Chester County Leadership: Matt Meyers, President, Pennsylvania Institute of Technology

Matt Mayers, President of Pennsylvania Institute of Technology
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Matt Meyers, the President of Pennsylvania Institute of Technology, spoke with VISTA Today about growing up in Jenkintown and the activities he was involved in throughout high school; the first time he realized that people looked to him for leadership; the jobs he held as a teenager and the lessons he learned from them that stay with him today; and his decision to attend Muhlenberg College.

Meyers also discussed how a relationship he developed at his first job out of college, at an advertising specialty company, led to his entry into education; how he landed at P.I.T.; what’s new on-campus; and his priorities for the new year.

Where were you born, and where did you grow up?

I was born and grew up in Jenkintown, Pennsylvania. I have a younger brother, who is eight-and-a-half years younger than me.

What did your parents do?

For most of my life, my mother was a homemaker. My father was and is still working as a commercial printing salesman.

What do you remember about growing up in Jenkintown?

My brother was my mascot. When you have a kid brother that much younger, I found myself in high school toting him around with my friends, exposing things to him that an eight-year-old probably shouldn’t have seen or experienced!

I just turned forty, so I am at the oldest end of the millennials. When I was a kid, I dialed the phone without an area code; I would run down the street to meet a friend and play outside until dinnertime. Very different from my kids today.

Did you play any sports in high school?

I did not play any sports. I was more of a clubs and activities person – student council, class council, yearbook. Those were the big ones.

What drew you to those clubs and activities?

The relationships more than anything. Those ended up being my friends. In college, a lot of my friends joined fraternities and sororities. My version of those organizations was the school newspaper. The students working in the editorial room of the school newspaper were my people.

When was the first time you realized people looked to you for leadership?

In Ms. Folk’s class in second grade, they asked for volunteers for student council, and I volunteered to run and was elected. That continued every year until eighth grade.

I remember in eighth grade, I thought, had a streak going. Elections happened in history class, and as I walked into my eighth-grade history, I looked around and didn’t know anyone. I figured my streak had come to an end. Once the votes were counted, I was shocked to see I had still won. That was probably the first time I realized the kids around me were looking to me as a leader. 

What did your peers see in you?

I think I was able to be serious and at the same time I can crack a joke at my expense, but I’m ready when it’s time to get serious.

What kind of music were you listening to?

I was a throwback classic rock person: Queen, Meatloaf, The Who, Led Zeppelin. I was the biggest Meatloaf fan on this side of the pond back then. 

Did you work in high school?

My first paid job was as a junior counselor at a day camp named Twin Springs Farm in Gwynedd that paid $300 for the summer. When I was there, we had two junior counselors in our bunk. The head counselor and the other junior counselor got along well, and I was mostly left out of their friendship.

In the middle of the summer, we got reviews. I was dreading my review because I wasn’t as buddy-buddy with the head counselor as the other junior counselor, but I ended up getting all 5/5. I figured he gave the other guy 5/5 as well, but he got all 3’s. I realized then that maybe it’s not who you want to go to the bar with but who you want to be in the trenches with.

After that, I spent three summers working at the Philadelphia Cricket Club doing everything from lifeguard, banquet prep work to short-order cook.

What lessons did you take from those early jobs that still influence you today?

Hard work. I think about that job at the Cricket Club. My first summer there, I was sixteen years old, and my second summer, the boss quit two weeks into the summer. I walked into the general manager’s office, and I asked to fill the position. I was seventeen years old and now the manager of the pool-side restaurant with a staff of eight. I was very young at the time, but I just knew to step into the role and do it to the best of my ability.

Going back to the newspaper in college, my junior year I switched from news to sports, and the editor-in-chief at the time said, “don’t do that. In 150 years, we’ve never had sports editor become editor-in-chief!” I wasn’t interested in that position, but I came around on the idea and figured if my peers elected me, I’d do it.

I’ve always been lucky to surround myself with people who are smarter than me. I took the role, but I remember thinking my managing editor would be the perfect editor-in-chief the next year. The humility was still there for me. I can say the same thing about P.I.T. (Pennsylvania Institute of Technology); I surround myself with the right people.

Where did you go to college?

I went to Muhlenberg College in Allentown. It was the last school I looked at because it was too close to home. My parents both went to college. We did college tours in the North, South, and West. I frustrated them because we’d drive up, and I’d immediately say yes or no. I remember arriving at Muhlenberg and knowing it was the right place for me. The people were warm. It was a place where I knew I would find my way. There were under 2,500 students, so by the time I was in my senior year and editor of the newspaper, I was having lunch with the President, the Dean of Students, and the class president. If I had gone to a larger school like Penn State, that wouldn’t have happened.

After college, who were the people who saw promise in you?

My first job out of college was at an advertising specialty company selling promotional products. I had a boss there who believed in me. The experience I gained there led me to my first education job a year later. I worked at the for-profit trade school Katharine Gibbs. There, I had a President named Deb Weninger who was dedicated to professional development. When you work in that corporate structure, it can be very rigid. She went out on a limb with a leadership development program for four mid-level managers within the school. She was the leader, and she sat with us every other week, encouraging us by saying we could do her job. I was twenty-five years old at the time and started to think I should look beyond Director of Admissions someday and think bigger.

Who else opened doors for you?

My parents and my wife. My parents and I had dinner together every night. There was a close bond. I watched my dad’s example: work hard, and it pays off. That level of hard work – when the kids go to bed, I’m going to do a little more work – was instilled in me early growing up.

I met my wife in my second week of college. We’ve been together a long time, and she is my best friend.

What brought you to P.I.T.?

The company that owned Katharine Gibbs announced the closure of the entire division. I was in admissions, so I was first to be laid off. I was recently married then, and for the next three weeks, I interviewed every day and everywhere. I interviewed at an automotive school, and they gave me a nice offer. I had another interview with the Pennsylvania Institute of Technology (P.I.T.), which at the time had a satellite campus in Center City. I went in, met with the Director of Admissions, and he told me about the mission of P.I.T. I was fed up with the for-profit churning of students and really impressed with their non-profit mission. I took the P.I.T. job on the spot and called my wife on the train ride home to tell her I had just taken a job that was $20,000 less than the offer from the automotive school. And this is why I love my wife; her first question was, “are you happy?” That’s how I ended up at P.I.T. in 2008.

Here we are 13 years later and you’re President of the college.

I was Vice President of Administration when the pandemic hit. Around Thanksgiving of 2020, I was speaking with the P.I.T.’s then President, Will Robinson, who was a graduate of P.I.T. He said he wasn’t feeling well. Ultimately, and sadly, he passed away due to complications from COVID. I was at the front of the line at the beginning of COVID, and then I was the go-to person during an unexpected leadership change.

Going into 2022, what are your priorities as the leader of P.I.T.?

Education has changed. We have a lot of students here who have never done online education before and may have been resistant to it. Suddenly, online education is just one of the modes, and online classes are now part of the norm. The 350 students that we used to have in-person on campus on a Tuesday, what does that look like in the future? We have so many medical and clinical programs look like in 2022 and beyond?

We also must consider the teaching component and the employee component. We bucked the education trend in the last two years and have grown 40% during COVID. Now when you interview new candidates and try to retain your current valued staff, the first question is “what’s your work-from-home policy?” That shifts a lot of longstanding components of education policy. Now, it’s how do we accommodate the student schedule that may work 9-5 and employees looking for more flexibility.

How do you develop a relationship with a student online?

Not only has our enrollment grown during the pandemic, but our retention of students has also increased. One of the things we did early in the pandemic was to look at every component of our student-facing organizations and ask ourselves how we could modify to this online environment.

For instance, we had a tutoring center. How do I take that center and move it online? How can we take our library, even the things in print, and get that online? How do we create digital rooms for people to communicate?

Fortunately, we had a good online infrastructure before. We had fantastic staff and faculty who turned around in two days with a robust online presence that we have continued to build upon.

It sounds like the students appreciated it too. Look at the retention numbers.

Absolutely. The numbers speak for themselves. We are a more “adult-driven” college, with many of our students juggling jobs and children. We designed a flexible schedule where students could come to a lecture in-person, but we also recorded it if the student needed to watch it at 3:00 in the morning when they were done their work shift. We offer Zoom and in-person lectures so that we could meet the student in their life, rather than making college their life.

Any new developments, programs, or campuses?

During the pandemic, we started the first regionally accredited cannabis program including a track for cannabis horticulture. We have students growing hemp in grow tents and with hydroponics. Those students are doing some incredible things and graduating with excellent jobs.

We just launched our Diagnostic Sonography program. We are one of the few colleges in the area to offer that.

During the pandemic, we were approved to offer two bachelor’s programs: an R.N. to B.S.N. and a Bachelor’s in General Studies, a mission-focused degree completion. We are growing, and the cool thing is, we don’t need more physical space to grow in this current environment. We don’t want to be a four-year college. We want to be a two-year college. We have an L.P.N. program that is booming, and we are hoping to offer an R.N. program soon. So, we’d have an L.P.N. to R.N. and then an R.N. to B.S.N.

What do you do in your free time, Matt?

I am the dad of an eleven-year-old and a five-year-old. We go to dance class, tennis, and art class. We just moved from Glenside to North Wales in Montgomery County over the summer. I’ve been doing a lot of handiwork in the new house.

Do you read much?

I wish I read more. I find myself more and more reading self-help books on how to be more helpful and effective. I used to love to read the ‘tween’ apocalyptic books: Hunger Games, Harry Potter, Maze Runner.

What gives you hope?

My kids! My daughter recently asked me to take her to the playground to have a playdate with some girls from her class, and I stood there with a few other dads, watching our kids running around the jungle gym. My five-year-old doesn’t remember life without a mask. The girls hugged at the end of the playdate, and the pureness of it all was just great. I try to be home for dinner every night like my dad was, and I love spending that time with my kids.

Finally, Matt, what’s the best piece of advice you ever got?

I had a boss that was one of those people that could walk into a room and have thirty people gravitate to them. We all have met those people, and this guy had “it”. Everyone wanted to be his best friend. He was a mentor to me.

I remember going on a sales call with him at a mushroom farm. I went into the meeting with the owner, trying to be the biggest personality in the room. On the car ride home, my boss turned to me and said, “you weren’t yourself.” I told him I was trying to sell something like him, and he said, “no one wants to buy from that guy. They want to buy from you. Be you!”

I ended up back down at that mushroom farm, and I showed the owner these promotional t-shirts for $10, and on a whim, I also showed him a $70 jacket. He bought 350 of those jackets. It was a huge sale! I called that boss on the way home, and he said, “take your girlfriend out for a nice steak dinner, and enjoy it because you have to do it again tomorrow.”

His message was that you don’t just make it, you have to prove your value every day.

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