UNLV president tapped for UNT

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University of Nevada at Las Vegas President Neal Smatresk, right, talks to University of North Texas graduate student Anna Pechenina after being named the sole finalist for the UNT presidency Wednesday at the Gateway Center. Pechenina was the student represenative to UNT’s presidential search advisory committee.
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The president of the University of Nevada at Las Vegas — and a former dean at the University of Texas at Arlington — was named the sole finalist for the president’s job at the University of North Texas during a special meeting of the UNT Board of Regents on Wednesday.

Neal Smatresk, 62, who spent 22 years at UTA, including six years as dean of science, is set to begin work Feb. 3, well after the minimum 21-day waiting period that is required by state law before the regents can vote to formally approve him as the 16th president of UNT, said Don Potts, Board of Regents vice chairman.

Current UNT President Lane Rawlins, who announced his retirement in March, will stay on as president until Smatresk (pronounced SMAH-tresk) arrives in Denton permanently.

“I’m incredibly excited,” said Smatresk, who was in Denton on Wednesday for the announcement. “This is a great opportunity that really lets me put together my skills, and it’s a wonderful university. For my family life, Texas has been home for a long time for us, and it’s great to return home.”

Immediately after the regents accepted a recommendation from Chancellor Lee Jackson to name Smatresk as the sole finalist, Smatresk emerged from a back hallway of the Gateway Center sporting a tie in UNT green. Members of the UNT community, including Rawlins and several vice presidents, greeted him in the hall before a quick introductory meeting in a nearby conference room.

Of the three finalists a presidential search committee submitted to the chancellor, Jackson said he was the best for the university because of his research and work experience.

“Neal Smatresk rose to the top of what we considered a very strong pool of candidates,” he said. “We had several proven leaders at good institutions, and in the final analysis we decided his experience was the best match for UNT’s needs. ... He had the right background and the right leadership style, a reputation for integrity and experience in some of the areas that UNT is going to need to carry us to the next level.”

The 17-person search committee was composed of administration, faculty, staff, students, regents and local business leaders, and despite diverse backgrounds seemed to come to a consensus on the top three candidates, said Mark Vosvick, chairman of the faculty senate and a member of the committee. The committee was headed by UNT alumnus and regent G. Brint Ryan.

“[Ryan] was able to allow everyone on that committee, from another regent to the grad student, have their voices heard — including the faculty, of course — and I think everyone really felt heard in that group,” Vosvick said. “I think the most exciting thing is that the committee pretty much was in consensus on the three names that we sent forward to the chancellor, and that’s kind of a rare thing.”

The process began in the spring, and the university stumbled recently when one finalist was selected but did not accept the appointment, said regent Potts.

“We made an early decision on one of them — a very qualified person — but he was just too happy in his current job, to tell you the truth,” Potts said. “Then we came down to the tough one — which way should we go? — and we feel like we made the right decision.

“He has all the experience there to take this campus and lead it forward, so we’re extremely happy.”

Potts credited the executive search firm Storbeck/Pimentel & Associates Inc. for finding several top-notch candidates that fit the job description. According to Vosvick, the firm brought about 60 serious candidates to the committee.

It will be a return to North Texas for Smatresk and his wife, as he spent the bulk of his professional academic career at UTA. During his tenure at the school, from 1982 to 2004, he served as chairman of biology and later dean of science.

Before joining the faculty at UTA, he earned a doctorate in zoology at the University of Texas and conducted postdoctoral work at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine.

His son and daughter-in-law live in Arlington with his 5-month-old granddaughter. Smatresk said he is happy to move closer to them, as well as his daughter in Corpus Christi.

“They all went, ‘Oh wow, dad, you’ve got to take this job,’” he said.

This was not the first time he had vied for the top position at UNT, he said. While he was chief academic officer at the University of Hawaii from 2004 to 2007, he was interested in the position when it was vacant, Smatresk said.

Because of his interest in UNT, he said, this was the first time he agreed to a job interview after being contacted by a headhunter, which has happened multiple times during his tenure at UNLV.

Smatresk has other connections at UNT, as he is friends with Provost Warren Burggren, dating to his time at UTA.

In a letter to the UNLV community posted on the school’s website Wednesday, Smatresk said the moment was bittersweet and explained that he and his wife have been eager to move closer to their children.

“Both of our children and our grandchild are in Texas, and with our son’s growing family and our daughter’s upcoming marriage, Texas has been pulling on our heartstrings,” his statement said. “UNT is a great university, in many ways similar to UNLV — its student population is growing in size and quality, its research endeavors are expanding and it’s vitally important to the economic strength of the Dallas-Fort Worth Region. Serving as UNT’s president will allow me to combine an opportunity, the skills I have developed, and our family life all in one place.”

Vosvick said he anticipates that the decision will be well received by faculty, as he has fielded constant questions for about a month. Smatresk will be the fourth president, excluding an ad interim president in 2010, that the university has seen since 2000.

“We’ve been receiving presidents quite a bit,” he said. “I’ve been here 12 years and we’ve gone through quite a few, so we’ve got practice. ... It will be interesting to see if he steps up and charms us or if he doesn’t, but I can’t predict that. But from what other folks who know him from the past say, everyone seems to love him.”

JENNA DUNCAN can be reached at 940-566-6889 and via Twitter at @JennaFDuncan.


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