OREM — The morning light pours into the corner office, spilling across the considerable pile of "to-do" items on Matthew Holland's desk, lighting up his collection of books — mostly about American history — and pooling around the little glass bowl of frosted pink cookies he keeps for visitors. The man himself is sitting back in his big, leather chair, taking an uncharacteristic moment of pause to drink in the picturesque scene in front of him: Utah Valley University, nestled serenely among the state's famous mountains.
"I truly love this valley," said Holland, a tall man with broad shoulders and a formidable presence, as much to himself as to the reporter who's charged with documenting his daily interactions. To put it simply, he continued, that's why, one year ago, he accepted the position of president at UVU.
Since then, he admits, life has been crazy. As the head of Utah's fastest-growing university, Holland is under a lot of pressure to perform. He starts his days at 6 a.m., sifting through e-mails in his home office, and wraps it up — more often than not — at an event somewhere on campus around 9 p.m. And it's not just the university that's vying for his time. Holland, the son of LDS apostle Elder Jeffery R. Holland and the father of four children under the age of 13, is a dedicated church and family man. He sits on numerous community boards, including the Deseret News Editorial Advisory Board.
Though those who work with him now call him the "consummate university administrator," there was some question, when Holland was hired in July of 2009, as to whether or not the humble political science professor from Brigham Young University was cut out to be a university president. He didn't have any experience in administration and UVU was at a critical point in its development, said Val Hale, vice president of university relations. Formerly a trade- school- turned-community- college, UVU hadn't even been operating at university status for a full calendar year.
"What he did have was potential," Hale said, adding that, since his hire date, Holland has "performed like a seasoned veteran."
Holland himself admits that becoming the president of a major university was not only "not in the plan," but, until friends pressured him to apply, had never crossed his mind. He's never been the kind of person, though, to turn down a challenge.
While his father was in graduate school, 5-year-old Holland slept on an army cot because there was no money for a bed. His parents scraped together enough money, though, to purchase a shiny new set of hardbound picture books about American history. Flipping through the pages, dreaming over sketches of Thomas Jefferson soaking his feet in cold water to keep himself alert for his early-morning study, something inside Holland stirred. His parents' poor circumstances, a sacrifice they willingly made to build a brighter future, Jefferson's dedication — the little boy realized, "Smart people have to work really, really hard to accomplish great things in life," he said.
This past year, Holland's "really, really hard" work at UVU has paid off.
The biggest challenge facing UVU at this point "begins with funding and ends with funding," said Steven Lund, chairman of trustees at UVU. The Utah Legislature has not expanded the higher education budget to account for growth for several years. UVU, in the meantime, nearly doubled its enrollment in a period of 10 years. Just one student shy of the University of Utah's total head count, UVU is on its way to becoming the largest university in the state.
The prospects that the Legislature would approve a new science building this year looked grim. Undeterred, Holland dived in, lobbying for his cause "night and day," said Lund, who is also the vice chairman of the board of directors at Nu Skin Enterprises. Construction on the new $45 million building, which will provide the growing school with 30 much-needed classrooms, has already begun.
Dedicated to transforming the once-community college into a "serious" institution, Holland has orchestrated a makeover on campus. He raised more than $1 million to outfit the music school, like Juilliard School in New York and Yale School in Connecticut, with Steinway pianos.
"There's a feeling on campus that wasn't there before," Lund said. "Under Matt Holland UVU is becoming a full-fledged university, not just in name, but in practice."
Conducting meetings on campus, Holland is every inch a leader. For the most part, he sits back, thoughtfully rubbing his chin as he directs the flow of discussion with a simple nod. His dark-brown hair is touched with gray at the temples and his eyes — friendly, teasing eyes — are framed with the evidence of his propensity for laughter. When the academic vice president and the former faculty senate president get into a tiff about a newly instituted policy, Holland jumps in politely with a well-timed joke. Both men pause, laugh, then look to their president, who suggests a compromise. They concede and the meeting rolls along.
"To be good at this job, you've got to be able to relate to people," Lund said. "Matt is the kind of person who can talk to anyone about anything. He's got charisma."
Holland looks, in a classic black suit showcasing a shiny UVU lapel pin, as at home among the bigwigs of UVU as a fish in a fish bowl. But he still is — and probably always will be — a teacher, Lund said.
In an effort "to stay grounded," Holland said, he guest lectures across campus in courses ranging from history to business ethics. At the beginning of each year, he passes a reading list around campus, then invites students, in shifts, to come to his home for an evening chat about literature. One day a week, he buys lunch for a student at the UVU cafeteria
Holland is bright and articulate, but still accessible. He's a man who understands not only the importance of education, but also the strain and pain that's required to attain it.
As a high school student, Holland struggled with writing. He'd hoped to avoid English his senior year, but the teacher telephoned his parents and suggested, "Matt really needs this class." On his first paper — a review of Homer's "The Odyssey" — he brought home a "D-." But Holland, convinced at this point that good communication skills were key to a successful future, kept typing away. He kept practicing his writing until he eventually declared English, alongside political science, as his major in college. Now he has published several books.
"I'm anything but the smartest guy in the room," Holland said. "But what I have seen is, with education, I've become a better thinker, a better communicator. It has opened doors for me because I am willing to apply myself."
When he walks across campus, the students treat Holland like an old chum.
"Do you have a minute to chat later today?" asks one young man, intercepting the president on his way back to campus from a meeting with the Orem Commission for Economic Development.
Holland, grinning, promises a 1 p.m. meeting time. "Just drop by my office and tell my secretary, if you don't mind," he says, giving the boy a hearty handshake.
Holland's schedule is so tightly packed his own wife works with his secretary to make sure they get a regular date night.
"It's a wonderful life, but it's a busy life," said Paige Holland, a petite blonde with a disarming smile. Conversation with her feels warm and natural, like butter melting on hot toast.
Managing UVU could easily consume Holland's whole life, she said, but the Hollands like to keep things balanced. So they schedule everything.
"We realized if we did not regularly calendar together as a family, we'd miss the most important things," Paige Holland said, with a laugh. Their children are young — 13, 11, 8 and 5 — so Matt Holland schedules time for them, too. He wants to be there for the football games, the volleyball games, the homework — everything, Paige Holland said.
Sometimes spending time with the children means dragging them along to campus events (they actually love all the attention they get from the university students, she said.) Sometimes it means dropping by to visit Dad in his office. But most times, Matt Holland just turns off the phone.
"They're only little once, I know that and Matt knows that," Paige Holland said. "We just don't ever want to look back with regrets."
When Matt Holland walks into the home he shares with his family — located on campus just a 10-minute walk from his office — toward the tail end of a long day, he's all business from the well-tended part in his hair to the shine on his shoes. Until, that is, he spots Paige Holland, sitting, waiting for him in the front room. He sweeps over, kisses her on the cheek and laces his fingers through hers. Now, it appears, he's no longer a university president. He's just a regular guy — a guy who loves his wife and Utah Valley.