North Texas Daily

‘Prez’ Conference: Checking in with President Smatresk

‘Prez’ Conference: Checking in with President Smatresk

‘Prez’ Conference: Checking in with President Smatresk
April 01
01:40 2014

Matt Wood // Staff Writer

The North Texas Daily caught up with President Neal Smatresk to figure out how UNT has been treating him. We asked about his experience working with faculty and students, navigating recent budget issues and the new tuition plans. He also divulged his love of food and some of his favorite Denton eateries.

How have you enjoyed UNT so far?

Neal Smatresk: I’ve had a great time. Started off with my hair on fire – we’re working through that now and I think we’ll bring that to resolution here shortly. So as we kind of settle our budgetary issues and our staffing problems I’ve been able to turn my attention to the more substantive issues.

How we’re going to work, what our operational core is like, whether we have the right mix of academic programs to support the region around us, how we’re going to raise money, both fundraising as well as developing revenue streams by building enrollment and giving our students options for great degree plans. And finally, what the emerging vision might be from talking to a bunch of people around here.

Seems like every week gets better. Every week we approach a more normal operating plane. From my perspective, I imagine everyone else thinks it’s pretty normal right now, but I feel like I’m having more good days than bad days and that’s important.

And also I’m meeting the community, which, when there’s 7-and-a-half million people living in your community, that can take quite a while.

Is there anything in particular that has been the most challenging?

Well certainly coming in to a very uncertain budget situation has been a challenge. You need to know what your revenue flows are and what your expenditures are, and you can’t really plan and be strategic or know what options you have moving forward until you have all that information down. And that’s the piece that has been tough.

I will say quite plainly that if a vision isn’t attached to concrete implementation plans, and if those aren’t attached to budgets, you don’t have plans.

It’s impossible for any institution to move forward without being on rock-solid ground, financially and knowing where you sit. But we’re getting there. And that will tell us what we have to do going forward in the immediate way and that will temper our vision one way or the other about what kind of opportunities we have for really investing in this institution.

Is there anything that you’ve been specifically doing to deal with the budgetary discretions from a month ago?

We put a team in place, consisting of both system people and our people to kind of go in and do a little triage. So we’re sorting through our budget, we’re identifying our problems and our practices, where they were weak and where they were acceptable. I won’t use the word strong right now.

From what I understand there are some people internally who’ve stepped up and we’ve brought some people in from the system who are kind of filling gaps for us in a very generous way to help get our accounts in order. So with those things going on, we’re getting more confident.

I also brought in my former CFO out of UNLV, who took a good look at what we had and gave me some very pointed advice. Where we thought we needed to do a little better and where we thought we were solid. And I understand right now the budget, ironically, is better than it would have been if I had walked in and everything was good.

On the fun side of things, we had a very short period of time to get our tuition plan in place, the Eagle Express. I am well pleased with the progress we’ve made here, and if you’re driving around you’ll see that we’re blanketing the metroplex with signs. I saw one on the toll way, there’s one over here.

We generated a huge amount of good press over that, even at the national level, because it’s one of the more innovative programs in the country. And I think that’s what I want our students to know, that we aren’t afraid to make bold decisions, that we’re not afraid to really give our students an advantage in setting up innovative plans on how they can afford a higher education.

We want to be partners in your success and those are sincere desires that we think are going to be materially enacted by this new proposal, which, with a little luck, will turn some heads and let students know we’re a place that cares.

Was there any specific goal with designing the new tuition plans?

Well, we have the traditional plan, which is basically a inflationary increase in tuition. Then there’s Eagle Express, which drops tuition in the final semester down by about $4,000.

So it’s a tuition plan that’s fixed except for the last year. That’ll save students a little over $4,000 compared to the traditional plan for their four-year graduation rate. And if students don’t accumulate extra credits, it’ll save them even more. And if they get on the job market it’ll save them even more.

So our goal in designing this plan is really to help students fast track their degrees, get out in a timely fashion and reduce the total level of debt they carry.

How has your interaction with faculty and students been?

Oh, I’ve loved it. On a good day, I get to meet with students and faculty. And it makes me smile. I’ve met with a couple different colleges; I’m going to be meeting with more soon.

Here’s the most important question, though. What’s your favorite place to eat in Denton?

Wow, [laughs] now you see, this is political. I’d have to give you breakouts of categories. I haven’t hit everything.

I’m a hopeless Tex-Mex food junkie and I don’t mind admitting it. I’ve probably hit like six or seven places, and I have to say, I know it might sound weak but I really like Mi Casita, okay? I just do.

But I haven’t been to El Guapo’s yet, and everyone tells me that and La Milpa is great. So I’ve got a long list of places I still have to hit.

On the fine dining side, I think Hannah’s off the square is really excellent.

Feature photo: UNT President Neal Smatresk. Photo by James Coreas / Staff Photographer 

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