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Tom Matthews leaves a legacy of leadership at SUNY Geneseo

Thirty-eight thousand.

That’s a conservative estimate of how many workshops in leadership that SUNY Geneseo students have taken under Tom Matthews’ direction.

Tom Matthews (Photo by Keith Walters) Pho
Tom Matthews (Photo by Keith Walters)

The founder of the Geneseo Opportunities for Leadership Development program, or GOLD, Matthews knows that number because he has read every journal a student has filed at the end of a workshop in order to gain credit toward various leadership certificates. There were more workshops taken by students — probably thousands more — but they didn’t write a journal because they weren’t working toward a certificate. One of GOLD’s features is that any enrolled student can partake.

“It’s been a joy reading all those reflections of students, and the meaning they’ve taken,” Matthews said recently in his office in the MacVittie Student Union at the center of campus.

Matthews retires this week, capping a 53-year career in the SUNY system. Nearly all of those years have been with Geneseo.

It’s a career that kept Matthews hopping, and one that provided immense satisfaction. He can call on a successful Hollywood producer, a U.S. intelligence officer, a major banking executive and many more former students who grew at Geneseo while working with him. Only his last 18 years have been formally involved in leadership education.

Matthews’ career with SUNY underwent several transformations on campus while he also took on national-level roles in student affairs and state roles in public employee contract negotiations.

All of that involved leadership, which he traces back to his years as a student in a one-room schoolhouse in tiny Louisville, a community in New York’s North Country, a stone’s throw from the St. Lawrence River, just east of Massena. With one teacher for five grades, the teacher frequently relied upon older students to handle tasks such as building a fire in the school’s stove, fetching water and helping younger students with their lessons.

The habits Matthews picked up in elementary school naturally carried over to high school, where he was class president and editor of the student newspaper. In college at SUNY Plattsburgh,  Matthews was planning on becoming a teacher, but a mentor suggested he look in a slightly different direction, noting the SUNY system building explosion of the mid-1960s to make room for baby boomers. Colleges — and a master’s degree program aimed at working for a college — were waiting for him and other young staff.

While working on his master’s degree, Matthews did an internship at SUNY Fredonia. There he met his future wife, who was a senior. They married in 1966 and the couple lived on campus at SUNY Brockport for their first two years while Matthews worked at the college and Betsy Matthews taught in the Spencerport schools. Aiming to start a family two years later, Tom decided to take a job in student affairs at Geneseo.

He landed in the middle of the anti-war movement years, during which every college campus saw student protests over the Vietnam War. Part of his job was to approve plans for student marches. Another part was to seek a liquor license for the campus pub — a common college amenity in an age when the drinking age was 18.

The first major event at the student center was a fundraiser to help local Republicans, with Gov. Nelson Rockefeller as the featured guest. But two weeks before the event, four students at Kent State University were killed by National Guardsmen at a student protest. The Geneseo college president at that time, Robert MacVittie, wanted to cancel the fundraiser but the Rockefeller administration would have none of it, Matthews recalled. Geneseo staff feared angry students would storm the fundraiser.

“I got the students leaders together and asked ‘How can you help us avoid a disaster?’ ” Matthews recalled. Rockefeller was no shrinking violet who intended to sneak in through a back door. “He had to pull up and walk through the protesters,” Matthews said. The student leaders working with Matthews linked arms to create a wall keeping the protesters from the guests.

Tom Matthews
Tom Matthews

Despite the tension of that day, Matthews said Geneseo survived the protest era peacefully. Student occupations of administrative offices were allowed to go on overnight when the staff left the building. There was no graffiti, broken windows or vandalism, he said.

“I attribute that to the way Bob McVittie steered us through that,” he said.

Another part of the student affairs job was coordinating visiting artists. The list of performers during Matthews’ 25 years in that job looks like a “Who’s Who” of the entertainment industry. Comedian Red Skelton, mime Marcel Marceau, dancer Martha Graham, and rockers Kool and the Gang are just a few of the headliners who came to campus.

Early on, Matthews became involved in an organization for student affairs based in the Southeast and that led to his eventually becoming chairman of the National Association for Campus Activities. He took a leave for a year to do that and gained a doctorate from the University of South Carolina at the same time.

Not long after Matthews came to Geneseo, public employees at SUNY won the right to bargain collectively, and Matthews became involved in the union —United University Professors, which represented faculty and staff.

“Somebody had to do some of these jobs,” Matthews said, sounding like his grade-school teacher might have when showing a student the bucket and the well outside the schoolhouse. Matthews, however, took on a lion’s share. He was a delegate to state meetings, union treasurer and vice president for professionals. For four years he worked full time (traveling frequently to Albany)   representing Geneseo staff, followed by four years splitting his time between the union and Geneseo.

The last union contract negotiation was particularly contentious. As the sides were preparing to negotiate, Mario Cuomo was unseated as governor by George Pataki. The new administration had a very different take on the college union.

“They were threatening to take away tenure,” Matthews said. The administration also wanted to consolidate financial aid for all SUNY schools into a single office in Albany. “It was a two-year battle to negotiate,” Matthews recalled. “I led people in parades around buildings on our campus in caps and gowns. I didn’t ask for it, but I ended up in the middle of it.”

He views as a major accomplishment that he was able to win health care insurance for part-time employees who taught two courses or more. He viewed that as a safeguard against moving toward a predominantly part-time staff, which is happening on many other campuses these days.

It was at the end of that time that Robert A. Bonfiglio, vice president for Student and Campus Life, began working at Geneseo and got to know Matthews. When Matthews grew tired of traveling to Albany, he talked with Bonfiglio, his supervisor, about what he might do next at the college, as his old job as head of student activities had been filled. Grants available from the Kellogg Foundation promoting leadership provided the impetus to work on a leadership program at Geneseo.

Bonfiglio said Matthews had a fully formed idea from the onset.

“I remember that first conversation like it was yesterday. I could tell a), he had a winning idea and b) he had the passion and commitment to see it through.”

Matthews, meanwhile, says he was blessed to be given permission to start a brand-new program so late in his career.

“I feel privileged. Not that many people get the opportunity to create a new program. I kind of jumped in with both feet.”

While Matthews teaches some workshops — all about an hour long and offered in the afternoons when students are typically free to tackle something — he has recruited alumni, community members, fellow staff, professors and students to teach, too. Any month of the school year there are dozens of offerings from which to choose.

The program’s success is due to three factors, Bonfiglio said: Matthews’ insistence that every student be allowed to participate and not just a chosen few, his work ethic, and his deep connections helping him enlist a broad range of instructors.

“We joke here that Tom never takes no for an answer. That was evident from day one,” Bonfiglio said.

Workshops can be tallied to count toward a general leadership certificates or more specialized ones. The generalized certificates are named after metals, while those that specialize in subject areas such as social justice, sustainability, cultural competency and volunteerism, are named for precious stones. Each certificate has four required workshops and four elective workshops. And to obtain a platinum certificate, students must complete the nine other certificates.

Workshops are designed to be interactive rather than lecture based. Some topics include “Dinner Etiquette for Business & Social Settings,” which includes a meal. Others are “First Year on the Job,” “Cross-Cultural Problem Solving” and “Listening Skills.”

Why so much attention to leadership? Many people ascribe positive attributes to the term, Matthews said. “We think it’s all good. But there’s a hell of a lot of bad leadership.” Nonprofits get in trouble. Company presidents sometimes don’t know how to run an effective meeting, he said.

These skills are not only needed once students get out of school, but more and more are part of what they’re doing in school, Matthews said.

“Our definition of leadership is: the ethical process of people working together for change. … Leadership is going on all around them. Seventy percent of courses involve team leadership. If we want our students to understand, they can’t avoid leadership.”

Bonfiglio added, “I think there is some concern in our country now as there was then, as to what it means to attend a liberal arts college in terms of employability and preparedness for careers.” Leadership workshops “filled in the blanks, providing both hard and soft skills that are needed in career and public leadership as well. I think it struck a chord with both students and parents.”

Indeed, when he talked with parents about the program, he said, they lit up. “Students certainly voted with their feet and attended these workshops by the thousands.”

Alumnus Dan Ward, a banking and investment executive in North Carolina, got to know Matthews in the 1980s when he was on the student activities board. Matthews recruited him more than a decade later as a sounding board when he organized the GOLD program and later as an instructor.

“The GOLD program is a world-class program,” said Ward, who’s from the Rochester area. “It’s really all self-motivated, and student led. … He’s really designed a kind of an ecosystem to create leadership experiences and offer students practical applications for life experiences.”

A side effect is that so many alumni have been called back to teach workshops that they’ve reconnected with their alma mater, Ward said. His participation in GOLD led him to serve on the executive team of the Geneseo Foundation, a nonprofit organization supporting the college. Half the board members of the foundation are GOLD instructors, Ward said.

A few years after GOLD got off the ground, Bonfiglio approached Matthews about adding a service component. It was during the planning stages for that when Hurricane Katrina hit in August 2005.

Matthews says everyone in the community wanted to respond, not just the college. But the college became the place where they all came together: the chamber of commerce, superintendent of schools, mayor of Geneseo, county administrator and town supervisor among the participants.

In less than 40 minutes, it was decided to create a partnership with the community, giving the group the name of Livingston Cares to reflect its countywide inclusion of people and organizations beyond the college, village and town. The organization chose Biloxi, Miss., and surrounding Harrison County as its focus, starting with the first trip in 2006. There have been 41 trips there ever since. And nearly as many to other places.

“It’s not what you call relief work. It’s more in the recovery phase. When that starts to kick in, that’s when we can help,” said Matthews, who has gone on at least one service trip a year since the program started. As other calamities struck, such as Hurricane Sandy, the group widened its focus to include other needy areas, including most recently Puerto Rico. In all, about 1,200 people have participated in the service trips.

Volunteers generally pay their own way for these trips, but the Geneseo Student Association and a fundraiser contribute several thousand dollars a year for scholarships. Livingston Cares’ most recent annual report noted that the organization has turned its attention to local needs as well, becoming a sponsoring organization for a food pantry and respite care program.

Matthews says that after next week he plans to enjoy days that aren’t fully programmed with the work that is necessary to run these programs, but he hopes to stay connected with Livingston Cares. One need is for volunteers who know carpentry and other home repair skills, and he feels that he can connect with other retirees who have these skills.

There are also three acres of gardens at home that need more tending, and the possibility of traveling more with Betsy, who retired 17 years ago but plunged into coordinating the Geneseo/Groveland Food Pantry. Then there are three grandchildren — all in Geneseo schools — who are involved in sports and Odyssey of the Mind competitions.

Matthews plans to stay in the area and find something more to do that’s useful.

“I’ll do something in the community, I’m sure,” he said.

“He’s a connector by nature. He’s a bridge builder by nature,” said Bonfiglio. “I don’t think any of us expect that to go away. It’s in his DNA to brings people together. He brought people from Biloxi, Mississippi, and Livingston County, New York, together. I’m sure he’ll continue to do that.”

[email protected]/(585)363-7275


Tom Matthews

Title: Associate Dean of Leadership and Service, SUNY Geneseo

Age: 75

Family:  Wife, Betsy Matthews; two sons, Jeff and David; one grandson, two granddaughters.

Education: B.S. in education, SUNY Plattsburgh; M.S. in student personnel, SUNY Albany; Ed.D. in student personnel and higher education, University of South Carolina.

Leisure activities: Gardening.

Quote: “Our definition of leadership is: the ethical process of people working together for change.”