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Ronald Matthews, President, Eastern University

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Ronald Matthews, President of Eastern University, spoke to DELCO Today about growing up in Philadelphia, where his parents encouraged his passion for music from a young age. He started playing piano at age 4 and got his first job playing organ at a local church at 14. In addition to practicing his various musical instruments, he also found time to play varsity tennis.

Matthews discussed his decades-long career at Eastern University, starting as chair of the music department before becoming president in 2018. He noted Eastern University’s strength and resilience in the face of the challenges presented by the COVID-19 pandemic, emerging as a leader in online education.

Where were you born and where did you grow up?

I was born the middle child of three boys in Frankford and lived there for 24 years until I married.

What did your parents do?

My dad worked for the government at the Frankford Arsenal, and my mom was heavily involved with school and church activities.

What do you remember about growing up in Frankford?

I loved Frankford! The area that we lived in, Northwood, felt like the suburbs. It was a residential area with trees and a playground and areas for us to play baseball, basketball, and football together.

Did you have any jobs when you were growing up?

I started my first actual job at 14 years old as the church organist at a Baptist church in a neighborhood across from Roosevelt Boulevard called Crescentville Baptist Church.

You were 14 years old and you could play that well?

I’m grateful to my mom for that. My mom made sure we practiced and my dad made sure we were well-rounded. My brothers and I all started piano when we were four years old. Then, I started playing trumpet at eight and organ at 12. Given my keyboard background and interest in music, I was ready to go.

Being an organist for a church taught me many great lessons. I had to focus on playing while being aware of the conductor, choir, and congregation at the same time. This enabled me to be responsible and balance multiple activities at a time, developing time management and accountability from a young age.

What other jobs did you have?

When I was a freshman at Central High School, I was offered the janitorial job at the church I attended in Olney, which was two blocks away from Central. It’s funny because I was so sheltered at that age that the idea of cleaning a women’s bathroom was frightening to me.

It’s interesting that both your jobs are centered around the church — one is in performance and worship, and the other is maintenance.

Both jobs shaped my sense of gifts and service in the context of somebody else. If you’re in the arts, there’s a lot of ego there. You spend a lot of time with yourself. Practicing your art form is self-serving in a sense. And in another sense, you have to be successful.

You know, if a professional basketball player scores 70 percent of the time, that’s really successful. But a professional musician has to play with 98-plus percent accuracy with the remaining 2 percent being indiscernible. It’s a pretty high expectation, but thinking about it in the context of serving others, which was part of a vibrant faith tradition for me, consistently reminded me of the privilege and pleasure of stewarding my life in the community.

Did you play any sports in high school?

Tennis was my primary sport. I made varsity in ninth grade, played number two singles in tenth grade, and was number one for my junior and senior years. It’s been a lifelong sport; I actually played this morning. After high school, teaching tennis helped put me through college.

Do you have a favorite tennis memory, Ron?

Two come to mind. I used to play as a junior for a couple of years at what was then the Philadelphia Rifle Club. There was a guy there who was semi-pro. He played against Roy Emerson, a famous tennis player back in the day. I remember playing very well against him, which was a highlight of my tennis career.

The other memory was playing a guy at Northeast High School who was a really good player. I was a senior at that time. We played, and it turned out to be a three-setter. I squeaked out a victory. That was one of the most satisfying matches I’ve ever had. Now, I’m happy to walk off the court without injury

What about music? You were big into hymns and church music, and worship played a role. How about outside of church? What kind of music floated your boat?

Through the network I developed through my church involvement, I played in African American and Latino churches, so my brother and I were invited to play in an all-Black funk band. It was so much fun. I love classical music and had a five-year faculty development grant to study jazz. These expanded my horizons to all kinds of musical styles and genres.

There were several music schools you could have chosen. Why did you decide to attend Westminster Choir College?

On the recommendation of a lifelong friend, I started taking lessons with the organist at First Presbyterian Church in Germantown, Robert Carwithen, who also happened to be on the faculty at Westminster Choir College. It opened up a whole new world to me. He played this mega pipe organ at First Presbyterian Church, and I had never seen anything that big in my life. The sound enveloped me. That’s really what influenced me to select Westminster. It was a world-class institution.

Another option I considered was Curtis Institute of Music, where my organ teacher attended. However, he was aware of my other musical engagement and talents. He suggested it might be frustrating for me to specialize in just one instrument, which was a requirement at Curtis.

That was wise counsel for me since my path eventually led to me being the Chair of the Music Department at Eastern, where it was beneficial for me to understand the various talents and disciplines of the other faculty members. So, my experience with instrumental and choral ensembles, keyboard, piano, organ, voice, conducting, and composition facilitated trust and understanding with the music faculty.

What did you do afterward? Did you go for a graduate degree?

Yes, I was concerned that I’d have to get a “real” job, which led me to further my education. I went to Temple University and had an excellent experience working with two world-renowned choral conductors, Robert Page and Elaine Brown. They were both amazing in different ways.

Robert Page was one of the finest rehearsal technicians I’ve ever seen in my life. He knew what to get done and how to get it done so that when performance time came, you were prepared.

Elaine Brown would spend a half-hour on one phrase of music because she wanted it to be inspiring and transformational. She patiently exemplified and awakened the transcendent potential in making music.

Ron, aside from the people you already mentioned, who were the people who saw promise in you?

Much of that came from my family, my private teachers, and my church. They were incredibly supportive and provided me with a network that kept growing.

My brother, who is also a musician, and I traveled the country and other parts of North America together for decades. At one point, we were contacted by an agent who did a lot of summer conference concert series, churches, and civic events. He represented us for 15-plus years and took us from regional exposure to national and beyond.

What’s your favorite venue you’ve played at?

For 13 years I served as the Music Director/Conductor for an organization that was part of the Diocese of Camden called Jubilate Deo Chorale and Orchestra. The vision for this nonprofit was to bring music of faith and beauty into popular venues and culture. So, they hired me for that role, and I had the opportunity of working with a 65-piece professional orchestra and 120-voice audition choir.

We performed at the Washington Township venue, Carnegie Hall, Kimmel Center, the Academy of Music, and more. We went to the Vatican when Mother Teresa was beatified and toured Europe during this time, and I got to conduct all of that. It was one of the highlights of my life to work with them, let alone do it for 13 years.

What brought you to Eastern University, Ron?

It’s interesting; I’ve only had four positions at three colleges. I started at Nyack College for six years, and then I went to what is now called Cairn University in Langhorne. I went there in my late 20s as the chair of the music department. I had to learn how to be a leader for the faculty members, all of whom were smarter, more experienced, and older than I was.

I was there for about 10 years, and then Eastern University reached out. It was 1990, and surprisingly, they discovered an original Mozart manuscript in their seminary basement. Eastern’s reputation was that it was committed to issues of justice. I was intrigued by the idea of connecting “the academy and the street”— exploring ideas and methods to make an impact in the world around us.

I developed a curriculum and direction for Eastern based on learning in a way that would take you from the “known to the unknown.” We taught backward, starting with what students already knew and then showing them the historical links.

I served as Chair of Eastern’s music department and eventually as Executive Director for the Fine & Performing Arts Division, which included dance, theater, music, and fine arts. I was in that role until spring 2018, when, after being vetted, I was invited to apply for the position of President of Eastern University. The Board graciously and unanimously approved my application.

When I first stepped into this role, the University was in a position requiring difficult decisions to ensure a balanced budget for the following year. We tried every strategy, but the only way we could balance the budget was to have a selective layoff. This was a painful way to start my new job. We developed a three-year plan to move us from stress to stability.

Now, six years later, it’s 2024, and we have had several years of very significant growth. Surprisingly, our growth started during the first year of the pandemic. We had a plan in the works to launch the first program in our new series of online LifeFlex offerings in 2021, but we decided to start in 2020 instead as a response to the pandemic. The program took off because it aligned with the need created by COVID-19 for fully online, flexible programs. Four years ago, we had a head count of about 3,000 students. And this semester, we’re over 7,000.

Eastern University has a lot of competition among higher education institutions. What differentiates Eastern in the marketplace?

It’s our mission and commitment to education and accessibility for anyone who wants it. Our LifeFlex programs allow us to make excellent education both accessible and affordable.

You may have seen the advertisements for our one-year, 100 percent online, $9,900 programs, including an MBA, Master’s in Data Science, and Data Analytics. There are six different starting points in a year, so accepted students can join at any time. We were originally hoping for maybe ten students in each cohort, but after year one, we had about 500 students.

This past fall, we launched a series of undergraduate LifeFlex programs that are also fully online. These options are for those who are balancing commitments such as work and childcare and need to complete their coursework on their own time or for those who cannot afford the traditional on-campus undergraduate experience. An entire four-year bachelor’s degree in the LifeFlex format costs $29,900 or less and with government aid, it can be as low as $9,900.

Just a couple more questions for you. It’s a crazy world out there. What keeps you hopeful and optimistic?

Our students! For Eastern, my hope is related to why I think our University should exist. And it’s about the students who are the future of the world. Where do you go to explore and discuss the fullness of being human? It is also an enjoyable learning environment with athletics, performing arts, and inspiring faculty and speakers. Our mission of faith, reason, and justice fosters a compassionate community that hopefully produces graduates who are change-makers for good.

Finally, Ron, what’s the best advice you ever received?

I’d say there are two. First was the formative encouragement to examine spiritual questions about God and faith.

The second occurred in high school. I had a friend who encouraged me to seek wisdom. That idea led me to a time management approach to live every day three times. I would plan the day, then I would live the day that I planned. And then, in the evening, I would review the day to see how close I was to the plan and how any disruptions or surprises affected me or others around me. It turned out to be quite refining and instructive for me in those later high school years and thereafter.

I think that wisdom and knowledge are two different things. The difference is found in humility and morality. Knowledge includes skill, facts, and even application. Wisdom is the loving and inviting capacity to root and share knowledge for human flourishing and benefit.