Matt Wilson officially marks his last day on the job as a member of the University of Akron (UA) faculty on May 31. Wilson, the former president of the university, is leaving to take the job of president at Missouri Western State University. We sat down with Wilson to talk about his unexpected turn as UA's president following the short and troubled tenure of Scott Scarborough.
Wilson said the Board of Trustees came to him about taking over as interim president. Wilson talked about the overtures that soon came from other schools and his decision to step away from leading UA.
Wilson didn’t go looking for the job of president at UA. At the time, he was dean of the law school. He said he literally got a call letting him know that the Board of Trustees wanted to meet with him, and they wanted him to bring along his resume.
Several months after being named the interim president of the university, the trustees voted to drop the “interim” part of the title.
A year-and-a-half into his new position as president, Wilson said he and his wife began to evaluate all the hard work he’d put into the job — the “strides” the university had made during his tenure and where they wanted to be in the future. It was about that time that a couple of universities “knocked on his door” (first the University of Central Florida (UCF), then Utah Valley University) and wanted to gauge his interest in being their president. He stressed this was not something he sought out. Having lived and worked as an attorney in Orlando, he said the UCF opening was attractive. Then he was approached by Utah Valley which he said he was interested in because he grew up in Utah, had a brother who went to Utah Valley and also had friends there.
Wilson said he was not actively searching for another job as president nor would he have had the time given his busy schedule.
The decision to step down
Wilson said he was very open with the students during both those openings. “The students were actually very understanding,” Wilson said. “I had some great conversations with students.”
Wilson could have stayed in the president’s position at UA and continued to look for another opening, but he opted to step down and return to teaching in the law school.
“As we were working through the University of Central Florida recruitment process ... We started to talk about it. If we’ve got a university in Utah that’s talking to us, it really isn’t fair to the students to have the level of uncertainty."
Wilson said there was no pressure to step down from the board or anyone else at the university.
“I’m sure that me looking at the University of Central Florida gave some people pause. Some people said, ‘Well, geez, if he’s looking at another institution and even exploring it, why would we want to have him here at the University of Akron.’”
At the same time, he feels everyone had also seen the change that had happened, the new programs that were just taking off.
“Never at any time did anyone say ‘We want you to leave.’”
Wilson said he got calls of support from alumni all over the world. “Part of the conversation was whether I’m a professor, whether I’m president, whether I’m a dean, you know, whether I’m a supporter, whether I’m forever a Zip, I’ll always be committed to the University of Akron.”
The University of Akron’s future
Wilson said the single biggest challenge facing the University of Akron is identity.
“When you have a university that is research intensive, that has so many program available to so many folks and really has grown, when you start to contract … What do you do? It’s far easier to grow than it is to contract.”
Wilson pointed to “creep” in programs which is not the fault of anyone and spending that has increased with the market, the investment needed in research and the cost of athletics, spending on quality facilties. Wilson said the university needs to look ahead to the next 50 years to figure out what it wants to be.
University struggles and a brain drain
There have been some high-profile researchers who have left the university in recent years. Wilson said you’d have to ask those individuals for their reasons, but he went on to say that every situation is different. He said it could be family-related, retirement, attraction to a warmer climate. He said he knows there’s some frustration among researchers who want more support.
“For every university, there is the concern of having brain drain, and universities really do need to find ways, whether it’s monetary support, whether it’s moral support or other things of working with their faculty, because their faculty are key to advancement. They’re key to making sure your students get the quality education that they need.”
The next president
Wilson brought a visibly different approach to connecting with the student body than did his predecessor. This ranged from helping students move in on the first day of classes to getting involved in the occasional pick-up basketball game. Wilson hopes the university’s next president is someone who focuses on students.
"If you can focus on students and student outcomes, everything you need in terms of decisions becomes a lot simpler: Where are you going to put your resources, and where you're going to prioritize those needs to be focused on the students."
This includes having a quality faculty, extracurricular programs that lead to jobs. On top of the focus on students, Wilson added the next president will need to have the acumen to navigate the university through financial waters that UA and other universities are struggling through.
The key, according to Wilson, is to generate excitement that “there is a jewel here in Summit County, in Akron, and look at the university does, and be able to take that to the next level.”