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Profile: Johnson & Wales University President Bette Matkowski

Bette Matkowski may not have the PhD that most university presidents hold, but she has something else to draw upon as she guides Johnson & Wales University in Denver--personal experience in achieving the American dream. For many, achieving this dream begins with a college degree. “I can look at our students, some of whom have had a hard time and come from tough family situations and may be feeling like they can’t make it, and I can tell them it’s possible—if they buckle down and make that attachment to their personal values, they can do it,” Matkowski says. “I’m the emblem of it, thanks to my parents.”

Matkowski comes to Johnson & Wales from Lamar Community College in Colorado, where she was president for five years. Johnson & Wales University has six campuses throughout the U.S. offering career education in business, hospitality, culinary arts, or technology. Many majors and degree programs are offered at the undergraduate, graduate and doctoral level.

“I am a Midwestern woman in my outlook and in my values,” says Matkowski proudly. Raised in Akron, Ohio, she describes her family as one where duty ruled. “My father worked at Goodyear Aerospace at a job he detested for 36 years and my mother worked in a convenience store for 23 years,” she says. “They did it to put food on the table and put three kids through college, and we were the first kids in our family to ever go through college. One summer my mother had me work with her at the convenience store because she was certain it would convince me to go to college—and she was right.
“My parents lived lives of duty,” says Matkowski. “And the ironic thing was, when I was graduating from high school, I had to give a speech, and the topic I was given was duty. And when you’re 17 years old you may think it’s tedious and sort of embarrassing to talk about duty. But when I look back on their sacrifice for us I realize that there’s nothing embarrassing about a life of duty. It is an honorable life and one I have tried to live myself.”

As president of a university, Matkowski’s strongest values are family, competence, and fairness.

She attended Mt. Union College, graduating to work as an English teacher. “I truly thought I had achieved the American dream, as did my family,” she says. “When after 10 years I told them I was leaving the teaching profession, they couldn’t believe it.”

She and her husband moved to Vermont and handbuilt a house that they still own, and when money ran out she went to the state employment office to apply for a job. Desperate for work, she was told she was over-qualified for many of the positions she applied for. “I said, you don’t understand, I need a job,” says Matkowski. “Being in that position teaches you a compassion for others who find themselves in that position that you remember all your life.”