Tuesday, Nov. 26, 2013 | 2 a.m.
Last week, UNLV President Neal Smatresk announced plans to become the president of the University of North Texas.
The news came as a great shock to many Southern Nevadans, as the search process under way at the school 40 miles north of Dallas remained confidential. Smatresk said he would resign from UNLV after his likely confirmation next month by the University of North Texas Board of Regents.
The decision to leave UNLV after four years at its helm came about, Smatresk said, because of his family in Texas. In a letter to the university community, the popular and well-liked president said his children and granddaughter in Texas have been “pulling on my heartstrings.”
The Sun spoke with Smatresk after his announcement to talk about his decision, his legacy and his hopes for the university he leaves behind.
Why did you decide to become president of the University of North Texas?
I wasn’t looking for a job. I’ve been happy here. I love this city, I love this university and I really believe in our mission. I felt that (my wife) Debbie and I have been blessed with incredible support from this community. So when UNT called me for the first time about two months ago, I said, "I’m not sure I’m interested." I didn’t think a lot about it after. But then, they called a second time and worked hard to convince me that this was an opportunity I should take seriously. It was just after my grandbaby had been born, so I started thinking that would be a neat place to go back to. It’s a pretty good institution, like UNLV, but in a different setting. I liked what I saw in their leadership and the promise of their university. I feel that when you can take a skill set I’ve developed, which is connecting the university to the community, and the fact that my family could be whole again, it became an irresistible thought. I think it will be a good fit.
What kind of university has UNLV become during your tenure?
A lot of people look for specifics, but I would look at how the culture has changed. If you’re leaving a university that’s divisive, you haven’t done your job as president. I leave behind an institution that believes in itself and is unified as a really positive community. That hasn’t always been the case here. When the cuts were happening, we could have fallen apart, but we pulled together. I’m very proud of that. I’m very proud of the fact that we came through the worst of times stronger than ever and we’re ready to grow again.
What accomplishments are you most proud of during your time at UNLV?
Closing out the capital campaign (which raised a record $537 million), growing the endowment (from $85 million to nearly $170 million), and raising scholarships and endowed professorships. Bringing the Brookings Institution here. Also, expanding the Honors College. This year, we accepted the largest, most diverse and most talented entering class. We had more National Merit scholars and more valedictorians than ever before. That’s phenomenal. This university has so many terrific faculty and students. That’s what makes UNLV a first-rate institution.
What do you regret not putting a bow on while at UNLV?
The medical school. Of all the things I think can transform a university, it’s the medical school. I love the stadium project, as well, but I think the med school is the single most important item for discussion. I’m sad I’m not going to be able to bring that across the finish line, but getting to the point where we can begin talking about a medical school plan seems like a really strong achievement. A year ago, that was not even possible. Am I afraid it will all crash and burn when I leave? I’m not. These are projects I was able to be a public spokesperson for, but they have deep roots in the community. The university, the regents and the public believe in them. They will continue because they were built out of consensus.
What’s been the hardest part about your job as president of UNLV?
The budget cuts and the need to eliminate departments and personnel is one of the hardest things I’ve done. Those were tough. We sought to preserve most critical parts of our curriculum and tried to trim programs' costs in the most respectful way possible. You can never be cavalier about that. You can’t take a corporate attitude about that because we’re talking about people’s lives. Anytime you’re changing personnel, it’s a serious decision and those are things that work at you. But if you can’t make a tough decision, you’re not cut out for this job.
For a long time, the greater Las Vegas community seemed to have dismissed UNLV. The Las Vegas Metro Chamber of Commerce credited you for changing the university’s former perception as “an island.” How do you see UNLV’s town-gown relationship?
I realized early on that if you want your university to be valued, you have to be a great partner. I served on the executive board of the chamber and economic development boards because I so believe in the central belief of a university to expand the workforce and be a stronger driver of a region’s economy. I really worked hard to make sure when people look at those economic opportunities, they would first recognize that UNLV had to be a part of that.
What’s the greatest challenge facing UNLV?
We’re an incredible value. A bachelor’s degree in Nevada is about the second-cheapest degree in the country. You can get a whole bachelor’s degree for less than $30,000, which is a year (of tuition) in some places. We’re cheaper than the Cal State system, the UC system, and Arizona and Arizona State. But we can’t deliver higher and higher quality of education – more faculty and services – for nothing. We need to have new infrastructure and pay for great faculty. We need to be able to expand on our resource base, and we can’t do that on the budget we have. If we’re going to grow, we have to find more revenue, and that’s going to come from the state or students or a mixture of the two. We need thoughtful, gradual increases in tuition and state funding so we make sure we can continue to educate our students. Am I concerned about our access mission? Yes. But we deliver a great education every single day. For the most part, graduates gain great jobs. We believe we are preparing them better than we have in the past.
UNLV’s Runnin’ Rebels didn’t make the NCAA basketball finals during your tenure, but this year, the football team is bowl eligible and won back the Fremont Cannon after nearly a decade in UNR's hands. What are your thoughts about UNLV athletics during your time here?
Getting the Fremont Cannon after years of struggle had to be one of the most stirring moments, one of my highlights, as president. I loved it. The cannon looks great in red. I would have liked to make it to the Sweet 16 (in basketball). Yeah, it’s a little disappointing, but you know what? We can’t expect to have championship seasons every year. Everyone is looking for instant turnarounds, but I’d rather have sports with steady progress and a lot of integrity. While we think our focus should be on academics, presidents often come and go around athletics programs. In my opinion, the academics and research is the most meaningful part of our institution, but the community has a predilection to dwell on athletics. It’s important to the university in terms of donor support, and that needs to continue to improve. I’m confident it will.
Do you hope your granddaughter grows up to become a UNLV Rebel?
I’ve counseled many, many talented students to come to UNLV. I would just say that if UNLV is the best fit for her, I’d be proud for her. UNLV provides an extraordinary education for a great value. If you go to our creative writing program, our hotel program, our law school, I guarantee you’ll get a superior education. That said, I may be counseling her to go to UNT.