UNLV president approved to lead University of North Texas

UNLV President Neal Smatresk has yet to submit his resignation, but the Texas-bound higher education leader is already garnering praise for having been an “exceptional visionary.”

The well-liked 62-year-old led UNLV through one of its “worst economic” times, making difficult decisions but still managing to steer the ship in the right direction, colleagues said.

Smatresk on Thursday was confirmed as the new president at the University of North Texas. UNT system’s Board of Regents voted unanimously to give him the job. He is expected to begin his UNT presidency on Feb. 3.

“I feel happy,” Smatresk said Thursday in a telephone interview from Texas. “This is exciting. The more people I meet, the more exciting it gets. I think it’s a great fit.”

At the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, Smatresk was an “outgoing, energetic cheerleader,” said Kevin Page, chairman of the state’s Board of Regents.

“He brought us through a very difficult process pretty effectively,” said Paul Werth, chairman of the UNLV Faculty Senate. “There were a lot of really difficult choices that had to be made. Most people would say that he served us pretty well in that capacity.”

Smatresk may submit his official resignation from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas on Friday, if time allows.

Last month, the UNT system’s Board of Regents named Smatresk as the sole finalist for the position at the campus in Denton, near the Dallas-Fort Worth area. The school has about 36,000 students.

Smatresk, who met with people at UNT on Thursday, said the campus is similar to UNLV in terms of the challenges it faces and opportunities it presents. That excites him, but he’s also sad to leave Las Vegas.

“We’ve done wonderful things together and the people have been terrific,” he said.

Smatresk took the helm at UNLV in 2009, at the peak of the recession. He served as executive vice president and provost for two years before that.

UNLV eliminated 13 academic departments, one school and 32 academic degree programs during the recession, dating back to fall 2007, according to Tony Allen, spokesman for UNLV. The university’s annual state appropriation was reduced by $73.2 million, dating back to 2007.

UNLV lost about 740 positions during the recession, which included layoffs, voluntary separations and unfilled vacancies among faculty, administrative faculty and classified staff, according to Allen.

Regent James Leavitt was chairman of the Nevada Board of Regents when Smatresk was appointed UNLV president.

“(Smatresk) met all of my expectations,” he said. “There are a lot of presidents who are respected, but he was also loved, and that’s a rare quality.”

Among his accomplishments are the establishment of Brookings Mountain West, a partnership between the university and the Washington, D.C.- based Brookings Institution, a revamp of the general education curriculum, the initiation of a project to build a stadium on campus in partnership with the Las Vegas resort industry and the evolving plan for a new medical school in Southern Nevada.

He also set the goal to transform UNLV into a top research university and helped complete a UNLV capital campaign that raised $537 million in 2010.

“I think that when people look at UNLV, it is much stronger than when (Smatresk) arrived,” Page said.

He leaves behind a positive legacy, Werth added.

Smatresk “positioned the university to be able to grow wisely and in a very conscious fashion,” he said.

Page and Klaich will be at UNLV on Jan. 16, 17 and 22 to meet with students, faculty and staff to gather ideas on what kind of leader they want next.

An acting president could be appointed during a special Board of Regents’ meeting on Jan. 24.

Leavitt hopes the next UNLV leader will carry on the projects that Smatresk started.

In June, the Nevada Board of Regents approved a new four-year contract for Smatresk. His annual salary is $246,426, with a total compensation package of $447,424, which includes an annual salary supplement of $169,997, an $8,000 car allowance, an $18,000 housing allowance and a $5,000 host account.

Smatresk declined to comment on his UNT salary, saying he had only reviewed his employment contract and hadn’t signed it yet. UNT spokesman Buddy Price also declined to provide the information, saying the request would have to go through the system’s legal department.

When Smatresk’s UNT predecessor V. Lane Rawlins started the job as president in 2011, his annual salary was $410,000, with a retention bonus of $30,000 for each year he completed, according to the Denton Record-Chronicle.

Reporter Yesenia Amaro can be reached at (702) 383-0440, or yamaro@reviewjournal.com.