was removed from the A&M system. This was long before A&M becoming what it is today -- an academic powerhouse with a national reputation competing well alongside the UT System.
 But even today UTA has some of the proud remnants of the A&M System, notably ROTC and a prominent military tradition and its significant engineering reputation. Incidentally, UTA houses in the ROTC Department a Medal of Honor given to a former student, Colonel Neel Kearby.
For a number of years UNTIL the administration of former Engineering Dean Wendell Nedderman, who had formerly been at A&M, many new academic programs were initiated not from the top down, but from the bottom up-from faculty and staff.
 This could have been very precarious for faculty members, but they had the confidence and the “ear” of prominent state politicians like Governor John Connally and state senators Oscar Mauzy and Don Kennard and state Representative Don Gladden. None of these political leaders lived in Arlington but in Fort Worth and Dallas, but they all wished for a prominent public university in North Texas as UTA was the only such place in Tarrant or Dallas counties at the time. 
Another prominent faculty member who was instrumental in developing UTA early on was history department Chair E.C. Barksdale. Barksdale was a true “character” in the best use of this term. He was a friend of noted historian Walter Prescott Webb at UT-Austin and was on first name basis with a host of powerful Texas politicians.
On many Friday afternoons, Barksdale routinely hosted in his home political discussions with a bevy of local, regional and state public officials.  His political ties insulated him and other faculty members from any retribution for what they were attempting to accomplish in bringing UTA to a prominent place within the academic world. E.C. Barksdale’s wife was one of the early supporters of a young mayor of Weatherford – one of the two famed “boy” mayors, the bother being Vandergriff -- who would eventually become speaker of the United States House of Representatives. His name was Jim Wright.
After Nedderman assumed the presidency he worked with these faculty members and others to initiate and bring scores of new programs to UTA and his legacy is so noted. After Nedderman voluntarily stepped aside after many years in heading the university the atmosphere was decidedly unsettled.
Eventually, the UT Regents conducted a national search for a new president.
The man who emerged was from Clemson and named Ryan Amacher.  Amacher came to UTA with high credentials and much enthusiasm. He made friends with community leaders and they embraced him as a leader for the City of Arlington as well as the university.
However, his tenure at UTA was very short and marred by a multitude of rumors and allegations and bitterness that ultimately brought about his resignation. But his vision for UTA was not unlike what others have desired for many years. He envisioned a larger campus, expanded student housing, upgraded athletic facilities and more impressive university banquets and meetings honoring alumni, friends and faculty.
The campus was so unsettled after Amacher’s departure that the UT System appointed a UT-Austin dean of business, professor Bob Witt, to assume the presidency. Witt was a sterm and competent leader and brought the campus back from a tumultuous period.
Witt upgraded the campus and expanded student housing. But his essential directive from the UT System was to end the strife that permeated for so long. No time for big visions, just settle things down. He tried to gain the confidence of faculty members and administrators and hosted many dinners at his home to educate himself on the culture and history of the campus by inviting various faculty members to dine with him and his wife. Witt accomplished his mission so well that the university was gaining recognition and the community admired him.
He then began to turn attention to implementing a broader vision and plan for the campus.  Rumors began to swirl that his big vision was not being received so well with then UT System administrators and that other UT System campuses would be more favored. (Note: this was simply a rumor that was never substantiated).
And when the University of Alabama at Tuscaloosa, the flagship school of the Alabama System, came calling and Witt assumed the presidency there. The University of Alabama had taken note of Witt’s success in settling a decidedly unsettled campus and moving to implement his UTA campus vision.
Immediately after Bob Witt announced his resignation from UTA and his assuming the presidency at the University of Alabama, a group of State Senators and Representatives announced they were introducing bills to potentially remove UTA from the UT System. A press conference was held and the buzz was that UTA would either become its own independent campus or align itself once again with the A&M System.
The possible removal of UTA from the UT System was a serious proposal initiated by North Texas political leaders who evidently believed that UTA would be better served elsewhere. Eventually, whatever outstanding issues there may have been were resolved. And UTA remains happily with the UT System.
Witt was so successful at the flagship Alabama campus that he is now the head of the entire University of Alabama System. (Initially, he was not a football aficionado and one of the last times I spoke with him he told me he was already becoming a football fan of the University of Alabama and so he is today – Alabama seems to be in the hunt every year for the national championship).
A new nationwide search after Witt’s departure produced the perfect president for UTA. He was personable and worked well with those already In various administrative positions. He is a rather reserved man, but was determined to bring UTA to what it is now.  He would enlarge academic programs, appoint talented people and embark on a building program never seen before on the UTA campus. The new Engineering complex, College Park Center and Activities Center, and the MAC) are all are tributes to his talents and will be a lasting legacy.
And so what comes now? Who will be the new president of UTA? The new president will have to be someone who can continue the university expansion, attract students and faculty and be up to the challenge of increasing competition from all those universities that want to achieve Tier I status.
Higher education is very different today with online learning and community colleges offering much more affordable tuition along with extensive vocational programs, plus the Internet can create virtual classrooms pretty much anywhere. The new president will have to cultivate confidence with area legislators and business leaders and community colleges while continuing to grow support from alumni and prominent donors. Most certainly a close relationship with UT System regents and administrators will be a necessity in an era in which the Legislature continues to diminish the state share of higher education funding.
The old adage “If one does not go forward you go backwards” applies as well to UTA. The legacy of Spaniolo must be built upon or UTA will regress. And this cannot be allowed to occur. I hope and I believe that the next president will indeed take the university into new areas of greatness.
Allan Saxe is a political science professor, urban issues pundit and author.

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