North Texas Daily

Smatresk updates student body on university changes in Q&A

Smatresk updates student body on university changes in Q&A

Smatresk updates student body on university changes in Q&A
August 29
11:11 2023

On Aug. 22, President Neal Smatresk joined the North Texas Daily for a 30-minute conversation at the Hurley Administration Building. Smatresk gave some updates concerning Diversity, Equity and Inclusion legislation, housing, the Texas University Fund and Mean Green Athletics.

One of the big things that is on a lot of people’s minds this fall semester is the changes the new DEI legislation is having on campus from the closing of the Inclusion, Diversity, Equity and Access office to the hiring policies that were enacted in March. What effects, both short and long term, do you envision the legislation having at UNT?

Well, there’s real immediate changes in what we do and we have to comply with the law. We have to comply by January. The other schools around the state are deep into the process. Someone actually reported that we were the first to make the changes — that’s not the case. Plenty of schools have rolled in with bells and whistles and great announcements.

Immediate impacts are that we can’t ask for diversity statements from job applicants. SB 17 is very clear on this, that we can’t have a DEI rubric for evaluating that. However, we can assess their teaching skills, their ability to engage a diverse population and how effective they might be in our classrooms. So if we assume that it’s important to engage and have an inclusive classroom environment, then I think relatively little will change in terms of how we evaluate people coming in, particularly faculty. We want people that care, we want people that have our values — being better together and showing our fire and caring for the community around us and respecting everyone. If they don’t fit into this very diverse campus, then we wouldn’t offer them a job. So from that perspective, I feel like we’re OK.

We also can’t have mandatory trainings. So we explored the concept of voluntary trainings, but if someone’s paid to do trainings, that also is against the law. So, it puts us in a weird place. We can’t hire an external or internal person except where perhaps it meets accreditation requirements. For example, to be certified as a police force in Texas, you have to have cultural training — you have to do that, Texas law says so. So there’s some kind of built-in conflicts in this, but trainings around specifically that are exclusive, in other words, that are around race, ethnicity, gender, et cetera, are forbidden for us to pay for or pay someone else for.

That doesn’t mean we can’t have healthy conversations. We also have to continue to respond to federal and state laws for affirmative action that set targets and goals, which is a little challenging. There’s kind of some built-in conflict in SB 17. So those are the immediate practical impacts — that and we can’t fund an IDEA office or have a VP for that. Now, Joanne Woodard, who is our VP, is retiring on Oct. 2. This wasn’t something that anyone asked her to do. She’s been here for quite a while now, ready to retire back in her home in North Carolina. With the advent of her departure, it was the right timing because we were concerned that the people in those offices wouldn’t know their fates.

Right now, we’re working hard to place everybody. We’ve relocated some components over to Student Affairs because that’s a natural home. For places like the Multicultural Center, the [Equal Employment Opportunity/Affirmative Action] is a requirement that’s been moved under our CFO. So they all persist, the piece that goes away is the training piece. Now, a lot of the folks that were in that unit really didn’t have a lot to do with training. There was an administrative assistant, communications officer, a budget officer. So we’re hoping that they’ll find a job of their own, if not, we’ll help them. We want to make sure that we retain everybody and give them a good chance — they’re good people. So with a little luck, everybody will stay gainfully employed.

You’ve already mentioned all these steps that you and the administration have taken during the summer to comply with SB 17. What was that process like to get all of your ducks in a row?

It involved being with the lawyers a real lot and we’re still going through it. There’s a lot of sull interpretations that we’re trying to work through. Now, it’s important to mention that our general counsel is also working with the general counsels across the state. So we’re all trying to sort this out and it’s complex legislation, sometimes it’s ambiguous. So we’re hoping that we reach a kind of a consensus about what each of the components of this law mean, and then we’ll put those into effect. I think I’ve named the big impacts to you.

The university has reached another milestone this semester when it comes to admitted freshmen. However, certain departments such as Housing and Residence Life and Transportation Services have felt a certain strain as this growth has continued. What does that growth signify to you, and how does administration mean to adapt to these changes?

Yeah, growth is a good problem to have. Let me give you another factoid — in the last four years, 20 of the state’s 37 public higher ed institutions didn’t grow. Even here in North Texas, the [University of Texas at Dallas] and [University of Texas at Arlington] didn’t grow as much as we did. In fact, no one in the state grew as much as we did in the last four years — not A&M, not Austin, no one. So the good news is we’re growing and other people aren’t, so we must have something good going on here, but it does bring challenges. Parking is a perennial challenge especially when you’re going to put up new buildings and take away some parking. So we’re going to have to find creative ways to expand our parking. It brings up pressures on some of the core classes because more freshmen equal more demand for English, math, history, poli-sci and those areas.

It brings pressure at the graduate level for new programs that are very popular — data analytics, data science, cyber, AI, Computer Science. Those areas are red hot right now and they’re attracting students from all over the world. And we have to scale them up.

They’re a little bit expensive to grow, but the region needs people in these areas, and it’s our aim to provide the students, the education and the state the workforce.

The Student Government Association administration that was elected in May, President Dorcas Bisisi and VP Sarah Robinson marks the second time in university history that two women have been elected in both leadership positions and the fourth time that a woman has been elected president. Why is this important and how have the conversations gone with them so far?

We haven’t been able to talk a lot. I swore them in and Dorcas gave a great speech at the student convocation for freshmen. I think so far, she’s a delight to work with. She’s been working a little bit with Elizabeth With because she runs the SGA programs, but I’ve offered them the opportunity to meet once a month to sort through our problems or challenges or requests — make sure that we’re working well with our student government. I’m excited about her presidency.

Another piece of legislation that passed this session was the Texas University Fund, the new $3 billion fund that would allow UNT as well as University of Houston, Texas Tech University and Texas State [University] access to money that has been strived for years. The TUF’s last step is being put on the ballot this November, but what is your reaction to that finally passing?

Joy. We had not had the legislative clout or the prestige in the state. The schools with PUF money kept getting further ahead. The Permanent University Fund, PUF, is huge. It’s a huge amount of money that was given to every UT and A&M component in a way that really accelerated their growth and progress. So to us, it’s been pretty painful, to Houston, Texas Tech, Texas State and us who didn’t receive PUF. So the fact that the leg[islature] recognized that they need more than two good schools in the state or two systems, was really gratifying and we worked very hard on it — gathering our legislative supporters here, which have grown immensely in the last four years. So it was a good effort and it spells real gains. Right now somewhere in the order of $40 million, and that could double once we hit the research targets.

UH Chancellor Renu Khator said in June, that UH would use TUF to expand their research facilities and “purchase state-of-the-art lab equipment” and “recruit 150 faculty.” I know it’s early and those are still tentative plans — it still needs to pass the vote— but do you and Chancellor Michael Williams have any tentative plans for the TUF?

Certainly we’ve got to staff up. Our research has been growing pretty fast. In fact, we’ve doubled new research awards year-over-year, which is terrific. That, of course, means we have to have startups for faculty and we have to bring in more faculty. We’re growing some of our graduate programs right now really rapidly. So we’ve been hiring them all along.

Our growth actually has been driving a lot of that, but we’ve got a new STEM building going up. We’ve got a renovation of our science research building, both of which will incredibly expand our opportunity. We were a little bit compressed in terms of space and research needs. This campus hasn’t traditionally been a heavy science and engineering campus. We’ve been more of a humanities and arts kind of a campus. And so this fund will let us compete in another domain, so I’m excited about it. We’re talking about cluster hires — that is bringing groups of faculty to work in hot areas, we’re talking about building up our startup programs and we’re talking about expanding some of our research groups. So yeah, we’re talking about all the same things. I want to give you a real interesting factoid. One of the arguments that we made when we went to the leg[islature] was that Texas state and UNT were 36th and 37th on a per capita basis for general revenues in the state. Yet we’re the fourth biggest school in the state, we’re tier one, we’re [a Hispanic-Serving Institution], [Minority-Serving Institution]. It just didn’t make any sense. Even with this money, we’re still pretty far down the list from the schools that have been getting, frankly because of powerful legislative support, lots and lots of extra funds, special item requests, buildings and so forth. With that said, we’re pretty excited. This is gonna catch us up, but in the catching up, there’s a lot of other things we have to do. We’ve got some salary equity issues, we’ve got some building and construction issues, we’ve got student support issues around retention. So we will be putting the money to good use.

Discovery Park is reaching its 20th anniversary next January. Alongside that, UNT Frisco is entering its sophomore semester this fall. What should students expect out of the Frisco campus this year and what does the growth of Discovery Park signify to you?

The Discovery Park answer is easy. Engineering here is booming. We’re relatively young, 20 years old, the engineering program is not quite that old in terms of the size and scope of it. It’s our fastest growing research program. programs like bio-med engineering and material science are standouts and they’re getting national reputations. Of course, I told you about cyber and computer science, they’re just busting at the seams. I actually think that pretty soon we’re gonna be out of space at Discovery Park. That’s the other issue of growth — when you’re filling empty seats, growth doesn’t cost as much. When you have to build new facilities to support growth, then growth begins to be expensive. So we have to figure that out and we have to hope that the state will support us. So as far as Discovery Park goes, great news. We’ve got a great new dean and we’re really excited about where they’re gonna go and we’re gonna have to make sure, especially in this new science and engineering building, that we have space to accommodate engineering as well as science.

Frisco. If you take a look right now, I can’t remember the head count… but we’re somewhere about 30 percent up in students who are taking courses at Frisco year-over-year. The new building obviously helps so that’s the good news. We have capacity in Frisco, we have space in Frisco. The more programs we can put out there to offer a community that’s relatively far away from this university, the better. It’s also a great place because of its corporate connections. So we’re excited about the growth prospects of Frisco, but there are some concerns that I have. Right now we’re a commuter campus and you can only draw a certain population from a commuter campus. And what I’m concerned about is that we get some residences from the developers nearby — multifamily, you know, some kinds of apartments you see popping up on this campus.

And I would really like to have some form of residence halls that can accommodate freshmen and sophomores. We think it’s really valuable to have particularly freshmen living on a campus and getting that full campus experience. So we’re working on plans to see what we can do, and I think once that happens, you’re going to see even faster growth out of Frisco.

Mean Green athletics had two pieces of breaking news this summer — their official entrance into the American Athletic Conference and the renaming of the football stadium to DATCU stadium. Why are these two changes so important?

Well I just love the DATCU naming. DATCU started [in] 1936 from a bunch of professors who threw $400 bucks together and started a bank. And ever since then, they’ve been very embedded in our community. So having a partner like DATCU — heck, they even have the same clothes that we have — it just makes me happy that we’re celebrating something that’s really unique to Denton. And of course, the deal is a very, very good deal and it’s better than that Apogee deal. So we’re happy and I can’t wait to have everyone forget the Apogee name and remember the DATCU stadium.

Yeah, we have an AAC entrance with a new football coach and a new basketball coach. We’ve got high hopes, but it’s a competitive conference and you’ve got Memphis, very good, Tulane, very good, even [University of Texas at San Antonio] and kind of our in-state archrival in [Southern Methodist University], all very good. So the competition has gone up a notch and that means we have to also try to compete at higher levels. So how we recruit, how [Name, Image and Likeness] legislation is going to work and how you can use that. There’s a combine that’s formed, they’re still kind of in their infancy, and what happens to us this year is going to be really interesting to me. So I think we’re gonna be competitive. I’m pretty sure we’ll be competitive in basketball because really there’s a lot of continuity in the leadership there. I think Eric Morris is gonna bring a lot to the table. From what I hear, local high schools feel we’re really out there recruiting well and making friends, but it takes a few years to build a football team. It takes two or three years before you really know which way you’re going. So we’ll give him a little break and root for him hard and hope that we come out at least around the middle of the pack, if not higher.

Next February, you will reach 10 years as president of this university. There’s probably a lot you can say about your tenure but how does it feel to reach this personal milestone?

It feel[s] great. I came here with high hopes for what we could do to really build UNT. When I got here, we were in tier two, we weren’t HSI, our research output was very low. We were at something like 35,000 students or so. Our graduate student population was maybe 15 to 20 percent graduate students. Since that time, we’ve seen a lot of physical growth on the campus. We’ve seen us achieve diversity milestones. We’ve seen us hit tier 1 status — in the last ranking we increased our ranking more than anyone in the country up to the middle reaches of tier 1. So I think that’s a testament not to me but to the great team that we have here and it’s a testament to stability. Stability is your friend in a college campus. So many college campuses around the country right now are experiencing enrollment declines and revolving door leadership and it creates a difficult environment for success for universities. So to me, I’m glad I was able to come here and provide that kind of stability.

Featured Image: UNT President Neal Smatresk speaks with North Texas Daily in the Hurley administration building on Aug. 22, 2023. Makayla Brown

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Ismael M. Belkoura

Ismael M. Belkoura

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