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A family story: UVU President Matt Holland staying true to his roots

UVU president says school's mission is to give people like his forebears a chance

OREM — It seemed an odd fit when Matt Holland accepted the post as president of Utah Valley University, formerly known as Utah Trade Technical Institute.

This is a man with a high-brow education — BYU, Duke, Princeton, and, in May he will begin studying at Oxford for three months to write, research and recharge his “intellectual batteries,” as he puts it. He’s a scholar, a lecturer and author who has been invited to give speeches at Harvard, Stanford and Notre Dame. His passion is political philosophy — the “ivory tower’s ivory tower,” he says, with a smile.

But here he is, sitting in the president’s office at UVU, the workingman’s university and the biggest school in the state. Not only did he choose to lead the Wolverines, he ignored the pull of academia and guided UVU to more pragmatic pursuits.

Utah Valley University President Matthew S. Holland works in his office on the UVU campus in Orem on Wednesday March 15, 2017. | August Miller, Utah Valley University

Staying true to the school’s roots, UVU’s curriculum has responded to the expressed needs of local businesses. So English and philosophy students walk to class side by side with students of diesel mechanics, mechatronics, cabinetry, automotive, welding and cybersecurity. Because of space shortages, there have been times when piano performance students were practicing on their Steinways down the hall from woodworking and mechanics students.

“Our students come out industry ready, able to do what the world needs them to do,” Holland says.

If it seems an odd twist of fate for a man steeped in academia to land here, there is symmetry to it. Holland is just two generations removed from swinging a pick and carrying a lunch box to work.

His roots are blue collar.

The Hollands were Irish coal miners, and their lot was poverty, back-breaking dirty work and scant education. Frank Holland, Matt Holland's grandfather, built the bridge for a different life. His son, Jeffrey R. Holland, crossed it. He broke the cycle, and his three children ran with it. All four would earn college degrees and write books, three would earn doctorates, three would study and/or teach at Ivy League schools, and two would become university presidents and college valedictorians.

“I’m proud of my background,” says Holland. “People need a chance like that. It drives me at UVU. I see thousands of people here on campus every day who just need a chance. We want to provide that for them.”

Early UVU

The university came to life in 1941, just a few months after Jeffrey Holland — now a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints — was born, and since then it has had six iterations, beginning as Central Utah Vocational School. It achieved university status in 2009, shortly before Matt Holland arrived on the scene.

With the newfound university status, there was pressure to abandon the trades and become a research institution where faculty focuses on publishing and research and the goal is to climb the school rankings. Next stop: A football team. All of this would’ve been a natural direction for Holland.

“I came from those institutions, but we can’t have all institutions looking like that,” he says. “We can’t afford it. It’s not the best model for preparing students for the world they live in. Not everyone is going to grad school or to get a Ph.D.”

Even before he officially took over as president, Holland, who was teaching political science at BYU at the time, spent several months on what he calls “a listening tour.” He visited faculty, students, trustees, community leaders, alumni and educational experts to pick their brains about higher education and UVU. He convened dozens of local business and civic leaders to decide how best to prepare students for the workforce and develop school programs accordingly.

Utah Valley University President Matthew S. Holland speaks to students for the Executive Lecture Series class in the on the UVU campus on Monday Aug. 29, 2016. | Nathaniel Ray Edwards, Utah Valley University

“What became clear to me is that what the state didn’t need was for us to replicate BYU or Utah,” he says.

Holland says this as he sits in his office under the gaze of a large bust of Lincoln. He is a tall man (6-foot-4) who, at 50, has a full head of salt and pepper hair. Like his father, he is humorous, self-deprecating, genial and charming. On the shelf behind him there is a model of a red Volkswagen Beetle and a children’s book, which might go unremarked except he refers to them frequently during a 90-minute discussion.

“I think about my Grandpa Holland and his existence regularly,” he says. “That’s part of the reason I keep the red bug and the book, knowing what it took for my parents to get me educated. Two generations later and I’m living a completely different life. It’s because of my grandpa and my father and mother.”

Family legacy

Holland’s life — and that of his immediate family — was clearly shaped by his grandfather. Frank Holland’s family left the coal mines of Ireland for the mines of Butte, Montana, and Leadville, Colorado, and Park City, which is where Frank was born.

Frank Holland, whose father died young (probably of the black lung), was in seventh grade when he was struck by smallpox, which nearly killed him and permanently marked his face with fiery red scars. When Frank returned to school, his teacher marched him from classroom to classroom, pointing to his face at each stop while telling students that this was what would happen if they didn’t get vaccinations. Humiliated, he dropped out of school and regretted it the rest of his life.

As Elder Jeffrey Holland tells it: “He had a very abusive childhood, something that would make Oliver Twist weep — a widow's son, later at the mercy of a warped stepfather. Little wonder that he was anxious to be on his own and free from it all by about age 17.”

By then his mother had instilled in him a passion for reading and the belief that knowledge and education could lift him out of the life that was offered at the end of a shovel and pick.

“His love for reading and his Irish gift for playing any kind of music by ear kept the sun shining through the Dickensian abuse and poverty,” says Elder Holland. Frank broke from the mining life. He lay railroad ties, built roads in Emigration Canyon and labored in the Civilian Conservation Corps during the Depression.

He and his wife, Alice, eventually settled in St. George and raised a family. Lacking a formal education, Frank Holland educated himself and became a frequent visitor to the local library. “They probably have an alcove dedicated to him,” says Elder Holland. He earned an accounting degree by mail and became a bookkeeper for his living. His children took their cues.

“I knew early on that I was going to take (education) seriously and go to the best schools,” Elder Holland says. “I was pretty driven. That’s Frank and Alice’s legacy. I don’t remember them talking about it; it was just in the air.”

Elder Holland earned a master’s degree in religious education at BYU, then a second master’s degree and a doctorate in American studies at Yale. He wasn’t able to utilize his education professionally before the LDS Church called him to serve as president of BYU and later to his current position in the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles.

It was into this familial milieu that Matt Holland entered the world. His father was in graduate school at Yale and money was tight. Matt slept on a camp cot and the family drove a beat-up old red Volkswagen bug. (Matt was almost born in the car in an 11th-hour race to the hospital.) There was one luxury the Hollands allowed themselves. They spent $100 on a series of children’s history books and another sum on Bible stories.

“We couldn’t afford it; it was an investment in our children’s future, as worthy as food or a roof over their heads,” recalls Elder Holland.

The history books chronicled the lives of Lincoln, Jefferson, Lewis and Clark, and other early leaders of America’s formative years. Matt Holland was hooked. “There was magic in it for him,” his father says.

Matt still has one of the books in his office. Jefferson and Lincoln became his lifelong heroes. He chose to play the violin as a young man because it was the instrument Jefferson played. Having read that Jefferson stuck his feet in cold water at 5 a.m. every day to wake himself sufficiently to read law, Holland decided to study at the same hour in grad school (sans the cold water).

A turning point

While Elder Holland was preoccupied with graduate school and church work, his wife, Patricia, took charge at home. She read to the children incessantly — at home, at the park, in the foothills above St. George after the family moved there. Christmas presents always included books — works of history, literature, politics, social commentary. There were frequent, informal discussions about all of the above at dinner or around the house.

‘It was just fun, natural, interesting conversation,” Matt Holland says. “My parents created a wonderful climate in the home of ideas and books.”

David Holland would go on to become the valedictorian of the political science college at BYU and was the university’s commencement speaker. He earned a Master of Arts and a doctorate in history from Stanford. He is a professor in the Harvard Divinity School and has authored several books.

Mary Holland McCann, the middle child, earned a degree in English and lacks only her dissertation to complete a master’s degree. She set aside her academic interests to support her husband during the nearly two decades he studied medicine (he is a heart surgeon). She wrote a book — “In Mary’s Arms” — that sold out last Christmas.

Matt Holland was an indifferent student until his mother set him straight. During his seventh-grade year, he came home with a report card that contained straight C's. Seeing and hearing his mother’s disappointment, he said, “C’mon, Mom, they’re C’s; It’s not that bad. It’s average.” According to family lore, Patricia Holland grabbed him by the lapels and leaned into his face. “You are not average,” she said. As Matt Holland puts it now, “That was a turning point.”

After graduating from Provo High, where he played basketball and tennis and worked in student government, Matt Holland served a church mission to Scotland and then returned to BYU, where he was the valedictorian and commencement speaker for the political science college. He studied ethical political leadership at Hebrew University in Israel for a few months as the Raoul Wallenberg Scholar, which is awarded annually in the U.S. to a graduating senior “of exceptional promise and accomplishment who is committed to service and the public good.”

Uncertain about an academic career, Holland went to work for two years at the Monitor Group, a prestigious management-consulting firm in Boston, but his heart wasn't in it. Instead of reading the Wall Street Journal or Forbes, he found himself drawn to books and articles about the ideological origins of the American Revolution.

“At that point I knew I had a sickness,” he says. “Those were my passions. In retrospect, though, those two years were invaluable for my role now. I don’t think I would have been as prepared for this job. It showed me what it takes to survive in the business world.”

A new start

He returned to school and earned a master’s and doctorate from Duke, studying early American political philosophy, history and behavior. As fate would have it, BYU had an opening on its political science faculty about the same time Holland graduated and he returned to his alma mater. He taught classes, wrote books, published articles, completed a yearlong Princeton fellowship and earned his tenure in seven years. It was everything he wanted — and then he began receiving calls about the UVU presidency. He resisted early pleas to apply.

“I was very happy where I was, but at some point I flipped,” he says. “The more I looked into it, the more impressed I was, both with the kind of institution it was and its potential. It dawned on me that BYU has a tremendous mission, but its mission is more and more pointed to the nation and the world. If we’re going to give a university experience to this valley, we need this university.”

Author Hanna Rosin, keynote speaker for the Utah Valley University Presidential Lecture Series, visits with UVU President Matthew S. Holland on the UVU campus in Orem on Wednesday, March 1, 2017. | Hans Koepsell, Deseret News

Since Holland became president, the school has grown rapidly, from an enrollment of 28,000 to 35,000, surpassing both BYU and Utah (33,000 each). It is expected to reach 40,000 in 2020 and 45,000 by 2025. Holland has also overseen steep growth in the number of degrees offered by the school, from 147 to 195. UVU has found its niche.

“It’s taken a lot of people by surprise,” says Holland.

Several years ago, Holland decided to hike with a group of students to the top of Mount Timpanogos as a promotional venture for the university. With cameras rolling, the president hiked alongside a diverse group of students, chatting them up about their college experience, referencing the poetry of Frost and Longfellow, planting the UVU flag at the summit, and so forth. Holland was so moved by the experience that it became something more and he made it an annual tradition.

Utah Valley University students join President Matthew S. Holland on the third annual UVU Presidential Timpanogos Hike on Monday July 18, 2016. | Nathaniel Ray Edwards, Utah Valley University

As he recalls, “Hiking with those students, many of whom are first-generation college students, and listening to them talk so articulately about the struggles and joys of getting an advanced education, much like the struggles and joys of summiting a high and rugged peak, is as moving and inspirational as any professional experience I have ever had.”

After telling this story, Holland added, “I sit here, with some emotion, knowing I am listening to students who are not only dramatically changing their own lives, but the lives of generations to follow … just like my parents and grandparents did for me.”