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Smatresk prepares to take over as UNT president

Smatresk prepares to take over as UNT president

Smatresk prepares to take over as UNT president
December 05
08:49 2013

Joshua Knopp / Senior Staff Writer

Neal Smatresk, the sole finalist to take over V. Lane Rawlins’ place as UNT president, said he knows exactly what he’s going to do when he starts at UNT – ask a lot of questions. Smatresk has spent the last four years as president of the University of Nevada at Las Vegas.

Smatresk has questions about internal budgets. He has questions about DFW’s population growth and how UNT can adapt to it. He has questions about the ratio of full-time to part-time students and how space is allocated based on that ratio. And as much as anything, asking those questions is what he’s looking forward to.

“The first thing anybody should do when they get to a new place is really listen and do a deep dive into what programs exist and how they’re doing,” he said. “Where are the green spots, and where are the opportunities?”

Smatresk was named the finalist for the position Nov. 20. If confirmed, he will become the 16th UNT president in early February.

Per Texas law, UNT must wait 21 days from the announcement of the finalists to confirm the next president.

Communication studies senior Rudy Reynoso sits on the Board of Regents and was a member of the search committee that recommended Smatresk. He said the search committee had three things in mind for where the next president would take the university: it wanted to become a top-tier research institution, it wanted to compete nationally in athletics and it wanted UNT to develop a deeper, more vital roll in the DFW metroplex.

Smatresk already has a connection with the area, getting his start in higher education as a biology professor at the University of Texas at Arlington. He worked there 22 years, eventually serving as the Dean of Science before leaving in 2004.

The metropolitan area isn’t the only thing Smatresk has connections to. He and provost and vice president for academic affairs Warren Burggren have known each other for 35 years, going back to when Burggren also taught biology. Burggren has also worked at UNLV, though he left before Smatresk got there.

Burggren said the president-provost relationship is one of the more important ones at a university. At UNT, Burggren said the president is like an executive officer and the provost is like an operating officer. He said he’s never worked with Smatresk as an administrator and he’ll need to get used to Smatresk’s style, but through mutual colleagues he’s only ever heard good things.

“He’s clearly highly respected and will be missed at that institution,” Burggren said. “I believe we start from a position of mutual respect.”

Achieving top-tier research university status was something Smatresk worked on at UNLV. He said he wants UNT to pull in between $40 and $50 million a year in outside research grants.

“UNT has a small but very solid core of excellent research, and we need to grow it,” he said. “The extramural funding sources are too low for a university this size, but the question is in a world of shrinking federal budgets, how do you grow it? You can’t be good at everything. You have to pick and choose areas where you achieve critical mass.”

Smatresk had experience making many of the same decisions at UNLV, where the college attempted to grow its research program despite losing 40 percent of base funding over four years during his tenure.

UNLV vice president for research and economic development Thomas Piechota said Smatresk emphasized two initiatives to grow research: engaging the professional research industry and stressing interdisciplinary study groups.

“He’s set initiatives in place that made it a major priority in the university to establish interdisciplinary teams,” Piechota said. “He’s set a great vision for where to go to become a tier-one university. I only have positive things to say.”

UNLV vice president for finance and business Gerry Bomotti said through the budget crunch, Smatresk remained in constant communication with his own staff, the faculty senate and the student body.

Dealing with the deficit, which totaled $73 million over four years, Smatresk offered buyouts, increased student fees, cut administrative salaries including his own office’s and even cut entire academic programs, but Bomotti said he was able to minimize layoffs and drops in the quality of education.

“He’s a good communicator. He’s very compassionate,” Bomotti said “He wanted to make sure he was protecting the university with those cuts. I think it was handled as well as it could be.”

Smatresk said he knows UNT has a nationally renowned music program and that students generally feel strongly about the campus. He said the things he’s most curious about are the engineering department and how that can expand, the research and development department and the way the metroplex’s needs are growing and changing.

Smatresk said the answers to these questions will determine how the university will connect to the metroplex – from developing academic programs to starting new campuses.

Smatresk said he anticipates growing needs within the DFW area, and aspires to follow a model like the University of Houston or Arizona State University to become the primary option to meet those needs.

“UNT was always thought of as a good, solid school. But aside from its arts reputation, wasn’t as known as I think it can be in the DFW metropolitan area,” Smatresk said. “[The University of] Houston is the dominant purveyor of public education in a very large metropolitan area. I feel that UNT ought to fill that role for the DFW metropolitan area.”

Smatresk said this process would be filled with even more questions, primarily about how the population is growing and how jobs are growing in the area. The basic idea is to go to where the population is growing and offer degrees for growing fields, he said.

“I think you find a growing need, and you get in there first,” he said. “You go in and serve that population or you run the risk of getting cut out.”

From making sure current land is being used efficiently to expanding research programs and even into new campuses, Smatresk said he has a lot he wants to do.

In the immediate future, he said he’s just excited about working with people to decide what to do.

“I can’t wait to get to the campus and talk to people about what makes sense,” he said. “I’m genuinely excited about this opportunity.”

Feature photo: University of North Texas System Chancellor Lee Jackson, left, walks with Neal Smatresk who was named by the UNT Board of Regents as sole finalist for the presidency at UNT. Photograph taken on Wednesday, Nov. 20, 2013 in Denton. Photo courtesy of Gary Payne/UNT

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