VP for Business Affairs James Langabeer set to retire after 22 years at UTPA
Posted: 08/23/2010
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When describing his university's top financial and business officer James Langabeer, University of Texas-Pan American President Robert S. Nelsen can get quite descriptive.

"He's old, he's crotchety, he's mean and he's a tightwad - he's everything you want in a vice president of business affairs. And he is dedicated to this university," Nelsen said of Langabeer, who will retire Aug. 31 after 22 years at the University.

Langabeer, who was hired by former University president Dr. Miguel Nevárez in 1988, said he wasn't too sure he wanted to work for the border institution when he was driven to campus the first time on Highway 107 instead of Expressway 83.

"I saw all those little towns and it looked very non-metropolitan," said Langabeer, who came to UTPA from Southwest Texas State University (now Texas State University) in San Marcos, where he was an assistant vice president for Finance and Management. "But Nevárez gave me my opportunity to have a meaningful career. Probably 99 people out of 100 who are more qualified than me never get an opportunity."

Service in time of transition

Nevárez said Langabeer joined the University just in time to help in its transition into The University of Texas System and his financial know how on how to run an effective institution helped Nevárez steer the university through some tough economic times in the late 1980s, similar to those today.

"We had to maximize resources that we had and try and put them to the best use we could for the benefit of the students, faculty and having a good environment for teaching and learning. He helped me keep these things in line. We were even able to save some money and put some away for a rainy day," Nevárez said.

They had many good arguments, Nevárez said, and some included shouting, he added.

"He was not a yes person. I tell Jim the only good thing about it was that I always had the last word but many times my last word was his advice. Those kinds of interchanges we had show how much he cared about this institution and how much he cared in what he believed in," he said.

His team

Nevárez thinks one of Langabeer's greatest accomplishments at UTPA is the kind of personnel he has hired, cultivated and maintained within the division.

"They are well qualified, dedicated and hard workers, anywhere from the financial side to the physical plant side of business affairs and everything in between," Nevárez said.

Langabeer also believes strongly in the team he has built and his biggest hope after he leaves is that they won't "be tinkered with."

"I have a strong division that works the most harmoniously of any division that I've ever run into. They don't fight. They realize we are a support division. They are all professionals and know exactly what they are doing. My chore was to stay the heck out of their way," he said.

Langabeer entered his higher education career after retiring from the United States Air Force in 1981. He said he enlisted in the military in a mechanic role but the military sent him to officers training and to college. He earned his bachelor of science in business administration with emphasis on personnel management from Syracuse University in New York and his master of business administration with a concentration in accounting from Michigan State University in East Lansing, Mich. He is also a certified public accountant.

In his role as vice president for business affairs, Langabeer oversees a budget of $243.8 million and is responsible for all aspects of financial, budgetary and plant support which includes personnel, accounting, budgeting, physical plant, environmental health and safety, purchasing and police services. At one time in the past, he was also in charge of student financial aid administration, information technology and the intercollegiate athletics program.

During his tenure, UTPA has experienced an explosion of growth not only in students but in structures and Langabeer has tried to maintain a unified look on the campus.

"I am a very strict believer in Louis Kahn's architecture - its arches, recessed windows, and brickwork. His work inspired the look of this campus. We are putting something out there for generations. You have to have integrity," he said.

A leader and mentor

Oscar Villarreal, director of the physical plant and an employee under Langabeer since 1989, said Langabeer's division has directed the construction of 10 new buildings on the Edinburg campus as well as offsite locations like the Starr County Upper Level Facility and the major renovation of six other buildings.

"Mr. Langabeer has been a true asset to UTPA. He has helped shape our university to our current state and been a huge part of shaping new generations of leaders across the Rio Grande Valley," he said. "He has been a great mentor for us in Business Affairs by demonstrating good work ethics and discipline."

Villarreal said the James R. Langabeer Scholarship Fund he established in 2002 for all non-exempt physical plant staff and their families has benefited seven trade staff and/or their family members since then by covering university expenses such as tuition and/or books. Langabeer is also a founding member of the UTPA President's Circle, a philanthropic group providing support to the University and its students.

"I will always appreciate his generosity to our physical plant staff and for trying to make their lives easier through education," Villarreal said.

UTPA's director of Environmental Health and Safety, Dr. Richard Costello, credits Langabeer for pushing him to seek his doctoral degree.

"I probably would not have completed my doctorate if he hadn't pressured me every Tuesday morning at our weekly meeting to give him an update. I know he truly cared about the employees under his wing and the students," he said.

Langabeer's colleagues and business associates off campus also hold him in high esteem.

Rene Capistran, president of SpawGlass-South Texas Region, noted his leadership off campus as well as a board member of the Edinburg Boys and Girls Club and his long time support of other community organizations.

"In getting to know Mr. Langabeer over the past four years, I've come to understand what it means to be a servant leader. It is amazing how one person can make a difference and influence the course of human events. I aspire to follow his example in both my personal and professional life," he said.

Langabeer's contributions to his profession and The University of Texas System were noted by Randy Wallace, UT System associate vice chancellor and controller and chief budget officer. Langabeer is past president of the Texas Association of State Senior College and University Business Officers and has served on a number of teams to review other UT institutions' business operations and make recommendations on improvements.

"Jim is the dean of business officers of the UT academic institutions and quite possibly the dean of business officers among all Texas public academic institutions. His service and experience will not only be missed by UT System and UT Pan American but it will also be missed by the rest of higher education as he has contributed enormously to each," Wallace said.

New adventures

Langabeer said he feels a bit conflicted about retirement.

"Anybody who has worked a long time gets their feeling of self worth from what they do. Even though I may be at the end of the trail I know I still have an ego, and although I'm not an egomaniac, I know when I don't feel I have something important to do, I feel unimportant," he said.

Langabeer plans to keep his hand in higher education through consulting work. He is currently in the middle of a project he has been working on during his vacations with the Texas International Education Consortium.

"It is a five-phase report on what it takes to put together a complete university in Yemen. This plan tells them what they are going to have to do, when they are going to have to do it, what are the costs, what positions they need and what the people will do in these positions. They are starting at ground zero," Langabeer said.

He is also planning to play golf and read more, especially outside his usual fare of technical and financial-related books. His wife, Dr. Susan Griffith, director of UTPA's Office of Institutional Research and Effectiveness, hopes he makes good on his plans to also learn how to be a gourmet cook.

Costello summed up Langabeer's legacy the best.

"In the end, it doesn't make any difference how many buildings he has built or his ability to maintain the budget. His legacy will be the number of people's lives he has affected in a positive way, including myself," he said. "We will miss him."