Neal Smatresk’s journey from zoologist to UNLV president wasn’t the smoothest ride. His tenure began under the cloud of former president David Ashley’s abrupt departure and amid UNLV’s worst budget crisis in its history. Smatresk earned his Ph.D. in zoology from the University of Texas and served 22 years on its faculty, followed by a stint at the University of Hawaii, before landing in the desert in 2007 as UNLV’s executive vice president and provost. After being named president following Ashley’s departure in 2009, Smatresk is looking ahead to his second year as UNLV president. With budget cuts nipping at the university’s heels, he is determined to keep UNLV afloat and help it adjust to the “new normal.”
How was your first year on the job?
In many ways, except for the budget cuts, it was an absolutely terrific year. We closed out our capital campaign, brought in the Brookings Institution, got a huge gift to start the Lincy Institute, which is going to really help us engage in service around this community by supporting the nonprofits in the region, we had our accreditation visit, and of course it culminated in the budget cuts and the fact that we had to eliminate some programs. And as soon as I hit the campus, we lost our athletic director and were somewhat embroiled in a controversy not just to hire an athletic director, but a football coach. I learned what the public really cares about; the public is very invested in the sports and athletics programs of this university.
How did budget cuts change your vision for UNLV?
Like it or not, they have challenged the university because it’s a little harder to do business. But we can’t spend a lot of time wringing our hands over that. On a more detailed level they’ve forced me to ask a question: Why is Nevada the lowest in educational support in the country and what do we need to do to build a better future? Are we content that we’re going to keep cutting? Can we cut our way to greatness? Or will we have to rethink how we fund something as fundamental as education?
Why is education on the back burner in Nevada?
When you come to our state and look at a map, 87 percent of our land is owned by the federal government. It’s empty. We’re a frontier. You’ve got Las Vegas, then you have a whole bunch of nothing and then you have Reno and Carson City. There isn’t much else. … In a frontier state what is valuable? What you can pull out of the land? And while you need some technical force for that with engineering, a lot of it is not a technical work force. And then the business that we built here, which was gaming and entertainment, and that is a service industry. It hasn’t traditionally required a large number of highly educated people. … I understand the old paradigm, but I think anyone who is leading industry in this state, or anyone in government has to realize we have to do something different to get to the next place.
How do you pitch this paradigm shift to the average person in Las Vegas?
I don’t know anyone who doesn’t want their children to have a good life, so if you want that, you know that education has to be part of it. It’s a simple question.
Where would you like to see UNLV in 20 years?
I’d like to see us with a much better national reputation, but what president wouldn’t? No one wants to take over a company and make it worse. We all want to make things better. I would like to see that UNLV is able to bring in freshmen and graduate them at a very high level. … If you’re accepted into UNLV, I would like to make sure you have the services, attention, care and counseling that it takes for you to reach your career goals in a short period of time, so that you can graduate in four or five years and go out and get that job that you really wanted. I would like to see that UNLV is a valued player in the community, that we’re not only helping to provide the work force to make a booming economy in this town, but that we’re considered an integral part of it.
How can UNLV attract top students when Nevada isn’t willing to fund education?
I believe that the cost of our education will rise and along with that what we need to do is to change our behavior to be a little bit more like a private university. I’m not saying we’ll be private, but what do private universities do? They offer a great freshman experience. They offer more customer service. It’s up to us to create a higher quality educational experience and we’re working hard on that. What we’re trying to create is a top-tier experience and be an institution of choice.
What has UNLV taught you?
I think what UNLV has taught me most is that the value of higher education is being done at places like UNLV, in cities like Las Vegas. How old is Harvard? How old is Boston? When you look at the students who go to Harvard, what you have to ask is did Harvard add to their life? Did it change their lives? Harvard could fill its class with valedictorians 10 times over, so the kids they take are terrific; they’re going to be leaders. Does Harvard really make them better, or does it just put them with a bunch of other pretty smart kids, give them a pat on the back and send them out the door? … I actually think that the real work of American higher education is being done at the UNLVs of this country, not at the Harvards.