Not afraid to take a risk: Bob Utley
Bob Utley, higher educationís latest advocate in the federal, state and local funding war, sat down with Bill Clinton in New York recently to eat a sandwich and chew the fat.
Utley is an entrepreneur, a philanthropist and a Democrat. But he had Clintonís ear for another reason: Heís on a mission to solve funding woes and provide wider access to higher education. As part of this work, Utley is teaming with the former presidentís William J. Clinton Foundation, Community Foundations of America, the American Council on Education, advertising mogul Roy Spence and MTV to match scholarship donors with minority and low-income students.
"Iím spending time where I can be effective and focusing on issues and causes where I can make a difference," he said. "A lot of our companies have big plans, but Iím spending 40 to 50 percent of my time on things that arenít focused on making money, but rather on how to take our resources and our talents and make a difference."
These are considerable resources, and they make a sizable difference.
Utley, a UT Arlington Distinguished Alumnus who studied business here from 1963-67, is chairman of two companies he founded: the Utley Group, a private investment company focused on real estate, securities, venture capital investments and agriculture, and FirstWorthing Co., a national developer of multifamily rental housing, including university residence halls.
He also founded and maintains advisory positions at two other corporations, a technology holding firm called Periscope Holdings and 21st Century Group, which invests in minority-controlled businesses or businesses that target the minority community as customers.
FirstWorthing builds and owns student housing at universities around the country, including at The University of Texas at Dallas, where Utley returns profits to the university. He has urged administrators in The University of Texas and Texas A&M systems to create another flagship university (he believes UT Arlington could become such a university).
Working with Spence and the American Council on Education, Utley helped form the Solutions for America steering committee, of which UT Arlington President James D. Spaniolo is a member, to find answers and solve funding problems within higher education. Utley and Spence, a co-founder of the advertising firm GSD&M, are rolling out a series of commercials to be broadcast on Fox in prime time "to give a voice to higher education."
"There needs to be a political will to provide broad-based access," Utley said. "We have funded this initially, and we have spent a lot of time and resources to get that whole thing going. Itís a national campaign taken to the grass-roots level."
Despite his passions and contributions to higher education, Utley remains something of an outsider in the industry. Heís a banker, real estate magnate and venture capitalist. The get-things-done attitude with which he manages his companies doesnít always translate to the careful and sometimes politically charged climate of higher education.
"People in higher education are not sure how to deal with Roy and meóthe two Texas entrepreneurs," he said. "The American Council on Education has 60 chancellors and college presidents on its board. We had had numerous meetings and nothing had been done, so we said, ĎLetís make a decision now.í They looked at us like we were crazy. Itís a little different than their environment."
Not forgotten in his higher education ventures is UT Arlington, where Utley was a three-year letter winner and all-conference football player. He has remained a donor to the Athletics Department and says he and Spaniolo are "looking at some other things that [would] have some impacts on UT Arlington."
"Itís a great school," Utley said. "It plays a very important role, not only for the region but for the whole state."
Utley plays an important role, too.
"What I like most about Bob Utley are his passion for higher education and his willingness to think outside the box," Spaniolo said. "He personifies my favorite definition of a Maverick by being an independent thinker."
And a man for whom education is everything.
— Danny Woodward