Praise, smiles for new UNLV President Neal Smatresk

The gushing had to stop, and so Neal Smatresk made a joke of it Thursday afternoon right after he was appointed UNLV’s new president for the next two years.

Regent Michael Wixom had just commented on all the praise Smatresk had been getting. It seemed, Wixom noted, that they were looking to appoint a combination of Indian leader Mahatma Gandhi, legendary football coach Vince Lombardi and all-around genius Albert Einstein to lead the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.

“That’s pretty difficult,” he had said.

Smatresk took the podium in front of 200 people after the Board of Regents unanimously named him acting president. He’ll earn a salary of $289,120 the first year and $246,426.84 the second year. He’ll also get an annual allowance of $8,000 for a car, $18,000 for housing expenses and a $5,000 hosting account, as well as a supplement from the UNLV Foundation of $58,800 in the first year and $101,573.16 in the second year.

When he got to the podium, it sounded as if Smatresk whispered the word “wow.”

He smiled a lot and said he hoped he could live up to the expectations. He wished a happy birthday to two people in the room, and said, “I promise not to sing.” That got a good laugh.

He addressed Wixom by saying he thought the three people the regent was going to compare him to were “Larry, Curly and Moe.”

That got another good laugh.

It seemed he was proving one of the points that a couple dozen speakers made before the Board of Regents’ vote. They said he was passionate, approachable, humble, empathetic and always available, no matter what. They liked him personally, they said, and he’d be a great university president. These are some of the same things his predecessor, David Ashley, was criticized for before the Board of Regents demoted him last month in a humiliating meeting.

There was little discussion of Ashley at Thursday’s meeting. It seemed, at times, a pre-orchestrated love-fest for Smatresk, 58, who joined UNLV two years ago as the university’s number two in charge.

In all, more than two dozen people spoke in favor of Smatresk, including every regent but Mark Alden, who was absent, and Vice Chairman Jason Geddes, who rarely speaks at meetings. Representatives of the faculty, the staff, the students, the UNLV Foundation, the alumni association and businesses positively gushed over the provost.

Board Chairman James Dean Leavitt, wearing Mardi Gras beads and apologizing for starting seven minutes late, said the meeting would likely run a tiny bit over the scheduled 5 p.m. ending time.

“We might not even end this meeting, it’s so joyous,” he said. “I love it.”

“Everybody’s excited about it,” said Mark Fine, chairman of the UNLV Foundation. “I haven’t seen this kind of enthusiasm in a long time.”

Nasser Daneshvary, the immediate past president of the faculty senate, said Smatresk had a “uniquely engaging personality.”

Jessica Lucero, president of the Graduate and Professional Student Association, said the group’s governing council loves Smatresk. “The feedback from the council was overwhelmingly positive,” she said.

The praise lasted an hour.

“Boy,” said Punam Mathur, vice president for human resources at NV Energy, to Smatresk. “You are all but walking on water now.”

All along, there was a jovial atmosphere in the meeting. Smatresk, a tall, slim man who studied biology, particularly that of fish, before he became an administrator at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, smiled and glad-handed almost everybody in the packed meeting room before things got underway.

Later on, after it was all over, he said the hardest part of his new job will be dealing with budget cuts. UNLV’s budget has been cut by about 15 percent amid the severe economic downturn in the state.

He pledged to be open to the press and the public, and said he would always make students his top priority. “I’m really honored and humbled by this responsibility.”

Contact reporter Richard Lake at rlake@ or 702-383-0307.

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