Few situations match the political jockeying, back-room lobbying and public posturing of a college presidential vacancy. It’s an opportunity for someone to establish a legacy. And it’s an opportunity for various academic empires to protect and fortify themselves.
Such maneuvering is well under way at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, now that dynamic President Neal Smatresk has announced his intention to move on. After four years at the helm of UNLV, Mr. Smatresk said Wednesday he would accept the top job at the University of North Texas, provided his appointment is confirmed next month by the school’s regents.
Mr. Smatresk has done a remarkable job heading the university. He was elevated to the presidency in 2009 under difficult circumstances. The Great Recession had crushed Southern Nevada’s economy, and UNLV was struggling through a leadership crisis under Mr. Smatresk’s predecessor, David Ashley. After Mr. Ashley’s ouster, Mr. Smatresk was promoted from his position as executive vice president and provost.
He steered the university through a period of reduced taxpayer support, tuition increases and faculty turnover while seeking ever more accomplished students and building bridges to the business community. A relentless champion of the academic and economic importance of research, he completed a $537 million fundraising campaign amid the downturn and advanced a bold master plan to plot UNLV’s future as a national university.
As important as any of his achievements, however, is his leadership style. He enjoys talking with students about their studies. To say he’s approachable is a bit misleading, because he’ll approach you first. Mr. Smatresk was the right man at the right time for UNLV, and he’ll be missed. We wish him well.
Because Mr. Smatresk’s promotion worked out so well, some people within the higher education system want him replaced from within. Calls are being made. Juice is flowing.
But the circumstances surrounding this presidential vacancy are much different from the ones that led to Mr. Smatresk’s promotion. UNLV is in a much better place. The position of president is a much more desirable job than it was four years ago. Why would anyone who wants the university to take its next big steps forward seek to limit the applicant pool?
The next president of UNLV must have the ability to partner with the private sector, attract and retain top-notch faculty, squeeze every bit of productivty and efficiency out of every dollar the university collects, and improve the school’s graduation rate. And it goes without saying that Mr. Smatresk’s successor must be a prolific fundraiser. The university is preparing to launch a $500 million capital campaign to help finance a new medical school, an on-campus football stadium and other major projects. Soliciting and closing six-, seven- and eight-figure donations requires a unique skill set.
The Board of Regents must conduct a national search for UNLV’s next president. If anyone currently at the university is ready for the job, let him or her prove it against a slate of accomplished candidates. There is no downside to seeking the best possible person for the job.