Las Vegas Sun

November 24, 2015

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Smatresk’s leadership elevates university

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How do we evaluate Neal Smatresk?

Employee evaluations are supposed to be private — mostly, I assume, because candor is important when deciding whether a person has done or is doing a good job. People who talk about others want protection from any reprisals, and protecting a person from too much candor — an opinion laced with bias — is also good policy.

But we make exceptions when we evaluate our elected officials. For example, can anyone tell me a more public evaluation process — replete with bias, facts and fiction — than the election of the president of the United States? Go down the list of elected officials and you will find that public job applications are both essential for a healthy democracy and quite damaging to any sense of fair play based on truth.

Somewhere between public office-seekers and private employees exists a great number of people whose job performance in public is fair game. One such position is president of UNLV.

This week, a committee of the Nevada System of Higher Education’s Board of Regents will continue evaluating the job that Smatresk has done to make sure he is deserving of a contract renewal. To do that, they will take public input in an effort to understand Smatresk’s effectiveness and his value to the people of Nevada.

I was going to speak to the board members about Smatresk at a hearing established for that purpose until I realized that whatever I had to say would be heard by a limited number of people — frankly, not the right people. The regents will decide whether to retain Smatresk, so they are, indeed, some of the right people. (By the way, they should also be the folks — the only folks — who should have the right to hire and fire a university president.)

Since UNLV is a public institution whose function it is to educate our next generation, the residents of Clark County have a huge stake in learning what kind of job he is doing on their behalf. So I thought it better to make my comments as public as I possibly can. I hope the regents see this and agree with me.

To say that Smatresk, who was a really good provost of UNLV, stepped up and into the job of president at a very difficult time is an understatement of academic proportions.

When the regents asked Smatresk to jump in, the university had been devastated by budget cuts. That led to a brain drain of UNLV faculty, the likes of which would cause most institutions of higher learning to fold up their tents.

I don’t need to go into all that he did to save the institution and the face of higher education in Southern Nevada at a time when saving meant barely holding on. It should be enough to say that because of Smatresk, UNLV is in a position to grow again and to do it in a way that could vault it to the next level on its way to the very big leagues of advanced education.

If I were to testify to the regents, I would echo what I hear all over Las Vegas: More potential college students — good ones — are looking to UNLV as their top choice because it appeals to them in ways that didn’t exist before Smatresk took the helm.

On a personal note, I know how much Smatresk’s leadership meant to the Brookings Institution’s decision to choose UNLV over many other universities in the West to house Brookings Mountain West. As a result, there’s a level of academic sophistication and policy input into practically every major facet of life in the region and Nevada, in particular, that would never have been available without Brookings’ presence.

Smatresk also has been a prolific fundraiser. When the state devastates your budgets, you don’t have much choice, but he helped raise about $200 million at a time when no one had any money. Imagine what he can do as Nevada climbs out of this financial mess.

In a city used to being on the wrong end of almost every list, UNLV is moving up among colleges and universities where it matters. It is ranked as the 10th most diverse research university by U.S. News and World Report. In a city known for and proud of its diversity, to have its university among the leaders in the country says we are on the right track.

I suspect the Board of Regents will renew Smatresk’s contract (with, we hope, a healthy raise) and that the input from various sources is just a matter of due and proper diligence. I would hope, however, that the regents understand the kind of leader they have and commit to give him the tools he needs to finally put UNLV on the national map, where it not only deserves to be but where the people of Southern Nevada need it to be.

One clear signal would be for the regents to signal to Smatresk that he works for them; otherwise, why would they be dealing with this contract renewal? They also should make clear that he works for the benefit of UNLV, its student body, its faculty and the people of Southern Nevada who depend on its success.

We should never hear in a place where academic freedom is cherished that the academy and the person who leads it don’t have the freedom to discuss in public that which they think is good for UNLV and the people of Southern Nevada.

If I were to testify to the Board of Regents, that is what I would say. I believe the faculty, the students and everyone in Southern Nevada who works to make UNLV and this community a place for which we can all be proud would say the same thing.

Brian Greenspun is publisher and editor of the Las Vegas Sun.

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