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.

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Rebecca Sherman