Alberto Arroyo came to the University of Texas at San Antonio 26 years ago with $25, an engineering degree and his reputation. He unpacked boxes, set up labs, and helped build a civil engineering department that's nationally recognized for turning out Hispanic graduates.
This summer, when the university fired him for alleged ethics violations, everything he had built seemed to be crumbling. His reputation teetered on the edge of ruin and the stress made him physically ill.
Then last week, on the eve of a faculty tribunal hearing in which Arroyo planned to fight for his job, the university dropped its case and gave Arroyo his job back. He starts work this week.
Arroyo, who repeatedly denied any wrongdoing, said Friday that he feels vindicated.
“I am in heaven. I am alive again,” said a buoyant Arroyo, surrounded by a group of about 50 students, former students and community members gathered at Champps sports bar to celebrate Arroyo's return to UTSA. “Finally, somebody put the file together and read it and said, ‘We are going to hang an innocent man.'”
University officials, who at one point explored criminal charges against Arroyo, offered little explanation for his sudden reinstatement, saying only that it was best for the students and the university.
Arroyo's saga began in January, when officials put him and a fellow engineering professor, Chia-Shun “Rocky” Shih, on administrative leave for buying a parcel of land near Helotes that Shih's students were studying for a yearlong class project.
Shih did not realize until after closing on the land that it was the same parcel his students were studying. He told the students to find a new project, but did not tell them why. Arroyo has said the purchase was coincidental, and he is not to blame for how Shih handled the matter.
UTSA officials are pressing their case against Shih, who appealed his firing to a faculty tribunal. The tribunal heard Shih's case last week and will send its conclusions to University of Texas System regents for a final decision.
In Arroyo's case, he believes a massive outpouring of support from students, alumni and professional engineers helped persuade university officials to bring him back.
“I have never felt so much love in my life,” said Arroyo of the e-mails and letters. “When I read them, I cried.”
Students describe Arroyo as one of the toughest professors in the department, but also one of the kindest. If a student needed books and could not afford them, Arroyo would make an anonymous donation, said Margarita Hernandez, a former student who now works for the City of San Antonio as a storm water reviewer.
“For the university to be doing this to him, I was completely shocked,” Hernandez said. “He was the backbone of the civil engineering program.”
Another former student, Laura Campa, said Arroyo gave her a job grading papers when she was broke and trying to pay her way through college. The university's treatment of Arroyo so upset Campa that when the alumni association called asking for money, she turned it down.
“I said no, I wasn't willing to support the university right now because of what they had done to Dr. Arroyo,” Campa said.
When Megan Forthman, a 22-year-old senior, heard about Arroyo's predicament, she gathered 79 signatures from fellow civil engineering students on a petition to reinstate Arroyo. She sent it to a host of administrators, including UTSA President Ricardo Romo, but received no response.
“It was ridiculous,” Forthman said. “I am really upset still with the university and most definitely with Dr. Romo.”
Among structural engineers in the community, Arroyo's absence caused concern about the quality of UTSA graduates, said John Marin, a local structural engineer.
“The students were of a high caliber, mostly because it's pretty tough to get through the requirements Arroyo's got. You really need to know what you are doing,” Marin said.
Though Arroyo's supporters may find it hard to forgive UTSA, Arroyo harbors no ill will.
“When I leave, I will have my degree, my reputation back, my $25 and the love of my students. That's all that I wanted,” Arroyo said.