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January 29, 2015

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Smatresk’s leadership elevates university

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How do we evaluate Neal Smatresk?

Employee evaluations are supposed to be private — mostly, I assume, because candor is important when deciding whether a person has done or is doing a good job. People who talk about others want protection from any reprisals, and protecting a person from too much candor — an opinion laced with bias — is also good policy.

But we make exceptions when we evaluate our elected officials. For example, can anyone tell me a more public evaluation process — replete with bias, facts and fiction — than the election of the president of the United States? Go down the list of elected officials and you will find that public job applications are both essential for a healthy democracy and quite damaging to any sense of fair play based on truth.

Somewhere between public office-seekers and private employees exists a great number of people whose job performance in public is fair game. One such position is president of UNLV.

This week, a committee of the Nevada System of Higher Education’s Board of Regents will continue evaluating the job that Smatresk has done to make sure he is deserving of a contract renewal. To do that, they will take public input in an effort to understand Smatresk’s effectiveness and his value to the people of Nevada.

I was going to speak to the board members about Smatresk at a hearing established for that purpose until I realized that whatever I had to say would be heard by a limited number of people — frankly, not the right people. The regents will decide whether to retain Smatresk, so they are, indeed, some of the right people. (By the way, they should also be the folks — the only folks — who should have the right to hire and fire a university president.)

Since UNLV is a public institution whose function it is to educate our next generation, the residents of Clark County have a huge stake in learning what kind of job he is doing on their behalf. So I thought it better to make my comments as public as I possibly can. I hope the regents see this and agree with me.

To say that Smatresk, who was a really good provost of UNLV, stepped up and into the job of president at a very difficult time is an understatement of academic proportions.

When the regents asked Smatresk to jump in, the university had been devastated by budget cuts. That led to a brain drain of UNLV faculty, the likes of which would cause most institutions of higher learning to fold up their tents.

I don’t need to go into all that he did to save the institution and the face of higher education in Southern Nevada at a time when saving meant barely holding on. It should be enough to say that because of Smatresk, UNLV is in a position to grow again and to do it in a way that could vault it to the next level on its way to the very big leagues of advanced education.

If I were to testify to the regents, I would echo what I hear all over Las Vegas: More potential college students — good ones — are looking to UNLV as their top choice because it appeals to them in ways that didn’t exist before Smatresk took the helm.

On a personal note, I know how much Smatresk’s leadership meant to the Brookings Institution’s decision to choose UNLV over many other universities in the West to house Brookings Mountain West. As a result, there’s a level of academic sophistication and policy input into practically every major facet of life in the region and Nevada, in particular, that would never have been available without Brookings’ presence.

Smatresk also has been a prolific fundraiser. When the state devastates your budgets, you don’t have much choice, but he helped raise about $200 million at a time when no one had any money. Imagine what he can do as Nevada climbs out of this financial mess.

In a city used to being on the wrong end of almost every list, UNLV is moving up among colleges and universities where it matters. It is ranked as the 10th most diverse research university by U.S. News and World Report. In a city known for and proud of its diversity, to have its university among the leaders in the country says we are on the right track.

I suspect the Board of Regents will renew Smatresk’s contract (with, we hope, a healthy raise) and that the input from various sources is just a matter of due and proper diligence. I would hope, however, that the regents understand the kind of leader they have and commit to give him the tools he needs to finally put UNLV on the national map, where it not only deserves to be but where the people of Southern Nevada need it to be.

One clear signal would be for the regents to signal to Smatresk that he works for them; otherwise, why would they be dealing with this contract renewal? They also should make clear that he works for the benefit of UNLV, its student body, its faculty and the people of Southern Nevada who depend on its success.

We should never hear in a place where academic freedom is cherished that the academy and the person who leads it don’t have the freedom to discuss in public that which they think is good for UNLV and the people of Southern Nevada.

If I were to testify to the Board of Regents, that is what I would say. I believe the faculty, the students and everyone in Southern Nevada who works to make UNLV and this community a place for which we can all be proud would say the same thing.

Brian Greenspun is publisher and editor of the Las Vegas Sun.

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  1. UNLV President Neal Smatresk has demonstrated real leadership in some of the darkest years of both American and Nevadan history. The beleagured university has literally risen out of the ashes under UNLV President Neal Smatresk's leadership and direction, and should be commended. It would be our loss to not acknowledge Smatresk's dedication and hard work with not only a positive evaluation, but appropriate compresation to match. This is also true of the many educators in our state, who have stuck it through the worst of times, continued to work hard on behalf of Nevada's young people and state.

    Remember, it is the politics, and politicians who decide on funding our infrastructure and the care of our people here. Cutting critical educational resources, and asking educators to "do more with less," has taken its toll on our system and ranking. This 77th Nevada State Legislative Session is attempting to do better than in the past. It remains to be seen though.

    Blessings and Peace,

  2. Interesting choice of "facts" BChap considering the minimum composite SAT score required for freshman applicants is 1040:

    I saw lots of negatives (some factual/some not) you chose to throw out there, but I didn't notice any ideas or proposed solutions.

  3. Maybe I didn't come across it, but can you provide the link to where this has been discovered at UNLV?

    By your logic, I found articles showing numerous schools winning Football National Championships. Since those exist with other schools, I can go ahead and give UNLV a national championship in football.

    Your point regarding athletes at UNLV is valid, but I'd also point out that athletes coming into schools with "less than stellar" academic resumes is hardly uncommon.

    The article didn't state that UNLV is now an academic powerhouse and should be considered to be in the same circle as Stanford, Harvard, etc... The title says "elevates (i.e. improving)." While the Forbes ranking of UNLV is very low, the ranking itself improved by around 40 spots in the past year. Is that spectacular? Of course not, but it's definitely a better way to be moving than the 40 or so schools whose rankings have gone down.

  4. BChap:

    I can definitely agree with you that a huge salary bump may not be in order here. I won't go as far as to say Smatresk doesn't deserve a bump, but given the financial difficulties still going on with the state, especially education, that a huge jump doesn't necessarily look very good. At the same time, I do believe that Smatresk is doing a fine job as university president, and a raise may have been required to keep him. I don't know about any of that, I just know he is doing a good job and it would be in the best interest of UNLV to keep him.

    My point in "asking for a link" was simply that there is no proof or connection linking UNLV to any practices such as this. It may very well be happening, but if it is as common as you say, then is it really that big of a deal?

    As far as the UNLV players and their "educational prowess," I can agree that often they are not as high-achieving as one would like, but at the same time, I wouldn't go as far as to say "most" of the players are that way either. As far as Tarkanian is concerned, he definitely took some chances on players that really shouldn't have ever stepped foot on a college campus, but some of those players took their chance and ran with it; others proved that they shouldn't have been given those chances. At the same time, Tark was brought to UNLV to build a brand so that UNLV would be recognized nationwide, and he was successful in that to a large degree.

    Ideally, we'd love to have athletes that also excel in the classroom, but that is often not the reality. I will say that I have spoken with several members of the current UNLV team and not one of them came off as being intellectually incompetent. That's not to say they are all honor students, but they don't have trouble "putting a few syllables together." And I'll still submit that this is a college athletics issue nationwide, not just a UNLV issue.

    UNLV still isn't a great college (save for the Hotel Admin program, which I think is ranked second in the U.S. behind Cornell). There is a ton of room for improvement and the continuous budget cuts definitely aren't helping. However, there has still be some improvement and growth in spite of all of those factors under Smatresk, which is why I think he's done a great job.

  5. I heard Jim Rogers speak years ago about the "pockets of excellence" at UNLV. The law school, for example, is the crown jewel of the entire Nevada System of Higher Education.

    It sounds as though everyone agrees that the University is in very capable hands -- so now it's time for the legislature to double-down on UNLV. Nevadans deserve a first-rate University, and with appropriate funding, Dr. Smatresk can make that happen.

  6. @BChap

    Why would any University alter a perspective student's SAT score? Why would they care? If the score was low, they would just stamp the application with "Rejected" and move on to the next.