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April 16, 2014

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UNLV president driven despite harsh cutbacks

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Steve Marcus

Neal Smatresk, president of UNLV since last July, has come to realize that Nevada “lacks a cohesive vision of education.”

BACKGROUND

Smatresk, who was appointed UNLV’s “interim” president for two years, has a doctorate in zoology from the University of Texas at Austin. He worked for 22 years in the biology department at the University of Texas, Arlington, where he served as the chairman of biology and the dean of science until he left for the University of Hawaii at Manoa in 2004.

ACCOMPLISHMENTS

During Smatresk’s brief tenure, the school has seen the completion of its first major capital campaign, a new partnership with the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank, and the creation of the Lincy Institute, a resource hub that will help local nonprofit groups make the most of grant opportunities to fund programs and services in Southern Nevada.

With his tenure as president of UNLV approaching its first anniversary, Neal Smatresk says he’s looking back at “the best of years and the worst of years.”

Nevada’s higher education system has endured unprecedented cuts in state funding. UNLV is cutting academic affairs spending by $4 million and trimming another $5.7 million from support areas to meet the Legislature’s demand for a 6.9 percent reduction. That’s on top of $44 million already sliced from the university’s budget since 2007.

But there have been some bright spots in the clouds, including the completion of the university’s first major capital campaign, a new partnership with the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank, and the creation of the Lincy Institute, which will help local nonprofit groups make the most of grant opportunities to fund programs and services in Southern Nevada.

Smatresk took the reins at UNLV in July 2009 following the abrupt departure of David Ashley, who stepped down after the Board of Regents indicated his contract as president would not be renewed. To bypass a lengthier search process, the regents voted to appoint Smatresk as “interim” president for two years, the longest possible term.

Smatresk has a doctorate in zoology from the University of Texas at Austin, which he earned in 1980. He also has postdoctoral training from the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine. His employment experience includes 22 years in the biology department at the University of Texas, Arlington, where he served as the chairman of biology and the dean of science until he left for a job at the University of Hawaii at Manoa in 2004.

The Sun sat down with Smatresk to discuss his first year as president and what he sees in UNLV’s future.

What do you know now that you didn’t know a year ago?

I know now that our state lacks a cohesive vision of education and that it lacks the political will to build a better future for our children. I’m waiting for the crisis to produce a leader who has the ability to set us back on course.

Do you think there’s the will among the voters to put that kind of leader in charge?

This is a frontier state, and as a result we have two populations. We have the pioneers — people who moved here for the opportunity, and hope it will create a better life for your family. Whether you moved here five generations ago or five weeks ago, you’re seeking something better, and want to make it better for our children. Then there are the people who are here for the short-term payoff. They don’t want to pay for the infrastructure needed to create long-term sustainability and opportunity for those who come after us.

Which group is winning?

That’s the crux of where we are in this state. We have to make a decision here. The tipping point needs to be a fight won by the people who care about this state.

You’ve pushed for the higher ed system to move to differentiated tuition, which means students would pay more for programs that are more expensive to provide, such as nursing. And you also want to keep a portion of the tuition the university receives, rather than having it flow directly to the state’s general fund, where it’s redistributed. How quickly do you see that becoming a reality?

By the fall of 2011, we must have a different revenue structure. This fall is the time for our Board of Regents to tackle how it’s going to work — you have to give the students fair notice, and be prepared to incorporate it into how you recruit. At the end of the day, I don’t think it’s fair for the state to want all of the control and not give us more flexibility. We’re going to ask for more flexibility and the ability to help ourselves.

What you’re asking for would require legislative support. Are you optimistic about your chances in the 2011 session?

I think our legislators will embrace “self-help” as one of the only ways out. We know how deep the (financial) hole is. Sensible people know we’re not going to get it all from taxes or all by cutting. There’s going to have to be give and take. We are asking for permission to alter our revenue stream, and do it in a way that most benefits and improves educational opportunities.

The Board of Regents has approved increasing student fees to help cover the budget shortfall. UNLV has eliminated six departments and cut its budget by a third in two years. How much worse is it going to get?

I’m done waiting for the St. Bernard. I don’t see a rescue in the next biennium. If you’re a sensible and pragmatic person, you’re driven to an unavoidable conclusion — the cost of higher education, for those who want the service, will go up.

What do you say to those who argue that cuts are healthy, and that it’s forcing UNLV to operate more efficiently?

Certainly some cuts can be healthy. But we’re not talking about cuts anymore, we’re talking about amputations. This is a dire situation where we’re taking stock of what’s critical to our mission.

And has the university’s central administration taken a big enough hit?

Let me tell you something: At the average state university, administration accounts for 12 percent of the budget. We’re at 4 to 5 percent. What we’re doing, with very limited resources, is really very good. I don’t think anyone can say we haven’t been thoughtful about how we’ve cut, and certainly we’ve done everything we can to protect students and faculty.

You’ve said the completion of the $500 million capital campaign was a highlight for you this year, along with the Brookings Mountain West Initiative and the Lincy Institute. What else stands out for you?

If you could erase the budget crisis, no university president could hope for such a year. UNLV had its accreditation renewed, and those visits by the review team could have been an opportunity for us to fall to pieces. And yet it was a time when faculty and staff rallied — not around how bad things have been, but rallied around how far we’ve come. There was a lot of pride in that. We had seven commendations. There were two recommendations for improvements, when normally there are four or five.

What were the low points this year?

Losing programs was a horrible experience. There are some who would like to say, “Gee, that wasn’t so bad.” You know what I say? Yes, it really was that bad. I don’t want to do it again, which is why I’m not sitting back and waiting for the next cuts.

Revenue estimates for the state, while obviously tentative, aren’t encouraging. What are your projections?

We’re hearing that 10 percent reductions to education could be a real possibility in the next biennium. That’s $15 million for us. I don’t believe we can do that and still call ourselves a university.

What would you tell a freshman starting at UNLV this fall?

We’re going to give you a great education. The last place we’re going to impact is the quality of our students’ experience. We haven’t eliminated our Academic Success Center (designed to support remedial and tutorial programs), we haven’t touched advising. All the core areas that directly service students are protected.

But students will notice a difference, won’t they?

The hard part is that class sizes are going to be a little bigger. One of my greatest concerns is the difficulty of delivering as much upper-division education as we need for advanced students, given the loss of tenure-track faculty who teach those classes almost exclusively.

You’ve lost about 100 faculty positions?

And there’s going to be more coming in the next year, as the programs that have just been cut are phased out.

How does that affect your ability to recruit new talent?

It hurts us terribly. We just lost three high-level people we were trying to recruit because of the instability in the state’s funding system. How much of a risk-taker do you have to be to come to UNLV as an assistant professor, knowing our fiscal situation? If you’re an established investigator, do you really want to go to a place that’s undergoing cuts, or do you go to a place that’s going to invest in your research?

Has it also hurt retention?

Top-ranked universities in other states — the University of California system, Texas, Georgia, Florida — go after our faculty. That’s been true all along. But now those poaching trips are having a higher success rate. I used to be able to retain two out of every three faculty who got recruited. Our ratio today is more like one out of every three. Faculty said to me that they just don’t believe the state is interested in building a high-quality institution. Of all the threats we face, the greatest is the erosion of our credibility of this university as a first-rate place to work for quality faculty. It’s not the loss of departments, although that’s bad enough. A university is built on the quality of its faculty. If you can’t recruit and retain high-quality faculty, you’re in trouble.

You’re technically the “interim” president of UNLV. Do you want the security of a more permanent appointment, even if it might mean going through a formal search process?

I’m worried about how we manage through three more hard years, and what that’s going to look like. But I also know that I can help make a difference. We are doing things that make us valuable to the region, including developing sustainable and renewable energy models, being part of the health care supply chain and training a highly skilled workforce. All of those things are critical to the ultimate growth of Nevada, and we have to place ourselves squarely in the middle of that.

I still believe the positives and potentials of this university are higher than at any institution I’ve ever been. I want to be here when we come out the other side of this downturn, and see what we can then accomplish.

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