Neal Smatresk was appointed UNLV's ninth president in August after serving two years as UNLV's chief academic officer. Like half of UNLV's new undergraduates this fall, he is a first-generation college graduate. In accepting his appointment, Smatresk talked about what he loves most about UNLV: its power to change lives by connecting students with the opportunities that a degree will open up for them. In the six weeks following his appointment, Smatresk conducted more than 45 broadcast and dozens of print interviews, including this one with UNLV Magazine.
Ph.D., Zoology, University of Texas at Austin; M.A., Biology, State University of New York at Buffalo; B.A., Biology, Gettysburg College
Cardiorespiratory physiology in fish and amphibians, especially salamanders, toads, and gars. He has studied the evolution from breathing in water to breathing in air. He has also devoted considerable effort toward K-20 science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) education.
From July 2007 to August 2009, Smatrask was UNLV's executive vice president and provost. Previously he was vice chancellor for academic affairs at the University of Hawaii at Manoa and dean of sciences at the University of Texas at Arlington.
Married to Debbie Smatresk, an occupational therapist, for 31 years. The couple has two children: Erik, who works at a communications technology company in Texas; and Kristin, who works in marketing in Hawaii.
When my Swedish grandfather came to Ellis Island, like so many immigrants, his name was changed. "Smatresk" is where he came from; it's a small homesite above the Arctic Circle. It means "small swamps or bogs."
My mother's relatives were colonial New Englanders. One relative was Benjamin Lincoln, a Revolutionary War general and the officer who accepted the British surrender at Yorktown. Lord Cornwallis wouldn't give his sword directly to George Washington, so Washington sent his own second-in-command to accept it. A painting of the scene hangs in the U.S. Capitol.
My dad owned a construction company in Buffalo, N.Y. The ground there freezes hard and pushes in the foundation walls of homes. So his company would jack up the house, knock down the broken walls, and rebuild them, then lower the house onto a new foundation. When I was 12, he put a shovel in my hand. That's what I did every summer through graduate school.
My family, like so many, expected me to go to college and make something of myself. They instilled in me that sense that you had to believe in yourself and be motivated, and then you'd find success.
On Being a Scientist
I was the kind of kid who blew stuff up in the basement and entered every science fair. In ninth grade a friend and I made a hovercraft out of a lawnmower engine. There was a lot about shear stress I didn't understand, so the impeller flew off and embedded in the toe of my sneaker. It scared the heck out of me.
I went to a small liberal arts school. I majored in biology and was supposed to come back to Buffalo to take over my childhood dentist's practice. But, I got into the arts. I sang in the choir and acted in plays. I took up photography and was accepted at the Rhode Island School of Design. The urge to experiment kept drawing me back to science. Eventually I realized that research scientists were able to combine both their analytical and creative-thinking skills.
I'm a do-it-yourself kind of guy. I did most of the landscape work at my house myself. I rented a backhoe to plant trees and move dirt. But I'm learning my limits. I injured my knee building a dry-stack rock wall.
Work hard, do your job honorably, and good things will happen.
I like to work with people to develop the high-level viewpoints and to build consensus for direction. Then the pieces have to be handed off to the right team to execute.
I've been preparing for this position my entire career, but I can't say I set out 20 years ago to do just this. When you care a lot about your discipline, you're drawn to administrative service. I became a department chair. With that, you kind of have your tribe; you're in a position to fiercely defend the faculty. That led to more administrative duties, and eventually to this presidency.
We are at a critical moment in the development of this university. Sometimes hard times trigger metamorphosis and the production of something amazing. I know that, in spite of the fiscal challenges we have faced, we are going to emerge stronger, leaner, and more efficient. We will be the new American university. Working together, we will ensure a great future for this university, a reputation we can all be proud of, and the continued success and prosperity of our region.