Inside Track: Scogin returns home
President of Hope College returns to school that gave him a bachelor’s degree.
He was a student at Hope College, and now, he’s back again at age 39, this time as the college president.
In between, Matthew Scogin studied at Harvard and worked at the U.S. Department of Treasury and the New York Stock Exchange during the Great Recession era.
All the while, he consistently stayed involved at Hope, most recently as a board member, before deciding to “go home” — to the place where he met his wife, and where he said he learned the value of critical thinking, curiosity and a commitment to lifelong learning.
Scogin said he admits he has led a nontraditional pathway to become a college president, but he thinks his skills may be just what the college needs to weather changing times.
“Any way you look at it, higher education is in unprecedented times. I've been in situations that were pretty unprecedented,” he said.
In a lot of ways, Scogin said he feels he had an idyllic childhood that provided a solid foundation.
He thinks the lack of chaos he experienced growing up helped provide a solid foundation, which allowed him to address some of those chaotic career experiences with great confidence.
“I think one of the stories of my life is that my life has been a bit unplanned. And that's ironic for me because I'm a planner,” Scogin said. “When I look back, not very much of my five- to 10-year plans have ever worked out the way I planned them.”
The oldest of four, his family moved to Portage when he was 5 years old and graduated high school from Kalamazoo Area Mathematics and Science Center.
His father was a Ph.D. chemist, and his mother was a middle school science teacher.
Although he spent most of his life being shaped as a scientist, Scogin said he fell in love early in his high school career with “the sport of politics.”
He got involved in a couple of political campaigns, and he realized what he loved more was public policy and the messy, complex puzzles involved.
Scogin studied political science and economics at Hope and then went to the Harvard University Kennedy School of Government for a master's degree in public policy.
“At that point, I thought I would spend my whole life in government,” he said.
He did a research fellowship in Germany after Harvard and then worked for former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney.
“It was perfect for me. At the time, Massachusetts was really wrestling with some big questions around health care policy,” Scogin said. “Talk about a big complicated puzzle. It doesn't get much more complicated than that.”
During his time in Massachusetts, he got a call from one of his Harvard professors about a job in Washington, D.C., under Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson. He was enjoying working under Romney and was unsure about joining an administration that only had two years left in office.
But he decided to take the opportunity. That was in 2006, and the Great Recession hit the next year.
“It turned out to be the most interesting two years you could have possibly imagined to be at the Treasury Department,” Scogin said.
“I was there during the two years that the U.S. went through the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression and so happened to have a seat at the table when there were decisions being made that were covered on the front page of every newspaper everywhere in the world every day.”
Each day, his team would get stats about how many more jobs had been lost, and they were forced to make decisions with limited information in a very short amount of time.
It was the most stressful experience he has had but being forced to learn as much as he did was incredibly fulfilling, Scogin said.
Shortly after he left the capitol in 2008, he took a job at the New York Stock Exchange for about six years. He saw this as the most similar job in the private sector as working for the treasury department.
“I felt like I could go there and add a lot of value to the big questions they were working on,” he said.
This was in the aftermath of the financial crisis, so the biggest question was how to restore public trust in the U.S. financial system. Then they had to deal with another storm — automation and its effects.
So, again, he found himself in a pretty chaotic situation, Scogin said.
“I happened to be at the New York Stock Exchange for six years where it underwent more change than it had during the entire 220-plus-year history,” he said.
“So amazingly, once again, I found myself in a situation where decisions we were making were being covered on the front page of the New York Times.”
For the past five years, he’s been working in New York City for Perella Weinberg Partners, a bank that started during the financial crisis with the idea that some of the larger banks were too focused on profit rather than clients, he said.
He was hired to help the growing bank as the chief administrative officer. When he started, it employed 400 people. When he left, it employed 650 people.
While he primarily led through conflict and change at previous jobs, his latest role allowed him to manage teams and build culture.
“So, we had an interesting juxtaposition, where at the New York Stock Exchange, we were trying to save an iconic American institution, to one where we were trying to build a great institution that could last for a long, long time,” Scogin said.
He said he wasn’t looking for a career change when the president role opened at Hope College.
“Through all of the various chapters, I did always have a sense that I was being prepared for something,” Scogin said.
He wasn’t sure exactly what that “something” was, but when the job came open, he realized the skills he has gained could help him in the role.
“Maybe everything I've done in my life has actually been preparing me for this job,” Scogin said.
That’s why he said he decided to return and help a place he loves through a time when higher education is under a lot of pressure and experiencing a lot of change.
One of the key skills Scogin thinks will be beneficial is his ability to work with lots of stakeholders with different perspectives. Making change at a college takes that skill, he said.
“In government, you don't get anything done through autocratic leadership,” Scogin said. “You make progress by building consensus and finding alignment. And I think in a very similar way, higher education is built to make progress through alignment.”
He also has learned about setting a strategy and then driving an organization to that strategy, as well as leading through change, he said.
He is early in his tenure with Hope and, therefore, still in “listening mode,” but he does have three areas he would like to address during his time there: the future of learning, the future of the workplace and the future business model of higher education.
If focusing on answering questions around those three main areas, he said he thinks Hope will be well-positioned for the future.
“You can either be a leader or a follower, and I think Hope is in a really strong position to be a leader in a period where higher education will undergo a lot of change,” Scogin said.