State education leaders and UNLV administrators have made the rounds in the wake of UNLV President Neal Smatresk’s sudden announcement that he is leaving Southern Nevada to take the head position at the University of North Texas.
Interim Athletics Director Tina Kunzer-Murphy said in a statement that she was “grateful” for being brought on by Smatresk, while Nevada System of Higher Education Chancellor Dan Klaich said the move posed a “good opportunity.” Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid even weighed in, releasing a statement praising Smatresk for his work, particularly with co-hosting the National Clean Energy Summit.
Opinion, among leaders in graduate and faculty circles, is largely positive when it comes to Smatresk’s tenure.
But one campus constituency that Smatresk can’t claim in the friend column is undergraduate student government.
CSUN President Mark Ciavola, a long-time opponent of the tuition hikes that have largely been inseparable from Smatresk’s long-term vision for UNLV, was unphased by the president’s likely departure.
You could even say he was glad.
“I don’t know that anything changes because I don’t know that the overall goals change,” Ciavola said. “But I do think it is one less person at UNLV advocating against the interest of students.”
The sentiment is shared by the majority of CSUN’s higher-ranking officials. The reason for it, they say, is because they view many of Smatresk’s policies as being pro-faculty, sometimes at the expense of students.
“I think his legacy since he arrived in 2009 is a legacy full of tuition and fee increases with no direct benefit to students,” Ciavola said.
It’s no secret that many of those who have populated the ranks of UNLV’s undergraduate student government recently are College Republicans, some homegrown on campus under the guidance of Ciavola himself when he was president of the UNLVCRs. Their general dislike for the tendency of education officials to advocate restoring faculty pay while simultaneously raising tuition frequently leads to clashes, but Ciavola insists it’s not a matter of politics.
Tuition is a hot-button issue in Nevada, and CSUN is already gearing up for a battle with state education officials over the possible imposition of a 16 percent tuition hike on university undergrads starting fall 2015.
A recent survey of about 700 undergraduates conducted by CSUN found that 47 percent opposed the tuition increase, some of whom said it would prevent them from graduating. Only 23 percent said they supported the tuition increase, while the rest had no opinion.
Student government leaders plan to confront the board armed with the survey results when the tuition hikes come before education officials for approval in June.
Smatresk and other administrators believe raising tuition along with asking for more state funding is the only way to propel UNLV to becoming a top-ranking research university, but that could come at the price of dividing the undergraduate population from the rest of the campus community.
Although graduates may also face a tuition increase, they will be subjected to a far less menacing 4 percent hike starting fall 2017. Both UNLV and UNR want friendlier hikes on graduates, who are considered valuable assets in raising research output and prestige.
In keeping with his vision, Smatresk has advocated tirelessly on behalf of faculty to the NSHE Board of Regents and the State Legislature. He’s continuously called for restoring faculty pay, which was cut by about 5 percent two years ago. At UNLV faculty senate meetings, he’s stressed the importance of retaining and recruiting faculty.
It’s for that reason Gerry Bomotti, senior vice president for finance and business and one of Smatresk’s cabinet members, is concerned for the university’s future. UNLV has been struggling with retaining and recruiting faculty members due to budget cuts, and has only recently began hiring again in large numbers.
Smatresk’s departure could potentially dissuade faculty to stay or come to UNLV, Bomotti said.
“It doesn’t help [the issue] move forward,” Bomotti said. “There’s no question about that.”
But Vice Provost for Faculty, Research and Policy Greg Brown, who has clashed with CSUN in the past, was less troubled. He said Smatresk has hired competent individuals who will continue to work toward making UNLV a top-ranking institution.
“The president sets the tone, but the hard work is done by the faculty, the department chairs and the provost’s office,” Brown said.
Michael Gordon, the president for UNLV’s Graduate & Professional Student Association, had a similar view. He said although there are still dean positions to be filled, provost John Valery White could handle the issue easily.
Gordon, who has sympathized with faculty causes, said UNLV’s quest for Tier-1 status may slow down at first if Smatresk leaves, but it would not end.
“I think there’s broad momentum with the Tier-1 university,” Gordon said. “But I think there will be some tweaking. It’s not going to be smooth sailing on day one.”
Smatresk was in Texas on Wednesday and could not be reached for comment.