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November 29, 2014

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Charismatic Smatresk leaves legacy of bold ideas for UNLV

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Leila Navidi

UNLV president Neal Smatresk riles up the crowd during the Rebel Reading Challenge Kickoff for fourth- and fifth-grade students at the Thomas & Mack Center in Las Vegas on Monday, Oct. 10, 2011.

Neal Smatresk

Head Football coach Bobby Hauck, left, is congratulated by UNLV President Neal Smatresk by the Fremont cannon before a painting ceremony on UNLV campus Monday, Oct. 28, 2013. The UNLV football team beat Reno Saturday 27-22 to break an eight-year losing streak in the rivalry game and gain possession of the Fremont cannon. Launch slideshow »

When Neal Smatresk took the helm of UNLV four years ago, Nevada’s largest university was embroiled in turmoil.

Its former president had been ousted by the Nevada Board of Regents amid conflicting management styles and controversy. Moreover, UNLV was suffering from one of the worst recessions in American history, slashing programs and faculty while raising tuition and fees on students.

Smatresk could have weathered the economic storm with his head down, hatches battened down.

But he didn’t.

Instead, Smatresk dreamed large and created a transformative vision that many say gave the university and Las Vegas a reason to hope in the aftermath of the Great Recession.

“Neal carried us through a tough time,” said Regent Cedric Creer, a Las Vegas advertising executive who chaired Smatresk’s evaluation committee earlier this year. “Neal has done a good job, despite the budget constraints. He was the right guy at the right time for UNLV.”

Smatresk’s sudden announcement Wednesday that he intends to leave UNLV to become the president of the University of North Texas near Dallas came as a great shock to Southern Nevadans.

Most understood the reason Smatresk gave for his decision, enumerated in a short letter to faculty sent mid-afternoon Wednesday. Smatresk, a Texas native who was educated and worked for two decades at Texas universities, wanted to live and work closer to family in the Lone Star State, particularly his two children and a newborn granddaughter.

Yet amid increasing turnover in Nevada’s education leadership, some speculated that perhaps inadequate education funding, the state’s unique geopolitical strife or the slow pace of change had contributed in part to Smatresk’s decision to leave. Smatresk, who was in Texas on Wednesday, didn’t return calls for comment.

Whatever the reason, Smatresk will be leaving UNLV and Nevada with a legacy of big, half-finished dreams that a new leader will be entrusted to shepherd to completion. UNLV and state leaders say Smatresk will transfer his vision to capable hands: a strong team of university administrators handpicked by the president.

However, most officials admit their charismatic and well-liked leader’s departure represents a major loss for the aspirational university.

Smatresk was UNLV’s biggest champion, the visionary behind major community goals such as a mega-events stadium, a Las Vegas medical school and a renewed initiative to make UNLV a residential, Tier-1 research institution that is mentioned among the best public universities in the country.

Over the years, Smatresk worked hard to gain the support of many in the Las Vegas community — including political, business and campus leaders — to bring his vision to life.

Some of Smatresk’s initiatives have succeeded. Others have stalled or failed. The future of Smatresk’s legacy — and whether it will carry on without him — is uncertain.

“We’ve made tremendous progress,” Board of Regents chairman and Las Vegas investment banker Kevin Page said of UNLV’s various half-completed initiatives. “(Smatresk) would be the architect, but he won’t be able to see them come to fruition.”

•••

Smatresk, 62, was appointed UNLV president in 2009, two years after serving as the university’s executive vice president and provost.

Smatresk was a thoroughbred academic, a biologist with an impressive curriculum vitae and a lengthy list of published research. Yet, the tall and friendly president was approachable to non-academics as well.

“Neal is a very warm, outgoing leader who treated the custodial engineer the same as a faculty member or a major donor,” said William Boldt, UNLV’s vice president of university advancement who started at the university one month after Smatresk. “People were drawn to him.”

Smatresk led largely by building consensus, meeting with anybody who wanted to help him create a better UNLV.

He was among the rare university presidents who set up “listening meetings” to hear out the concerns of hundreds of faculty, staff and students. Over the course of nine months, Smatresk met with more than 1,000 people on campus — thanking them for their input and incorporating their ideas into the reforms he sought.

However, there were some instances when Smatresk was criticized for being less than diplomatic. The athletic community was stunned when Smatresk chose a well-connected interim athletic director over a search committee’s recommendations. Student leaders were appalled when Smatresk disbanded a committee that oversaw fee increases.

Still, Smatresk’s charisma and willingness to listen drew immediate support from the majority of faculty and students. Smatresk leaves UNLV with a 70 percent faculty approval rating and a glowing evaluation report.

That support extended to the wider Las Vegas community, who saw Smatresk at major functions around the valley — from UNLV basketball games to business luncheons. Smatresk was a dynamic leader who became UNLV’s fiercest ambassador everywhere he went.

“Neal has just done a tremendous job of reaching out to multiple partners throughout the community,” Cara Clarke, spokeswoman for the Las Vegas Metro Chamber of Commerce, said. “During his tenure, UNLV went from being its own entity, kind of an island, to really being a partner in working with a lot of organizations, a lot of sectors in the community. (Neal) has really changed that dynamic.”

•••

Smatresk’s popularity remained high throughout his tenure, despite the tough decisions he was forced to make in the recession’s aftermath.

State funding to UNLV was cut by $74 million since the economic downturn, leading to reductions of 700 faculty positions and 19 degree programs, as well as a more than 50 percent increase in student tuition.

“(Smatresk) has seen us through a very, very difficult time at the university with the budget cuts,” Rhonda Montgomery, vice chairwoman of UNLV’s faculty senate and associate professor in the hotel college, said. “I believe he was trying his hardest to try to get us through that. I would not have wanted to be in his shoes.”

Despite the mounting fiscal challenges, Smatresk stabilized the university, shedding programs he thought were inefficient and expanding those in line with the state’s economic priorities, such as a new minor degree program in unmanned drones. And in spite of the budget cuts, Smatresk remained unwavering in his belief that UNLV ought to provide a quality education at an affordable price to as many students as possible.

The tireless president fought hard to get more funding for his nearly 28,000 students and 2,000 faculty and staff. Smatresk expanded scholarship programs, allowing local valedictorians to attend UNLV on a full ride scholarship with the commitment they will give back to Las Vegas through community service. He also lobbied hard this past legislative session to restore faculty pay cuts that were put in place during the recession.

Smatresk also worked with Chancellor Dan Klaich and lawmakers to revise the state’s funding formula to divert more money to Southern Nevada institutions, which for decades sent most of its tax revenue, tuition and fees to other colleges around the state. UNLV is now receiving several million more dollars in state funding, and gets to keep all tuition and fees raised on the campus.

With the help of former Hotel College dean Don Snyder — who is overseeing UNLV’s stadium project — Smatresk steered the university through the last two years of its inaugural capital campaign, started under former President Carol Harter.

Smatresk was able to raise a record $537 million, shattering the fundraising campaign's initial goal of $500 million — all amid one of the worst recessions in more than half a century.

“The asks get more difficult in the last two years (of a capital campaign) since it has already brought in a lot of money and we’re going back to donors,” Snyder said. “(Smatresk’s) focus and his direct involvement in major asks was absolutely critical.”

UNLV is again gearing up for a second capital campaign that officials hope will bring in another $500 million to help the university build a new medical school, football stadium and fund academic programs and renovations to the Thomas & Mack Center.

Although Smatresk appointed four new deans this year to the university’s colleges of hospitality, law, education and English who will be responsible for raising more funding than previous deans, it’s unknown how Smatresk’s absence will affect alumni and donor giving this time around. During Smatresk’s tenure, UNLV’s endowment jumped from $85 million to nearly $170 million.

“One of the biggest challenges (with fundraising campaigns) is feeling comfortable asking for money,” Snyder said. “Neal is comfortable with that, but he also has an understanding and a vision.

“When he talks about the medical school, stadium or academic scholarship programs, he positions the request in a strategic way that that donation will extend UNLV’s ability to be better than what we have been in the past,” Snyder continued. “That’s an important part of what Neal has done.”

•••

During his short tenure, Smatresk struggled to raise UNLV’s academic output.

The six-year graduation rate at UNLV, which serves a high number of first-generation and minority students, has increased under Smatresk’s term, but it’s still at an abysmal 43 percent.

Business leaders across the Las Vegas Valley — many who served alongside Smatresk on the boards of various economic development and chamber of commerce associations — have clamored for UNLV to produce more graduates who are better prepared to compete for jobs around the world.

UNLV’s low graduation rate and retention rates hasn’t been for a lack of effort, however.

When Smatresk was provost, he created an academic success center on campus that helps tutor struggling students in math, writing and other challenging subjects. Today, the center sees hundreds of students each year.

When he became president, Smatresk reformed UNLV’s general education curriculum, putting an emphasis on freshman seminars that coach students through the rigors of college-level academics. Smatresk allowed incoming freshmen to take summer courses to avoid costly remedial courses and created incentives to double the enrollment of the university’s honors college.

As a result, UNLV was able to attract some of Nevada’s brightest high school students to attend UNLV this fall.

The freshman class in UNLV's honor's college this year had the highest average unweighted GPA (3.9) and the highest average SAT score (1260 out of 1600 points) in the university’s history. The overall freshman class, which has an average GPA of about 3.3, also boasted 60 high school valedictorians and six national merit scholars.

•••

During his time at UNLV, Smatresk also sought to increase the academic prestige of the relatively young university.

Smatresk brought two major research groups — the Brookings Mountain West and the Lincy Institute — to UNLV, and recently helped acquire a $10 million donation to expand the Black Mountain Institute for emerging authors.

Still, UNLV’s research output and federal research funding remains among the lowest nationally. In September, Smatresk launched a Tier-1 initiative that made the case for more funding to create more laboratories and attract more research faculty to campus.

To become a Tier-1 university, Smatresk realized UNLV must shed its reputation as a commuter campus. The president created a new master plan for UNLV’s campus that proposed a new on-campus football stadium, medical school and apartment-style dormitories to boost campus life — and attract more students and faculty to UNLV.

These were bold ideas, coming at a time of great financial stress over the allocation of scarce resources. Some faculty members and students opposed Smatresk’s big goals — dreams that they feared would come at the expense of academics.

Instead of a fancy new facilities or a Tier-1 initiative, some faculty and students argued UNLV could use the money to rehire more professors and lower tuition at UNLV, which has more than doubled since 2005. An internal committee at UNLV is considering raising tuition by 17 percent over four years to realize Smatresk’s goal of becoming a top-tier university. (Despite the tuition hikes, officials contend UNLV is among the most affordable public universities in the country.)

“If we’re not getting the basics right — graduation rates and keeping college affordable — we shouldn’t be focused on Tier-1 goals,” said Mark Ciavola, UNLV’s outspoken undergraduate student body president who fought Smatresk against tuition hikes. “Students are customers of the university, but undergraduate students have been largely ignored except for their money.”

With Smatresk’s impending departure, the fate of his campus-wide initiatives now hangs in the balance.

The UNLV stadium project was forced to restart after the Strip resort community protested the initial plan’s size and cost. The apartment-style dormitories and a student village concept were scrapped after complications with private developers. And although a temporary agreement has been inked on a new UNLV medical school, many questions remain about its financial feasibility.

But officials remain hopeful that Smatresk’s big dreams will continue to live in his absence.

“In the 30 years I’ve been in higher education, I’ve learned that these institutions are tougher and stronger and more resilient than any one leader,” Nevada higher education chancellor Dan Klaich said. “Good ideas don’t go away because leadership changes. Good ideas can pass the test of transition.”

Sun political reporter Andrew Doughman contributed reporting.

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