Preston Mitchell | Staff Writer
Columnist Preston Mitchell asked UNT President Neal Smatresk some quick questions about UNT’s 2016 so far.
Looking back on the past school year, what changes to campus are you the most proud of?
Smatresk: In our last year, which was our 125th anniversary, we had a lot of high points. My team and I are proud to have brought in our largest freshman class and having our most national merit scholars. Those are huge achievements that speak to how better we’ve been about promoting our brand and promising newcomers that they can receive a great education. In addition, we’ve had a good year for fundraising. While it’s modest, all arrows are moving up. To date, we’ve hired two very accomplished deans – signifying our improving leadership.
Coming here, I wasn’t even sure if we could complete our student Union. We experienced low bond ratings and pretty severe financial difficulties, including negative cash flow. So to not only complete Rawlins Hall, but to also reopen the Union, were huge successes.
Over the past two years, we’ve moved mountains in regards to deep infrastructure, landscaping, and physical changes to the grounds. A lot of people don’t notice and take it for granted, but we’ve made the campus a lot prettier than it was.
We’re now focused on improving academic research and our scholarly reputation, which we’ll achieve by hiring more prestigious workers, remodeling Sage Hall into a student career for students in need of support, and interacting with chairs more.
What are the changes that fell short? If so, how should they improve in the year to come?
Smatresk: One of our biggest disappointments sprang from dumping over $500 million into graduate education. We did it to offer tuition waivers for students who are funded on state lines. There is a complicated financial plan for graduate kids, led by Victor Prybutok, that he can elaborate more on if you do a follow-up article.
A lot of the information proved to be inaccurate, so the plan was implemented but was not communicated well and created confusion. There were certain departments and programs that worked their GA’s really hard, and several that gave students “free rides.” It was a division creating winners and losers, as well as discontent for a while. In the end, I think graduate students will benefit because tuition waivers are more useful than the insurance benefits they got beforehand. For scholarship students, the plan left them behind and that’s what I would call “one of my biggest failures.” It’s going to take us a year or two to sort it all out. Our graduate numbers have been static for quite some time and they need improvement.
A big project that is finishing is our IT project, which comprise of hugely expensive systems that run the university. We’re currently undergoing a huge financial transportation and acquiring a data warehouse to improve customer service in the long run. After a year of stalling, work on the warehouse is finally moving forward.
We’ve fallen short with transportation and parking. For many students, one of their key interfaces with this university is that students drive their car to campus and can’t find a guaranteed parking spot after paying for a permit. Those are all frustrating things. We have more or less completed a transportation master plan to correct this.
I think that we have fallen short of serving our students well with our current transportation and parking. We’ve already begun changes that will cheapen and expand parking within the next year, including two new parking garages. We also need to run our shuttles faster and more late to help students transport to class more effectively and ensure that the students staying longer still have their own means of transport.
In your opinion, how did the deaths of Ryan McMillian and Sara Mutschlechner shape the UNT community, as well as your presidency?
Smatresk: I think that the two tragic deaths of our students was a shock to our university. As for any tragedy, some people accepted it and moved along, while others were more impacted by it. That’s always going to be the case. Internally, we had a lot of conversations on why these things happen and how we can properly teach the students about the importance of human life; even to the extent of changing the expectations of downtown Denton and how our students go about “having a good time.” We would like to enhance our students’ understanding of substance and alcohol abuse, and how to be safe and secure in their environments. Denton is not immune from the kinds of challenges that occur in many areas, which is what I think shocked so many about the back-to-back tragedies. It’s everywhere now. So, if I would never see an event like this again, that would be great. But in a community of over 37,000 students, however, there will be tragedies. Anything we could do to mitigate them, we will do. We’ve already stepped up our counseling and clinical programs.
We have to recognize that behavioral issues are of major concern in universities, due to the vast diversity of students’ backgrounds and how intoxicating a background is to an individual. It’s our job as a community to be more sensitive to those experiencing life changes in this vital period in their lives, and support them in any way we can. We knew that, but due to the tragedies, we’ve really internalized this as opposed to “Well, a lot of these kids have problems.”
Our athletics have recently undergone changes in leadership. Do you believe that they can boost school spirit this fall?
Smatresk: I’m very excited for the new coach and football program. It’s going to be a few years before we see the full potential of the new leadership, but I believe choosing Seth Littrell was the right decision.
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