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Consultant finds wide community support for UNLV president

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Leila Navidi

UNLV President Neal Smatresk speaks during the Palladium Society Awards Ceremony during the UNLV Foundation Annual Dinner at the Bellagio in Las Vegas on Tuesday, October 9, 2012.

UNLV faculty, students and community leaders overwhelmingly support the leadership of President Neal Smatresk, according to the results of an independent evaluation announced Thursday.

Every three years, Nevada's seven university and college presidents undergo a formal evaluation of their performance. This year marked Smatresk's first formal evaluation as UNLV president.

A Nevada System of Higher Education committee tapped University of South Florida professor and consultant Karen Holbrook to seek public input on Smatresk's tenure thus far. Holbrook, formerly president of Ohio State University, helped conduct the evaluation of Desert Research Institute President Steve Wells last year.

From Monday to Wednesday, Holbrook interviewed more than 50 people from university and the wider Las Vegas community about Smatresk's work at UNLV. Those interviewed included faculty members, administrators, students, alumni, city and community leaders, foundation heads, former governors and legislators and Nevada's higher education chancellor, Dan Klaich.

Holbrook is now expected to write her findings in a report that will be presented to the larger Board of Regents in early June.

"I didn't whitewash anything," Holbrook assured a presidential evaluation committee Thursday morning. The six-member committee was made up of three regents, a student and two community members.

Smatresk, who was appointed UNLV president in August 2009 after spending two years as the university’s executive vice president and provost, was described in interviews as an approachable, charismatic and analytical visionary, Holbrook said.

Smatresk took helm of UNLV at an unprecedented time of turmoil, Holbrook said. Nevada regents had just fired UNLV's previous president. As the recession took its toll on state coffers, UNLV's budget shrank, causing faculty layoffs and tuition hikes.

Despite these challenges, Smatresk began to stabilize the university, Holbrook said. He reached out to different stakeholders and set about a new vision of transforming UNLV into a top-tier research university.

Interviewees told Holbrook that Smatresk "raised the bar of the university" and "brought the campus out of mourning," she said. They also praised Smatresk for taking controversy head-on and standing behind difficult decisions.

Staff and students praised Smatresk for using appropriate humor to diffuse tensions, speaking off the cuff and empathizing with students and faculty. Smatresk "gets it," they said.

Faculty members were largely satisfied with Smatresk's support for research, particularly in the emerging field of economic development. However, some professors complained Smatresk should focus on other fields of study as well and highlight more faculty research in public forums.

Some administrators were critical of Smatresk's less-than-transparent hiring practices. Although Smatresk has made good hiring decisions, the hiring process could be improved, they said.

Community members seemed impressed with Smatresk's ability to convince them of the benefits of partnering with a local research university.

Some in the community called the UNLV Now stadium proposal – perhaps Smatresk's defining legacy, if completed – a "courageous" step for the university. Others however called it risky, and would said they would like to see less of a conversation around UNLV Now.

Students gave high marks to Smatresk, praising him for his "students first attitude." During his tenure, Smatresk raised enrollment standards and boosted special scholarships to help students financially.

Holbrook said she was impressed with the level of support Smatresk has garnered during his time at UNLV.

"Normally, it's difficult for a president to have uniform support because everyone has different perspective," she said.

Regents largely echoed the community's support of Smatresk. They said the president regularly exceeded their expectations and had become a passionate advocate for UNLV.

Although he was given high marks, Smatresk acknowledged he has much work still to accomplish at UNLV.

UNLV is trying to transition from a commuter to a residential campus, which studies show helps improve the student retention rate. UNLV also is in the middle of globalizing its educational offerings, trying to make a permanent foray into Asia.

As Nevada moves to a new funding formula for colleges and universities, Smatresk will be tasked with raising the bar on student achievement to receive more state funding. UNLV's six-year graduation rate of 42 percent is currently much lower than the national average of 58 percent.

Smatresk also must find adequate funding for new capital projects and restore faculty pay and benefits that have been cut in the wake of the recession.

"I would never think that this is a stamp of approval for everything that is going on in the university," Smatresk said of the glowing report, thanking faculty and students for their work and support. "I'm committed to making UNLV stronger.”

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