Fast Times at UTA

Ryan Amacher says he's leading the University of Texas at Arlington into a glorious future. But his critics fear his passion for pomp and party will run it into the ground.

Amacher has also spent lavishly on decorating and furnishing his offices, an entertainment hall, and a building that will house administrative offices. At the same time, UTA's new leaders spend more time away from Arlington: Combined travel expenses for Amacher and his new provost, Dalmas Taylor, have increased 250 percent over that of the previous administration. But it hasn't produced the desired goodwill or influx of money.

Two years later, the gladhanding new president, who once delighted in strolling the campus and keeping his door open to students at any time, has become a figure of scorn, virtually under siege in his new posh offices. Vandals have threatened him, the campus newspaper has denounced him, and droves of seniors have spurned the splendor of his new graduation ceremonies. Students and faculty alike have begun calling Ryan Amacher, "Run Amucker," behind his back.

They accuse Amacher of wasting the university's money--through lavish parties and remodelling, an ill-conceived attempt to boost the athletic program, and cronyism--all at a time when UTA has been forced to cut back in vital areas. The library has seen its funding dry up with no relief from state coffers. Amacher has given raises--but he froze hiring and asked departments to cut their budgets by 5 percent to accommodate them.

Worse, Amacher's extravagance, they say, comes at a time when UTA will experience a six percent funding shortfall for the next, 1996-97 biennium. Enrollment at state universities is counted every two years and funding is provided based on student numbers and availability of state money. State-wide last year, enrollment at public universities fell by only 1 percent, according to UT System figures.

"Absolutely, we will have a shortfall," says Dudley Wetsel, vice president for business affairs. "I am very concerned about that."

Finally, a recent UT system audit determined that UTA had improperly counted enrollment for the school year 1992-93 and received $3 million in state funds it shouldn't have--money officials in Austin want back. UTA administrators say they've recalculated enrollment and only owe $1 million. Either way, many are concerned about where the money will come from.

Amacher's explanation for spending on furnishings and parties is that it will impress alumni and benefactors, who will donate money to the school, and increase enrollment, which will bring additional state funding. He describes it as spending money to make money.

But after two and a half years of spending hundreds of thousands, even Amacher admits he hasn't raised a penny in additional outside money. Nor has enrollment grown--during Amacher's tenure, enrollment has dropped from 25,000 in 1992 to 23,000 in 1994.

Beyond Amacher's apparent failures are questions about his hiring practices. To jump start the new athletics program, Amacher circumvented the search for a new athletic director and gave former Clemson colleague Bobby Joe "B.J." Skelton the plum job, even though records show Skelton did not meet the university's published minimum standards. To complicate matters, the Observer has learned, Skelton was deeply implicated in a major NCAA basketball scandal while vice president of admissions at Clemson.

Amacher is hardly new to controversy. Amacher's own Department of Commerce and Industry at Clemson during his tenure was so fraught with in-fighting and turmoil that the department eventually split in half, according to three former Clemson economics faculty members.

More than anything, it has been Amacher's plan to turn UTA into an athletic powerhouse that has divided the university. "Amacher is just throwing money into athletics without a plan," says student congress representative Scott Elrod, who has called for Amacher's resignation in the school paper The Shorthorn. He says students are concerned that in the last two years the athletic department has operated under a $1.4 million deficit while spending within the department continues to go up.

Where administrators are coming up with the money to pump into athletics is a mystery, says Tom Porter, an English professor and former dean of the College of Liberal Arts. "People have serious questions about where the money that is being invested in the athletics program is coming from. I do know there are not a lot of available sources of funding."

In two and a half years, Amacher has pumped millions of dollars into the athletics program, expanded the coaching staff, and given out $175,000 more in athletic scholarships. He began renovating the athletic department administrative offices at a cost of $854,700 and allocated $630,000 to renovate the school's stadium and baseball field.

Amacher infuriated students and faculty when he instituted a $25 student health fee and funneled $500,000 of it into the sports budget, despite a poll last year of students, faculty and mid-level administrators that ranked athletics at the bottom of a list of 110 concerns for UTA.

Critics of Amacher's athletic plan say it's a bottomless money pit that would take decades to work--if it works at all. Students like Elrod accuse Amacher of trying to turn UTA into a "traditional" university like Clemson. "He's changed the whole mission statement of the university," says Elrod, a 20-year-old junior majoring in political science.

UTA has historically been an urban university that serves older students--the average age is 26--many of whom have full-time jobs and families. It's a group with definite job goals that has little interest or time for the sports and campus social events of more traditional universities.

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