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.

Spending in the athletic department jumped from $2.6 million in '91-'92 to $4.0 million in '93-'94. Last year, about 21 percent went to administrative expenses, including four new administrators and three new women's coaches.

His goal, Amacher says, is to have a men's basketball team that makes it to conference playoffs. UTA plays in the Southern Conference along with teams like the University of Alabama at Birmingham.

But Amacher's detractors wonder if athletics can be successful at UTA since roughly 80 percent of students are commuters who attend part-time.

As proof, Amacher's detractors point to UTA athletics' decades-long record of failing to bring money or recognition to the school.

Wendell Nedderman, who agrees that athletics should be an important part of UTA, struggled for 13 years to develop a strong, profitable athletic department without success. In a last ditch effort, Nedderman built a 12,000 seat football stadium. "People kept telling me if you just build it, people will come," says Nedderman. "They didn't."

Amacher's problems in changing UTA's direction have been exacerbated by embarrassing fumbles. In June 1993, Amacher hired Mike Stone, former Texas Rangers' Baseball Club president, as UTA vice president of development. Hiring Stone, who has marketing and public relations clout, was seen as a coup for UTA. But the affair ended as a public relations disaster for Amacher.

Stone worked only two months before he left on unpaid leave of absence to devote more time to his own company. Amacher held the post open for nine months before finally conceding that Stone was not returning. In early December, a year and a half later, Amacher hired Frederick Bennett, former vice president for university affairs at the University of Oklahoma.

Last spring, Amacher lit another exploding cigar when he gave the new vice-provost, Nadine Jenkins, $200,000 to recruit students. It was the first time UTA had ever put money into recruiting, but the administration's critics remember Jenkins' program as a case study in wasting money.

According to figures generated by the business office, the new department spent $170,844 of the total amount for recruiting. $148,754 was spent simply to cover administrative expenses, including salaries. In the end, the office spent only $778 in face-to-face recruitment of students (not including travel money Jenkins might have used from other accounts). The rest of the money--$21,311--went to pay for full-color brochures that were mailed out across the country and a "800" number to allow out-of-state students to call. Jenkins did not return calls from the Observer.

But the brochures were mailed in early 1994, far too late to attract graduating seniors who had already made up their minds, says Glen Read, former admissions director. Read complains that more money was wasted in first-class postage--increasing the mailing cost for each pamphlet from about 7 cents to about $1.25. The impressive brochures arrived in candidates' mailboxes three days sooner, but still months late to do any good. And the toll-free number to encourage out-of-state calls "looked nice," says Read, "but too many people began calling from the metroplex on the number and tied it up."

Despite their efforts, UTA's enrollment dropped again.
One money-making scheme still has Amacher critics scratching their heads. While at Clemson, Amacher regularly tapped into funds from a profitable program under his control known as Professional Development, which gave business seminars and continuing education classes. According to members of his department, Amacher legitimately used the money to buy computers and other equipment for his offices.

Amacher hopes to do the same thing with UTA's continuing education program and funnel the money into athletics. continuing ed, however, is no cash cow. The program, which in the past has offered non-credit courses ranging from belly dancing to computer programming, is more than $600,000 in the red. Amacher hired a consultant last year, ostensibly to turn the program into a profitable venture. "I expect it to be making at least $1 million in five years," Amacher says.

In December, 1993, Amacher retained Robert J. Eckholt, a businessman out of Kansas City, Missouri, whom Amacher met through Ralph Elliott, director of the professional development department at Clemson, to develop a plan that would make continuing ed profitable. According to Elliott, he introduced Eckholt to Amacher back in his Clemson days when the three were considering a business deal that later fell through.

According to vouchers provided by the university business office, Amacher authorized payment to Eckholt for $9,200. Although Amacher's contract with Eckholt stipulated in detail what areas Eckholt would address, including drawing an "action plan," Amacher says no written plan was produced and Eckholt's action plan has consisted of oral conversations with him.

In August, Amacher obtained Vice Chancellor James Duncan's approval to pay Eckholt an additional $800-a-day plus expenses to consult with Continuing Education even further. The contract stipulated that Eckholt's fees could not exceed $60,000.

By October, Eckholt had billed UTA an additional $26,667 in consulting services--$15,000 of which was billed for "special research relative (to the) Steven Covey workshop; contract negotiations; miscellaneous matters including development." Steven Covey, a well-known author and speaker on time management presented a workshop Nov. 9 at the Grand Kempinski Hotel. About 1,800 people attended and it was broadcast to 50 sites.

But, as the Shorthorn reported in a November 17 story, continuing ed only stood to earn $15,000 in profits for its highly-promoted Covey Seminar--and Eckholt's fees swallowed that. The Shorthorn also reported that continuing ed director Nancy Kinsey had earlier told a reporter that she had been working on the Covey Seminar herself for two years and had done all the work in bringing it to fruition.

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