Unanimous decision

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Neal Smatresk gestures at the Gateway Center at the University of North Texas after he was officially named the next president of the university.

Board of Regents officially names Smatresk as next UNT president

Neal Smatresk, the president of the University of Nevada at Las Vegas, was officially tapped Thursday to be the next president of the University of North Texas. He will assume the position Feb. 3.

The Board of Regents voted unanimously to name Smatresk as the new president during a teleconference meeting Thursday morning. The appointment comes after he was named the sole finalist for the position Nov. 20.

The university spent nearly a year searching for a replacement after President Lane Rawlins announced in March that he wanted to retire by the end of 2013. He will stay in the role of president until Smatresk takes over in February.

Smatresk was in Denton for the vote. Afterward, he sat down with the Denton Record-Chronicle to talk about his upcoming transition.

Q: What have you learned about UNT since you were nominated as the sole finalist for the presidency?

A: Remembering that we spent 23 years in Arlington [at the University of Texas at Arlington], I knew quite a bit about the University of North Texas. To add to that history, obviously, I’ve talked to a whole lot of the folks here, communicated with some of the deans with the provost, and I’m beginning to have more talks with the vice president for research and Lane Rawlins, who has been absolutely terrific in this whole process.

I have had a couple of sit-downs with him, so I’ll just say I’m slowly but surely beginning to understand more about the budget, the infrastructure, the general organization and staffing at the university. Those are important pieces for any president to get their arms wrapped around.

Q: I know you mentioned before that family was a large reason you wanted to take the job, but is there anything else that led you to leave UNLV for North Texas?

A: I love UNLV. It’s actually, literally, the hardest decision I ever made. Leaving Hawaii, while it’s a beautiful, beautiful place, moving back closer to where the kids were by moving to Las Vegas, was actually a pretty easy call.

Moving from Las Vegas — where I just have to say we have some of the best friends, strongest support, and I just got a four-year contract renewal and I had about an 80, 85 percent approval rating, which is nearly unheard of in a university environment — leaving and having the outpouring of love for [my wife] Debbie and I is really hard. You realize you’re leaving behind so many people.

There’s always a piece of us that stays Rebels, but we really look forward to being Mean Green.

Q: Now that you’ve become a little bit more familiarized with the inner workings of the campus, what do you see in terms of UNT’s future?

A: I don’t want to get too far ahead of myself, so it’s important to say the first thing I’m going to do is listen. It’s foolish for anybody who walks in new to impose an externally derived vision on a campus that’s got such a long and rich history.

So, I need to understand the culture. I need to get to know the people and I want to hear their hopes and dreams, and I really think that’s the most important part. Something that I plan on doing is what I will call a listening exercise: I’m going to meet every single academic and support unit on campus. It will be hectic. It will be whirlwind. It will be drinking from the fire hose.

But you really need to hear from all the individual constituencies what they want, and out of that you can begin to see what the vision is for the campus and what the hopes and dreams are.

So the first thing I’ll do is understand the nuts and bolts of the job and make sure I’m listening. But that dodges the question a little, so what you need to know is that it’s clear to me that positioned as one of the largest universities in the country, a university that’s got a long and wonderful history, a university that prides itself on its family feel and great educational programs, that we should be emerging as a top Carnegie institution [a classification of colleges that now ranks UNT as a second-tier university]. And that’s something I really feel we need to focus on.

And the question is, what are the gaps and how do we close those gaps? Where are the great opportunities? Where do we need to support the region? How can we assist in the economic development of North Texas, and what are the programs that will really catapult this institution into national prominence? We need to figure those things out and then begin developing a critical path for perusing that vision. ...

Right now I’m much more concerned about where the campus sees itself in getting a real quantitative, data-driven set of metrics that allows us to see where we are, see what the gaps are and know what we have to do in terms of building the reputation of this institution and our specific performance characteristics.

Q: As you transition into the role of president these next few months, how do you plan to prepare for the ultimate takeover in February?

A: I should have sent you my list. And I wouldn’t call it a takeover, I would call it an integration. You know, the biggest thing I think anybody needs to know about is how the budget is deployed and what kind of funds are available, and what the economic challenges are of any institution.

There isn’t a higher ed institution that has all the money that it wants. So understanding that is a critical step in this transition period.

The other piece that I think is important is understanding what kind of infrastructure exists in the institution. For example, the IT [information technology] infrastructure, the institutional research or business intelligence functions, how advising and academic support work along with all the academic programs. Those kind of nuts and bolts things, but they’re really stock and trade for anyone who is in higher ed administration. You can get a good idea of what’s available by looking at all of those.

I think the real serious part of this comes when you hit the ground, and that’s when you almost need to simultaneously engage all the internal and external stakeholders. I think that we need a greater presence in both Dallas and Fort Worth. I think we need to consider carefully the growing 35 East corridor, and the area around Frisco and places because the population patterns are shifting, and someone’s going to have to serve.

And if it’s not us, it could be someone else. So we have to think about what the long-range strategy for this institution is as far as developing its brand and making sure that, in my opinion, that UNT owns the brand as the quality educational institution serving this whole region.

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

CHOOSING SIDES

The way Neal Smatresk sees it, he’s in a no-lose situation when it comes to the Heart of Dallas Bowl on New Year’s Day.

Smatresk has been president of the University of Nevada at Las Vegas since 2009 and will see the Rebels play in their first bowl game since 2000. In an odd twist, they will be playing the University of North Texas, the school where Smatresk was tapped Thursday to be president starting early next year.

UNT will be making its first bowl appearance since 2004.

“I have a feeling one of my teams is going to win,” Smatresk said.

The game comes at a time when Smatresk will be making the transition from UNLV to UNT, and when Lane Rawlins will be wrapping up his career as UNT’s president.

So which team will Smatresk be rooting for?

“I thought it through,” Smatresk said recently. “Lane is the president there and is excited. I am still officially the president at UNLV.

“I will go to the game and wear red, but in February I will be excited to change my color to green.”

— Brett Vito


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