The University of Texas at Arlington began at a site which had been occupied by a series of private institutions since 1895. In 1917 local residents obtained state support for buying the property and forming a branch of Texas A&M there under the name Grubbs Vocational College, a junior college with a high school department. In May 1923 Grubbs was renamed North Texas Junior Agricultural College, and ten years later the high school unit was dropped. By 1945 students referred to the two-year college as NTAC. Only three deans ran the college from 1917 to 1949: M. L. Williams (1917–25), E. E. Davis (1925–46), and E. H. Hereford (1946–49). In 1948, in the reorganization of Texas A&M, NTAC was made a major branch and Hereford became president. In May 1949 the school was renamed Arlington State College. At that time the institution had about 110 teachers and 2,000 students. In 1959 ASC became a four-year senior college that granted undergraduate degrees in the arts and sciences, engineering, and business administration. Student enrolment was 6,388. A major building program between 1950 and 1965 saw the completion of eighteen projects valued at $14,225,000.
The growth of Arlington and the Dallas-Fort Worth metropolitan area provided the impetus for the rapid development of the college after 1959. In April 1965 the Texas legislature transferred Arlington State College from the Texas A&M University System to the University of Texas System for administrative purposes. In March 1967 the name was changed to the University of Texas at Arlington. At that time the faculty numbered 486 and the students 11,501. In 1964 the institution received full accreditation from the Southern Association of Colleges and Universities. The Texas Association of Colleges and Universities extended similar recognition. Relevant accrediting associations approved undergraduate programs in accounting, business administration, social work, architecture, and nursing. In 1965 UT Arlington offered undergraduate degrees in arts and sciences, and engineering, as well as associate degrees in commercial and technical subjects. In 1966 the university initiated master's programs in economics, electrical engineering, engineering math, math, psychology, and physics. As early as 1958 the university had begun outreach programs. The foreign language department participated in a cooperative program with the Summer Institute of Linguistics in Dallas County. Also the university participated in the Association of Higher Education, a consortium in North Texas, to introduce undergraduate and graduate courses on closed-circuit television. The Energy Research Center was established in 1968 to sponsor research in electricity generation and transmission. Centers in a dozen or so other fields were started. Beginning in 1960 various departments organized lecture series and short courses. In 1964 the history department inaugurated the annual Walter Prescott Webb Memorial Lectures, which brought together leading scholars of American history. The electrical engineering department in 1967 began offering an annual two-week course for electrical power engineers. The Center for Economic Education (1972) offered credit and noncredit courses for public school and college personnel.
During the 1970s UT Arlington expanded its curriculum and services. It initiated joint programs with UT Dallas and the UT Health Center at Dallas, including doctoral programs in the mathematical sciences, humanities, and biomedical engineering. By 1976 the university's four colleges had been joined by an Institute of Urban Studies and by schools of social work, architecture and environmental design, and nursing, each of which was responsible for its own undergraduate and graduate programs. In 1978 the university opened an Office of Continuing Education that offered noncredit courses and activities aimed at improving skills and providing cultural enrichment. Among the numerous periodical publications launched in the seventies was a quarterly journal of the English Department, Pre/Text, An Inter-disciplinary Journal of Rhetoric, which focused on rhetorical theory. The Foreign Language and Linguistics Department published an annual monograph jointly with the Summer Institute on Linguistics. Another publication, Schatzkammer, was devoted to German instruction. Beginning in 1977 UT Arlington took over the publication of the Robertson colony papers, edited by Malcolm D. McLean.
In sports, by the early 1980s the college had dropped swimming and football to concentrate on men's basketball, track, baseball, golf, and tennis; women competed in volleyball, basketball, softball, and track. By the late 1980s, UT Arlington covered 348 acres in downtown Arlington. The physical plant included eighty-five buildings with an estimated (1986) value of $238 million dollars. With the 1984 amendment to the state constitution, the university shared in the state's Permanent University Fund. A new $39.9 million engineering complex was completed in 1989. The university joined the Fort Worth Chamber Foundation in developing an Automation and Robotics Research Institute opened in 1987 in Fort Worth. The library expanded from 400,000 volumes in 1969 to 970,000 in 1986. The Special Collections Division included the Jenkins Garrett Library of Mexican War materials, the Cartographic History Collection, the Robertson Colony Collection, the Texas Political History Collection, the Texas Labor Archives, and the Minority Cultures Collection. In the fall of 1986 a student enrollment of 23,245 made UT Arlington the second largest institution among the fourteen branches of the UT System. The university offered forty-nine baccalaureate programs, fifty-three master's programs, and eighteen doctoral programs. In the fall of 1987 the university had 2,503 employees in all categories and 588 full-time faculty members. UT Arlington presidents have included Jack R. Woolf (1959–68), Frank Harrison (1968–73), Wendell H. Nedderman (1973–92), and Ryan Amacher (1992–95).
In the 1990s about 7 percent of UT Arlington students were black and about 6 percent Hispanic. When Amacher was hired as president-and again after he resigned-black organizations threatened to attempt to prevent black student enrollment at all University of Texas System schools unless an African American was chosen president. Amacher resigned in 1995 amid charges of budgetary favoritism for athletics and other frills at the expense of academic departments, and a small number of black students and nonstudents demanded that provost Dalmas Taylor be hired to replace him. Instead, Robert Witt became interim president for a two-year period. Soon thereafter, new interim provost George C. Wright, an African American, replaced Taylor; black protestors demanded that Wright return to North Carolina and that UT chancellor William Cunningham resign for ordering the audit that led to Taylor's removal. In 2001 Witt and Wright remained as president and provost. In 1993 the faculty at UTA numbered 1,514; 24,783 students enrolled in the 1992–93 regular term and 12,627 in the summer. In the fall of 1998 the faculty numbered 1,215 and enrollment was 18,662. Enrollment reached 20,424 in the fall of 2000.