North Texas Daily

The Real Neal: An educator’s lesson

The Real Neal: An educator’s lesson

The Real Neal: An educator’s lesson
April 30
15:02 2015

Dalton LaFerney / Views & Digital Editor

Normally, when the editors meet with the president, we sit down, press record and the interview begins. But this time, Neal Smatresk was not only the university president; he was an educator seizing a moment to impart wisdom.

“I’m going to give you a test today, Dalton,” he said, as he dropped a notepad and ink pen on his coffee table. He suggested I not record the interview. Instead, he thought, I’d simply take notes. He wanted to have a conversation. Not only an educator, but a businessman, Smatresk leveraged that he’d go into more depth if I did not record his voice. He sought to elaborate on our queries, to visit the essence of the issue, not calculate a response as a president might. I was not looking for short, public relations-style answers, so I took his test.

What we got was a man who kept his same composure and professionalism as in a recorded interview, but with the serene tempo of an open mind. When Caitlyn Jones, our editor-in-chief, kicked off the questioning, Smatresk was already thinking about the subject, or “brewing” over it, as he said.

The editor wanted the president’s stance on a campus issue involving labor rights. The day before our meeting, Smatresk faced a coalition of 21 UNT organizations in his office. Led by the Students Against Trafficking and Slavery, the activists urged their president for UNT to support a cause dear to them, one that is linked to all students: affiliating with the Worker Rights Consortium.

Smatresk said the coalition’s offer came off as more of a demand, and less a request. “I don’t do well with demands,” he said. “They were impolite last time.”

My investment in Smatresk’s deal paid off pretty quickly. When the editors met with him, it was less than 24 hours following the conversation with the students. He hadn’t made a clear decision, and he stopped — just for a moment — to think.

In a Student Government Association meeting Wednesday, Smatresk addressed the coalition. He told the chamber in order to affiliate with the WRC, the university must pledge 1 percent of its merchandise revenue. He said he didn’t want the university to spend that money.

“UNT Students for Fair Labor is disappointed at the response we received from President Smatresk,” the group wrote in a statement. “The administration has decided to pass along the responsibility for this decision to the SGA. We expect an affiliation with the WRC immediately to hold this community accountable for human lives.”

If you’ve followed university affairs this semester, you’ll know Smatresk has faced other criticism on his relations with students. The administration selected Republican Gov. Greg Abbott as the keynote speaker at this year’s mass commencement on May 16.

“I’ll put this one on me,” Smatresk said.

The campus, a mostly liberal student body, immediately became outraged with Smatresk, some on social media even calling for his resignation. But the president moved forward, not ignoring student concerns, but steadfast in his belief that the governor, especially one like Abbott, who is new to that office, sets the tone and agenda for the state. UNT, Smatresk said, should “hold out the olive branch instead of a burning stake.”

“The governor sets the tempo for the party and controls what happens in the state,” Smatresk said. “We listened to students and made a tough call,” adding that Abbott is free of charge, compared to the $500,000 beginning price for Michael J. Fox, who was considered for speaker.

Former SGA president Troy Elliott said he had no idea Abbott was supposed to speak at commencement. Current SGA president Kam Williard said the same thing. But Smatresk did not take the blame there. Nope, not even close. He said SGA did a poor job of communicating with him on the issue.

“We haven’t had the continuity of leadership in SGA. This year, I haven’t had that [communication],” Smatresk told us on the matter. “It’s been a good learning experience.”

Smatresk has worked with politicians before. After all, he is a university president, a public official. He met President Obama when Sen. Minority Leader Harry Reid brought him to the University of Nevada at Las Vegas, where Smatresk was president prior to coming to UNT.

Other politicians include — and this is not exhaustive — the governor of Nevada. When Smatresk took over as UNLV president in 2009, the country was crippled by the Great Recession. The Nevada legislature weathered the storm with cuts to numerous institutions; UNLV was no exception.

Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval saw his statehouse cut UNLV’s funding by $74 million, according to the Las Vegas Sun, and eliminate 19 degree programs. There was even a 50 percent increase in student tuition.

One article had Smatresk on record as saying, “This is the most frustrating experience of my life,” as he fought hard against the state, alongside students and faculty who opposed the cuts. Smatresk brought that experience with him to UNT, and on May 16, this state’s governor will speak — a time to listen, to create a more open dialogue with the state.

Smatresk said talking it out, not “sharp rhetoric,” will lead UNT to the right conclusion.

Featured Image of President Neal Smatresk courtesy of UNT News.

About Author

Dalton LaFerney

Dalton LaFerney

Dalton is the editor of the Daily.

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