RecRe Roundtable: Matt Milless

· by Griffin Harrington

We’re very excited to share this conversation with Matt Milles, the Assistant Vice President for Student Affairs at Union College in upstate New York.

Matt and his team brought a RecRe box to their student union on campus earlier this spring. We could tell immediately when we first met on a call that Matt doesn’t mince words, and we really appreciated his honesty and directness when working together. Matt brought a wide and deep conversation to the Roundtable about how students have evolved over the last 20 years and how he has adapted and to continues to serve.

Thank you for the time Matt!

Griffin Harrington:

Hey, everyone. Welcome back to the RecRe Roundtable. I’m really excited about today’s episode. Today we’re going to be joined by someone that I could tell right away that I was going to get along with. It’s because today we’re joined by the Assistant Vice President of Student Affairs from Union College, Matt Milless. Matt and I, we spoke a couple of times over the last couple of months before we ended up bringing a RecRe box to Union College. Matt right away asked the right questions, the real questions, and took the lid off of some of the traditional back and forth that you have with a college administration professional. Right away, and I’ll jump into this with you, Matt, but I felt uniquely we had a very real conversation. It was rare and appreciated where I could tell that when you work with people, you want to just cut away some of the formalities and just get down to business and down to reality. Do you know that about yourself, or is that something that’s been talked about or that’s been shared with you in the past?

Matt Milless

Yeah. I’ve certainly heard that, maybe to a fault at times, but again, I wake up every day, I’ve been doing this work for a long time. I think I just finished my 23rd year at Union. Rarely do people stay at the same place for their entire career. I started as an assistant director in student activities, and I’ve had six titles since. Blunt is usually what people refer to me as. My intentions are always about the student experience and really, I’m very much wired for the student experience. I believe that historically, especially when I was younger, I was this bridge between our students and my colleagues in the administration who weren’t as forward facing or front facing with students, so I got a seat at both tables. I found my way into seats at tables with students so they could hear their experience, what they’re feeling, and often challenge them to think differently and have a different perspective and understand that, yes, you want 24-hr dining, for example, but who’s really eating from 3:00 to 5:00 in the morning? No one, and so that doesn’t actually make sense. Let’s hone down and try and figure out what it is you really want so that we can ask the right question to my colleagues in the administration to move the agenda forward. I think sometimes that means people have to hear things that they don’t want to, or it challenges them to work a little harder than they want to, and that’s about investment, especially for college students.

I’ve advised the student government for more years than I can count. It’s great that they want to see change, they want to facilitate change on a college campus. There are ways to do that successfully, and then there are ways to crash a burn. For a lack of better terms, we’ve got a category of complaining and then a category of advocacy and achievement. That advocacy route will typically get you there. People are looking for data, statistics and those types of things. I’m personally more open to anecdotal experiences and understanding, talking to students and seeing where things are changing. That’s a landscape that’s changing dramatically. I’ve been in this for 23 years and the last four since COVID hit have been the most abrupt shifts in the work that I do. Understanding that, and I have no survey data to do that, but I do have a lot of experiential data watching students, how they interact with our campus and engage with each other and engage with the administration, engage with the local community.

Griffin Harrington:

Just jumping off that, like you say, you take the talking to students seriously. I’ve known you for less than a year, but I’ve been able to follow along with the Union College Student Union team on Instagram and through some of the posting you guys have made. I’ve noticed how visible and present you and your team are in what the students are doing. Again, it’s a running theme here. I don’t see that everywhere after talking about hundreds of colleges. How are you so available, and what do you get out of that? How does that help the experience of what you’re building there at Union College?

Matt Milless: 

My path was I went and got a master’s degree in higher ed and then I packed everything I owned and followed my passion for food service and the culinary world. I went and cooked and waited tables and bartended in Key West Florida, for one year. I didn’t have a long-term plan for that. It was really intended to be a year and then start my career in higher ed. I’m a Mid-Westerner through and through. I wanted to be on the East Coast or the West Coast. The only place I applied was this little college called Union College that I’d never heard of in a town called Schenectady that I couldn’t spell or pronounce. I came and visited and you’ve gotten to visit our campus, Griffin, and it’s stunning. You walk across campus, you’re like, “This is my next destination.” I fought for my position, and I got hired as assistant director. When I was a college student, I was involved in student activities. I had this advisor who was a mentor to me and I thought the world of him. He’s the one that said, “Hey, you can have a career in higher education administration.” I’m like, “What?” Then I started applying to grad schools. But the one thing that he didn’t do is he didn’t come back to those late-night programs, so early in my time, I committed to being visible for the students. I’m in no way, shape or form here to do programming for students. It isn’t my job to run events for the students. I’m not the Disneyland person who’s making sure everybody has fun. That’s a happy consequence of the work that we do. My job is to challenge students in developing and helping them grow and to achieve the things that they want. If they want to bring something new to campus, it’s helping them figure out how to do that. We just had Flo Rida on campus, and that was something they really wanted to do, but that’s not turnkey. There’s a lot of moving parts. Helping them figure out how to work with agents, catering, all of those types of things, that’s what gets me excited. At the end of the day, it’s not about meeting Flo Rida. I could care less. He was very pleasant to work with, but it’s exciting for me to have the students get to meet those people and have those experiences and understand that it’s not two hours of music, it’s really about 20 hours of production and implementation and that they need to understand risk management.

They need to understand that it’s their role as the host of the event, not me, not my student activities team. People need to be safe. They need to book artists that they can present well here and be attractive to students but also be safe. Those are the things that get me up. People say, why have I stayed here for 23 years? Honestly, COVID aside, the overwhelming majority of the days I wake up excited to go to work. Well, I think people don’t get that out of their careers. My dad was an attorney, he hated his work. He’s 77 and still practicing law, still doesn’t like it and said, “Matt, find something you love and do that and you’ll make enough money.” That’s what I did, and I still love what I do. I still walk across this campus and go, “Wow, how do I get to work here and interact with students?”

About 12 years ago, I had a student who I had worked closely with. He was on student government. He came in, he was a firecracker, had all kinds of opinions, swore a lot. He had all the answers to everything. I pulled him aside, I still remember this, and this was probably 2003. I said, “You’re really bright, you’re really driven. Nobody’s listening to you ’cause all you do is swear,” hard conversation to have with a young person who has all the answers, but you know what? He was worth it. Fast-forward 10 years, he invites me out for coffee and sits me now and says, “I’m getting married,” and so on and so forth. I’m like, “Well, I have this side gig as a photographer, so maybe he’s going to ask me to photograph.” He’s like, “I’d like for you to be my best man.” I was like, “What?” That’s the ultimate compliment. I was able to have enough impact on somebody who I didn’t go easy on that many years later they wanted me involved in their wedding. In COVID I had the fortunate opportunity to marry a couple and do the officiating, which I had to learn how to do really quickly. I got to do it twice for them because it was COVID, once for their actual ceremony and then again with guests. I said, “Why do you want me to officiate your wedding? That’s nuts?” They said, “Well, you’re the person who’s known us throughout our entire relationship. We met at Union, we were student leaders, and you have seen us grow together, and that means something to us.” Do I go to work so that I can officiate weddings? Absolutely not. I didn’t actually even like officiating the wedding, not my cup of tea, but what an honor bestowed on me that I couldn’t say no. But to be able to have that kind of impact on young people is what excites me. When it comes to trying new things, I’m a big believer in being innovative. 

When COVID hit we sent everybody home on March 12, 2020. We still had two-and-a-half months to go where most colleges had two-and-a-half weeks to go. I sat down with my team in student activities and said, “The only thing we cannot do is nothing. To do nothing is not to serve the students.” They’re in a weird space. We’re in a weird space. We’re scared, people were dying, and it was terrifying, but student engagement was going to matter. We were going to stay open. We were going to continue to have classes, and part of going to college is student engagement. We had to think really creatively about, “How do we engage through these boxes of Zoom?” Right out of the gate, we said, “Well, what can we do that we could never do in person?” We said, “Let’s call our booking agent and say, ‘We want to have Jason Derulo on Zoom,'” knowing that it was crazy and that was never going to happen. Jason Derulo is far out of the price range for a real live concert on campus, but what the heck? It’s Zoom. He came back and said, “Yeah, I’ll do it from my living room, and I’ll do it at a price that you can afford because I don’t have to travel and none of this.” We had about 1,000 students sign in for a Jason Derulo concert on Zoom in May of 2020. The future then was these Zoom concerts. Eventually, we did AJR and a number of other people in these Zoom spaces, and the concerts got better and better and more evolved and more technically sound as it went. Jason Derulo had dancers, but he was in his living room, and it was wild. It was a really cool experience and something to look back on that’s exciting. Being innovative is really key.

Griffin Harrington: 

I see three cohorts that you work with on a daily basis. It’s the student body, it’s your student leaders, either staff or people that work directly, and then it’s your team, your professional staff. Those three groups are really distinct, but I think something that I noticed when I came to campus was how bonded and there was so much unspoken communication and context and the group mentality of your professional team and then hearing about the student leaders and then even the student body. How do you focus on managing and growing your professional staff versus your student staff? How are those two worlds different from someone in your position?

Matt Milless: 

Yeah, the words are different, but the approach is similar. It’s cliche, it’s old, but I was raised on I believe in leadership by example, and I believe in being present. I’m accessible to people 24 hours a day and in my bluntness will say, “If you contact me at an inappropriate time with an inappropriate question that this is not appropriate, and you should not contact me as a student at 10:00 at night to ask me what’s going to be in the dining hall tomorrow, not appropriate,” and I’ll let you know that. But rarely, if ever, does that happen. People understand that and they respect that, and I think you have to set and manage expectations early and often. I do that with my student leaders, and I do that with my professional teams. Reporting to me is our community engagement, which is our external community service and how we engage with the local community, our STEP Program, which is science and technology program, and I have a director for those areas. Then I also have dining and then obviously student activities. Those are three unique teams, but I also bring them together. At the end of the day, I set expectations with students and try and manage that early and often, whether it’s through student government or student clubs or organizations as well as for staff, it’s in the interview process that I’m first introducing those expectations. I have said, “You’re going to work a lot. You’re going to work hard, and I’m going to give you everything that I have in terms of knowledge to help you grow and become stronger and ready for the next opportunities in your life.” I believe in that, and my staff literally has access to me 24 hours a day. If there’s an incident, they will contact me and that’s fine. I get excited to be able to support them in those experiences.

From the people in senior level administration, because I’ve been in the same place for a long time, people have come to expect that candor from me that you’re speaking of. I’m going to be pretty direct and candid, and I’m going to come from a lens of student experience. I’m asked questions about how I believe the students will respond to situations, and I think that’s what people expect from me. I’m often thrust into that role, and that’s fine. I certainly am not a psychic and can’t predict exactly what students will do, but I usually have a pretty good sense of how students will respond. Change is difficult for everybody. I’m wired a little differently. I get excited about change. I’m a big believer in failure. I think that it’s worth it. We can’t just spend unbelievable amounts of money and then let it fail, but at the same time, we need to be able to have failures and then grow from them and learn from them.

All of these things are basic Leadership 101 and how to lead and then figuring it out … I don’t think I am particularly good. I think that I am committed to my folks. I try to lead with empathy and understand where they’re coming from and also not afraid to work hard and a lot. I have a seven-year-old and a six-year-old. I have a wife that’s supportive and understanding that this was my lifestyle long before we met. She works in the medical field and often works 24-hour shifts. It’s really about that communication and understanding of what each other is going to be doing. My children do really well. They’re excited every day when I get home, and there’s no tears when I go to work. They understand I’m going to work, and they understand I’m going to come home, and I’m going to engage with them and that there will be times where I have to focus on other things, but there’s other times where I’m going to focus on them. What we’re getting to, which I think is a hot topic in higher ed and in the workforce in general, is this work-life balance. People have said about me that I don’t believe in work-life balance, which is absolutely not true. I just don’t think it comes in a 9:00 to 5:00, Monday through Friday situation. I think people have to find balance in different industries in different ways and it can’t be solely committed to, “Well at 5:00 going home, no matter what,” and so on and so forth. I have often said to colleagues as I’ve been here, “If you’ve spent five minutes at the end of the day and talked to a student about something they want to talk about every day, you will be a better professional. You will learn so much from the students. All it takes is five minutes of listening to them and understanding where they’re coming from.” It may be about the latest Marvel movie that’s coming out, and it may be about a boyfriend or girlfriend situation. It may be about a sick relative, the gamut, but listening and being present and engaging with them makes a big difference. Then when it comes time to try to get a pulse on students, they’re happy to share that and they trust that they’re not being undermined. I genuinely want to know so that I can help facilitate change that is digestible, beneficial and advantageous to our students.

Griffin Harrington:

You got there before I could, but your lack of work-life balance from when we talked last time is something that really stood out from my perspective. With your photography in the community I just could not wrap my head around what your calendar looks like. As someone who’s in such a high leadership position at a major university, you’re able to find ways around it. But what are the strategies for people that have these passions outside of work but still want to be significant and leaders on their own … especially in the higher ed space? How do you recommend people do that and juggle?

Matt Milless:

Find the work that you love and it doesn’t make it not work ’cause it is. COVID, it was work. It’s been the hardest work of my career figuring out how to keep people safe in a congregated living community. But if you love what you do, then I think it becomes worth it. You’re driven and you’re excited about that and finding ways to be excited. It doesn’t mean you don’t get tired. I drink outrageous amounts of coffee. I choose to be happy, and I choose to be excited, and I choose to be engaged, and I choose to enjoy what I’m doing.

Again, I’m not fluffy and I’m positive and I try to be positive, but I will also be very real. I get a choice to wake up every day and enjoy the things that are in front of me and enjoy those moments as they come. When I woke up this morning, I was wrestling my six-year-old to get out of bed to go to his last day ever of kindergarten. I’m far more excited about it than he is, like, “Carter, you gotta get up, buddy. It’s your last day and you have all kinds of celebrations and it’s super exciting,” and he just wanted to sleep. I am excited to come in and see and engage with my colleagues, it’s summertime, so we don’t have many students, which is one of the major drivers, but it means opportunities to come in.

I get these crazy ideas. I send these voice texts and these voice emails to my staff that half the time don’t make sense because they’re recordings, but at least it’s a trigger for them to say, “What were you trying to say?” Then I remember. I came in with a handful of ideas for one of my staff members this morning, and it’s not, “These are the things I need you to do, but these are the things I want to talk out so we can figure out how to collaborate and deliver this in three months when the students come back in a way that is exciting for our students.” We get to make choices and we can choose to say, “I don’t get paid enough, and I work too many hours.” Or, we can choose to say, “I have a job, and I get to go to work in a beautiful place and interact with really interesting people and people pay me for it.” I do think it has to do with choice. Could I make more money going somewhere else? Maybe. Could I find another place that is fun to work at? Probably, but that doesn’t mean I really don’t have to focus on those things. Again, I don’t show up for the paycheck like that is a necessary part, it’s probably philosophical. That’s how I look at the world. If I need more money, then I need to work harder and take more photo gigs or go get a job at a restaurant making pizza, whatever it takes.

I’m fascinated by what’s going on in our society post-COVID and how our students are showing up in different ways. I don’t think they’re broken. I don’t think they’re wrong. They’re different, and they’re seeing the world through a different lens. They have some growing to do that other generations, other populations got to do a little bit earlier, and that got delayed by COVID a bit. Sitting in your room for two years meant different types of interactions with people, those soft skills were not developed in the same way. That doesn’t make them bad or good, it makes them different. 

Griffin Harrington: 

How does that affect the activities programming? What are you doing now that’s different from what you did before?

Matt Milless:

RecRe is a great example. I got a cold email from you probably, and being interested and being innovative, I’m like, “I open these emails and 99% of them I throw away;” This is something a little bit different. Then you’re thinking in our community, how does this play out? When I talked to you, you mentioned, “Vacuums in the residence halls,” I’m like, “Well, yeah, that’s not what I’m looking for. This is how I want to use it. Is this something we can find a way to make successful?” We used to see on a given Saturday night, 100 to 200 people come to a comedian or any number of activities where you’d show up and you’d watch an entertainer perform. Students are not particularly interested in that. They are interested in Flo Rida and big-name concerts, but they’re not interested in lesser name entertainment that is performed to them. They’re engaging in positive ways around crafting, and I would say interactive things with each other where they have the opportunity to engage with one another, which again, is something I think they missed during COVID. Now it’s like, “We want to build these things. We want to spend time together, groups of five to 10, not groups of 50 to a 100, so smaller groups.” These lockers were like, “Oh, this is an interesting opportunity to put, say, a Nintendo Switch that they could take back and hook up and have four or five different people play Mario Kart or whatever activity that they want to do in these smaller groups.” It’s access for students who don’t have the financial means to purchase their own switch. There’s an Oculus at our RecRe. That’s something that is certainly a luxury. If we can spend the $300 on the Oculus and then get access to 2000 students who could try this and experience it, what a great opportunity. We could certainly have an information booth where we have checkout, and we have had those in the past. They’re archaic. You don’t have great ways of tracking things. They get lost. It’s hard to hold accountable the individuals if they do take them or don’t return them or they break them. With RecRe, I probably passed it off to my director of student activities. Then I showed up to the meeting with my strong opinions and bluntness and said, “This is how we want to use it.” Then we were able to launch relatively quickly once we got there. 

There’s a number of other things, I think we have to embrace technology. I haven’t really figured out all this AI. I’ve been reading about it, I’ve been trying to understand it, ChatGPT, it’s going to change the landscape of how we exist. I was just reading an article about a 20-something who had applied for 300 jobs and got no interviews, then used ChatGPT to create a resume and got interviews with everyone in job offers instantly. Is that ethically okay? Is that your work? Where does that land? But I admire the attempt and appreciate the frustration where we failed that young person along the way that they couldn’t write a resume on their own that is resonating with employers and that ChatGPT can do a better job. Something’s wrong with that. We’re going to have to figure out how we exist in this AI world? Who owns what? What is what? I think there’s access to young people being entrepreneurs in ways that there never was before, so how will that impact them. When I was in college, the kids selling tee-shirts out of their dorm room were brilliant and making all of this extra money. Now there’s college athletes making millions of dollars as influencers. Is that something we want to invest a lot of time in teaching people how to be influencers? Probably not. That’s probably going to dry up. Facebook was really, really huge 15 years ago, and now it’s not super popular with young people. What is the phase? What is the length of time? How much are we willing to invest for the window that this will be the thing?

Griffin Harrington:

You talked a lot about some of the tactical efforts to meet students where they are with technology. It’s like it was social, then it was texting, and then there’s technological experiences with Zoom, and you were able to find a technological solution to meeting the students where they are. The evolution of higher ed is to utilize today’s tools to meet the students. How does the physical space of a campus evolve to turn into what the campus of 2030 is going to look like? How will students interact physically with college campuses across the country? If you were to crystal ball it for a second, where does your head go on how students interact on a college campus in 2030?

Matt Milless: 

The bookends of my career so far have been when I was here when the Twin Towers fell and then I have COVID. In 2001, I could not have predicted what the future would be in any way. I could not have imagined that texting would supersede email as an appropriate way to interact around professional matters or serious matters. I have to let go of some of those things as somebody who is now older than those generations. Our students see texting as the only way of communication. Then they’re not engaging in email, and so we have to figure out what is the balance?

I do think this AI stuff is going to really continue to be impactful, and it could continue to degrade that human experience that we lost during COVID. It could continue to delay the evolution of how you have these engaging conversations. You and I could easily disagree, walk away and be fine with it. That is mature dialogue, and it is totally fine. It’s good that we have different opinions. Some of your ideas will rub off on me and some of my ideas will rub off on you, and I’ll be a better person for that disagreement. But I think that those disagreements have become so difficult. They’re being managed through text and emails and FaceTimes and all of these things, they’re not in these human contact. I see a real resistance in desire to have conflict and to engage around conflict. It’s to the point I think if somebody’s given an undercooked piece of chicken, they just don’t eat it, rather than challenge the restaurant to prepare it the way that it’s supposed to be, because it could be confrontational, it could hurt somebody’s feelings by sending it back. They pay the $22, which is too much for a piece of chicken. It’s undercooked, they can’t eat it, and they just move on with their life because that confrontation is so difficult. 2030, I think we’ll continue to see an evolution in how students learn in digital ways. I think we’ll continue to see students able to achieve academic degrees remotely in remote ways.

The notion of an in-person experience will continue to thrive. However, I think you’ll see more options and people taking different routes. Online education isn’t actually a novel or new thing. Its credibility was questioned pre-COVID quite a bit. I think post-COVID, people have gotten a lot more comfortable with it. The cost of higher education is becoming so prohibitive that there may be an economically more achievable way to get your education digitally. Education may be able to be offered at a much reduced price digitally. How will the workforce perceive a digital degree versus an in-person degree? I don’t know. As long as people from previous generations went and achieved that degree in person, it will take a long time for them to get comfortable with somebody who didn’t experience their education in a similar way. I think most people are wired for, “Well, that’s not the way I did it, so that’s not right.” That’s not the best way to approach it. I do think that there’s a lot of people in positions of leadership who say, “Well, this is what it means to have a college degree. It means four years of in-person, mostly in- residence, living in this communal environment, having big conversations at 2:00 in the morning in dorm rooms.” Those are the experiences I think that people are expecting to have in this in-person. I don’t think it goes away. It can’t go away. I think that for many people, that would be the best way to get their education. I think the door is open for people who have various different learning styles, whether they’re disabilities, whether they’re different challenges, to be able to learn in different formats and sitting in a classroom and watching somebody write on a chalkboard is not ideal for every person, and I think that’s great. We’re getting access to knowledge and education to more people by being more creative about how we’re delivering it. Do I think we’ll have robots in the dining halls? Probably. But I think we’ll still also have people. I’d be excited to have a pizza made by a robot. We’ll need people to load the robot with the ingredients and things. Seven years seems like an eternity, but it also is right around the corner. I’d be remiss to say that we’re going to have to continue to explore our sustainability efforts as big congregated living environments and how we’re impacting the environment. Being environmentally conscious can be expensive, and so I think as institutions of higher education, we need to figure out ways to be leaders in changing how we’re impacting society. I’m not necessarily somebody who’s going across town to make sure that my recycling gets in the right space, but I think that as we move forward, we have to be more conscious and more wise about how we are impacting our communities on campus, in our cities, in our states, in our nation, and in our world.

Griffin Harrington:

Matt, thank you for the range and the depth. I really appreciate you joining, and thank you for joining the RecRe Roundtable.

Matt Milless:

Absolutely. My pleasure.

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