Matkin gave everyone a book to read — a book he still distributes to college staff today.
Titled The Go-Getter, the 1921 fictional tale by Peter B. Kyne is well known in business circles. It is the story of a disabled veteran, Bill Peck, who’s willing to do whatever it takes to get a job.
A San Francisco lumber company hires Peck and issues a challenge: Bring the boss an elusive blue vase. Others received the same assignment, and usually failed. One prior employee tried to steal the vase from a store.
Peck, too, thinks about acting illegally but instead retrieves the vase through persistence and cunning, and also by providing his most valuable possession, a diamond ring, as collateral.
The boss is pleased, and Peck gets a promotion.
As president, Matkin saw the century-old book as a conversation-starter, one that demonstrated the values of resilience and drive in achieving a goal. But privately, the book concerned at least one former administrator, who spoke to The Chronicle on the condition of anonymity. Did their new president expect unquestioning obedience, no matter the cost?
In the years since, controversial employee departures have become common. Most recently, the college fired three celebrated professors. Administrators faulted one for being too outspoken on social media, while the two others were let go after criticizing the college’s Covid-19 reopening strategy.
Ex-employees who spoke to The Chronicle on the condition of anonymity say they were coerced into signing legal nondisclosure agreements on their way out the door, in exchange for severance pay or a small financial settlement.
The Chronicle conducted dozens of interviews focused on Matkin’s leadership, which revealed the extent to which the president has trampled on the norms and expectations of the job, from berating a professor in a college-wide email to reportedly making offensive jokes in public settings. Perhaps most alarmingly, Matkin played down the dangers of Covid-19, reopening the college with most classes at least partially in-person at a time when neighboring institutions, such as Dallas College, taught mostly online.
“The effects of this pandemic have been blown utterly out of proportion,” Matkin wrote in an August 15, 2020, email to staff, in which he also argued that Covid-19 death numbers were “clearly inflated.”
A Collin College nursing professor died from the virus in November, and her family says she caught it in the classroom.
In an interview with The Chronicle, Matkin spoke about The Go-Getter. He said the college now asks some job applicants to read it, too. When Collin College conducted a national search for a chief innovation officer, candidates had to read the book and share their opinions on it.
But Matkin rejected the notion that his employees are expected to show extreme loyalty.
“That’s an absolutely ridiculous question, to be frank with you,” he said. “Each job has HR-defined specifications, and yeah, you always want people who are go-getters and are going to go get the job done, but nobody’s asking anybody to break laws or do anything else to get the job done.”
Despite the growing faculty uproar, Matkin has maintained his leadership style. The board of trustees rewarded him with salary increases, and Texas’ Republican lawmakers are unlikely to intervene on professors’ behalf. Some are cheering Matkin on.
Bob Collins, the board’s chair, said Matkin has earned an “A+” for his handling of the pandemic, as well as his stewardship of the college in general. Collins credited the new president with persuading voters to approve a $600-million bond issue in 2017, and then opening two new campuses last year — with two additional campuses planned for next year. He also praised Matkin for increasing enrollment at the college every year since he was hired.
“Neil Matkin is an outstanding gentleman,” Collins said. “He’s an outstanding man, and he’s an outstanding college president.”
But another board member, Stacy Anne Arias, expressed concerns.
“We shouldn’t be losing quality faculty, period,” Arias said.
A product of Southeast Texas, he grew up in the small city of West Orange. After high school, he spent time in the U.S. Navy before enrolling at the Big Sandy campus of Ambassador College, a four-hour drive from his home.
The institution has since closed its doors. It operated as an arm of the now-defunct Worldwide Church of God, which was founded by Herbert W. Armstrong, one of America’s first televangelists. Matkin, who discovered the church while in the military, told The Chronicle that his parents had not raised him to be religious.
“We didn’t attend church. I didn’t know what my parents believed,” Matkin, 61, said. “And so I was looking for an opportunity to figure out what I believed.”
Matkin earned his associate degree from Ambassador in 1983, and then his bachelor’s at Ambassador’s campus in Pasadena, Calif., in 1986. While at the Pasadena campus, and for several years afterward, Matkin worked directly for the church as a telecommunications analyst. He then taught management information systems, which uses data to increase a company’s efficiency, at the college from 1990 to 1997, according to his curriculum vitae.
Matkin also holds a master’s degree from the University of Dallas and a doctorate from Texas A&M University at Commerce.
Some former members of the Worldwide Church of God have called it a doomsday cult; Armstrong did suggest the world might end in 1975, with a catastrophic world war that heralded Jesus Christ’s return.
The church, which mandated complete obedience to its leaders, had other unorthodox teachings, such as a rejection of modern medicine. Sick members, including those battling cancer or other serious conditions, were expected to ask God for healing.
It also resisted calls for racial integration. Jerald Walker, an Emerson College professor, wrote a memoir about his experience growing up Black in the Worldwide Church of God. Walker called it a “white supremacist” sect that convinced his family that God condoned slavery and that whites should rule the world.
Matkin told The Chronicle that the church’s attitude toward modern medicine had shifted by the time he arrived. The college president also said the first services he attended, in Connecticut while serving in the Navy, were racially diverse.
“I was tickled because the church was made up of Blacks and whites, all sitting amongst one another, fully integrated,” Matkin said.
Matt Hargus, who attended Ambassador in the mid-1990s, had Matkin as a professor in several classes. He remembered his teacher’s demeanor as less rigid than some of the other faculty.
“I enjoyed my classes with him,” Hargus said, “and looked forward to them, because he was funny, he was engaged, he was inclusive. And it sounds so cliché, but he made learning fun. He did.”
The church lost many of its members after it shifted to mainstream evangelical beliefs in the mid-1990s. Ambassador College closed its doors permanently in 1997.
Matkin’s computer-science background may have given him an advantage in finding work elsewhere. He shifted gears and became an education administrator with a focus on technology.
His next career stop was as an associate director for information systems at the Illinois Board of Higher Education. From there, Matkin worked as a technology-focused administrator for the Virginia Community College System, a campus president for a Texas community college, San Jacinto College, and then an executive vice president for Louisiana’s community-college system.
In 2015 he became president at Collin, which now boasts more than 59,000 students and 10 campuses and academic centers spread across a growing, and affluent, suburban community.
Michael Phillips, a longtime professor at Collin College, remembers that when Matkin was a finalist for the presidency, faculty asked why he wanted to come there.
“These were his exact two words: ‘You’re rich,” Phillips recalled. “The first thing that struck him was, there’s money here.”
Phillips is a history professor with an expertise in race relations. A couple of years later, in 2017, he spearheaded a campaign asking the city of Dallas to take down its Confederate monuments.
The backlash was swift, and Phillips received death threats.
“Hey N—-lover!” began one threatening email, which warned, “If I was you, I would be looking over my shoulder to see who’s coming up behind me. They may not be friendly.”
At the same time, Phillips also felt pressure from his own college, and its president, to end his crusade against Confederate statues.
Phillips said he was called in for a meeting with a senior administrator who told him that “we don’t want the college to look bad.”
“I said, ‘Look bad to who?’” Phillips recalled.
“The default face they saw when they thought about the college community, and I presume the county, was a white face,” Phillips said. “They saw white people.”
More than half of the college’s students are members of racial or ethnic minority groups.
Phillips said he later had a conversation with Matkin about Confederate statues, and the president also expressed concerns that the professor’s outspokenness could backfire.
Phillips said the discussion had an ominous tone.
“He just kind of smirked, and that’s when he said, ‘I just want to make sure you can keep doing your job.’”
In a written response to questions, Matkin stated that he did not recall “this purported conversation from 2017” and that he had never threatened the man. Despite Phillips’s “recurring ad hominem campaigns,” Matkin said he had approved renewals of the professor’s faculty contracts.
Three college employees recalled Matkin making penis-related jokes at a faculty orientation on August 13, 2019.
Professor Lora Burnett, who is now fighting to keep her job, said she didn’t recall the exact wording of Matkin’s jokes, but she remembered the president using the word “penis” repeatedly.
“I do remember being very shocked that an educator would do that in a public meeting,” Burnett said. “He sexualized a completely nonsexual situation, and it was very uncomfortable.”
Another employee, who declined to be identified for fear of retaliation, provided a text message exchange from that day where she vented with a colleague about the president’s behavior.
The employee texted that Matkin “joked about penises not once but twice.”
“Welcome to Collin,” the co-worker responded. “That man makes me crazy.”
In speaking with The Chronicle, Matkin vigorously disputed the accusation, which he called “hideous.”
“That’s not accurate at all, and I’m embarrassed by even the thought of that,” he said.
In another instance, as Matkin prepared to give his first address to the deans of the college, the president remarked that one of them, a Black woman, had not yet arrived, according to two college employees who said they were there. One of the employees has since left the college.
According to those two eyewitnesses, who declined to be named for fear of retaliation, Matkin joked: “I know we’re not all here yet, because I know I’ve got two Black deans. I just can’t tell ‘em apart.”
Matkin told The Chronicle that he didn’t “recall” making the comments. “I’ve heard that, I just don’t have a recollection of it,” he said. “I would tell you if I did … if I said it, it was probably not the wisest choice of words.”
Matkin confirmed the accuracy of another oft-mentioned incident. At a ceremony honoring longtime college employees — each of whom received a commemorative bowl for their lengthy service — Matkin placed a bowl on his head as a fake yarmulke. He was impersonating his predecessor, Cary Israel, who is Jewish.
Matkin said the meeting had been running long and “had gotten a little bit stale.”
“There was a moment there, where I was going for a couple of laughs, and I saw a face that indicated to me immediately that I’d made a mistake,” Matkin said. “And I’ve never replicated that … and I would not do it again.”
Matkin said he couldn’t recall what he said while wearing the bowl on his head. One eyewitness who declined to be identified out of fear of professional repercussions told The Chronicle that the president blurted out: “Oh look! I’m Cary Israel!.”
Matkin insisted there was no disrespect intended.
“It wasn’t done in a spirit of mocking Cary,” Matkin said. “It was done in a, frankly, older-brother-reverence circumstance, and trying to evoke his name.”
Israel declined comment.
Collins, the board chair, said, “I wouldn’t have been offended by it, and I don’t think Cary would have been offended by it.”
“It’s a shame we can’t do things like that and not have people get offended,” Collins said.
Matkin’s bosses, whether at the college or in the Legislature, are Republican. He enjoys strong support from his board of trustees, and his salary has grown from $315,000 to $400,000, along with regular bonuses ($65,000 in 2019).
“Fortunately, our board right now is majority conservative,” Collins said at a public candidates’ forum in 2015, the same year Matkin was hired. “We do have a few liberals on the board. But we’re trying to convert them as fast as we can.”
Collins, along with two other incumbent board members, is up for re-election on May 1. All three have drawn challengers.
At that 2015 event, Collins said the college’s lack of a tenure option is “by design,” because faculty tenure allows the “ultra-liberal, anti-capitalism, socialistic professors” to become entrenched in the system.
Matkin’s arrival at the college ushered in a new mission statement that emphasized keeping the customer happy: “Students first, no excuses.”
Employees were required to print out the statement and have it visible from their workstation, recalled Mariann Grace, a former financial-aid specialist at the Frisco campus.
“That was the beginning of the change that was coming,” said Grace, who quit the job last year. Students, she said, were now routinely referred to as “customers,” and the college created a new complaint system for dissatisfied students and their families.
Management would read the complaints aloud, in front of dozens of co-workers, Grace said.
“We were all shamed, basically,” she said. “The sole focus switched from doing our job to just pleasing these students, and doing whatever we had to do to make them stop making these complaints. We all felt like our jobs were being threatened.”
An August 24, 2017, email from Alan D. Pixley, financial-aid director for the college, told employees at the Frisco campus, “The expectation for us to take care of our students has certainly grown over the past couple of years, and we are having to adjust as a department to meet those demands by our leadership.”
Pixley closed the letter by warning employees that their boss had been given authority to aggressively manage the office, “and even micro manage if need be.”
Grace, the former financial-aid employee, told The Chronicle: “The morale was just horrible within our department, and every department, because we were just being berated if you got a bad review. It was a horrible way to conduct business. It just changed the whole basic atmosphere.”
The makeover of Collin College has come at a heavy cost. Faculty say they are afraid, demoralized, and, for the most part, forgotten. Several declined to talk to The Chronicle on the record for fear of losing their job.
Local TV stations are covering trustee meetings, which have become tense, packed-room affairs where some faculty and members of the public demand the reinstatement of the three professors fired this year. All three are women, and each had glowing evaluations from students.
Two of those now-departed professors were leaders of the newly formed Collin College chapter of the Texas Faculty Association, which is similar to an employee union under Texas labor law but lacks the power of collective bargaining.
Suzanne Jones, an education professor who taught at Collin for nearly two decades, was a secretary for the fledgling campus chapter, as well as the larger statewide organization.
She lost her job in January, and the college cited her labor activities (and the fact she was listed publicly as the Collin College contact) in her dismissal.
“It’s a control issue,” Jones said of Matkin. “He’s worried about faculty coming together. Now a good leader, obviously, wouldn’t care about that.”
The college denies there is a culture of retaliation, but at the same time it told two of the fired professors they were being let go because they had aggressively pushed for the college to expand online class offerings during the Covid-19 pandemic.
All three professors have filed formal grievances challenging their dismissals and are awaiting a final response from the college.
Adam Steinbaugh, a lawyer who wrote letters in defense of Collin College faculty as pressure mounted, said what stands out is the institution actually disclosed that it was firing its professors for activities that, in Steinbaugh’s opinion, are protected by the First Amendment.
Most colleges would have made up some sort of pretext, he said.
“You don’t have to speculate about the reasons why they’re doing it,” said Steinbaugh, a lawyer with the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, which specializes in protecting faculty free speech. “They’ve said why they’re doing it.”
“It’s spelling out, in word and in letter, that they are doing this because of their speech,” Steinbaugh said. “A college in general, a public institution, can decline to renew a contract for any reason or no reason or a bad reason, but it can’t do so for a retaliation or unlawful reason.”
The college fired Audra Heaslip, a longtime humanities professor, on a January afternoon, via Zoom. Heaslip, who was a leader in the college TFA chapter, received the news while parked in her car.
“You’ve been doing amazing work,” Mark Smith, vice president/provost at the McKinney campus, told her. Heaslip shared a recording of the Zoom meeting with The Chronicle.
Although Smith noted he had recommended the college renew Heaslip’s employment contract, he said she would not be kept on as faculty — because she had gone too far in pushing for the college to move more classes online during the pandemic.
Smith told Heaslip she’d failed to work “collaboratively” enough with the college on the reopening issue.
“How do you feel about this?” Heaslip asked the provost.
“It’s a tough situation,” he responded.
Heaslip ended the conversation by suggesting Smith take a moment to read her exemplary student evaluations, which were even more favorable that semester.
“I’m sad for the college because I love the college,” she told him. “And I’m sad that they are continuing to pick away and silence and get rid of their best people.”
In February, Collin College pushed out another professor, Lora Burnett.
On Twitter, Burnett complained that she was apparently being let go because of “mean tweets.”
She posted screenshots from the college’s human-resources department, which scolded Burnett for behavior including “insubordination, making private personnel issues public that impair the college’s operations, and personal criticisms of co-workers, supervisors, and/or those who merely disagree with you.”
Burnett had criticized the college leadership on Twitter, and also found herself in Matkin’s crosshairs after she ridiculed Vice President Mike Pence’s debate performance in October, tweeting that the moderator should “talk over Mike Pence until he shuts his little demon mouth up.”
The tweet prompted conservative anger, and Matkin took the unusual step of criticizing Burnett in a college-wide email. Although he didn’t identify her by name, he faulted an unnamed faculty member for attacking Mike Pence through “hateful, vile and ill-considered Twitter posts.”
Matkin’s condemnation of the professor was also posted on the college’s website.
After a months-long legal battle with FIRE, the free-speech group, the college released text messages showing that a conservative state lawmaker, Rep. Jeff Leach, had contacted Matkin about the professor’s mocking of Pence.
“LD Burnet [sic] is paid with taxpayer dollars, correct?” Leach wrote.
“I’m aware of the situation Jeff and will deal with it,” Matkin replied. “Already on my radar before the current issue.”
Burnett replied to one of Leach’s tweets in February.
In response, the state lawmaker bragged that Burnett was no longer a Collin College employee.
“The fact that you are no longer paid and your maniacal, obscene rhetoric no longer supported with Collin County taxpayer dollars is a win! A BIG WIN!” Leach wrote.
Burnett tweeted at Leach that she still had a job. He replied with a GIF of a ticking clock.
A week later, Burnett was gone.
When speaking with The Chronicle, Matkin said he couldn’t comment on specific personnel decisions. But in general, the president said, there is a multilayered review process — involving the direct supervisor, the associate dean, the campus provost, and others — when it comes to deciding whether to renew an employee’s contract.
“It depends on what’s been presented to me,” Matkin said. “But I’m not the initiator.”
What role Matkin plays in employee departures is in some cases shrouded in mystery.
Ex-employees are often prohibited from discussing their cases because they signed nondisclosure agreements. One such NDA, signed by a Collin College employee, states that “the confidentiality of this Agreement, including the existence of this Agreement, and all facts and allegations associated with the Agreement, will be maintained and not communicated to any person.”
Byrd Williams is one of those who left the college abruptly and without explanation. Williams, a photography professor who’d worked there more than 25 years and spearheaded the creation of the photo department, declined comment on his case because he signed an NDA.
Mark Birnbaum, a Dallas documentary filmmaker who was making a movie about Williams’s life at the time, said he witnessed the firing firsthand. “He was suddenly not a teacher, which affected him very deeply,” Birnbaum said.
In the documentary, Williams talks about losing his job. He calls it being “pushed out of the plane.”
Matkin, meanwhile, denies that any culture of retaliation exists at the college. But in a July 2 email to employees, the president simultaneously seemed to hint at future punishments.
“The most disturbing thing I have heard to date are comments that some believe the administration practices retaliation,” Matkin wrote. “If so, the evidence has yet to be presented to me. We are an institution of higher education and, as such, every individual is welcome to speak their mind without fear of retaliation. We can agree or disagree with the hope we will do so with civility and professionalism. Retaliation for sharing one’s thoughts and opinions must never be part of this college.”
“I will actively seek an explanation from those who continue to promote this narrative.”
In an August 18, 2020, campuswide email, Matkin compared the risks of a once-in-a-century pandemic with the everyday risks of drivers getting hurt or killed in a car accident.
The next day, an adjunct professor responded, telling Matkin it was “shocking” he would make such a comparison.
“I would hope we could further engage our discussion in person (masked and socially distanced),” the professor wrote.
“No we won’t,” Matkin shot back, telling the professor “the chances of catching this virus and dying from it are not high.”
A few days later, fall semester began, and about two-thirds of Collin College’s courses were at least partially in-person: nearly half were hybrid courses that contained both online and in-person lessons. Another 20 percent were fully in-person, although socially distanced, and a third of courses were completely online.
According to The Chronicle’s fall reopening tracker, over half of public, two-year colleges operated mostly online in the fall. Dallas College, a nearby community-college district, operated primarily online in the fall.
By October, a nursing professor at Collin, Iris Meda, had contracted the virus, which she believed came from a student in the classroom.
After Meda tested positive, her daughter, Selene Meda-Schlamel, called the college about workers’ compensation for her mom.
The human-resources employee “laughed, and said, ‘Well you can’t prove that she got it from a student,’” Meda-Schlamel recalled. “I was, like, mortified. But I just was assertive in my response: ‘Yes, she did.’”
Meda died from Covid-19 complications a few weeks later.
The 70-year-old nurse had dedicated her career to helping those at the bottom of society. She’d conquered adversity herself, as an African-American woman growing up in Harlem. Her first bed was an ironing board.
After dropping out of high school, Meda graduated at the top of her class at Bronx Community College. She then pursued a career as a nurse, working for years at New York City’s Rikers Island jail.
Meda gained inmates’ respect for how she took care of them. On her last day at work, they clapped her out.
The pandemic inspired Meda to give back once again, this time through teaching. Having already moved to Texas, she applied at Collin College.
But Meda never expected to teach in person, her daughter said. After all, her job interview was done via Zoom.
Meda-Schlamel said the college reduced the number of students in the lab class her mother taught, as a form of social distancing, but she complained the lab professors were still forced to interact closely with each student and were not provided additional gear, such as face shields, that might have helped protect them.
Matkin woefully underestimated the dangers of the virus, Meda-Schlamel said.
“He felt like this is everybody else’s problem, and he was the person of authority who knew better than anyone else how to deal with this, including the CDC,” she said. “They were putting more people at risk, for sure.”
Matkin told The Chronicle that face shields were available to faculty. Meda, he said, “came to us with full knowledge that she was going to teach face-to-face healthcare classes, and was excited to do so because it was helping first responders re-engage in a very difficult pandemic, that we had no idea when the end was in sight.”
“I do think it’s tragic that she passed away from Covid. I think it’s horrible,” Matkin said. But he added, “We don’t have any way of knowing for sure where she got it.”
One of Meda’s students tested positive for the virus prior to her showing symptoms, according to her daughter.
Meda’s death last fall stunned fellow employees, and Matkin seemed to bury the news: He mentioned, in the 22nd paragraph of an otherwise unremarkable email to the campus community, that a faculty member had died from complications related to Covid-19.
The subject line of that November 20, 2020, email: “College Update & Happy Thanksgiving!”
Since then, email records show, Matkin scheduled an in-person networking luncheon in early February for about two dozen attendees — at a time when the virus was pummeling Texas, with more than 19,000 new cases per day. Collin County recorded 425 new cases that day.
“This reception was held to present certificates of appreciation to a small group of employees honoring their amazing efforts to successfully open our Wylie Campus on time and under budget — and during the pandemic,” Matkin replied in writing to questions from The Chronicle. “In compliance with college protocols to ensure the continued safety of our employees and students, all attendees were expected to wear masks and practice social distancing.”
Matkin has responded tepidly to a proposal, suggested by faculty, to honor Meda’s sacrifice through the creation of a memorial scholarship. The president said that he supports the scholarship, but he also implied that some faculty are trying to co-opt Meda’s legacy as a way of criticizing the administration’s Covid reopening.
Matkin said he didn’t want to exclude faculty members who have died from other causes.
“What I asked them to do is, Guys, can we look at something that embraces all Collin College faculty who passed?” Matkin said.
Last month, another professor at the college, Kim Nyman, addressed the board of trustees. She showed up at the Tuesday night meeting because she was bothered by Matkin’s statement that only those who “knew” Meda personally should be getting involved.
“I don’t know what Iris Meda’s favorite color was, or whether, like me, she liked TexMex better than it liked her,” Nyman said. “I don’t know what kind of car she drove, or where she lived.”
“But I do know an important thing about Iris Meda: She was a teacher,” Nyman continued. “She graced Collin College with her presence for too short a time. She was one of us.”