UNLV president courted for new position through a closed search

UNLV President Neal Smatresk was chosen as the sole finalist for the presidency at the University of North Texas under a closed and highly confidential search.

UNT officials declined to disclose how many candidates there were, saying that was confidential information.

“We never put a number on… our searches,” UNT System Chancellor Lee Jackson said Thursday. “Some people enter only for exploration.”

Smatresk, who on June 6 was given a new four-year contract with UNLV, said Wednesday he would accept the position of UNT president should his appointment be confirmed by that system’s Board of Regents next month.

Retiring UNT President V. Lane Rawlins also was named a “sole finalist” in 2010 after serving as interim president for the school in Denton, near the Dallas-Fort Worth area, according to media reports. That was at a time when the committee had identified candidates and was preparing to schedule interviews, according to news reports.

In March, Rawlins announced that he would retire at the end of this year. By March 21, a 17-member Presidential Search Advisory Committee had been appointed to identify candidates. The university contracted with Storbeck/Pimentel &Associates Inc. to help with the task. Alberto Pimentel, the consultant who worked with UNT on the search, didn’t return several calls seeking comment.

On June 15, a job notice for the position was posted on HigherEdJobs.com for applications or nominations to be submitted. The posting was removed Aug. 15.

Smatresk said he was not looking for other opportunities while his UNLV contract negotiations were ongoing.

“I have not once pursued any other position,” he said Friday. “This is the first time.”

Smatresk was approached for the position by a headhunter sometime in September, but he didn’t take it seriously until about five weeks ago, he said.

“I kind of ignored him at once,” he said. But “a good headhunter is persistent.”

UNT officials say work for the search didn’t start until later in the summer when the committee became active.

Jackson said Smatresk went through the process but wouldn’t say whether he applied or was nominated.

Smatresk said he “never” applied.

“The headhunter knew my name and requested some materials, and the next thing I know, I’m on the short list,” he said.

No candidates visited the UNT campus to talk to students, faculty and staff before Smatresk arrived there on Wednesday.

“With a closed search, that wouldn’t happen,” UNT professor and committee member Angela Wilson said. “It was announced that (Smatresk) was the sole finalist, and that’s when he came” to UNT and met with people.

On Wednesday, Jackson recommended Smatresk to the UNT Board of Regents as the sole finalist. The board approved the recommendation, which began a minimum 21-day period required under Texas law before the board can appoint Smatresk as president.

Three finalist names were submitted to Jackson, according to the Denton Record-Chronicle. The paper also said a finalist had been identified earlier but didn’t accept the appointment.

Jackson did say why Smatresk is the best fit for UNT — he has what it needs.

UNT officials were looking for someone with strong experience at a larger institution, meaning the person would have expertise in dealing with large budgets, complex faculty issues, research initiatives, professional schools, enrollment growth and fundraising, Jackson said. Involvement with community relations and athletics was also part of the skill set that UNT was seeking.

After extensive background work, officials felt that Smatresk, with experience in three university systems — Texas, Hawaii and Nevada — was the best person to lead UNT, Jackson said. Also, Smatresk has “a personal style to relating to students and faculty and operating with integrity.”

UNT has grown to 36,000 students, and has accelerated its research agenda in the past decade, Jackson said. And the university is working on plans for capital campaigns that are different from the ones it has conducted before.

Smatresk “having completed one at UNLV recently, was a strong recommendation,” Jackson said. In 2010, Smatresk completed a UNLV capital campaign that raised $537 million.

Smatresk said he didn’t want to get ahead of himself, but he could be starting at UNT in early February.

“We are delighted to have him here,” Wilson said. “I have great confidence that we are getting a real terrific leader.”