From day 1, James D. Spaniolo didn’t like his odds. Among the five finalists for UT Arlington’s presidency in 2003, he was the only one who lacked a Ph.D., who had ascended no higher than dean, whose university appointments could be counted on one finger.
Even he voted himself least likely to succeed Robert Witt, now chancellor of the University of Alabama System. Listen to what candidate Spaniolo told the student newspaper that October: “I’m in awe of the other four candidates’ qualifications. I knew coming in that I was a long shot. That said, that’s not a concession speech. I want to be president of UT Arlington.”
In the end, the underdog landed on top. The University went with the maverick.
Now, nearly a decade later, Spaniolo is preparing to retire after what may be the seminal presidency in University history. Research expenditures more than tripled to $71.4 million last year, repositioning a commuter school into a research dynamo. In his time at the helm, more than a dozen buildings have been constructed or renovated, including the landmark Engineering Research Building and the striking College Park Center. Enrollment, on-campus residency, and graduation and retention rates are all at historic levels.
And the man who was least likely to be UT Arlington’s president retires as one of its best, putting the University into the national dialogue about top-tier institutions.
His decision met swift and stunned reaction when announced in June. The Fort Worth Star-Telegramlabeled it “a surprise retirement.” A nearly morose Dallas Morning Newseditorial said, “A coach typically doesn’t bow out during a winning streak.”
For many, the question was why? For posterity, here’s the answer:
“Part of it is where I am in my career—at a stage where the horizon is not unlimited anymore. I think you have an opportunity to make a contribution, and it’s a limited window. At some point, you just start to plateau. The longer you stay, the more set in your ways you get, and you run the risk of not being open to new ideas. I just have a voice in the back of my head that says this is about time.”
If those closest to him were shocked that Spaniolo is leaving, they weren’t surprised by the way he’s doing it. While he has contributed much—from rebuilt campus infrastructure to a re-imagined future—much remains to be done, such as a fundraising campaign that’s in the developmental stages.
“He felt strongly that we needed a new president with the energy required over the next several years,” says Ralph Hawkins ’73, chair of the Development Board. “I was sad to learn of his retirement, but his logic as always had the University in mind rather than his own career.”
There is no set date for Spaniolo’s departure; he will continue until his successor is in place.
For some, that won’t be long enough. After a recent meeting, a prominent faculty member approached the president and asked if he’d reconsider. Spaniolo told him no. “But I appreciate the sentiment. The fact that people want you to stay is a good thing. It’s better to leave when they still want you there and not when they’re pushing you out the door.”
No one’s pushing. The man who faced long odds will leave to long faces.
“I guess I assumed he would always be there,” says Elaine Marsilio Krift ’06, who covered Spaniolo when she worked at The Shorthorn. “President Spaniolo has made such a significant mark on the University that it is difficult to picture UT Arlington without him.”
“My pledge to you is that we will be strong and vibrant and relevant during my tenure, and we will work together to make it so.”
When Spaniolo became UT Arlington’s seventh president in February 2004, it was a different place than it is today. He challenged and pushed the University to achieve things it never had, to move from best-kept secret to best of the best.
“Jim created a tone that bolstered the self-confidence of the campus that we could compete with anyone, that we were as good as any campus anywhere.”
He saw a university whose faculty numbers didn’t match its aspirations, so he replaced those who had left plus hired 100 more. He saw a university that could transform students’ lives, so he enrolled almost 33,500 of them—34 percent more than when he arrived—and graduated twice as many. He saw a university short on traditions, so he created some—the Maverick Speakers Series, Graduation Celebration, MavsMeet Convocation, Parent and Family Weekend, Academic Excellence Week, the Official Maverick Class Ring. He saw a university short on revenue, so he redesigned the Development Office and engaged record numbers of alumni, and the endowment grew to a once-unimaginable $89.3 million.
He saw a university that needed an identity, so he created a new narrative and boosted Maverick pride. He saw a university that could excel athletically on a national stage if given better facilities and a better chance, so he built a $78 million basketball palace and joined the Sun Belt Conference. He saw a university that could grow stronger by leveraging partners, so he built bridges to peer universities, businesses, foundations, legislators, and city leaders.
“There’s been a transformation of UT Arlington since President Spaniolo arrived,” says Arlington Mayor Robert Cluck, who in November announced that a street running through the 20-acre, $160 million College Park District would be renamed Spaniolo Drive. “The foundation was laid by previous presidents, but Jim picked up the ball and scored.”
He did it quickly and thoroughly.
Kelly Elsenbaumer attended in 1998 and recently returned to visit her father, Provost Ronald Elsenbaumer. “She walked around the campus and hardly recognized it,” Dr. Elsenbaumer says. “The Maverick Activities Center, the new Engineering Research Building, the Chemistry and Physics Building, new student housing all over campus, and, of course, the new College Park Districthave forever changed UT Arlington.”
Count the new buildings and programs, tally the alumni engaged and traditions initiated, and you still won’t have a comprehensive list of Spaniolo’s achievements. It’s more than a complex web of bricks and mortar. It is futures shaped and opportunities revealed through education.
“People may point to physical structures, and that’s important,” says former Provost Donald Bobbitt, now president of the University of Arkansas System. But more important is that “Jim created a tone that bolstered the self-confidence of the campus that we could compete with anyone, that we were as good as any campus anywhere. That’s what will last a long time, even after Jim leaves. It permeates the campus.”
Spaniolo couldn’t accomplish all of this by focusing on just one thing. He couldn’t change the momentum by erecting some buildings or beginning a few programs. It took work far beyond Arlington’s borders.
“Jim paid close attention to all the issues, both academic and infrastructure, that are important,” says Teresa Sullivan, formerly the UT System’s executive vice chancellor for academic affairs and now president of the University of Virginia. Dr. Sullivan chaired the presidential search committee that brought Spaniolo to the table in 2003. “UT Arlington was already on a good trajectory, and he improved it further. He was also a great public face for the University and gave it good visibility in Austin.”
And everywhere else.
“President Spaniolo is by far the best brand ambassador UT Arlington could ask for,” says Vice President for Communications Jerry Lewis. “He tells the University’s story with passion and conviction, and you know it’s coming from the heart. He has been the driving force in raising the University’s profile, improving its reputation, and overcoming long-held misperceptions and stereotypes.
“President Spaniolo embodies everything it means to be a Maverick. He’s bold. He’s clever. And he’s always the first person to roll up his sleeves and get to work.”
“It’s not the president’s personal vision. It’s our shared vision that emerges from conversations and consultation with all those who care about our university.”
Not everything has been smooth sailing for Spaniolo, nor for UT Arlington, these last eight-plus years.
There was the 2006 removal of the Hall of Flags in Nedderman Hall, a monument to the University’s diversity that came down amid protests about displaying the national flag of Vietnam. Vietnamese-Americans and Vietnam War veterans protested, and at least one lawmaker threatened to block funding for the Engineering Research Building. Spaniolo did the only thing he thought he could: Remove not only the Vietnamese flag, but all 123. The colorful display has been replaced by banners representing each nation. Spaniolo calls the situation the greatest regret of his presidency.
“I’m sorry that that was the only option, given the attitudes that existed,” he says. “Not that I would have done it differently, I just regret that there was no acceptable choice that involved leaving the flags. In some situations, there isn’t a good decision, just a least bad one.”
Most times, the issue hasn’t been flags but finances. Early in Spaniolo’s presidency, the University faced a $16 million cut in state appropriations. In both Arlington and Austin, he worked diligently to ensure that those cuts never happened.
He tackled the football question, assuaged the community about natural gas drilling on campus, navigated four legislative sessions and unprecedented economic challenges, and through it all made sure the University thrived like never before.
“No matter whether things were going tremendously well or we were in a difficult situation, his demeanor did not change,” Dr. Bobbitt says. “I’ve never met anyone more calm and self-confident than he was. He’s a remarkable, ethical leader that you don’t find very often.”
If there is blame to place for anything, Spaniolo says it’s on him. Where credit is due, he says, his colleagues deserve it.
“The leadership team we have, including the vice presidents I work with every day, are the finest group of people I’ve ever worked with,” he says.
It’s a leadership team that evolved dramatically during his presidency. In eight years there have been three provosts, and almost every cabinet position turned over at least once. Spaniolo created two vice president positions (communications and human resources) and elevated the expectations of the development, alumni, and athletics operations. In doing all this, he altered the University’s priorities. What mattered most would be performance.
“Jim is charmingly self-deprecating and will defer credit for many things to those with whom he worked,” Sullivan says. “Don’t be fooled: You get great results from a great team only if there is also a great leader.”
Elsenbaumer, beginning his third decade at UT Arlington, says he has never seen a team so in sync and so singularly focused.
“As a leader, his most significant accomplishment was assembling an incredible leadership team. As you can see, much gets accomplished in that kind of environment. Indeed, the synergies created by the deliberate multiple accomplishments made by the team over time will have a lasting impact on the institution.”
There is still one big thing to accomplish. Progress has been made, but it won’t be complete by the time Spaniolo leaves office.
North Texas is the largest metropolitan area in the United States without a Tier One research university. The entire state has only three. Spaniolo has championed efforts to change that, to elevate as many universities as possible, including his own. He was instrumental in the Legislature passing House Bill 51 and in voters approving Proposition 4 in 2009, which made more funding available as universities accomplish Tier One-related metrics.
Finishing what Spaniolo started is up to the next president.
“Clearly, Tier One is a marathon, not a sprint, and we’re talking a decade or more,” he says. “We’re just a few years into that. And we’re making significant progress. If the next president serves for up to a decade, it will be inescapably clear that we are on our way.”
“You get great results from a great team only if there is also a great leader.”
Actually, it’s maybe a relay. While others run the anchor leg, it was Spaniolo who came flying out of the blocks.
“Having been in the Tier One conversation right from the beginning, I can tell you that Jim was a unifying force who brought the institutions together,” Bobbitt says. “Jim knew it would only happen if everyone pulled on the same end of the rope. All those universities owe him a great deal that the Tier One bill even got passed. His smooth and calm voice made that happen. It’s easy to put walls up to say it’s us against that university or the city or the state, but Jim never did that. It’s remarkable how collaborative he was.”
“We will meet the challenges that face us, tell a new story about UT Arlington, and make a brighter future for generations to come. In the words of Robert Frost, we have promises to keep and miles to go before we sleep—and miles to go before we sleep.”
Spaniolo’s calendar has long been stacked, his Blackberry exhausted, his iPad gridlocked, his life dedicated to the University. Now? The miles are almost done.
“It’s the first time I’ve had time to reflect on what I want to do next,” he says. “I want to have some freedom to come and go.”
That freedom includes time for himself and his family, especially his twin 1-year-old granddaughters in Washington, D.C. But Spaniolo, 66, won’t disappear. Although he has no plans to be a university president elsewhere, nor a CEO, he does want to engage in philanthropy or work with a private foundation. He’s also open to board service, although he intends to be selective about how he spends his days.
“University administration is extremely interesting and gratifying—especially if you’re as good at it as Jim is—but it is also all-consuming,” says sociology Associate Professor Dana Dunn, who was provost from 2003 to 2007. “It’s hard to have a private life or personal time. My first thoughts were for Jim as a person and how nice it will be for him to take a real vacation. I always urged him to travel to Italy, the home of his ancestors. Now maybe he’ll do that or the many other things he’s had to neglect to give his all to the University.”
Spaniolo will have little involvement in the search for his successor. He’ll offer advice if asked but believes the new president should be free to blaze a unique trail, just as he was able to do eight years ago.
“If he or she is smart, they’ll study pretty carefully how Jim did everything he did and try to adopt the same philosophy and style,” Bobbitt says. “I know I did. The table is set for the next president. The groundwork is there for Tier One.”
Which means the next president will arrive at a pivotal time for UT Arlington.
“Jim has laid a strong foundation and set the course,” Dr. Dunn says. “He has established the momentum. I expect the new president will not alter our course in dramatic ways, but rather bring an expertise to support the continuing evolution of UT Arlington as a major research university. A new president will have to hit the ground running.”
For Spaniolo, the running soon will be over.
“In my heart, I hope that I will have contributed in whatever way to UT Arlington achieving its destiny—becoming a truly great university that serves the needs of students and families and the citizens of Texas in a way that makes a difference in all of those lives.”
And maybe there is one thing left for him to do.
“I hope,” Dunn says, “I get a postcard from Italy in the not-too-distant future.”