UNLV President Neal Smatresk shocked most of Las Vegas when he announced, just months after signing a four-year extension to his original four-year contract, that he was leaving to take a presidential post in Texas.
But a look at history might have lessened the surprise: The 12 people who have led the campus have stayed, on average, for five years. And the two exceptions that prove the rule — former presidents Bob Maxson (1984-1994) and Carol Harter (1995-2006) — ended up being forced out by external pressures.
Maxson and Harter are exceptions nationally, too, where shorter presidential tenures are the trend: According to a 2012 study by the American Council on Higher Education, the average tenure for a university president is now seven years, down from eight-and-a-half years in 2006.
So, is that it? Is UNLV’s lot to be but a stepping stone for ambitious presidents, a way station for up-and-coming stars to spend a few years before moving on to bigger and better things? Or is UNLV ready and able to attract somebody who will stay for a decade to oversee initiatives such as building a sports arena on campus, starting a medical school and, perhaps most important, turning UNLV into a Tier 1 research university?
“We really do need a longer-term commitment, maybe even for a career,” says Carol Harter, whose 11-year tenure as president was the longest in UNLV history. At the very least, she said, the next president should be committed to staying for a decade.
The complex job of being a president — Harter says it’s akin to running a small city, with housing, health care, a police force and diverse constituencies vying for attention and resources — takes time to learn. And navigating Nevada’s politics alone would test even a seasoned vet, to say nothing of the additional jobs of raising money and recruiting top-tier faculty. Frequent, five-year interruptions threaten to stall progress on long-term projects, she says.
“We just need people who are so committed that they make this not a stopping point in a series of presidencies, but rather a commitment to this place over a much longer period of time,” Harter says. And that’s more important than ever with the list of high-profile projects facing the next president. “I don’t think you can see through a whole action when you have a very short tenure.”
For the long or short haul?
Harter says when she was hired in 1995, she thought UNLV would be her final career stop, and suggested university regents look for someone older, whose career needed a capstone. (In fact, Harter might still be president had she not been forced out in 2006 by then-Chancellor Jim Rogers, who wanted fresh blood.)
Her replacement, David Ashley, lasted three years, and his replacement, Smatresk, lasted four. But Rogers says that’s a good thing.
“People shouldn’t stay 10 years,” he says. “You’ve got to get fresh ideas and new blood.”
In Rogers’ mind, the average university president’s tenure should be five or six years, and the school should search for a younger, more ambitious person who’s looking to build his or her resume and move on. “I think you need to get somebody on the way up,” Rogers says.
And graduating your president to a bigger and better school is an important part of the deal, he says. “Nobody wants to take the ugly girl to the dance. You don’t want somebody nobody else wants,” he says.
But whether that new president is here four, five or six years, Rogers says he or she needs to concentrate on building ties between academia and businesses in the city.
[HEAR MORE: Hear about changes in educational leadership on "KNPR’s State of Nevada."]
“If you don’t weld the community to the school, you don’t have a shot,” he says. While the hotel administration college has strong, natural ties to Nevada’s No. 1 industry, other colleges at UNLV don’t have those relationships. As a result, students suffer, missing out on networking and job opportunities, and the university suffers by shutting out sources of fundraising.
Nevada System of Higher Education Board of Regents Chairman Kevin Page agrees that a four- or five-year tenure is best, especially if the university is able to recruit a “superstar” president who has performed elsewhere and is ready to apply those talents to UNLV. Is UNLV now in a place where it can attract such a person? “Yes, very much so,” Page says. “This is a can-do town.”
Page says UNLV’s reputation outside of Las Vegas is better than it is in town. Indeed, under Harter, UNLV added a well-regarded law school, graduate schools of dental medicine and architecture, 50 Ph.D. programs and 17 new buildings. Under Smatresk, the prestigious Brookings Institution opened Brookings Mountain West, a public policy think tank, at UNLV. Page says UNLV often gets its first pick of faculty members nationwide when jobs come open.
Another factor: contract terms. Page and Rogers say UNLV’s contracts are one-sided, primarily benefitting the president and not the university system. Page suggested, for example, a noncompete clause that would prohibit presidents from seeking employment from another university during their contract term, unless the president first got the permission of the regents. That way, he said, regents could negotiate a presidential exit that could be more beneficial to the system.
Page says he’ll look for an academic who also has real-world business experience when he selects the next president. “This is running a big business,” he says.
Doomed to ‘feeder’ status?
Don Snyder agrees with Page. A former banker who has served as dean of the hotel college, Snyder is now in charge of UNLV’s stadium project as executive dean of strategic initiatives. He said the next UNLV president needs some business background because of the nature of the position and the tremendous number of issues the final candidate will confront. “I think it is a CEO job,” says Snyder.
But he also concurs with Harter, saying a longer tenure is better. “My sense is the average (tenure) is going to be about five years,” he says. “I like the longer model.”
Molly Corbett Broad, president of the American Council on Higher Education, says there are plenty of reasons presidents don’t stay long: Universities are more complex than ever, there are more diverse constituencies that need to be served, and appointments increasingly reflect the political and ideological orientation of appointing authorities than in the past.
Like it or not, Broad says, UNLV is a “feeder institution” now, one that will eventually graduate its president to a new job — but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. There’s an advantage to being known as a school where up-and-coming stars are developed. When Maxson left UNLV, for example, he had a long, successful tenure as head of California State University, Long Beach.
But what if UNLV wants to grow beyond being a feeder institution into one that attracts top presidential talent? For that to happen, UNLV needs resources. The school suffered through budget cuts during the recession, and is now fighting its way back. On this point, she echoes Harter, who said all that stands in the way of UNLV’s ultimate success is money.
So the question turns back on Las Vegas and the state: Are we willing to put the resources into the university that will enable future presidents to reach the Tier 1 research goal? To open a medical school? To attract top-name, grant-winning faculty, and students who want to benefit from their tutelage?
If the answer is yes, Broad says, then UNLV can start looking for a long-term commitment from an experienced president. If it’s no, or, “we’re not sure,” then that’s not something the school can reasonably expect.
“Some of the destiny of UNLV is really in the hands of the people of UNLV, their government leaders, and their state leaders,” Broad says. “What kind of a university do they want UNLV to be?”