Mike Norman

Opinion: New UNT president gets a financial trial by fire

Neal Smatresk hasn’t had the easy transition he might have hoped for in his new job as president of the University of North Texas in Denton.

In fact, UNT has been in a storm of bad news almost since Smatresk took over in February, none of it his fault but all of it his job to fix.

Between 2004 and early this year, the university improperly drew down more than $83.5 million in state funds to pay employee salaries and benefits.

To his credit, Smatresk faces the problem head-on. The only part of it he ducked in a meeting with the Star-Telegram Editorial Board on Thursday is the investigation into exactly how things went wrong and what kind of settlement UNT will reach on paying back the money to the state.

Those two angles are being handled by Chancellor Lee Jackson and other UNT System officials headquartered in Dallas.

Still, Smatresk admits to being baffled at how UNT got itself in this position. The problems were recognized as early as 2011, he said, but still were not adequately corrected.

Gov. Rick Perry has sent a letter to the state’s public universities instructing them to learn from UNT’s bad example. He told them to conduct internal audits of state funds and report the results to the governor’s office.

At least Smatresk is ahead of the pack on that. His dirty laundry is already out for all to see. He says flatly that his university had “inadequate” financial controls.

He has hired a new chief financial officer and put more controls in place.

“I assure you that we are on it and that this will never happen again,” he says.

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At 62, he’s built a career that should give him credibility for saying that.

The first 25 years of that higher education career were in Texas, including a stint as chairman of biology and dean of science at the University of Texas at Arlington.

He went on to be the chief academic officer at the University of Hawaii at Manoa. From 2009 through January of this year, he was president of the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.

Owing to state budget cuts in Nevada, he says, “I am more trained than I would like to be in cutting budgets.”

Smatresk says he has instituted more conservative budgeting procedures at UNT, not just to be more careful, but also to build up savings for when the state wants its money back.

Still, he wants smart cuts: “We won’t compromise the classroom experience.”

He’s focusing UNT more on who its students are, where they come from, what they want now and in the future.

Businesses use such analytics to drive planning and capital spending.

Smatresk also does what all university presidents do: He brags about his school.

Citing its music, art and design programs, he calls UNT “the most creative university in the state.”

The friendly campus is tightly woven into the Denton community, he adds, and “I’d stack our faculty and curriculum up against any university in the country.”

Putting financial problems in the rear-view mirror will take some effort, but Smatresk is confident.

“We know how to do this,” he says.

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