Search begins for next president
Sorber assumes interim post, vows to maintain momentum following Witt's departure
RELATED ARTICLE: Presidential Search Advisory Committee
Strong academics, a growing student body and being in a major metropolitan area are a few reasons why Teresa Sullivan believes UTA will attract a pool of outstanding candidates for its next president.
“Arlington is a vibrant campus with tremendous growth potential,” said Dr. Sullivan, the U.T. System’s executive vice chancellor for academic affairs. “UTA offers a wide range of undergraduate, graduate and professional programs, has a growing research portfolio and has been recruiting very fine faculty. In addition, its location is very attractive to professionals and their families.”
Sullivan chairs an 18-member advisory committee appointed in February by Charles Miller, chairman of the U.T. System Board of Regents. The committee will present an unranked list of five to 10 candidates to the board, which will make the final decision on a replacement for Robert E. Witt, who left March 1 to become president of the University of Alabama.
Once nominations were collected, the committee began reviewing the materials and will seek additional information on the most promising candidates and conduct interviews by telephone or in person. Typically, finalists visit the campus to meet with faculty, staff, students, alumni and community members. Sullivan expects the bulk of the committee’s work to take place this summer with a goal of conducting campus visits in the fall.
“This will be a very thorough, nationwide search,” she said. “Our goal will be to identify candidates who possess the same qualities of leadership, management skills, collaborative philosophy and academic reputation as President Witt.”
After his appointment as interim president in March 1995, Dr. Witt worked quickly to restore calm to a campus facing sagging enrollment, racial unrest and low morale. He developed partnerships with local African American and Hispanic leaders and intensified efforts to recruit minority faculty members and students.
Witt, who was named UTA’s permanent president in March 1996, is credited with reversing an enrollment slump that hit a 20-year low of 18,662 in fall 1998. The student population has now increased for 12 consecutive semesters. Last fall, UTA became the fastest-growing public university in Texas with an increase of 2,641 students as overall enrollment reached 23,821.
Under Witt’s leadership, UTA strengthened ties with the local community, launching several partnerships with potentially significant economic benefits. One such initiative, the Arlington Technology Incubator, an alliance between the University and the Arlington Chamber of Commerce, links UTA researchers with entrepreneurs to help high-tech concepts achieve commercial success. The incubator recently received a $1.4 million grant from the U.S. Department of Commerce.
Another is the Continuing Education-Workforce Development Center, a UTA and city venture that will house several Metroplex agencies focused on job training and retraining.
Witt also worked to advance the University’s research efforts. In 2000, UTA established the Nanotechnology Research and Teaching Facility, one of only a handful in the country.
Perhaps his most enduring legacy will be the transformation of UTA to a more traditional university with increased campus housing and activities. In 2000, UTA built its first residence hall in more than 30 years. Arlington Hall helped rejuvenate campus life and has led to construction of additional campus housing.
“Anybody who has been around the University for the past few years can see the positive changes that have taken place,” said Chris Featherstone, Student Congress president in 2002-03. “The campus is much more vibrant than it used to be.”
Witt hesitates to pinpoint one accomplishment he’s most proud of, choosing instead to list a spectrum of achievements: additional degree programs, expanded retention efforts, creation of the Honors College and the Ransom Hall Computing Facility, beautification of the campus and construction of buildings.
“This will always be the most special eight years of our professional careers,” he said at a farewell reception in April for him and wife Anne. “We look forward to returning in the future to an even greater university than the one we left.”
For the immediate future, UTA will be led by Sorber, whom Witt has known for 25 years. “We share similar values, outlooks and experience in leading institutions of higher education,” Witt said.
Sorber, a civil and environmental engineer, had been the U.T. System’s vice chancellor for special engineering programs since 2001, when he stepped down from the presidency of U.T. Permian Basin. He also has served as a faculty member and administrator at U.T. San Antonio, U.T. Austin and the University of Pittsburgh.
His primary objective as interim president, he says, is to keep the University moving forward.
“The broad goal is to maintain the momentum of the institution that has been developed by Dr. Witt and his team,” said Sorber, who in the next decade sees UTA growing to 35,000 or 40,000 students and greatly increasing its research funding. “That’s the kind of momentum we need to continue.”
Sorber, 63, earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees at Pennsylvania State University and his Ph.D. at U.T. Austin. From 1976 to 1980, he was director of the Center for Applied Research and Technology at U.T. San Antonio, and from 1977 to 1980 he was also acting director of UTSA’s Division of Earth and Physical Sciences.
He returned to U.T. Austin in 1980 as director of the Engineering Science Program and also served as associate dean of the College of Engineering from 1980 to 1986. From 1986 to 1993, he was dean of engineering at the University of Pittsburgh, where he expanded faculty and academic offerings to include a bioengineering program and was involved in technology transfer and economic development activities.
As president of U.T. Permian Basin, Sorber expanded academic and public service programs, including creation of the John Ben Shepperd Leadership Institute; increased the university’s endowment from $3.9 million to $6.8 million; emphasized student recruitment, resulting in substantial enrollment gains; created a major distance education network that preceded the current UT TeleCampus; developed an intercollegiate athletics program; and oversaw $25 million in construction, including a library/lecture center and student housing.
His role at UTA will be a bit different, he said. “I believe it’s important for this interim presidency to be as transparent as possible. I don’t plan to make changes for the sake of making changes. But I am here to get things done. If there are problems, we’ll fix them. We’re not going to leave problems to face the next president.”
During his tenure as the U.T. System’s vice chancellor for special engineering programs, Sorber’s duties included the study of possible U.T. System participation in the work of national scientific laboratories. His wife, Linda, an attorney, is the acting director of institutional compliance at U.T. Austin. They have two adult children, a son and a daughter.
“Dr. Sorber is no stranger to Texas,” Sullivan said. “He is intimately familiar with the demands and complexities of budgets and the legislative sessions that grapple with those issues, having represented U.T. Permian Basin during no fewer than five legislative sessions.
“Until the Board of Regents makes the appointment of a permanent president, I know that the UTA community and people of Arlington and the Metroplex will be delighted to work with him.”
– Mark Permenter