UT Arlington’s new president sets a standard

Betty Dillard bdillard@bizpress.net

Since taking the reins as the eighth president of the University of Texas at Arlington nearly a year ago, Vistasp Karbhari is committed to advancing the university’s national and international profile while encouraging and celebrating student, faculty and staff success. Karbhari is a familiar face not only across the campus of nearly 33,800 students and more than 2,200 faculty members but also around Arlington and North Texas. Over the past few months, he’s been meeting and working with the community to build on the university’s assets and see UT Arlington achieve greater prominence in academics and research, particularly in achieving Tier One recognition as a premier public research institution.

“Together, we will not just continue the journey toward Tier One status, but we will become a world class institution, a preeminent place for intellectual pursuits and a driver of positive change,” Karbhari said. A noted engineer and researcher, Karbhari earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the University of Poona in India and his doctorate from the University of Delaware, where he served on the faculty of the College of Engineering and as a scientist at the Center for Composite Materials. In 1995, he joined the University of California, San Diego, and served as a professor of structural engineering and of materials science and engineering. He was provost and executive vice president for academic affairs at the University of Alabama in Huntsville from 2008 to 2013. During his more than 20 years in higher education, Karbhari has received numerous awards for research, teaching and innovation. He holds one patent and has served as principal investigator or co-principal investigator on more than $37 million in research projects. This is your first role as a university president. Has the reality of it been different from what you expected?

In many ways, the job is exactly what I expected – but yet so much more. I am continually amazed by the depth and breadth of excellence we have at UT Arlington and with the opportunities to share our story with so many diverse groups of alumni, supporters and friends. I knew that the University of Texas at Arlington benefited from its location at the epicenter of a vibrant, growing economy. But the past year has cemented my belief that UT Arlington is uniquely positioned to be the model 21st century urban research university – one that combines excellence with access, serving a base of undergraduate and graduate students, but one that also pushes its limits to implement innovative ways of providing knowledge and education to students, and lifelong learners, within Texas and across the globe. To be a truly comprehensive research institution is to balance the arts and the sciences, to shape minds for the worlds of business and nursing, but also for engineering and social work, architecture and education. UT Arlington is a place known for access, diversity and excellence, one where teaching and research are balanced and move forward in symphony, and one where innovation infuses everything we do.

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You’ve been on a “journey of discovery,” meeting with faculty, staff, students and community leaders these past few months. Anything surprise you that you’ve learned since being on the front lines?

No, I haven’t been surprised. But I have been pleasantly pleased to find the world of opportunity that exists at UT Arlington. The fact that we are centrally located in the fourth-largest metroplex in the United States is an advantage, and we will continue to leverage our location and serve our community as our region continues to grow and its economy expands. We know that much of our region’s economic growth is driven by transportation and logistics, manufacturing, health and biomedical technologies, telecommunication and information technologies, and business services, among other industries. UT Arlington’s academic and research programs already are very much aligned with these areas, and the university is primed to play an increasingly important role in not only enhancing the intellectual capital of the region but also catalyzing economic growth. I do think we must loudly and continually remind our community, supporters, civic and business leaders of the excellence that exists here among our faculty and students and of the work we are doing not only to join the ranks of top-tier universities in the United States, but around the world. Our electrical engineers, for example, have developed micro-windmills that may be used to power personal electronic devices, such as cell phones. Our bioengineers are developing new ways to use the body’s own stem cells to regenerate bone tissue and are making advances in the field of neural regeneration. Our High-Energy Physics group literally developed the computer software systems used to manage and analyze mammoth amounts of data collected through the global particle physics experiments under way in Geneva. Our analytical chemistry faculty members are foremost experts in chiral separations – a field vital to drug development and other processes – and in analyses of environmental sampling. If anything is surprising, it is how many UT Arlington resources can be brought to the table to meet the needs of our thriving region and the demand for a highly educated and highly productive workforce.

Has your vision for UT Arlington changed since becoming president? What are your goals and what goals have you set for the university?

Nothing has changed, though we continue to assess our strengths and shape our vision for the university that UT Arlington will be. When I joined the university almost a year ago, I said that UT Arlington would strive to be the best of the best – not just a Tier One institution by state metrics but an institution that will have a national and international reputation as a leader in scholarship, research and creative activity across all colleges and disciplines. This year alone, UT Arlington has been ranked by the Chronicle of Higher Education as the nation’s seventh-fastest growing public research institution and has been ranked fifth in the nation for diversity based on our undergraduate enrollment. We have the highest degree-production ratio of all University of Texas System campuses – which indicates the relationship between baccalaureate graduates in proportion to the total number of full-time equivalent undergraduates enrolled four years earlier. Our research program is expanding at a rate of about 10 percent a year, and our faculty continues to gain national and international recognition including the recent addition of four Fellows of the National Academy of Inventors, bringing our total to eight – the highest of all universities in the nation. Likewise, our students continue to gain plaudits for their successes. As a university we are completing our strategic plan that will set out a very ambitious agenda and will establish strategies and tactics for continuing to advance the university and ensure that UT Arlington sets the standard for others to follow. UT Arlington is on a quest to attain Tier One status. What are some of the challenges the university faces reaching Tier One designation? Like many public research universities, engaging alumni, civic and business leaders and members of our communities in a very active, thriving philanthropy program is among our greatest challenges – but it also is a wonderful opportunity. Many of our public institutions were not actively engaged in such programs until 2003, when state support for universities began a steep decline. Nurturing philanthropic relationships takes time and much effort on the part of the institutions, our alumni and our supporters. But strong philanthropy programs can make the difference between attracting and supporting the brightest students, recruiting world-class faculty and providing the resources and technology they need to thrive and succeed. So this is extremely important to the future of UT Arlington. We must work hard every day to engage our supporters, prove the value of our work and make a difference in the world around us.

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Tell us about UTA DNA, the new website.

We launched UTAdna.com in February as a graphic vehicle to showcase our expertise around 12 themes at the university that dominate our research and academic enterprises. Among these themes are Defense and Security; The Built Environment; Entrepreneurship and the Economy; and Health and the Human Condition. The Built Environment, for example, highlights research and expertise in the areas of architecture, civil engineering, and urban and public affairs. For Health and the Human Condition, the interactive website allows visitors to explore research such as the advances being made in organ tissue regeneration, to learn about campus lectures by health care experts and to view social media interaction on the broad topic. Ultimately, the message at UT Arlington is that collaboration across disciplines leads to innovation and solutions to the world’s most pressing problems. UTA DNA helps showcase faculty and student excellence, events and achievements in a fresh and dynamic way.

Did you know what career you wanted to pursue when you were in college? My father was an engineer, and he led the development of hydroelectric projects across India when I was young. We moved across India, and I had unique opportunities to not just see projects but to also appreciate a breadth of culture and society. We saw firsthand the impact that technological advances could have on communities. I may have briefly pondered other fields of study, but in my heart I knew early on that I wanted to be a scientist and an engineer, contribute to society and make a difference.

What career advice do you give to college students? Focus, dream and stretch beyond what you think is possible. Do what you love and with all your heart and soul. But also think realistically about the future. For some students, that may mean picking up a double major or a minor that helps develop different skills or an alternate expertise. In picking an academic area that fuels your passion, make sure you also choose a career path that will enable you to support yourself and your family.

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