Q & A with new President Neal Smatresk

Q & A with new President Neal Smatresk

Q & A with new President Neal Smatresk
February 03
23:35 2014

Matt Wood // Staff Writer

The North Texas Daily sat down with new UNT President Neal Smatresk to talk about his first day as president on Monday, asking him how he feels about the city, Mean Green sports and the future of the university.

How have you been welcomed to UNT so far?

I had a wonderful reception on the [Jan.] 12, when they named me the 16th president. My wife and I really enjoyed that; we got to meet a huge slice of the community.

I’ve met a number of the leadership groups; I’ve sat down with student groups. And more importantly, as I walked across campus this morning, a couple of students stopped and said “Hey Neal! How’re you doing?” And I thought that was pretty great. I asked them what majors they were, if they were happy here.

The best and most meaningful greetings I can get are from students who want to share their experience with me.

How have you planned to acclimate to UNT and Denton so far?

Well, I’m use to the North Texas area. I spent 23 years at [University of Texas] Arlington. And it’s a different environment there, more heart of the metroplex. I love the slightly less urban feel of this place, and I think that Denton is a tremendous city with a lot of really unique attributes. I’ve heard people call it a mini Austin. It has a really good vibe and good establishments that I think will add a lot to my wife’s and my experience here.

As far as getting used to it, I’m still trying to find my way around [laughs]. We’re renting a house right now, and we are going to try and build a house here. We’ve got a contractor and everything. So as far as the rest of it goes, we’ll be doing the same things anyone else does when they move to a new town – we’ll be driving around, trying to get familiar with what’s in town, meeting folks at the chamber, meeting people in the town square. I’m going to a reception tonight that the College of Arts is putting up tonight for Olympia Dukakis.

Mostly our orientation of this town will be through meeting people over the next couple of months.

Do think the proximity of the students strengthens the community?

I’ve noticed that Denton is very much a student community. This is a college town, but it’s a college town that’s growing up and getting big. I think the students here clearly enrich this community, and I think the community and university are partners in the future growth of this region. And it becomes, ‘What is it that we have to do for our students, so they can be great partners in North Texas and help with the growth of this region?’ ”

What do you plan to focus on in the upcoming year?

The first and foremost is really getting to know the campus and the challenges we face, getting to understand opportunities for growth and becoming more nationally prominent. Looking at the nuts and bolts of this institution, how are we doing with our education programs? Are we graduating people in a timely fashion? How’s financial aid and the distribution of it? How is our budget doing in broad strokes of the brush?

Of course, we’re coming into a legislative session, so [I’m] getting prepared with the base information I need about the university, so that I can be effective legislatively, which will be a critical component of this.

Also understanding the sister institutions, the Health Science Center, the campus in Dallas, and then maybe looking at opportunities to expand our footprint. I, for one, think having a disseminated structure for the University of North Texas, much like the University of Houston, is something that could be a really exciting opportunity. Should we have branches in Collin County? Fort Worth? Should we expand our footprint in downtown Dallas? That’s something we’re going to have to look at and make strategic decisions about.

There’s one other thing I want to put an exclamation point on: in order for us to emerge as a nationally prominent institution, I think we need to have multiple strengths as an institution. An area we have to develop is the amount of research and economic development we’re involved in. We as a campus need to be generating a far larger income stream with grants and contracts. That means engineering and science are going to be areas I look at quite closely.

We also need to be engaging private industry in this region, and asking them, ‘What do you most need from a university, and how can we serve you?’

By doing that, and coupling our fates to the fortunes of some of the large companies around here, we can not only make sure our students get good jobs, but we can also hopefully act as a magnet to draw in more diversified economy, more knowledge-based economy and create prosperity for the region.

V. Lane Rawlins was more focused on the undergraduate program during his term. Would you say research is your main focus for yours?

It’s never one or the other. People want to create a dichotomy between education and research. A great research institution is almost invariably a great educational institution – I mean, think of some institutions that are nationally famous. We can start with a place like UT, or [California] Berkeley or North Carolina. All of them have phenomenal research programs that are really well funded with grants and contracts. What does that mean for the institution? It means students who are working in labs, who are participating with top-notch scholars, who are getting access to cutting-edge information that’s globally competitive.

So if you want a globally competitive education, you should situate yourself in a major institution with a variety of degree programs and growing research activities. That creates a deep richness that I think draws students in and gives them access to the best careers they could possibly have.

It’s not just about the dollars; the research informs the classroom and our students. And that’s really a critical piece of what you do to build a full-service university.

You were well known for being very involved in UNLV sports. How do you plan to carry that to UNT?

[Laughs] Well, obviously I’m a big sports fan. And I also believe that sports are an integral part of the higher education experience. Not everyone wants to go to every game, but they create a certain excitement on campus on Saturdays when there’s a big football game and everyone’s tailgating, students have something to do and it brings them into the campus.

The longer students spend on a campus, the more likely they are to do well, and the more likely they are to graduate. So those are really good stats. The other reason I’m really interested in sports is because alumni are attracted, and alumni are part of how we help raise money for the university. Donors are attracted; the community cares.

All of those things I call the “front porch,” where people come to watch. They participate in games they’re involved in the university. And then, next thing you know, they want to learn more about it and to maybe hire students, which is a very important piece of alumni networking, or perhaps donate to the university, or get involved by adding their expertise to specific departments or programs.

All of those activities are important, so when you ask me how I’ll personally be involved, I’ll certainly be going to major sports events, men’s and women’s athletics. I’ll try to engage as many people I can, as well as donors. And I will cheer as loud as anybody else.

How do you plan to follow or adapt the Four Bold Goals strategic plan?

The Four Bold Goals are sound. They really say that we want to be a high-quality educational institution, a great research institution, we want to give service and we want to have a wonderful feel on campus. I don’t know who wouldn’t want those things.

I think anybody who knows about making change in business, there’s some change that comes through the collective will of the people who believe in it. And some change costs money.

How we match the budget to implement those goals is going to be a critical element of this university’s success, and I think that’s the piece I’m going to be deeply focused on. How can we improve our research with a limited pool of resources? How can we make the education experience terrific? Do we have enough advisers? Do we have adequate career development and counseling? Do we put the classes on the table? Are we delivering modern degrees that will be useful when you move out into the professional marketplace?

All of those are items that will require a good baseline, then incremental investment. So attaching budget to implementation plans to advance strategic goals is the path to success for any institution.

As far as tuition increases that have been discussed at Board of Regents meetings, what can students expect?

Generally speaking, I am fairly conservative about tuition change. That doesn’t mean we [don’t] need it, though. I want to have a good conversation with students to find out services and support they feel we could do better with, and make sure we are directing significant funds toward helping them realize those improvements.

I think here, we will have to change tuition, and I am a very transparent individual, so I want to make sure students know that this looks like what’s on the table.

The question becomes, what do you do with incremental resources? One of the things you have to do, for better or worse, is fight inflation. Because many of our costs are rising, whether it’s energy or services on campus. In order to maintain services, you have some inflationary change. But above and beyond that, what resources can I put in a way for students that will be appreciated, that will improve your experience here, that will make you feel you are getting good return on the investment you’re making in your education. I think those are critical conversations, I am very happy to hold them both in open forum, as well as with student groups who come in.

Right now, at this point, I wouldn’t hazard a specific guess as to the amount. But my commitment will be the smallest amount we can make it to still achieve our goals, because I want our access to remain high.

That was my same strategy in Vegas. We didn’t raise anything unless we had a specific objective.

[editor’s note: Smatresk said the tuition increase would most likely be decided upon in the February or March regent’s meetings.]

Since you mentioned building a home here, do you plan to be at UNT for several years?

This is my last stop. I’m back home. My family is here, both my son and daughter. My son is in Arlington with his wife and our new grandbaby. This is where we feel the best. We love the North Texas region, we love the people, we love the climate – I know it’s crazy to say you love the climate. The only things we don’t like are the allergies [laughs]. Cedar fever is a tough one.

But I would like to make this my last stop. And that doesn’t mean I don’t have ambitions, but my ambitions will be to do a great job for this institution to carry it to the next steps in its growth and evolution, and to hopefully be an advocate for the rest of my life for UNT.

And moving is horrible. I hate moving [laughs].

Feature photo: Neal Smatresk became UNT’s 16th President on Monday. “As I walked across campus this morning a couple of students stopped and said ‘Hey Neal! How’re you doing?’ And I thought that was pretty great,” Smatresk said. Photo by James Coreas / Staff Photographer   

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