Fast Times at UTA
On a brisk October morning, University of Texas at Arlington President Ryan Amacher and his wife, Susan, rose before dawn for their morning walk and headed down the long gravel drive that leads from their south Arlington farm house. As they reached the big gates at the end of the drive, they couldn't help but notice a large object dangling from the gate, glinting in the dawn.
As Amacher approached it, he could make the shape out: it was a large concrete donkey, with obscenities and references to UTA painted on it. He tugged at it and realized the donkey was chained to the gate and the gate itself was chained shut and padlocked from the outside. It was the second time in the last three months that pranksters had padlocked the president inside his own property.
Ryan Amacher's star has fallen a long way in the two and a half years since he came to UTA. In April 1992, faculty and staff were thrilled when UT system regents appointed Amacher president. Past president Wendell Nedderman had retired after 19 years, and the school was searching for a new leader to take it into the 21st Century. After eight months of searching, UT regents believed they had found the man who could do just that. Dean of the College of Commerce and Industry for 10 years at Clemson University in South Carolina, Amacher was also an internationally respected economist with expertise in South Carolina's important textile industry and coauthor of 10 textbooks on economics.
And Amacher has credentials as a visionary--he had created privately funded graduate business schools in Italy and Germany and had just put the finishing touches on an MBA program in Moscow when the call came to lead UTA.
"I was impressed with his record," says engineering dean John McElroy, who was on the search committee. "He's a very dynamic, very impressive person."
But most important, Amacher had a reputation as a well-connected fund raiser, eminently successful at soliciting private donations from the business community and even more talented at convincing tight-fisted legislators to send public funds his way. According to the press release distributed by the UT system, Amacher also boosted funded research in the Department of Commerce and Industry at Clemson by $3.5 million during his tenure.
Becoming president of a university was an objective Amacher energetically pursued. "That had always been his goal," says Robert Tollison, who attended graduate school at the University of Virginia with Amacher. "He wanted to put his own unique imprint on a school," he says. "He was just looking for an opportunity."
Since 1985, Amacher had been chasing university presidencies, including the top spots at Clemson and University of Texas at El Paso. Persistence finally paid off with the appointment at UTA.
And, at least at first, Amacher's enthusiasm for his new job injected a new vitality into the cluster of bland buildings nestled in a commercial section of Arlington just west of the new Ballpark. A long-time staff member at UTA recalls seeing a beaming Amacher, two months before his official July start date, walking the campus alone, map in hand, grinning and shaking hands with students and faculty. The new president even sent letters to prospective students introducing himself and UTA, complete with a smiling photo of himself.
People quickly warmed to the affable new president and his wife of 26 years. Amacher immediately made plans to relocate his offices to a more centralized location on campus to be closer to students, and he gave them an open invitation to meet with him. Clerical workers would look up from their paperwork to find Amacher had stopped by to say hello.
It soon became obvious that life at UTA would be very different under its genial new president. The Amachers immediately began throwing lively parties for faculty and local business leaders at Tarnwood, their 17-acre horse and cattle farm in Arlington named after a ranch they had in South Carolina. Amacher's gracious style and pursuit of the social side of university life was in stark contrast to the previous administration. Former president Wendell Nedderman, an unassuming Iowa farm boy whose background was in engineering, didn't even have a reserved parking space until a university trustee convinced him, after 17 years, to get one. Nedderman rarely entertained, and when he did, it was a modest reception at his university-owned home.
"I remember times when there was nothing but a bowl of Gold Fish crackers and a little beer and wine," says Charles Funkhouser, director of the Center for Professional Teacher Education. And even then, "you were cautious of how much you consumed because it was paid for by university money," he says.
The new president's entertainment style is regal by comparison. Amacher provides cases of good wine, bottles of cognac, scotch, and tables crammed with shrimp, fruit, meats, and desserts. Amacher's first faculty Christmas party in 1992, held in the University Center, featured ice sculptures and a specially built indoor ice rink where students were recruited to skate around a huge Christmas tree.
In the last 18 months alone, Amacher spent $10,000 on booze for parties, enough money, critics like to point out, to pay annual tuition and fees for 12 students.
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.
Porter says faculty and deans have for years seen the school's focus as one of research and building strong curriculum and students. The focus has never been on athletics, he says. "Now, athletics is being presented as something we should foster, but at the same time, they're talking about building up research. How the two will fit together is not absolutely clear."
Nor has Amacher's autocratic management style made his schemes go down any easier. Some faculty and students complain he runs the university like a family-held business, doing what he pleases, sometimes in secret, with no regard to what the people who work or pay tuition there have to say.
For 10 months, Amacher led secret negotiations on campus between the Dallas Stars, the Dallas Mavericks, and the City of Arlington to lure the teams to Arlington with the promise of a new multi-purpose sports arena, to be built by the city on city property and used in part by UTA's athletic program. Amacher bragged how he had managed to keep the negotiations and a $110,000 arena study, paid for with public money, secret from Arlington citizens for so long. The Fort Worth Star-Telegram, usually supportive of Amacher's proposals, wrote a scathing editorial criticizing Amacher for keeping the public in the dark about the study, then bragging about it.
Ironically, Amacher recently gloated to some Shorthorn staff members that he has gotten critical articles in the Star-Telegram killed and suggested the Shorthorn stop printing negative stories about him. After Shorthorn editor Elise Cooper, who says she was not in the room during Amacher's comments, confronted Arlington bureau editor Jim Witt about the matter, Witt said in an October 3 Star-Telegram column that Amacher had stopped by his office, but says they talked about "dirty tricks" being played on him, and that Amacher never requested a story be killed.
"I've had calls from him after a story has run to say he wished we hadn't published something," says Witt. "But he's never asked us not to run something. It's never even come up. They are sensitive about what they perceive as bad publicity."
In an effort to root out criticism on campus, Amacher has publicly threatened department chairmen to stop writing editorials or face demotion. And he has gone further, urging them to keep their faculty members from writing letters to the editor.
While rooting out critics and traveling around the country ostensibly to raise funds, Amacher has handed over much of the day-to-day operations of the university to Provost Dalmas Taylor. Departments that once had virtual autonomy in budgeting and hiring and promoting faculty, now have to seek Taylor's approval. Some members of the faculty have criticized Taylor in private and in print over what they deem micromanagement. Taylor, an African American, responded by telling the Shorthorn that the criticism stemmed from institutional racism.
In two and a half years, more than 17 deans and top administrators have left or been demoted, including Vice President of Business Affairs Dudley Wetsel, who has announced his early retirement effective in March. Those close to Wetsel say he is fed up with the new administration's spending priorities. Wetsel, who has held the position for 22 years, says he has contemplated an early retirement for several years. As to a clash with the administration over spending, he would only say, "I will say I have been told I am too conservative."
Still, Amacher has his supporters. "It's easy to blame the leader," says Eirik Furuboten, an economics professor who was on the presidential selection committee. "But these are hard times for everyone. Twenty years ago, Amacher would have been hailed as a hero. He's just coming along at the wrong time to be fully appreciated."
One thing on which everyone agrees is that in its 100-year history--UTA will celebrate its centennial in January--the university has never seen such division and upheaval. Last spring, about 250 students protested over Amacher's decision to consolidate graduation ceremonies, traditionally done by department, into one huge ceremony. UTA students, notorious for their complacency, hadn't held a protest since the Vietnam War. When Amacher received death threats over the plan, he attended graduation with a bodyguard.
The negative publicity comes at a time when UTA's image is already reeling from allegations of racial bias--between 1989 and 1992, African American professors dropped by 7 percent, while white professors rose steadily, according to state records. And, last year the school was embarrassed when history professor Howard Lackman was arrested after a student claimed he had tried to lure her into a prostitution ring. Charges against Lackman were later dropped.
"The University is like a wagon going down the street with all the wheels coming off it," says one former dean.
Ryan Amacher ushers a reporter into his newly redecorated offices. The suite has high ceilings and tall, arched windows that let in streams of sunlight. Floor to ceiling bookshelves filled with books and a wooden rolling ladder grace one wall; a pair of bold abstract prints hang on another wall. His office oozes culture and good taste. Amacher is dressed in a chamois-colored shirt that coordinates with the chamois-colored, plush sofas. His tie, a work of art in a blue silk-screened abstract design--a gift from his wife--coordinates nicely with the blue carpeting. Amacher leans back on one of the sofas and sips coffee from a blue and white china mug. At 49, with prematurely silver hair, a brushy mustache, and big, kind eyes, Amacher looks more like the Gepetto of Disney's Pinocchio than a man who has provoked a suburban university to the point of death threats.
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."
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.
When the Observer contacted Connie Holman, a public relations representative with Wyncom, the company that handles Covey's workshops, she said she had never even heard of Robert Eckholt. "It doesn't ring a bell here," Holman says.
After checking with others in the office, Holman confirmed that Wyncom representatives had negotiated the contract solely with Nancy Kinsey and had never had any dealings with Robert Eckholt. A copy of the contract bears Kinsey's signature. Neither Kinsey nor Eckholt returned calls from the Observer.
Amacher says that Eckholt was paid to do a background check on Covey to determine whether the seminar was legitimate, so it's not surprising that Eckholt was not known to anyone at Wyncom. "Bob Eckholt has been working with me on a range of issues, giving me advice [on continuing ed]," says Amacher. "I think it's money well spent."
Eckholt is working on a variety of projects, he says, including a coalition between the City of Arlington and UTA and projects relating to the North American Free Trade Agreement. Amacher says he can't elaborate on what Eckholt is doing because the information is "privileged" and releasing it could damage negotiations.
It was at Clemson that Amacher gained an international reputation as an economist and administrator. But his tenure there ended under a shadow. Three former professors in Amacher's department interviewed by the Observer remember Amacher as a wheeler-dealer who perpetuated an old-boy network by hiring and favoring friends--charges that would re-emerge at UTA.
"Ryan aids his cronies with reduced teaching loads and by paying them handsomely," says John Sophocleus, a former economics instructor at Clemson, who is now an economics instructor at Auburn University. "There were people in the economics department who had better scholarly records who were not rewarded."
Amacher also took care of his friends by ignoring serious allegations against them, the former faculty members say. Two other former economics professors, who did not want their names used, told the Observer that in 1990, they presented Amacher with a list of 12 charges against two of Amacher's friends in the department. The charges included evidence that the men were using the department's secretaries, postage and telephone lines to conduct their own business enterprises.
In addition, they demanded Amacher put a stop to the excessive partying that went on in the economics department. One professor, who now holds a chair in economics at a university in another state, describes the parties as "drunken brawls" with professors and students slinging crawfish at each other and having "spitting and pissing matches." Amacher, he says, attended some of the parties where he was a "passive observer." The parties escalated out of control, he says.
"It was open season on graduate students," the former professor says, referring to the way male professors sometimes had "fondling matches" with female students at the parties. Sophocleus says he attended a party at a faculty member's home where he saw a professor "groping" an undergraduate in a back bedroom. He left the party, he says.
After the party, Sophocleus says, graduate students complained about the incident, but the faculty member who hosted the party threatened to yank project funding from the grad students if they told anyone.
Though Amacher was not involved in the improprieties, outraged faculty members felt he should have used his authority to at least stop the wild parties.
Sophocleus and the other professors say they took their concerns to Clemson President Max Lennon in late 1990, whom Sophocleus says assured him that he would talk to Amacher. Lennon did not return calls from the Observer.
But a year went by and Amacher failed to respond to their requests, the men say, in part because the people in question were Amacher's friends with whom he also had some business interests.
Amacher denies that the men presented him with a list of allegations. "No, never. No one has ever brought anything like that to my attention," he says. "I knew they had parties, but I'm not the moral police. It wasn't my place to get into it."
Amacher acknowledges he held business ties with one of the professors in question. He says he also knew that two other members of his department that were in business together but that no school funds were used improperly.
But Sophocleus says Amacher not only knew about the complaints but met with Sophocleus and others in the economics department about it. Nothing came of it, he says. "It was Ryan's responsibility to come down and put a stop to all this," Sophocleus says. "He didn't. Instead, he came down and said 'I'm a laissez-faire manager'. Those were the words he used."
In response, a handful of professors petitioned Amacher to allow them to split from the economic department and form a separate department. Amacher made Roger Meiners, now Amacher's special assistant at UTA, head of the new department, the Center for Law and Economics.
Meiners says Amacher has a hands-off management style, which irritated some faculty members who did not agree with the way others were running the department. Meiners says even he did not always like some of the things he saw go on in the department, including a faculty member's relationship with a student, but he says the turmoil in the department was typical of the politics in some other departments.
But Sophocleus blames Amacher for the turmoil. "Amacher set up a solution to not deal with the problem," says Sophocleus.
But Amacher says the split had nothing to do with conflict within the department, but says it was a long needed move to separate professors with legal backgrounds from those with pure economic backgrounds.
During that time, a married graduate student who was involved with an economics professor who was also married became pregnant. Amacher says the professor, who had been supervising the pregnant woman's doctoral thesis, voluntarily stepped down. And, according to press reports, another student told police she was raped in the office of an economics instructor who was later convicted of aggravated assault.
"It was the straw that broke the camel's back for me," says Sophocleus, who left in early 1992 for Auburn. "All these things that happened in the department were just symptoms. Ryan Amacher was the problem."
A few weeks later, the UTA regents announced their new choice for president--Ryan Amacher.
"When I heard he had been named president at UTA," Sophocleus says, "the first thing I said was, 'My God, who let the barbarian in the gate?'"
It's unclear how much the UTA's search committee knew about Amacher's problems at Clemson. "I had heard about (the allegations while Amacher was at Clemson), but I'm not prepared to get into it," says Eirik Furuboten, a member of the search committee.
Amacher passed a rigorous background check by a private consulting company, says Vice Chancellor Duncan. John McElroy, dean of engineering and member of the committee, says Amacher was top on the list of candidates--almost everyone was smitten by Amacher's amiable personality and his stellar record for fundraising.
Amacher negotiated a sweet deal with UTA. According to his contract, in addition to a $140,000 a year--Wendell Nedderman's salary after almost 20 years had topped out at $129,000--Amacher will also receive a $250,000 life insurance policy paid in increments of $20,000 a year and to be paid in full to him at the end of five years; an additional $5,000 in 1992 as "partial reimbursement for expenses related to job transfer;" $66,000 a year in housing allowance; unspecified amount for retaining a full-time housekeeper; a $700-a-month car allowance; and various club memberships, including one to Shady Valley Golf Club. He also received a $10,000 bonus to cover business ventures that were interrupted.
In addition, UTA reimbursed Amacher for $17,335 in relocation expenses, plus another $885 for a friend to assist in the drive from Clemson to Arlington.
This year, Amacher's salary was raised to $155,000 and his housing and car allowance was raised to $92,400 a year. University of Houston President James Pickering, whose university is similar in size and scope, earns $156,045 a year and $25,000 a year in housing allowance. He also has use of a university car. According to a study done by the Texas Faculty Association in October 1994, the average salary for public university presidents was $128,730.
Amacher's first decision as president didn't make him popular with faculty. He vetoed the faculty's long-standing plan to raise admission requirements at UTA. Amacher insisted that raising admissions would only make things worse and might even make enrollment drop more. In response, many of the deans got together, led by the Dean of Business, Walter Mullendore, and voted on a mission statement for UTA that stressed the university's role as a research institute.
Amacher fired Mullendore while the dean was out of town.
But it's been the dozens of parties that began shortly after he arrived that have set the tone for fast times in UTA's administration. Last year, Amacher dished out $110,000 for entertainment. Between May 1993 and October 1994, Amacher charged more than $10,600 in alcohol for entertainment, all tax free from the same Big Daddy's liquor store in Fort Worth. According to State Law, state universities can legally buy alcohol as long as no state money (tuition and fees) is used. Almost all of the charges are paid out of local funds from the president's discretionary fund, a fund which the president can use as he wishes, including award scholarships. Entertainment expenses have helped deplete the fund--as of November 1994, Amacher's discretionary fund has been operating at a deficit.
Critics wonder where all the liquor goes. For one September 1, 1994 event, listed as an "administrator's party," $934 in alcohol was purchased from Big Daddy's for, at most, 35 people. Amacher gave three more parties at his home that month for faculty and assorted administrators, and charged UTA another $1,146 at Big Daddy's for alcohol. Not included in that $10,000 entertainment bill are hundreds of dollars more in bar tabs, written off, legitimately, as UTA business. "I doubt this office spends any more money than any other university," says Provost Dalmas Taylor.
But a sampling of comparable Texas universities showed UTA may indeed spend more in entertainment. UT El Paso President Diana Natalicio spent $32,991 on entertainment last year, a total which according to university Business Affairs Administrator Wynne Anderson, includes a broad range of university functions, including development. Liquor could not be broken down, according to Anderson.
University of Houston President James Pickering spent a tidy $716.88 in entertainment from his discretionary fund last year, mostly for business meals, according to university spokeswoman Geri Konigsberg. Konigsberg says Pickering has not asked to be reimbursed for liquor during the last two years.
University of Texas at Austin President Robert Berdahl spent $171,380 on entertainment last year. Liquor charges could not be broken down separately from the total, says UT Austin spokesman G. Charles Franklin.
And, in December 1994, Amacher spent $39,000 entertaining holiday guests.
Amacher shrugs off the complaints about his increased spending. "It's what universities do," he says. "If you are going to have important people contributing, you have to have events--entertainment, food, refreshments. That's the world we live in. We do nice things. We don't do extravagant things."
Increases in travel have also come as a shock to a university used to the home-bound habits of Wendell Nedderman, who spent $9,183 on travel between 1989 and 1991. Last year alone, Amacher spent $33,447 on travel--arranged by his personal special events coordinator, a former Clemson administrative assistant. UT El Paso President Diana Natalicio spent $14,852 on travel last year. University of Houston President Pickering spent $12,816 on travel last year. During the fiscal year 1993-1994, UT Austin President Berdahl spent $37,115 on travel.
Much of the travel, Amacher argues, is to meet potential benefactors and to carry on the networking necessary in the academic world. "I don't see it as an expense," Amacher says. "I see it as an investment."
In April 1993, Amacher spent four days in New Orleans at UTA's expense attending the Final Four, even though UTA's basketball team was not in the tournament. Amacher, a basketball fan, has attended the competition regularly for years.
When UTA system accounts payable clerk Rita Walsh noticed the bill, she kicked the $1,516 charge back to Amacher, explaining that state funds don't pay for attending athletic events. But Amacher fired off a memo to UTA Business Manager Barney Stanley, explaining that he had gone to New Orleans to "promote UTA, engage in discussions with other Presidents, Athletic Directors....about future events at UTA. Attendance at the final four was incidental to these other functions." Payment was approved.
Last Christmas, 14 school employees, including Amacher, B.J. Skelton, and Dalmas Taylor, flew to Honolulu between December 26 and January 1 at UTA expense to attend a basketball tournament in which UTA was a participant. Amacher's and Taylor's wives also attended along with two other administrators' wives and the basketball coach's son. A third wife, did not attend the trip, according to Jeff Rodgers, assistant to the athletic director, but her ticket and hotel had already been paid for when she could not go. According to documents provided by the university accounting office, Amacher and his wife used frequent flyer miles to pay for their tickets and charged the university $958 for hotel rooms. UTA paid for Provost Taylor and his wife's tickets and rooms at a total of $2,932. "We were told to add the Taylors on," says Rodgers, who arranged the tour.
The team and administrators stayed at the Hilo Hilton in Hawaii and Rogers says the hotel charged per occupant--spouses did not stay free.
Accounting records show the university paid $1,072 for Dalmas Taylor's wife's air fare to Hawaii and $394 for three nights stay in a hotel room. UTA also footed the bill for $3,208 for airfare for the three administrators' wives and the basketball coach Eddie McCarter's son. UTA also paid $1,576 for hotel room charges for the four.
As of press time--despite the Observer's repeated requests during the last three months for records of reimbursement by family members--neither the business office nor Rodgers was able to provide proof they had indeed reimbursed UTA.
Although Skelton has said in other press reports that several employees who stayed over after the tournament paid their own expenses, records indicate that employees did charge many of their expenses to the school. Rodgers and Cathy Beene, associate athletic director, charged $1,235 in an additional travel tour package that Rogers says was hotel fare for three days. According to Rodgers, the two stayed over to scout hotel rooms for the women's volleyball team which was scheduled to play in Hawaii later. American Express credit card charges show $1,417 in additional hotel, food and car rental expenses on Skelton's card for staying over in Hawaii between January 1-4, 1994. Skelton was out of town and could not be reached for comment.
Total cost for the junket for the 14 UTA administrators and their various family members: $25,000.
In July, 1992, just weeks after Amacher's arrival at UTA, he formed a search committee to find a new athletic director. UTA had limped along for five years with only an interim director. The position, obviously, is crucial to Amacher's plans for athletics.
As required by law to meet minority hiring practices, the committee placed ads for the position and set a deadline for August 31, 1992. One of the applicants was B.J. Skelton, who was vice provost and dean of admissions at Clemson.
The screening committee received almost 80 applications and had narrowed it down to six candidates on September 3, 1992. The short list did not include Skelton. For one thing, Skelton didn't meet the minimum requirement of "five years demonstrated administrative experience in an athletic program environment." Members of the search committee did not return calls from the Observer.
Amacher sent the short list back to McCallum the next day with a hand-written note: "I would also like to meet with the committee late next week as I have a few 'secret candidates' or perhaps better called non-candidate candidates."
Shortly after that meeting, the short list was scrapped and Skelton was hired.
Amacher gave Skelton a starting salary of $87,500 a year--almost $25,000 more than the previous athletic director, who left in 1987, made. This year, Amacher gave Skelton a $4,500 merit raise. Skelton also received a $230-a-month membership in Shady Valley Golf Club.
B.J. Skelton arrived at UTA with a tarnished collegiate athletics history. According to NCAA reports, he was implicated in a Clemson basketball recruiting scandal. The incident started in the fall of 1989 when several tipsters contacted the NCAA to report that the transcripts of a basketball player at Clemson had been falsified in order to make the player appear to qualify to play under NCAA guidelines.
Amacher says he worked closely with Skelton during his tenure at Clemson and knew about the NCAA investigation. He says Karin McCallum phoned the NCAA and was told there was no reason UTA should not hire Skelton. McCallum did not return repeated calls from the Observer. "It was a sin of omission more than anything else," Amacher says. "As dean of admissions, he took responsibility for what happened after the fact, as he would be expected to do."
But the NCAA report on Clemson's violations says Skelton knew that the basketball player's high school transcript was fraudulent for more than a year. The report also says Skelton received a true copy of the transcript and filed it away without notifying the NCAA. Skelton continued to play the athlete even though he knew he did not qualify under NCAA rules and also did not qualify for a scholarship.
As vice provost and dean of admissions and registration, Skelton oversaw financial aid and was responsible for monitoring the eligibility of student athletes. According to the NCAA report, Skelton made insufficient effort to determine a specific athlete's eligibility for financial aid and admission, even though Skelton and other administrators had seen two separate transcripts for the athlete that contained conflicting information concerning grades.
The administrators also averaged in several remedial courses to improve the athlete's grade point average, even though that was illegal.
The NCAA reported: "On November 29, 1989, the NCAA enforcement staff informed (Skelton) of information indicating that the student-athlete may have gained admission and eligibility at the university improperly through the use of a fraudulent high school transcript and college admissions test score."
The report says that in December, Skelton "assumed responsibility to review and handle the matter," and withheld the athlete from competition. However, a few days later, Skelton called the NCAA and told a representative that he was satisfied with the authenticity of the transcripts and "the possibility of fraud was not an issue."
In January 1990, the athlete's high school forwarded a corrected transcript to Skelton, "Although the transcript was significantly different...including a change in the overall [grade average] from 2.180 to 1.940, the second transcript was ignored and simply filed with no further consideration given to it....The transcript on file at the institution [Clemson] appeared to have been manufactured simply to meet NCAA eligibility requirements and has not been found anywhere except at Clemson University."
By 1992 when the NCAA had completed its investigation, it found "major violations in men's basketball. The violation....(is) particularly serious because it involved the improper conduct of those involved in the certification of student-athletes' eligibility."
For the numerous NCAA violations, the basketball team was forced to forfeit all games it won during 1990 NCAA division I Men's Basketball championship and had to return all its team awards. The team also had to repay $353,361--half of all the money it made during the 1990 year. The assistant men's coach was asked to resign by the NCAA, its financial aid and recruiting abilities were severely curtailed, and it was put on probation for two years. Other violations cited by the NCAA against members of the athletic department included providing improper transportation to an athlete, offering a prospective athlete's family benefits, providing prospective athletes gifts, and unethical conduct by an assistant men's basketball coach.
Skelton, who had served as the NCAA council's faculty representative at Clemson for five years and had held other NCAA committee posts including chairing the certification committee, voluntarily withdrew from his nomination as NCAA council president after the scandal.
Skelton says the NCAA report on the Clemson violations is misleading and that he reported the information he had received that the athlete's transcripts might be fraudulent to Bill Hunt, director of NCAA Legislative Services, who left the NCAA in the middle of the investigation.
"They never talked to Bill Hunt about the letter. I asked them to, but they never did," Skelton says. But Skelton says Hunt told him "to go ahead and play (the athlete)," and he did. But according to the NCAA report, Skelton's letter to Hunt left out crucial information including the fact Clemson's own investigation into the matter, which Skelton spearheaded, had already determined that some of the athlete's grades had been falsified. The report also says Skelton knew at the time he wrote the letter to Hunt that some of the athlete's courses had been fabricated.
Amacher says he does not recall if he read the official NCAA report, but "talked at length" with Skelton about the issue and was assured that Skelton had done nothing wrong and that the new athletic director would guard against NCAA violations at UTA. "I have absolute faith in him," Amacher says.
Bill Reeves, academic advisor in charge of monitoring NCAA eligibility for athletes, says all athletes at UTA currently meet NCAA eligibility. "He [Skelton] has been scrupulous in reporting anything that might even appear to be a violation, to the point of being obsessive about it," says Reeves.
Ryan Amacher is seldom seen open-handedly greeting students on campus byways. To counter the critical letters and articles in The Shorthorn, the president is publishing and distributing his own newspaper--one that focuses on positive news. He has hired an outside public relations firm to polish his image. Provost Taylor keeps the concrete donkey that dangled from Amacher's gate in his office.
Still Amacher endures embarrassing setbacks in carrying out his plans for UTA. During December 19 commencement exercises at the Tarrant County Convention Center, droves of graduating seniors and their families began filing out long before the ceremony was over. Some officials tried to block their exit by putting auditorium ropes across the aisles. When that didn't work, other officials tried unsuccessfully to get the center to lock its doors. Finally, exasperated administrators gave up and scrapped the program's finale. Amacher denounced the students as rude in the next day's paper. But typical of UTA's student body, the walkout was not the result of an organized protest. Most graduates were unimpressed by Amacher's pomp and wanted to get on with their lives.
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