Fox Valley Technical College’s new president, Dr. Chris Matheny, says he became interested in education after having a great experience in college. “I didn’t want to leave,” he jokes. Matheny started out as a residential adviser before moving into positions in financial aid and student services. In 2004, he joined FVTC as vice president of student services. In 2010, former FVTC President Dr. Susan May asked him to become vice president of academics, a position he held until earlier this year when she retired and he became the college’s leader. Matheny talked to Insight about how the college is adapting to meet the needs of today’s students and employers while also serving the community.
When the FVTC board of trustees appointed you president, what went through your mind?
Dr. Chris Matheny: I was humbled. Since I arrived at FVTC, it’s been clear to me that our faculty and staff make a pretty quick and dramatic impact on people’s lives. Getting to represent and support that on a daily basis is humbling. I’m amazed every day by the work our faculty and staff and students do. So being able to lead that group and provide them with the support they need to help our students has just been really fantastic. I wouldn’t want to work anywhere else.
FVTC provides education in several ways, whether it’s through an associate degree, technical diploma or training for businesses. Do you think people are aware of all the college does?
When people talk about the tech, they’re usually thinking about kids coming out of high school or people in their early 20s. But the tech offers a variety of education options. The average age of our student was somewhere around 28, according to the last check. We have students pursuing their first college degree at lots of different ages through our associate degree and tech diploma programs. We also have our business and industry training work where we’re working directly with companies to identify their needs and put together a customized training program that allows them to grow their own folks internally and provide both the individual and business with the value of education. It can be training for someone just starting out in a role or someone looking to improve their skills.
We have our adult basic education for students who are just returning to the education market because they didn’t complete high school. We give them that opportunity to earn their GED. We also have English learning programs where we teach people who don’t have English as their first language how to get along in Northeast Wisconsin on a whole variety of fronts. Language learning is a big part of that, but we can also get them the experience or skills they need to apply for a job. Many people participate in the program so they can get more involved in their kids’ schooling and they can talk to a teacher or simply interact at local businesses or with municipal services. We may soon have some Afghan refugees in our area and we would likely work with them.
How did COVID-19 change the college?
COVID certainly impacts everything, right? I mean, it’s hard to look over the last couple of years and not look at it with a COVID lens, but I think it’s really accelerated a couple of trends that have been happening. One of those is what I’ll call hybrid or blended learning. There’s a lot of movement toward what we would call flipped classrooms. That’s doing the lab work or hands-on activities in the lab and then taking everything else that can be done remotely and doing that in a time and place that best fits the student. It’s something we’ve been evolving toward for a number of years, but COVID just sped up that timeline.
What changes are you seeing in education?
One of the trends that we’ve seen is more part-time students. These are students who need to work while learning at the same time. We’ve made some pretty significant adjustments to how and when we offer our programming to allow students to have that flexibility and not have to choose between school and work or not to think of that as a linear path. It’s all about creating a pathway for students so they can continue on and advance their career while learning.
Another trend is the growing awareness around the fact that we need more technically skilled individuals in our local and regional economy. If we’re going to continue to be competitive — and this is where Fox Valley Tech and other technical colleges shine — we need to provide people with those technical skills that they need to go to work and help provide value for our local employers. The students also gain a career where they can support their families.
There’s been so much change in recent years. Where do you see FVTC five years from now?
I think we’ll be in a place where we’re continuing to be the premier higher education institution for the workforce. We need to be looking at all options for students entering higher education, completing their higher education and putting their skills to work in our region. We will continue to look at opportunities to do that, and it may come in the form of program expansions and program developments. We’ll also continue working with employers to identify what their needs are and helping to create unique educational experiences to help people get the skills they need.