The Real Neal: Looking back on first year as president

The Real Neal: Looking back on first year as president

February 04
12:20 2015

Dalton LaFerney / Views & Digital Editor

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Edward Balusek / Visuals Editor

Tuesday marked one year since Dr. Neal Smatresk became president of UNT. We sat down with him and talked Union construction, parking and the latest marketing initiatives. He also shared the latest enrollment growth.

Dalton LaFerney: We’ll start with some of the most recent events. Describe the effort and the process that went into establishing the Eagle Advantage with Arlington ISD. How did that come about?

President Neal Smatresk: It does alleviate a lot of their anxiety. They are going to get a quite a lot of red carpet treatment, maybe some special orientations. They can be part of the Mean Green family right away.

DL: You knew someone at Arlington ISD, and that’s how this got going. Did he reach out to you, or did you reach out to him?

NS: Actually, he found out I got the job and sent me a note of congratulations, and we’d been chatting over the year. Marcelo Cavazos, excellent guy, really good leader for the school district there. And I think this program is one of several that we’ll roll out together that will accelerate interest in areas like journalism and the arts, music. We want to put a little green pin in the map every single where we have one of these agreements, and pretty soon we are going to see a green cloud, and we are going to say this is Mean Green country.

DL: You said UNT is going to expand the Eagle Advantage to other ISDs.

NS: Several other ISDs have called. We would like everyone in the metroplex to be part of our program. Although I will say there are some elite school districts who might seem to think we should accept more than the top 20 percent, but for now 20 percent is a good number. And actually, 20 percent of students coming out of schools will help our numbers here overall in terms of student qualifications, and so they will continue to build strength for our campus.

DL: A lot has been said about the expansion on the side of campus near the Interstate 35 corridor. What does the future look like out there?

NS: It’s no secret that we would like to dress up the front door of the campus as the 35 expansion is going on. The state and TxDOT are taking land away from many of the owners. We thought it was a good opportunity for the university to start acquiring properties that were potentially valuable to us in our future. If you asked me what the perfect situation would be, it would be where when people drive by, they’d see a beautiful building that complimented the stadium on the other side of the street that reflected the pride we have in our campus and also an easy-on-easy-off access for visitors. As you know, parking is always a challenge on our campus, so if we have a place that’s easy for parents and prospective students to come and gain access to the rest of the campus, and it’s a lovely center that really highlights the pride we have here, I think that is going to be a huge draw. And I also think if we do this right, and there are commercial developments around there that build higher amenities in terms of retail and food and beverage, that is going to serve this campus community. So there is an opportunity for far-sided developers here, I think, to really put into play a money making opportunity for them, and an opportunity for us to enhance the campus and the campus atmosphere. Kinda like what’s going up on Fry Street, but on the far side of campus where it’s more visible to the rest of the world.

DL: This past year, the Sack and Save issue was a hot topic. What’s the latest on that?

NS: We are not going anywhere with it right now, for the moment. I believe the state is questioning some evaluations of properties along the strip the council came up with. And I think when that’s resolved, then we can maybe continue our conversations. Let it be known that ultimately the best and highest use for the city for all that land would be to expand the student population [t]here, and the building space on campus. If you take a look at the indirect and direct benefits on our city — the economic impact — of having students here spending dollars and generating tax revenues, that’s a far greater interest than almost any commercial development that could be put up.

DL: UNT is gaining notoriety in the world of academia. You’ve overseen some of that growth since you’ve been here.

NS: Well, notoriety is an interesting word. I would like to say we are finally branding ourselves the way we ought to, and letting the world know what a great deal we are. I’ve said repeatedly that the faculty here are terrific, that I think our students excel, that we have one of the best employment rates for students — 73 percent of our students are employed upon graduation. Our programs outperform almost every other program in the region. People used to say that [UNT] was the best kept secret. Well, we are not going to have it be secret anymore. One of my jobs is to get out, and be the marketeer-in-chief, and let people know what kind of deal this is. The other piece of that is to let people know that this is a real campus community. It offers the kind of feel of a private, liberal arts school — and I’ve heard there are a couple of those around town — yet the cost of a state-supported public higher education. You get the best of all worlds here. I would put our faculty up against the faculty anywhere in the world.

DL: Is the progress that the university has made, as far as marketing, a testament to your hard work?

NS: Certainly. There would be people who might have questioned, when we began marketing, whether spending dollars on promoting ourselves, putting up signs, advertising the creative vibe on campus, was the right thing to do. I will tell that it has returns, such as we’ve seen this spring where enrollment is now up over two percent — that’s a really solid investment. In fact, that investment is minuscule compared to the return of increasing enrollment.

DL: While we’re on marketing, “Green Light to Greatness” seems to be disappearing off of billboards and “Creativity” is in. What’s the selling point there?

NS: Yeah. I wasn’t sure what “Green Light to Greatness” meant. And I’ll say that there is an axiomatic expression in marketing: it’s better to have some publicity than no publicity. The “Green Light to Greatness” was a reasonable interim, and we began trying new kinds of ideas. We had one with Eagle Express that wasn’t as popular —  you know, “Above the Rest for Thousands Less.” It did accomplish raising awareness about the Eagle Express program, which is arguably the most successful alternative tuition plan in the country. Something went right, and about half of our incoming freshmen are on the program. That’s really an amazing number compared to the three, four and five percent that other state universities are showing. Marketing matters a great deal. The new expressions are really things I’ve heard from the campus.

DL: How have you and Mrs. Smatresk gotten acquainted with Denton? Have any favorite places?

NS: Yeah, we love the Square. We love Queenie’s and Hannah’s. We also like many of the littler places. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, I love Mi Casita, especially the carne asada. It is amazing. The little shops around here are a lot of fun. But mostly we’ve been embraced be the Denton community. There’s a lot of really good people here. My wife is working now with the board of one of the more financially challenged populations — the Fred Moore school. She is part of the Denton Benefit League. We are building a house down off the Forest Ridge area — hopefully it will be done real soon.

DL: Have you tried Hypnotic Donuts?

NS: No, I have not tried Hypnotic Donuts, but I’ve heard really great things about them.

DL: I have to sell you on the Canadian Healthcare. It’s got bacon on it. It’s delicious.

NS: Oh, that sounds fantastic. Everything’s better with a little bacon.

DL: How can you improve UNT’s relationship with the city of Denton? It’s no secret UNT is focused on its own growth, as is Denton.

NS: A lot is going on between UNT and the city of Denton. I think the relationship between UNT and the city has never been better.…I think the mayor is very forward-looking. I’m not sure everyone in the city is. You know, there’s kind of a “keep Denton small” crowd. And I won’t pass judgment on whether Denton should or shouldn’t grow. I’ll simply say the demographics suggest Denton will grow, and it will grow rapidly … But Denton will grow, and Denton can plan for it or it can just happen. I think too much of the city’s growth has been unmanaged, and it’s time Denton take a strong look at what kind of community it is wanting to be. There will be people here in Denton who say, “We don’t want that.” But take Frisco, and take Southlake, take Carrolton, take Lewisville, take Grapevine — they’ve all managed to put in higher amenity spaces to retain and draw people in rather than sending them out to other areas. I think it’s time Denton began to develop the kind of quality a city of this size needs. We want to be a partner in that, because we think we can help drive success in Denton.”

DL: You mentioned the convention center and hotel, and you said it was on UNT’s behalf that it didn’t go through. What was the situation like?

NS: The bottom line is we were gonna give away a 60-year ground lease with very little capital return, and a questionable gain in terms of our ability to accommodate people and use the convention center. I hope it’s built, but it doesn’t need to be built on our space.

DL: Compare “UNT President” with, say, your time at UT-Arlington. How does this stack up on the resume?

NS: Well, it was University of Texas at Arlington, University of Hawaii, University of Nevada, Las Vegas and here. To me, this is the place I want to be. This is home, this is where I want to make my mark. This is the region that I want to be better. There is so much opportunity and growth here. Denton’s going to be part of that. On a personal level, I need a place that’s going to be better so my granddaughter has a place to grow up. And that’s really why I’m in.

DL: You spoke earlier about how UNT wasn’t maximizing on marketing opportunities. When you had the opportunity to come here, did it seem like a no-brainer? I mean, you’re obviously a motivated man.

NS: Yeah, it did. And again, it was home and it was a tremendous opportunity. And while we’ve clearly had challenges over the last year, those challenges really gave me a blank canvas.

DL: In the State of the University address, you vowed to visit every department at UNT and see what’s going on.

NS: It’s starting.

DL: How’s that going, and what have you discovered?

NS: Well I’ve just barely started visiting departments, and it’s been really informative. First thing, you usually surface some problems. If you don’t listen, and don’t understand what’s broken, you can’t fix it. You have to be open to either criticism or helpful comments about where we can improve. The second thing I need to learn is where people think there is an opportunity to do better. How can your department contribute to the national prominence of our institution? There is going to be a lot of answers to that. The third part is how do we all work together to be more efficient and effective so that students get the best education they can, and students need to be apart of that. Listening to people surfaces a huge number of ideas. It really lets people know they can be an engaged campus, and they can have personal ownership stake. I think, in turn, it helps really motivate people to do their best. I think everybody does better when they own a problem, or think they are part of a solution, as apposed to it coming top-down.

DL: Many students are experiencing difficulty with parking.

NS: Hold it. There’s a parking problem here?

DL: And not just the act of parking, but the parking office itself. I know we’ve run into problems with communicating. Are you hearing the students’ complaints?

NS: Yes. I get them in tweets, and I get them in emails. I’ll recount a kind of funny, but kind of sad anecdote. I came in one morning and there was someone parked in my spot with a boot on their car. It was right before finals last semester, and I just felt so sorry. It turns out it was a young woman who’d been studying really, really hard, and she’d parked in my spot, which is fine in the evening, and stayed a little too long. I called parking and said, “Hey, give her a break.” And she left me the nicest note. It’s clear parking’s an issue. It’s a challenge for a number of reasons that we must resolve. First, I want students to be able to park and get around campus and get to class on time, so it’s just part of improving the campus environment. But when we have parking that gets taken away because we have a special event or because of construction, it’s a double challenge — some of that is going to disappear as we get the streets fixed, and as we get the Student Union up and running again. Some of it won’t. We are looking right now into where else we might put up parking structures, and what kind of model we can use to finance that. Parking structures, by the way, are enormously expensive — it’s about $14 or $15 thousand a space, per car. Flat-surface parking is pretty cheap, but it takes up a huge amount of valuable land. When you are as landlocked as we are, that’s another problem.

DL: What about communication with students and the parking office itself?

NS: I don’t know a lot about it. I’ve heard it isn’t as cordial as it could be. That’s true in every campus I’ve every been to, by the way. Parking is always a problem.  Believe it or not, it’s better here than it is at a lot of campuses. Take Austin, or at the University of Hawaii, no student could park on campus, period. So students would liter the streets, and it was not a good situation. While it’s not satisfying to students who are here, parking is better here than it is in most places. We can always be better at communicating with students who have parking permits, and making sure that we are always cordial and responsive when there are challenges.

DL: Sporting event attendance is pretty poor, especially basketball. We remember football season. How does this need to be addressed and what is being done?

NS: Winning teams have a way of drawing attendance, but the Green Brigade and some of our boosters have, I think, the potential to make it more of an event to come to games here. I love students — whether it’s Mean Green Man, or some of the others — I love when students dress up and act up. I think we need to do some more things like the giant faces or specific customs or, you know, traditions that make it more desirable. We need to create better fan experiences. I don’t know if it’s better food, or it’s cheaper tickets — certainly it’s winning teams, which we are going to work on. I would love to see basketball packed. I’ll simply say, I came from a basketball heaven. UNLV had a team that packed the house every single game, and the spirit was electric. You could be sitting down in the arena and there was Flavor Flav, and over there was Steve Wynn, and over here was a billionaire donor. It was the place to be. Now, the question is how do you make your games the place to be? I think in football we’ve come along way. The new stadium’s terrific. I think the Super Pit could probably use a face lift, and it could be dressed up a little bit more.

DL: The type of student UNT attracts has a more apathetic opinion toward UNT sports. Is that an issue you are knowledgeable on?

NS: You know, it’s hit or miss. Your suggestion that there is student apathy, there are also students who are just so fan oriented, and so excited about our athletic events. But I do think it’s part of our culture — you know, we’ve gone to this longer orientation period, and I think you’re going to see, progressively, more campus engagement as we build new freshman classes and the size of our freshman classes. And that doesn’t mean campus athletics are for everyone, but they are a wonderful way of bonding people together. Were you at homecoming? The bonfire is pretty awesome. It’s one of the coolest events I’ve seen. I personally thought the dance competition was really interesting. But that made homecoming special, and that made the football game special. Events tied to athletics are one way of engaging students.

DL: Today I noticed workers were taking down fencing along Highland Street and it’s about to be reopened. Give us an update on construction.

NS: Well, we anticipate the Student Union will be open in the fall. They are a little behind schedule. I’m concerned with that, because there are going to be classes opening in it. We need our construction company to move as quickly as they can to come to a close.

DL: How far behind are they?

NS: It’s not clear quite yet. I think how far behind they are is a dialogue and part of the conversation we are having with them right now to make sure they are giving it their best effort. My hope is that no later than October we have an opening and it would be great if it was in September. I’d love to give my State of the University there and use it as a kickoff for our 125th anniversary celebration. The new student dorm, however is going up in leaps and bounds and I think it will make its schedule and be open this fall.

DL: You mentioned the Oklahoma tuition plan. Give us the ins and outs. And what’s the thinking on that?

NS: Basically, we are allowed by state law to grant reduced rate tuition [to students] within 100 miles of the border. Oklahoma is closer than 100 miles. We are putting tuition down to something that is very close to residential tuition. Our hope is quite simple: we want to draw good students who right now feel the cost of education here is prohibitive because of nonresidential tuition. I think the state benefits when we do that, and our students benefit. We get more perspectives, we get new students from a broader reach and we have a chance in retaining a workforce here in Texas as opposed to being a net exporter of students. We lose a lot of students to surrounding states. Everybody poaches students from the Dallas – Fort Worth area. It’s time we start fighting back.

Check out more from President Smatresk when we sit down with him again next month for #therealneal.

About Author

Dalton LaFerney

Dalton LaFerney

Dalton is the editor of the Daily.

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