February 5, 2014

New UNT president hopes to build school’s national reputation

Neal Smatresk spent the first 25 years of his career in Texas, much of it at the University of Texas at Arlington. He started work Monday at the campus in Denton.

The new president of the University of North Texas arrived ready to hit the ground running with priorities in academics, name recognition, athletics and communication.

“I’m happy to be back in Texas,” said Neal Smatresk, 62. “This feels like home, and there is really no transition that I needed to go through.”

Smatresk, previously president of the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, already has deep family and professional ties in North Texas. He spent the first 25 years of his career in the state, much of it at the University of Texas at Arlington.

His science background — Smatresk has a doctorate in zoology — and his work at UT Arlington made him the top choice for the job.

“He is a scientist and researcher, and UNT has not had a president in a long, long time with a background in hard science,” UNT System Chancellor Lee Jackson said. “He built a university research program at UT Arlington from the ground up.”

Smatresk started work Monday, filling the job vacated when V. Lane Rawlins retired.

Smatresk said he wants to build on successes at the Denton campus, which hit a record 36,000-plus students in fall 2013, while retaining the campus’s family “vibe.”

“I don’t want to lose that, so if you can keep a family feel but give your students access to absolute great cutting-edge experience, then I think you’ve done something really special,” he said. “When you do that, people will beat a path to your doorstep.”

Smatresk, who grew up in Buffalo, N.Y., earned his doctorate from the University of Texas at Austin. At UT Arlington, he was a faculty member and chairman of biology and dean of science.

Rawlins said: “I am delighted with this selection. This is a man who has experience, who has led institutions successfully, who is a Texan and is coming home, and who is enthusiastic about doing it.”

Smatresk wants to build national recognition for UNT by enhancing educational programs and research.

“I think this is the right place. It’s the right time. It’s the right university. And we are going to make our presence felt,” he said.

Athletics are also part of the equation, for both recognition and campus life.

Sports triumphs bring a campus together, said Smatresk, noting UNLV’s strong basketball tradition. The Rebels won the NCAA Tournament in 1990 and have been to the Final Four four times.

“The other thing that athletics does for you is it gives national branding that I couldn’t afford to pay for,” Smatresk said. “It’s a great way to let people know you are here. Whether it’s a bowl game or going to the NCAA for March Madness, there are going to be people who follow that, who get caught up in it. And when you hit the Sweet 16 and when you get to a bowl game, applications go up.”

Matthew Varnell, 22, director of public relations for UNT’s Student Government Association, said sports are important for campus life as well.

“I think football is one of those things that it can bring your spirit from zero to 60 like that,” he said.

Rawlins agreed.

“One thing they care about is football,” Rawlins said, noting that while he was president, Apogee Stadium was completed and now draws large crowds. A new football coach was also hired during his tenure.

Those investments paid off this football season. In its first bowl appearance in 10 years, the Mean Green defeated UNLV in the Heart of Dallas Bowl.

Smatresk’s first day as president started with a 4 a.m. television interview in Dallas.

His message: “I think UNT needs to be the first-choice university in the metropolitan area — in the North Texas region.”

He didn’t slow down until after a 9 p.m. reception.

“That’s what you are supposed to do,” Smatresk said.

Smatresk plans to live in Denton. He has family in Corpus Christi and Arlington, where he has a 7-month-old granddaughter.

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