The boxes might not be unpacked and the corner office in the Hurley Administration Building may be a bit unfamiliar, but Neal Smatresk is ready to start work Monday as the 16th president of the University of North Texas.
He’s made numerous trips back and forth between UNT and his former institution, the University of Nevada at Las Vegas, since being named the sole finalist for the job in November, and says he is “ready to hit the ground running.”
So far, Smatresk said he has met with or been in e-mail contact with a number of officials and is ready to start learning more.
“As always for the new person going in, you want to get your arms wrapped around the critical issues, and that is, how is our core business doing? How are we doing with recruitment? How is our quality image? Is our budget sound?” he said. “There are the real nuts-and-bolts issues, and any good president has to have their arms wrapped around them quickly so they know what latitude they have.”
Additionally, he plans to quickly start working with the provost and the vice president for research to develop a master plan for research, and to begin what he calls a listening exercise, in which he plans to meet with every department and learn what those leaders want to see in the university’s future.
Smatresk and past President Lane Rawlins have met several times about how to handle the transition, and both anticipate they will be in touch about key issues. Rawlins, the new president emeritus, said he will be careful not to overstep boundaries.
“It feels like a mutual admiration society, but I will not be confused about who is president,” Rawlins said. “I know how to do this — one day I will be president, and the next day I will not be president. And I know how to do that. No place needs two presidents.”
Provost Warren Burggren, who has known Smatresk since they went on a research trip together 35 years ago to the South Pacific, recently visited Smatresk at UNLV. As the two walked around campus, Burggren said he could see from the way Smatresk interacts with students there that he will fit right in at UNT.
As Smatresk adjusts to UNT, he and his wife, Debbie, will be adjusting to temporary housing while they begin to build a home six or seven minutes from campus, Smatresk said. They will be near good company — their son, daughter-in-law and new granddaughter.
“Moving isn’t a lot of fun, but moving to Texas and getting back home is terrific,” he said.
Tenure at UTA
The move down to Denton is a homecoming of sorts for Smatresk, who spent 22 years at the University of Texas at Arlington working his way up the administrative ranks.
Smatresk joined the faculty at UTA in 1982 in the biology department, making use of the doctorate degree in zoology he earned in 1980 at the University of Texas at Austin.
Even as a professor, Smatresk began to interact with the community, visiting elementary schools and bringing pythons with him, recalls Krishnan Rajeshwar who started about the same time as a professor in the UTA chemistry department. The two had parallel careers, focusing on teaching and high-level research, and even have children of similar ages, Rajeshwar said.
Smatresk went on to become chairman of the biology department in 1994, his first academic leadership position, and was promoted to dean of the College of Science in 1998.
Soon after, the current dean, Paul Paulus, became Smatresk’s associate dean. Paulus and Rajeshwar both said they watched Smatresk develop into a strong leader with a clear vision.
“To me, the thing that strikes me — and I didn’t know him that well before — but I think he really blossomed when he became a dean,” Paulus said. “It really allowed him to express his energy and ideas in a variety of ways.”
He was also fearless, donning an elaborate costume as Lord Chamberlain in UTA’s Feast of Carols as part of the university’s Jolly Jubilee events. It was not unlike the UNT mascot beak he donned on Friday in Denton while having a lighthearted dinner with Rawlins.
As dean at UTA, Smatresk worked with regional and state businesses to learn what they wanted from future employees, started a workforce symposium and worked to have interdisciplinary groups work together on initiatives to strengthen the college and university, Paulus said.
Smatresk also worked to enhance the research and quality of life for students in the college, playing host to annual picnics and raising money for the college by sitting in a dunking booth.
He also undertook something outside of the university during his tenure — the state science fair.
After the Texas State Science and Engineering Fair’s leadership fell through one year, Smatresk announced that his department would take it over. Faculty were involved in the preparations and students acted as judges, while Smatresk worked to garner financial support, convincing Exxon Mobil Corp. to step in as sponsor, a role it continues to fill.
“It was seen as a heroic thing, and I think it was a big deal for all these kids who weren’t going to be able to showcase their projects,” Paulus said. “You would think as the College of Science dean that’s none of your business. … But he really broke the mold in terms of going way beyond the boundaries of what a dean is, and how to run the department.”
Smatresk’s broad visions and ideas continued throughout his tenure, said Rajeshwar, who also served as associate dean under Smatresk. It was Rajeshwar’s first time in a leadership role at the university, and he learned from Smatresk how to interact with others and manage people, he said.
At some point as dean, Rajeshwar said, Smatresk made a choice that he wanted to be an administrator and did everything in his power to be the best leader possible for the college. He and Paulus said they knew Smatresk’s drive and broad visions of higher education would launch him into an administrative career.
“He probably was one of the most dynamic deans we ever had, in terms in actions and initiatives,” Paulus said. “He was missed when he left, but we knew he had so much energy and vision he really needed to go work at higher levels at other places. We saw once he got a taste of that, he would want to go on and use his skills and talents at a higher level.”
In 2004, Smatresk headed to the University of Hawaii at Manoa to serve as chief academic officer for three years before continuing to UNLV as provost.
After two years as provost at UNLV, Smatresk became president of the university in 2009. His tenure there was marked by the same leadership style he exhibited at UTA, according to those who worked with him at UNLV.
He worked long hours to improve every aspect of the university but remained warm and personable, said Bill Boldt, vice president for university advancement, who started in the job just one month after Smatresk joined UNLV.
“Honestly, he is a force of nature,” Boldt said. “I’ve worked in higher education for 42 years … and this will be my fifth president I’m working with now, and Neal is the most charismatic, warm, engaging and effective president I have ever worked with.”
When he started at UNLV, Smatresk conducted a listening tour, much like what he plans for UNT. The tour took a year, but he met every faculty and staff member — about 2,000 people — in groups during that period, Boldt said. Many of the suggested changes he heard were incorporated at the university.
Smatresk also navigated the university through the worst budget cuts in its history, after $70 million in cuts were handed down by the state despite pleas from Smatresk and the chancellor. Over two years, Smatresk eliminated 700 positions but saved more jobs than expected and used creative approaches, including faculty buyouts, to minimize impact on students, Boldt said.
“We were absolutely hit harder than any other state in the country and we were able to survive, and I think we’re stronger because of it,” Boldt said. “We had to make strategic changes and now we are more efficient, and enrollment and the quality of student is up. We not only survived the budget cuts, but we came out of the dilemma a stronger and more efficient institution.”
Smatresk also inherited a fundraising campaign at the university during the economic downturn that aimed to raise $500 million. Pledges of gifts were backing out and the total amount raised was about $270 million. Under Smatresk, they exceeded the goal and raised $537 million. This allowed for more money for scholarships as costs at the university were increasing, Boldt said.
“We had to raise student fees and Neal was very concerned with student impact, so we really focused on scholarship support,” he said.
Under Smatresk, community partnerships and relationships with key players such as the governor were enhanced, and he helped attract the Brookings Institution to UNLV to form a mutually beneficial partnership.
“He connected with the community like no president ever has here,” Boldt said. “He will make an amazing impact on Denton. He will embrace the community. He will strengthen the academic profile of the university. He will strengthen current niches and make sure that the university is relevant. He will listen to faculty and staff and find constant ways to improve the university. … You are so lucky to have him.”
JENNA DUNCAN can be reached at 940-566-6889 and via Twitter at @JennaFDuncan.