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.

The past two years' upheaval has him stumped, he says. "Last spring we asked every unit to cut their budget so they could get raises. I thought we would be applauded, then we were criticized. That one really surprised me."

He makes the statement from the offices that for many are a perfect symbol of Amacher's penchant for high living--a penchant that flies in the face of what they believe to be UTA's purpose.

Last year, Amacher spent $158,181 on revamping his office in College Hall--$40,963 went to pay for furniture and accessories, with the help of a $500-a-day interior designer he imported from Tucson, Arizona, and the rest went to pay for carpentry and other renovations. The new offices were a statement that a new regime had arrived--Nedderman's offices, located on the far west side of campus in Davis Hall, boasted the same dated burnt orange shag carpeting and wood veneer furniture for decades. Amacher called the offices a "hole" in an article published in the Star-Telegram.

Amacher angered students even more when he asked for $2.1 million more from the UT system last August to finish renovating and redecorating Ransom Hall, a historical building that will house administrative offices, including the provost's office. UT regents had approved $1.6 million in 1990 for mechanical, heating, and air conditioning work. But when Provost Taylor requested more space for his offices, some walls had to be knocked out and asbestos had to be removed. Too, Amacher wanted it to be a showplace for visitors and students to enjoy. He retained Pati Vester to take charge of the redecorating. $404,000 would go to pay for new furnishings, accessories and equipment.

UT System Vice Chancellor James Duncan wrote Amacher a memo, demanding to know why he had spent nearly twice the budget. "We have heard your pleas for additional capital funding...for computer upgrades and library materials. Being aware of those institutional needs and of the very limited availability of capital funding at all components, it appears that expenditures on this project need to be very carefully reexamined. Please give some personal attention to reevaluating each of the decisions which have led to this dramatic cost increase."

By the end of October, Amacher convinced the regents to give him the money. While $1 million will come from UT system Permanent University Funds bond proceeds, $2.1 million will be paid for by the students out of general use fees.

And, Amacher hired Vester to redecorate a dining hall called the Carlisle Room in the E.H. Hereford University Center at a cost of $218,332. This is what some of the money went toward: $18,000 for special wiring for a sound system, $4,720 for custom stained glass panels, $14,872 for the carpet, $20,203 for wall paper, $36,134 for chairs and barstools, and $25,834 in china and crystal.

Vester earned $14,400 in fees for her services.
"I don't know what all the fuss is about," Amacher says. "I can't believe it's even an issue." Amacher says he got a good deal on Vester's expertise and such expenditures are part of running a successful university.

The uproar on campus over his spending has delayed his plan for bringing money and prestige to UTA. "It's harder to get out into the community than I thought," he says. "Troubles here have kept me from traveling as much as I need to."

Some faculty have accused Amacher of being out of touch--they say he has grand schemes for the university with no real plan to achieve them. He told one surprised group at a dinner for alumni and supporters held a few months after his arrival that by the year 2,000, UTA would boast 10,000 more students, attract National Merit Scholars and produce Nobel Laureates. He said there would be a basketball arena, and a large complex of new UTA buildings lining Main Street in Arlington. "It was a glittering, golden vision," says Tom Porter who attended the dinner. "But it sounded a little like utopia."

Faculty and students snickered behind his back when he invited Vice President Al Gore to give last spring's commencement address and was turned down. Gore's snub made a small headline in the Metro section of the The Dallas Morning News. State Representative Eddie Bernice Johnson delivered the address instead.

When asked where he envisions UTA in the next five to ten years, Amacher gazes up toward a high, arched window. "I envision it [UTA] to be bigger, better, and more visible." Amacher sweeps the air symbolically with an arm. "All those things. By better, I mean more research, higher-quality people being hired, higher quality students being recruited. As we gain visibility, we attract new people."

But after such pronouncements, many faculty members feel betrayed as they watch Amacher send a growing amount of the school's resources in a different direction-- athletics.

"Major universities have athletic programs and I think if I asked the public or even asked students to name the 20 most important public institutions I bet 99 percent would be programs with prominent athletic programs." He lists Texas A&M and UT Austin. "I think we need to fund the arts, library, fund a lot of things," says Amacher. "It's just at this time in our athletic department we aren't competitive."

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