Josie: Hello, and welcome to Josie and The Podcast. This is your host, Dr. Josie Ahlquist, and I am thrilled you are listening in today. This podcast goal is to connect technology and leadership in higher education, and we try to serve up all the good stuff of heart, soul, and lots of substance. Josie and The Podcast is sponsored by Campus Sonar, a higher ed social listening agency that listens to your online conversations and provides insights to support your institution’s goals.
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Okay, let’s dig into my amazing featured guest for today. Dr. Cynthia Teniente-Matson is the second president of Texas A&M University-San Antonio, one of the fastest growing universities in Texas. Since becoming president in 2015, she has forged an audacious, strategic plan for the university to fulfill its mission and to bring to life its core values while achieving several important goals, including becoming a national model for student and academic success.
Dr. Matson has a more than 25 years of experience in higher education with a track record of achievement that supports campus growth, including faculty and student success, economic development, financial stewardship, and broad-base entrepreneurial leadership. Prior to her appointment at A&M San Antonio, she worked as the vice president for administration and chief financial officer at California State University, Fresno.
As an advocate of continuing education, she earned her Bachelor of Arts in Management from the University of Alaska Fairbanks, a Master of Business Administration from the University of Alaska, Anchorage, and a Doctorate in Educational Leadership from Fresno state. She is a wife and mother to her husband, Mike, and her two children, Phillip and Wyatt.
A couple highlights of this episode was, wow, she truly is audacious. She lives and breathes that mission, as well as this 10-year celebration that we’re going to talk all about that the campus is celebrating with the branded hashtag on a mission. But there were also other themes from the interview that really connect both the idea of be audacious and on a mission, and that was also to be the first, her own experiences within her life, but also this ability to go to a younger campus now celebrating 10 years in how students can be founders in all different areas of campus and they really can be the first in many, many different ways.
So we talk about that 10-year celebration that they are celebrating at every different milestone of their campus. We do talk about her journey from CFO to president. We also talk about her personal connection to the campus and to the surrounding environment of San Antonio. I can’t wait for you all to check out this episode. Please let us know that you are tuning in, and a great way to do that is on Twitter.
I am on Twitter @JosieAhlquist. The podcast is JosieATPodcast. And you can find this amazing accessible and audacious president, @PrezMatson. That’s where you can find my guest today, Cynthia. All the resources, people, and sources that we talk about are listed on my website at josieahlquist.com/podcast. Enjoy.
Josie: You are the president of Texas A&M, San Antonio, inspired by faculty, students, and people who make things happen. You’re a proud mom, happy wife, bicyclist #OnAMission. So let’s learn a little bit more about you from what you chose to put in your Twitter bio.
Cynthia: Well, what I chose to put in my Twitter bio was a short, quick way to think about how I see myself here at the university, and how I see myself as a human being. And so, I am constantly amazed by all of the wonderful things that our faculty, our students, our staff, and people in the world that are doing and making things happen. So that’s where that came from. And then, just a little bit about who you are as a human being. I’m a mother. I’m a wife. I really enjoy bicycling, although sometimes now it seems like a distant hobby as opposed to assistant form of exercise.
Then the #OnAMission is one of the taglines that we use here at the university that reflects who you are as a human being. But it also reflects the architecture of our campus and our buildings, which are designed after the UNESCO World Heritage missions here in San Antonio.
Josie: Great. So some history in there too. It’s so fun to see a little bit of personalization in bios. I’m also a cyclist and I feel the same as you. My bike is in the other room just collecting dust right now. But that freedom that I find on the road is something that I absolutely love. Well, we’re going to dig into more about how Texas A&M San Antonio is on a mission celebrating a 10-year anniversary and all the cool things that you’ve been doing on social. To warm up to that, an activity that I like to do is letting us know what was your most recent post. And I know you’re on Twitter, you’re on Instagram, so pick either one of those and share what you posted recently.
Cynthia: Right now I’ve been promoting the Cesar E. Chavez March for Justice. I’m the honorary Grand Marshall. And so that’s out today on my Twitter feed, and also some Monday motivation content, which comes out every week. But I’m kind of pushing the countdown for this coming Saturday, Cesar Chavez March, and asking and inviting people around the community to join us in that. So that’s what I’d been promoting on that and why.
Josie: Great. Getting excitement leading up to events. I noticed that you’re also in stories at events on Instagram and in your feed. Is that something that you’re doing on your own? You’ve got some social support around you? When do you decide to post in Instagram?
Cynthia: It’s a combination of time and function, right? So, yes, I do have some people that help me, that’s actually very personalized. So I meet with the social media team on a regular basis periodically to talk about what’s important to me at the time and what I want to be emphasizing, and then how they lay out stories, or thoughts, or points of interest when we’re thinking about things together. So they help build out the calendar so that it is as much personal, but also just keeping it active.
If I were to do it all by myself all the time, it would probably be not as consistent and not as focused as I’d like it to be. So that approach has really helped me to better utilize my social media channels and still have it be using my voice about issues that are important to me. I do go on social media on a daily basis. I respond to posts. I respond to things that are of interest to me. When people reach out to me either through a direct message or… I respond to those.
I look at what students are doing, and what alumni are doing, what faculty are doing. And if it’s something that causes me to be tickled in one way or another, I respond to it with comments. It’s really a blend of things that we together think are fun but that also reflect my personality and reflect where we’re going as an institution.
Josie: I appreciate you sharing the way that you use it for social listening, like observing, really taking in your community and then the strategy that might take others who are involved to make sure you’re filling in all the pieces of your calendar. Because, again, like your day, I’m sure I can only imagine today what your calendar looks like, making sure that it’s really holistic, it fills that personality piece in it too. You’re also on LinkedIn, I believe, and we’ll include all your socials in the notes to the show and you can really see that personality coming out.
Cynthia: Correct. I’m on LinkedIn, I’m on Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook. The only thing I haven’t really fully embraced yet is Snapchat. And there’s others. There’s lots of new, WhatsApp, all these other new ones that are around, but those are the ones that I have chosen to be focused on for the moment.
Josie: Well, let’s take it back a few decades or two.
Josie: If you could remember your earliest memory of any kind of technology.
Cynthia: Oh, so I am a product of the ’80s in terms of when I graduated from high school and college. Computers were around then. The formation of some of the Apple computers, etc., were being pushed through when I was in high school, maybe even middle school. But I think it was more early high school, and learning to use the computer, learning to use the technology, moving from typewriters and word processing into computers and all the things we could do.
Cynthia: My earliest memories is writing papers on a Mac and a PC, and learning some of the GUI, the graphical user interface components at that particular time. That’s my earliest memories.
Josie: For some reason, when folks say they’re a child or a product of the 80s, the first thing I think of is what their hair looked like.
Cynthia: Oh yeah. Well, we’re not talking about that today.
Josie: That’s a [inaudible 00:10:38]. No, we won’t. That’s maybe a throwback Thursday post.
Josie: And we’re not ready yet. So thanks for sharing about where tech came out for high school for you. What about this calling into the presidency. In your bio, of course, I’ve read some of your background and your path, but maybe give us a little bit more insight where you started to feel that calling and that basically path to the presidency.
Cynthia: Well, for me in particular, I was really encouraged. When I started my work in the California State University system, I had a very fabulous sponsor and mentor, Dr. John Welty, and he really encouraged me to pursue a doctorate. Pursuing the doctorate opened up many other doors. And he also was the person that helped champion me to think about becoming a university president because, like many people, I was very satisfied with my work, with my life, with my family, everything going on. So the thought of a presidency wasn’t something that I went into saying, “Oh gee, this is something I really want to do.”
Cynthia: It was something that I was encouraged to consider, and then really to take a hard look at what does it take to become a university president, and how you get prepared for that, particularly if you’re not a traditional academic upbringing, which tends to be where most presidents have come from. Although that clearly is changing now. For a long time it was you came up the academic ranks, had full tenure, you were a chair, maybe associate dean, dean, provost, etc.
Cynthia: Myself, coming from the chief financial officer, chief business officer role was just a different lens. And the bottom line is becoming being a university president is all about leadership, strategic thinking, forming inspirations for your institution, and pushing the university forward 20 to 30 years beyond your seat life in the president’s role. And, of course, making sure things are functioning and running on a regular basis with a very strong team. So that’s how that came to be.
Josie: What is it being a CFO has really provided for you as a president?
Cynthia: Well, in my institution in particular, but I think this is true in lots of places, but in my institution in particular, because we are a newer institution that’s part of a big mature system, lumping land-grant institution in Texas, I’m part of the Texas A&M University system at Texas A&M University-San Antonio, The campus that I lead is one that is relatively new. We’re celebrating our 10-year birthday anniversary this year as a standalone institution that, like many institutions of this era, we started off as a system center as part of the A&M-Kingsville campus.
So that sort of long-winded answer in terms of, what does the CFO background bring to a position like this? A lot of what we are still doing along with the traditional bringing students in, wanting to make sure they have a successful pathway and launch point and catalyst for their life, whether that’s going to graduate school or going into careers and retention, persistence, timely degree, affordability, and all of those things are wrapped around a holistic, liberal education.
But, when you’re also building a university, a lot of your time is spent on financing, and land development, and real-estate development, and capital construction, and developing systems that will support the DNA of the institution going forward, whether that’s in auxiliaries, or chargebacks, or being the most aggressive in hiring and recruiting and some of these other things that have these business enterprise operations, along with the very important role of growing academic programs, and, like I said, ensuring students are successful.
So all of these things, as you well know, cost money. All of these strategies cost money. And when you’re building, you’ve got to be very strategic about building what you can afford, managing the investments that you have, bringing in donors that will help continue to push the pathway forward. As a 10-year old institution, we only have about 10,000 alumni, and our alumni are still emerging. So we don’t have deep institutional roots of alumni who’ve been in the workforce for 20 or 30 years and have become highly wealthy.
We have many, many successful alumni. They’re all successful in their own right. But what you find at large established institutions is also the cascading effect of alums who have become prominent CEOs around an international and global stage. And we’re building in that direction. So the ability to manage resources in all of these various contexts is very important.
Josie: It’s exciting to watch a younger university in the US, and the way you describe it, almost has this startup feel. So it sounds like it’s a really good match for the skills that you had coming in, taking the campus to the next level. So yeah. Happy birthday, 10 years. 10 candles on the cake. What are all of the things that you’re doing to celebrate, to show these significant milestones? And where are you going from here?
Cynthia: Part of being a university president during some of these milestones is to capture the history and build the… You’re laying a foundation and a platform for the future so that you can continue to build on the history. So part of the excitement has been, let’s get all the facts straight in our story. And when you’re founding an institution like this, in our particular case, some of our founders are still living, and in other cases, some of our founders have deceased. Our key champion is deceased, Senator Frank Madla. But his descendants are still alive, and there are people who work on our campus who met the late Senator.
So there’s an opportunity there for us to capture all of that history, get it well documented in various forms. So you’ll see some of that in our social media. We have the 10 years of TAMUSA that we’ve been using as a hashtag. We’ve been out prompting alumni, tell us about your favorite faculty member or your favorite experience here on the A&M campus, trying to gather all of that in multiple mediums. We’ve put together a history book that is being printed at the Texas A&M press that can be distributed, that has the history well-documented.
So it’s allowed us a chance to get back out to all of our loyal supporters and people who had a fingerprint in any particular direction in helping the institution to be formed. That part has been really exciting, gathering all those oral stories, written stories, written records, the making sure our archives have everything, and getting that piece straight. Then like any significant event, we’ve got some key dates that we’re celebrating. Earlier in February, we unveiled a historical exhibit in our archival gallery, which is downtown here in San Antonio. It’s called the Bexar County archival facility, which is just a moment’s walk away from the Alamo. So it’s right downtown in the corridor.
Then, just last week, we unveiled a historical time wall on the university campus. So we have connected with people who were in leadership roles at various instances in the institution’s short history, and had them be part of the unveiling and telling a story about their experiences of what the campus meant to them. We are celebrating three critical dates. May 13th is the day that the Texas Legislature authorized this as a standalone institution. And later in May is when the governor accepted that legislation. So we chose to celebrate May 13th as one of the milestone dates because it’s right in between when the semester ends and commencement. So we would have more people here to celebrate that day even though the governor signed into legislation later in the month.
So May 13th is a big birthday party that we’re throwing for ourselves. We’re also going to do a groundbreaking on another new facility that particular day and this whole big birthday party fiesta around it. And then, May 17th is our commencement, and that’s going to be our 10-year anniversary commencement. We have invited Secretary Perry, who at the time he was governor was the governor that signed in the legislation for Senate Bill 629 and was a friend of the late Senator Frank Madla, who was our founder throughout his lifetime in placing the campus here.
He’s going to deliver the keynote commencement address, Secretary Perry. It’s on his calendar. Anything could happen in world. But when you’re a US secretary, anything can happen that might preempt him from coming here. But tentatively speaking, he’s planning to be here. We’re in the progress working with our regents for an honorary doctorate of an individual who has had a key hand in helping to form the campus. So a number of things we’re doing around commencement.
Then I skipped over one of our dates, April the 28th, which is our annual festival, the Cascarones Event, which is a part of San Antonio’s Fiesta celebrations. And that date is when we’ll launch the book, the 10-year history book will launch on that day of that big party. And we’ll have a big alumni event in the morning, and we do our freshman early-admit breakfast that day. So the 28th is another big day.
Then we’ll have several activities between Fiesta and this May 13th. We have like 10 big days of celebration. So there’s a number of activities occurring from student groups, to alumni, to staff and faculty. And we will end the year in December of 1999, which would be 20 years, is when the Board of Regents adopted legislation to allow A&M San Antonio to form as a system center and we’ll celebrate that at our annual Lights of Esperanza, which is an event we do the first Tuesday after Thanksgiving, and that will occur very close to the actual date of the signing of that legislation, and that will wrap up our 10 years.
But we have a lot of activities in between. The students have something coming in early April. They’re calling it a 10-year bash, and it’s basically a throwback to all 10 years of our history. So they’re inviting former student body presidents, all of our Mr. and Miss A&Ms, all alumni, and all current students. And they’re having a big sort of bash around that time as well. So there’s a lot of little events happening, but the big culminating events will be one in May and one in December.
Josie: Wonderful. That’s a lot of energy going on on your campus. And folks can follow the #OnAMission. Are there other ways that people can stay connected or even participate in any of these celebrations locally or from afar?
Cynthia: Yes. We have the 10 years of TAMUSA, T-A-M-U-S-A for our 10-year, and that’s where we’re engaging with all of our alumni and faculty and staff as well for their experiences and activities. So those are the two main things.
Josie: Being a younger institution, there’s lots of firsts along the way, but a couple that I had picked up on that were significant firsts is being recently designated as a Hispanic-serving institution. And then, also you’re collaborating with Facebook, which I couldn’t help but bring up considering the context of this show. So what are a couple of other things that you’re celebrating that are firsts, that you’re really proud of at the institution?
Cynthia: Well, there’s a lot of firsts that are going on with students in general. And so, we really appreciate that. We encourage students, if there’s not something here in terms of a student club or activity that they’re interested in starting, that we have systems in place to help them organize and create student activities, student clubs, student traditions that will support their growth. And also imparts to them the importance of being founders in terms of the institution, that they’re writing history, that they’re creating traditions that could be here in a hundred years when the university is celebrating its hundred-year anniversary and milestone. So that’s been very special for students.
We’ve had things like the Black Student Union, for example, which you think is somewhat innocuous in terms of what happens at universities with student clubs and activities. But the idea of our African-American students organizing, which they did this about a year ago, but the fact that they’ve come together and organized the first Black Student Union as a student club and activity that provides the inclusive excellence, but also gives them an opportunity to make their mark as that particular social group, social enterprise going forward. That’s has been a lot of fun.
The Student Government Association and the Campus Activities Board are always looking to create firsts in what they do. So the students created Madla… Our senator’s name is late Senator Frank Madla, one of the founders. Our colors are black and silver and Madla maroon. And so they implemented Madla Maroon Mondays, and they have taken that even further in terms of firsts. So they have things like Madla maroon ice-cream, or Madla maroon donuts. And so, they work with local vendors and suppliers to take that Madla maroon labeling and branding as a tradition, which also makes for a lot of fun in social media to wrap some of their events and activities around.
So those are things that are first. Just last week, we completed our Athletics Student Referendum to launch an athletics program, which is another first, a significant first for us. We have to go through a legislative process and then a regents process. So those things are in motion. But the students really got behind the creation of an athletics program, so that’s exciting and at first, as they’re going and growing and really embracing what we’re doing here.
Josie: How empowering to think of yourself as a founder, or not even think of yourself, like you are the founder of this program. Yeah. It’ll be really fun to watch the growth as they then become alumni and engage in hopefully giving back to the institution because they really carve their mark.
Cynthia: Well, the other thing, from a branding perspective, that we use a lot in social media is back in fall of 2016 was when we welcomed our first freshman class. So we had a lot of branding and marketing around Be First, and at that particular time that we only have three cohorts of freshmen, we started as an upper division only institution and graduate school, and worked our way into freshman. So now we’ve become a comprehensive four-year university. But for those, we have a large number of first-generation students, first in family to attend college.
So this idea of Be First, which we used as a hashtag for the 2016 welcoming that freshman cohort and being part of the class of 2020 was a pretty significant social media as well as marketing campaign that had lots of connotations to that and around this Be First idea. So they’re three years into that cohort. Spring of 2020 is when we will expect to see the full first-class graduating. But, for example, we had our first graduate in the Spring of ’18. Our first graduate from that fall class graduated Fall of ’16 class. So we have our first alumnus from that, and we did a whole campaign around him as well.
He’s actually still in school because he wants to graduate with his 2020 class and he’s getting his MBA. So that particular student has a great story that we’re able to build a social media campaign around. So we still are using the Be First in certain locations, kind of associated with that. But those are great things about being an emerging institution in terms of our youth, that we can wrap around a lot of these ideas. And also because we are founded as a Hispanic-serving institution and as a university in the 21st century, this technology, this social, things are just in the fabric and DNA of how the university is working.
So we’re not having to tear something down and rebuild it. We’re really thinking about all of those things as we go forward, how to leverage all of these various technologies into how we message and brand ourselves. And that’s been a really nice component of working with faculty and staff to elevate that.
Josie: Is that how the Facebook collaboration came about, the cyber security program?
Cynthia: We have a cyber security program. That has been around for several years. It’s not new. This is an area where we’re really, as an institution locating in a historically underrepresented community, part of our strategy is also exposing students, like many universities, to experiences that they would not normally have. And in this case experiences, that are outside the state of Texas, even in some cases, outside the United States.
We were introduced by one of our prominent Congressman, his name is Congressman Will Hurd. You may have heard of him, no pun intended. But he introduced us to… He is a Texas A&M graduate. He was a student body president from Texas A&M in College Station. He happens to be our local congressional representative. And he had an office here on our campus. His congressional district office was here on our campus. He and I were chatting at one point in time and he had made mention about some connections that he was making between his background…
He was a former CIA operative and is one of the few Congressman in the United States Congress who has a cybersecurity background, as well as having served in this particular branch of government. So he introduced me to the chief security officer at Facebook. And when we started that conversation, I became aware of this program that they had through their diversity initiative, to not necessarily diversify in the way that you might think about in terms of ethnicity or gender. Their thinking was we hire a lot of our employees from a lot of the same places and we’re not getting the geographic diversity that we really need.
The Facebook cybersecurity university program looks at institutions like ours that has a pretty strong guided pathway from high school to community college to the four-year system, or directly into the four year system, but also has all the other wraparound support services for historically underrepresented minorities and individuals who might not have had the same pathway to have a career at Facebook but provides everything.
So think about students who’ve never been on an airplane, students who maybe have never stayed in a hotel, students who don’t understand fully the business development concepts. And in some cases, students who don’t understand coding at the level that is certainly being introduced now in some absolute communities where you would find coding introduced in preschool or kindergarten concepts. And so, Facebook, we met a lot of those criterion and it was just a win-win. And the course that Facebook offers is integrated into our cybersecurity curriculum as an optional course. It’s actually taught by our chair.
We started last year, so we only had one course and it was relatively small because we launched it in August. The semester was already underway. We had less than a dozen students in the first course. But the students that were in that place in the top 10% in the United States of the institutions that are part of this Facebook cybersecurity program.
Josie: Oh wow.
Cynthia: The intent for that is that these students now will have an opportunity to compete for internships, and eventually, hopefully if they get hired, have the opportunity to not only work for Facebook, but for our faculty also to have externship opportunities there at Facebook. So it really is a bolstering of what we’re doing in technology, but it’s also about inclusion, equity, and exposure for first-generation students, although our students are coming from all over.
It’s really great to be affirmed by a corporate entity like Facebook. When we joined, we were the 19th university in the country, the only university in Texas that was selected to participate.
Josie: Wow. And so, powerful to see all those different outcomes come to life. So thank you for giving more insight. I was-
Cynthia: Let me share…
Cynthia: We have one other thing, Josie. We also have a program with Univision, given that Univision started here in San Antonio. Their corporate headquarters are now in New York, but their regional office here where they broadcast, we also have a capstone program with them, and it’s another form of digital marketing and media. Again, this was the first in the country. Univision’s interest was, how do we expand what we’re doing at the network level to other forms of digital mediums and get the attention of younger, traditional college-going ages? But even for the nontraditional population, how do we deepen our reach in these newer technologies like what we’re talking about today?
We created a partnership with them where we actually have a classroom at the Univision headquarters here in San Antonio, and our students, there’s only up to 15 that are selected. It’s a capstone project. It’s our best communication students. We have a faculty member assigned at Univision, and those students are part of programming and planning what’s happening at Univision in San Antonio, as well as having the experience on all of the various elements of working at a current contemporary news station. And you don’t even have to be like bilingual to be able to do this.
So they are working on the digital media side. They’re working in operations. They’re working behind the scenes. They’re working in front of the camera, and all aspects of what it takes to work in television or radio for Univision. And again, it’s another extension of this experience on learning what the new digital medium is all about, but also providing first experiences for our students. Kind of back to where we started talking about this.
I went to New York and met with the CEO of Univision about another topic, but I was able to share this program that was happening here, and is, like I said, the first in the United States with Univision and this kind of arrangement, and it’s just really fascinating. The sort of national programs at a young university like ours is getting with national corporate leaders like Facebook and Univision and another couple that are on the drawing boards now, but they are also wrapped around this idea of new technologies and digital and social and how all those things are part of everything we do, as you well know, in how you integrate all of that into every academic curriculum.
Josie: It’s definitely not some just few-hour a week internship. These are really powerful experiences. If you had advice for executives that are looking to develop robust programs like this, what is something that you might impart when working with outside organizations?
Cynthia: Well, I think all presidents know this. You activate and empower your faculty. That’s the bottom line on how a lot of these things get done. But the other piece is making the connection on the corporate side and having the right staff in place to support what we’re trying to do as an institution and make that bridge with the faculty to build some of these programs, and make sure that the faculty know that these are wide open conversations, so don’t think too small in terms of being audacious in how we think about these big concepts.
Sometimes we do this to ourselves as human beings, but we also do it to ourselves as an institution, that is sometimes holding ourselves back and not thinking big enough.
Josie: Oh, I love that, and such a perfect transition because the other major reason that I wanted to get you on this podcast was, you have been audacious both online and on campus, and you literally use the #BeAudacious. It sounds like lots of different hashtags come in and out of your social feed. You are one of those consistently engaged digital leaders. Before we get there, I know we already talked about your path to the presidency a little bit, but coming to San Antonio is also part of your DNA too that you shared in an interview, you feel a real deep commitment to being visible role model on the South side. Our university is here for a very important mission. And not only do I live it, it’s in my DNA. So what’s it like coming home and then really documenting that day after day now on social?
Cynthia: Well, what’s it like? I would say, when I first arrived at A&M San Antonio when we were just an upper division institution, we were doing great things there and really building our reputation. Geographically, we’re located in a historically underrepresented community south of downtown San Antonio. Most of the growth, most of the affluence, most of the wealth, most of the services are north of downtown. So there’s a lot of ideation about what a public university can and should be doing for economic development, regional support to our city and corporate leaders in terms of what the role and mission is of a comprehensive public university in a geographic distance like ours.
Where we’re physically located, up until the founding of the state of Texas when it was parts of other countries, has been historical land. And so, it was [inaudible 00:36:02] brush. But it also happens to be home for Texas founders like Asa Mitchell who was one of the founding 300 Texans when Texas was becoming a state. His property was where this campus currently sits. We have a cemetery on our campus that has a easement for the family of Asa Mitchell, but also his slaves, Black descendants, are also buried on our campus. This was land that was served by indigenous people, as all land was. But it still has that characteristic.
We have some historical markers around that. And it’s well known that this land and property was part of the cattle drive and our connection to the San Antonio river, our close proximity to the river, where indigenous peoples, Mexicans, Tejanos, who were supporting the missions that are here, the four historic missions and the Alamo through a property that was grazing land for helping to feed and farm those communities. So there’s a lot of history here when you think about… Then this campus is just popped out in the middle of all this brush.
So if you were to come to our campus today, you would find a large part of land that’s undeveloped around us. And then, further south of us, we buttress up to a Toyota plant. So we’re the only university in the country that buttresses up to a Toyota plant, Toyota of Texas manufacturing where they produce all of the Toyota Tacomas and with leftover capacity Tundras that serve North America and Baja, California, and Baja, Mexico.
So, to your point about returning now to this neighborhood where my childhood home was, and having a deep understanding as a university president, the significance of this Texas A&M premier university system making an investment in this community, the battles that occurred literally and figuratively on our grounds provides me with this great context of how important it is the work that we’re doing here.
So I find it for myself, as I mentioned, having been born in this community, having been born in the south side of San Antonio and now have sort of left the community, some people say I’ve done good things. And then to come back to this community to lead the university I think provides a platform for other youth, and even people that you wouldn’t see as traditional college students, to understand that you can get there from here in this neighborhood. So that’s I think message number one.
Then message number two is to not lose sight of why our campus is here and the important work it’s intended to do in the future. Number three, I tell our faculty and staff, but faculty in particular, that when you have a large percentage of first-generation students, almost 71%, who self-identify as Hispanic Latino or Latino, and it’s higher percentage-wise in our freshmen cohorts.
You are a role model just by showing up, so they’re looking to everything that we’re doing with great hope and great aspirations. And I say they deserve our most audacious selves. So that’s part of this conversation about being unconstrained in this environment in a new university and what that could mean, and to not build a university that’s just grounded on how universities functioned in the past, but how universities should really operate in the future to build communities of engaged citizens who are going to go do wonderful things.
My hope is a receding of the college-going culture in South Bexar County, South San Antonio, and the importance of having a degree, being an engaged citizen, working together to provide more equitable resources south of downtown, etc. All of those things are wrapped up in what I see as my role here.
Josie: Seems like you really have taken hold of your role as a president, as historian, as interpreter, and storyteller, that there is a bottom line to this business, and maybe it’s just because this podcasting platform, that’s what it’s built from, is storytelling. But it’s very inspiring. Do you have positions open right now? I think some people might want to come and work for you.
Cynthia: Actually do. We do have some positions opening right now. Please look at our website. We have actually a director of integrated, or executive director I think is the title of integrated marketing. And part of these, all these social pieces, are part of that position. So yes. And we’re hiring some other key faculty positions and key positions really in all aspects, part of being a growing university and in terms of my CFO background, trying to build a budget model where as part of our incremental growth, we are appropriately adding staff and faculty to continue to support our growing mission.
So we’re not trying to do everything within the bandwidth that we currently have where I’m always looking out 10 and 20 years. And I’m talking to people about where we need to be in 10 and 20 years and making the investments today to make sure that we’re seeding that for the 10 or 20 years, because it’s not going to happen if we don’t put the money there. So yes, we have openings, and yes. I am very conscientious about my role as chief storyteller.
I don’t think I started that way, Josie. But as I mentioned to you, this sort of evolution of what it meant to be back in this community and having an understanding of things that I never understood as a little girl, as a child when I lived here. And the social inequities that exist in San Antonio, which everyone is working hard to overcome, including our mayor, and our judge, and our elected officials. But our university plays a big role in that, and I play a role in that as an institutional leader and a Latina leader in this community.
Josie: Yeah. I think that using the tools available, like an Instagram story to document role modeling, whether it’s out in the community or on your campus, I think sometimes you can really tell it is you capturing it or you’ve asked somebody to hold up your phone. I’m seeing you in photos. I’m seeing you in groups of photos. What advice would you have for other executives that, again, may not have realized that they really do need to take on that ownership of being the storyteller, they need to be seen, what advice based on things that you’ve learned with social and storytelling?
Cynthia: One person said something to me. It’s a dear friend from California who was here visiting my campus. She said something to me that resonates with this question that you just asked, and that is it forced me to heighten my social use. She said, “You know, these students, when they see you,” the traditional freshman now, “You could potentially be a family member of theirs, whether it’s a parent or an aunt or an uncle in terms of that sort of age bandwidth of an 18, 19, 20-year old coming to campus. And then when other parents see you, they can relate to you, particularly, that you’re from this neighborhood, you’re from this community, how much this institution means to you.”
And I hadn’t thought of it in that way in terms of the relatability on the very personal level, besides the brand of the institution. And so, when I talk to parents and I talk to students, I often give them my direct phone line, which by the way is not always well loved in the office of president. I have to give them my direct phone line and I’ll say to people, “If you have any problem with anything, you call this number and I guarantee you someone will answer the phone and they will direct you to the person that can help you and ensure that that happens.”
And my staff out here know that, that work together with me as well as our student workers, that when somebody calls in, you find a way to help them. Don’t patch them through to a voicemail or patch them through to our systems, which we all need. We all need these in the university. So in thinking about my social media platform and sort of this advice is the extent to really be approachable, and to appear approachable, to appear connected, to be engaged with the community.
I find when I’m on social media, that I also get a good pulse of what students are talking about, what visitors to the campus are talking about, what alumni are talking about, what other elected officials might be talking about when they point, and they all see Texas A&M San Antonio as a point of pride. So we need to be giving them tools to elevate that story and make it easy for them to retweet or repost or to take that story and tell somebody about it in one of their public speeches.
So there’s lots of ways that this extension goes well beyond what you can imagine. But it was this voice from a colleague who said, “You’re actually a lot more relatable than you might think because people see you as this voice, as a part of their family.” And I hadn’t really thought of myself in that way or in that context. So that helped me to think through, “Okay, well, then how do I make that engagement?” And that’s also what provides… I do get direct messages from people that I don’t know. So that’s why, back to the very first thing that we talked about, is if you’re going to do that, then you have to have a system to be able to respond to it.
And so it’s not just answering the phone and answering email, it’s now you have to have this. It’s been a challenge I might add, Josie, because I get so many invites. I get so many comments, back to the direct messaging and things with people who are communicating with me that way, then somebody’s got to be able to go look at it and respond to it.
Josie: Yeah. And that’s a… Well, not a trend, but I’m hearing more from a variety of level of executives that just students in this generation find reaching out through DMs, that’s just natural to them anyway. So they may be doing that whether you invite them in or not. But from an outsider, I’ve only met you in passing once, but just connecting with you on social, there’s emotions that we can evoke through these platforms. They are not perfect, but it can be that invitation. And I would completely describe you as relatable.
There are certain presidents I would never DM or message on Twitter. But the way that you’re posting is definitely that invitation. And what a cool description on your friend or colleague that visited, to kind of relate you back to family. It feels like that’s also on brand on a mission for San Antonio too that it feels like you’re fairly tight knit, so that works with your campus culture, it seems like.
Cynthia: But it can work both ways. I saw a news clip on the Today Show of a woman who was doing something in cyber, and in a community in Montana. And I was pretty inspired by what she was doing. She’s a cyber security professional. So I came back and I watched it at home in the morning. I got to work. I saved the clip, I looked up her name, found her on Twitter, followed her on Twitter, direct messaged her and said, “Hey, I saw your story this morning on the Today Show, or yesterday, whenever it was, and I was pretty inspired by you. I’d love to have you come to my campus and talk to our students and share what you’re doing in your professional life as well as your personal life,” because she had an interesting story. And she DM-ed me back and we got a connection going on. One of my vice presidents followed up with her and she’s going to be here in the fall.
Cynthia: And so this, “I’m inspired by you. You’re inspired by me,” and it’s kind of back to, you don’t think about it, because I didn’t think I would even get a response from her given that she had just got on this national show. And so, I was telling one of my vice presidents that. I said, “I sent this direct message. I don’t know that I’ll hear from this person, but I really would like to place this person in our president’s leadership class as a speaker to the president’s leadership class,” which is something that I have some influence over.
And the vice president said, “Of course, she’ll respond to you. You’re an influential woman.” Oh, okay. But it was interesting that I got a response, and so I thought maybe there’s something to this that I need to be reaching out more on DM that way. So I actually have a series of podcasts that I like to listen to. When I have time, I haven’t had the time yet, there are some women leaders that I’ve heard on these podcasts that and I listen to that I’d like to reach out to.
But it’s kind of back to thinking differently, and I always feel like I’m thinking differently. But it hadn’t really occurred to me that I could be that effective using the tool both ways. So I think about it, of me pushing out, but I haven’t thought about it as much as me pulling in.
Josie: Yeah, I love it. That’s a really, really cool example. And sometimes they won’t reply, right? But it took you 45 seconds, a minute, two minutes to write that and it resulted in a future engagement on your campus.
Cynthia: Right. Right. So those are just things that… I don’t know that we all think about that. And when you’re talking about other executives and these leadership roles, if we think about, “Oh, I could actually really connect with that person now. It’s not that hard.”
Josie: Well, it’s almost the evolution of communication. Now we wonder why some people don’t pick up the phone. They only text. Just call me. And what is, I guess, normal or natural and for certain individuals that have been on Instagram a long time DM-ing is like texting, or whatnot. So I’m thrilled to hear that you’re using tools in those ways as well.
Cynthia: I think the key message there in what you’re saying though is you do have to put some thought and be strategic around it. And that’s the piece that we’re still, I think as a university… I think some universities are better than this than others, but as a university, I think even as much as I’m thinking about it and talking about it with you, we’re still evolving. So it’s not something that you’re ever going to get to a state of being. I think it’s a spectrum and we’ve go to be doing it and thinking about it every day because it changes every day. Thinking about it the way younger people think about it and how they communicate is also just something we have to be cognizant of and be in front of.
Josie: Right. Well, I think after your big celebrations of May come and you have a little rest, bring your strategic communication, social media folks together and have them run some of your numbers. I think that would be really interesting. I think the next evolution for campus leaders and their social media presence is to really see the data so then you can feel even more empowered and know what works to make those plans for the future.
Cynthia: We do that now. I have one person who heads up our social media under our vice president for institutional advancement, and they do bring me storyboards of, these were your most popular posts, things we’re recommending, this is how many likes, new followers, etc. I don’t know that we’ve done a deep enough dive into what all those trends mean about strategy going forward. They have some recommendations, but it certainly gives me a chance to look backwards at the benchmarks and what should be on our radar for dashboards going forward.
Also, I think really the integration into emergency communications and all that, which I think every university is doing that, or should be doing that. Most people that I know are doing that in terms of, is your social media, your web, all those peripheral tools ready and poised should you have an institutional emergency that you need to respond to? So we’re talking about social in one way, but it really can drive the institution in this other lane positively or negatively.
Josie: Absolutely. Well, and you mentioned that you have a number of different audiences that you’re trying to engage and connect with from students’ parents, but also you listed a number of local officials and politicians that each having an earmark on those and a strategy for them going forward. So you mentioned you listen to podcasts, which is perfect because this is a podcast. What podcasts do you listen to, or books, or resources, or people that you think others should follow? Other presidents that I can share with my listeners?
Cynthia: Well, I’ve been starting to listen to Harvard Business Review, has something that I started listening to. It’s called Women at Work. I find that one interesting if you’re interested in women’s issues, so everyone may not be interested in that. The thing I like about the HBR podcast is that after you listen to them, if you go on to the podcast feed, it usually will give citations to articles and scholars who are writing about this particular topic that they might be talking about. So I find that interesting.
I like to listen to Boss Files with Poppy Harlow, H-A-R-L-O-W. She’s on CNN, and she does these fairly interesting weekly talks with CEOs or emerging leaders about something happening in the business community. So I find her talks kind of interesting. Very interesting, actually. When I’m thinking about just things for fun, like if I’m exercising or something, I like to listen to Sunday Sitdown with Willie Geist. He does the Sunday morning sort of Today’s Show. And he’s always got an interesting guest or two to listen to.
I like to listen to the goop podcast. And again, that one’s more on women’s issues, women’s health issues. She does a lot around nutrition and what you’re eating and how to take care of yourself. So part of being an effective leader is being healthy, having a well-thought-out mind. I like to listen to some of the NPR Frontline Dispatch. Probably those are the ones that come to mind off the top of my head that I think about that I listen to regularly, especially if I have time in the car.
When I have spare time, sometimes I’ll just search around in the libraries looking for something around college or university life.
Josie: Sure, yeah. We’re starting to see a lot more… I read specific podcasts starting to pop up, including podcasts that presidents are the main showcases on. So that’s been fun to watch.
Cynthia: I haven’t seen it. So you’ll have to email me some of those.
Josie: I will. Yeah, I’ll put a bug in your ear. Maybe it’s another first.
Cynthia: Right. Right. Will be something else to do in my spare time.
Josie: Oh, goodness, right? Well, where can folks find you to connect?
Cynthia: I’m on Twitter @PrezMatson. I’m on Instagram @jagprezmatson. I’m on LinkedIn under my name Cynthia Teniente Matson. I’m on Facebook again also under my name. You could find me on my website tamusa.edu, and there I have a link on the webpage, it’s called SHARE, S-H-A-R-E. It’s an acronym, but basically what it means is share with the president. So anybody can write me anything they want on that web link, but they have to put their name to it. It’s not an anonymous sort of thing.
Josie: Awesome. Thank you. I’ll make sure to include all of those. So my two final questions I end every interview with this show is about connecting tech and leadership, featuring leaders who are navigating, thriving, surviving with these tools in roles on campus. And sometimes that means we look to the future and it seems like you’re very future-thinking and driven. But if you knew your last post on Twitter or Instagram was going to be the last time you’d be posting there, what would you want it to be about?
Cynthia: My family, definitely. I would love to have a picture of my extended family, my parents, my sister, my husband, and myself with our two sons, and their respective girlfriends or maybe spouses at that point in time. If it was going to be my last post, I would want it to be something about, or family photo, and acknowledging how much we’ve done as a family, as a community to make Texas A&M University a better place and the place for the future.
Josie: But for now, with your activity on social, on-campus, what is your hope? Because you have chosen to be audacious, to be digitally engaged, what do you hope that impact that you’re having on the world is making?
Cynthia: Well, I see these all as an extension of the brand. And so, the brand of myself as CEO and chief storyteller as you described it for Texas A&M University-San Antonio. My purpose for being online and doing all of this is always to elevate the brand, elevate the university, and to reach out to students and to their respective family, to faculty, to prospective employees that they get a sense of what the scope, and purpose, and mission, and reason for being is of myself at Texas A&M university-San Antonio, and if are inspired enough to come visit, to engage, to apply for a job, or apply for admission, and ultimately come here and create a new partnership with Texas A&M University-San Antonio.
Josie: Well, Cynthia, thank you so, so very much for jumping on the podcast today. You are definitely a relatable, inspiring, and again, an audacious president that I think really is having ripple effects out into our industry, that’s going to be inspiring future presidents and provosts that are women or folks from different backgrounds that really look to you. So it’s been an honor to have you on this show.
Cynthia: Thank you very much for inviting me, Josie. You have a terrific day.
Josie: Absolutely loved this interview, this conversation. I was left feeling inspired, audacious. I felt like I myself was on a mission and, goodness, I need to get to this campus someday, hopefully. Doesn’t even matter if I’m speaking there. This president is just amplifying everywhere. I love it. Happy birthday to this campus, and again, go and look at their jobs they have, because I’m just saying, you could have the greatest of titles, but if your leader isn’t inspiring you, doesn’t have that same vision that you have to really serve students in a way that you may have heard her talking about, then there is some stuff out of alignment.
Again, she has a lot of the things that I would be looking for in a president if I was to ever go work back at a campus. So, Cynthia, just so inspiring. And if I was to say, your type of leadership, the way that you are showing up, whether you define that as authenticity, genuine, being real, being a visionary, I think that’s where we’re moving to. We can’t have these inaccessible presidents, whether you are at a huge school or super small, we need personalization.
I mean, grant it to you for giving out your phone number to parents and students, or just opening and making accessible in different ways of communication than we may have defined as available or appropriate in the past, because it is for our students. A few things I wanted to reflect on after our conversation. The first one, I started to see some themes that were a lot of hashtags that were being really branded and talked about, Be First, Be Audacious, On A Mission. There were all of these making history, making your mark types of collaborations that were showing up on social. And there were a couple of cool things that I wanted to reflect out on based on our conversation.
I loved how she talks about students are writing history. I mean, really, any student could potentially be writing history, whether your university is 100 years old or they’re 10, but I love how this campus is celebrating every small thing, from a new campus club, to any kind of concept of being a founder. How much that brings a community member in to feel really part of something special. How can you take that same concept making what might be seen as a mundane thing, we could actually make these much more momentous, and recognizing students as being really part of being the contributor and not just another participant.
I love how the campus celebrating their 10-year, really recognizing students as founders are doing that every single day. She also gave us a lot of cool milestones in both traditional ways that we tend to recognize our university’s big mile markers, but also some unique ones. So I think you should definitely check out some of those. And it’s also neat how they get to call on these folks that have been part of their history who are still alive and documenting it like crazy, both on social, but just also in our own record history to be able to tell that story for years, and years, and years to come.
One of those things that they’ve been doing since the beginning is to really not just offer experiences like internships, but really experiential learning and exposing students to opportunities they may not normally have, or maybe a university or college down the street. One was with Facebook, one was with Univision, really looking to these companies, corporations, organizations, really looking for those partnerships to make something beyond just what might typically be seen as, again, like an internship, or externship, or a first position out. How can we really make these things come alive and honestly be beneficial for both ways? So I love that forward thinking that came out as well.
Another big theme that I didn’t even mean to say, like she’s the chief storyteller, the storyteller-in-chief is another huge requirement of many, many executives on college campuses. It has to come through in so many different places and so many different messages. But to be able to have a president, a vice president, a provost, someone in a highly visible leadership position that is able to document and tell the story, not in a way that I’m reading from a script, I’m reading from a telemarketer or a teleprompter, but one that feels just so accessible and real.
And her story, of course, coming from the community, being able to relate from her own childhood, back now to her presidency, just makes her a whole other level of being able to tell the story of the campus and the community. But that was I think a role that we’re going to see more… Not just a role because obviously we’ve got executive roles, but a highly required skill and attribute. Not just the willingness to go up and say remarks or speak and have a keynote, but people want to feel something. We want to have an emotional response when we see something on Instagram or we go to a meeting that like president or provost or vice president is going to be at.
And I know that could feel quite taxing, but what we actually talked a lot about, and what I see some of the best leaders do in higher ed is it’s not about yourself. You’re not having to expose all these things about yourself, even though that could be really significant, is knowing the stories of your campus. Knowing when to feature who and how. And one of the reasons why I really wanted to get Cynthia on this podcast, not only because she’s my first female president, oh, which is far, far overdue. But I really love how she shows up in places like Instagram stories, and on Twitter, and other platforms that are really shining the light and showcasing her campus community. You can just really tell that’s coming from her purpose.
And connecting so openly with students. She says, “Students are looking to everything we are doing with great hope and great aspiration. They deserve our most audacious selves.” I think that really comes down to the base of this, right, is like, “Why are you doing this? Why are we in higher ed?” whatever your position is, is if we can always remind ourselves the shoes our students are coming in, their situations. They are so openly looking for role models, for audaciousness, for a small token of realness that doesn’t need to feel so black and white, highly perfection…
You could go to Cynthia’s Instagram stories and they are not over the top, even her feed. And she’s honestly way more active on Twitter, but I think that could take down the walls a little bit that I think are required, because Cynthia also shared, these students, when they see you, you could potentially be a family member of theirs, rather, a parent or an aunt, not in our typical roles. She says, “And then, when other parents see you, they can relate to you too,” particular that you’re from this neighborhood, this community.
So going back to where she grew up being right in the backyard of where she’s now a college president, is at the end of the day we are all just people. We are in these positions that may elevate us to certain levels of power or privilege, but can we potentially just bring it down to the humanistic levels? Whether we are showing up at campus orientation or in a Twitter feed, humanizing brings out so much more of the possibilities for digital leadership in social media spaces that it doesn’t need to be, again, so over-the-top strategy, even though strategy’s so important and she has someone, if not multiple people on her campus that are supporting her in that way, is that we’re really are here to serve people, the students, the parents and all of the in between.
So I hope you were inspired by some of those kind of messages that, again, might feel like it’s lowering down the pressure of having to be super perfect and timely, and even highly responded to. Wouldn’t it be an even better scenario rather than getting a hundred likes and shares on something, that you got one message or two messages privately or student that came up to you that said, “That really helped me that day,” or, “I had no idea about that one resource and now I signed up for it.” That’s that’s the ROI that I’m talking about.
Then, of course, you can get to a bigger ROI if you’re doing some kind of fundraising, or capital campaign, or enrollment, and that’s another piece of it. That, we really can’t get into documenting, but the heart stuff, the soul, the emotional stuff, I think that’s going to fuel us within digital leadership and social media strategy for executives going forward.
Getting off my soapbox because I was just so darn inspired again by this amazing president. I really admire and look up to you so, so very much. I appreciate the time that you gave, the spirit that you offered right through these audio waves that I just know folks listening are going to be inspired by. And I hope just by someone listening might have that small seed that’s planted that they too could see themselves showing up on social like you do, but maybe even looking to their career in ways to take an audacious goal, be on a mission to maybe take on a presidency role like you have.
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