Director of facilities services Gene Matthews wins Jackson Mentoring Award

Evidence of Gene Matthews’ bright ideas to make the Case Western Reserve campus more energy efficient and sustainable are everywhere you look—from LED lights in Nord Hall to the solar compacting garbage bins that sprinkle the walkways.

In addition to all of his other campus responsibilities, Case Western Reserve’s director of facilities services embraced environmental improvements well before they became a common cause in higher education. But if you ask Matthews about his accomplishments, he bunts much of the credit to others, including the undergraduate students he works with and sponsors.

And it is this work with students and appreciative attitude that led to Matthews’ receipt of the J. Bruce Jackson, MD, Award for Excellence in Undergraduate Mentoring.

The Jackson Award honors outstanding advising and mentoring of undergraduate students by a current employee or emeriti faculty member of the university. J. Bruce Jackson (ADL ’52) established the award in 2003 in honor of the late Dean Carl F. Wittke, Jackson’s mentor during his undergraduate years.

The award celebrates those who have guided a student toward the discovery of academic and career paths; fostered the student’s long-term personal development; challenged the student to reflect, explore and grow as an individual; and supported and/or facilitated the student’s goals and life choices. Matthews is one of two employees to win this year’s Jackson Award; the other will be featured in Tuesday’s issue of The Daily.

“I have never known a staff member that was more willing to help students and go out of their way to help our educational experience,” wrote one nominator. “Gene Matthews is one of a kind … He knows how to push me to do my best, but he doesn’t give me the answer. He leads me to look at the problem from a different perspective. [He] is someone I look up to and someday hope to be like.”

Matthews has been involved in guiding and mentoring students via hiring student workers to help brainstorm and devise solutions to energy challenges on campus. For instance, it was two undergraduate students Matthews hired a few years ago who researched and designed the LED lighting installation in Nord Hall, changing out 80 watt incandescent bulbs to 8 watt LED bulbs.

An electrician by trade, Matthews enjoys engaging students in these types of projects and learning from them as well.

“Education is a two-way street,” he said. “Students have just as much to teach us.”

That attitude has also helped him as he mentors students conducting research projects through the SOURCE undergraduate research office. This past summer, he mentored two students who wanted to investigate the efficacy of solar thermal system for hot water heat on campus. Both the students and Matthews were surprised to learn that the sustainable effort that looks good on paper would not have a great payback on a large-scale system on campus.

“The results may have not been what we expected, but that finding was just as important,” said Matthews. “And that’s part of my role with these students: to provide them with real-world opportunities and experience.”

Although he never considered himself a mentor before this award, Matthews has been focused on campus sustainability since he joined the university in 1998—and has consistently engaged undergraduate students in the process. In fact, it was a group of four undergraduate students who came up with the campus-wide recycling program in 2003 that is still much in use today.

Sustainability is a personal passion for Matthews that he enjoys sharing with others. “When I was first introduced to the hockey stick graph [that shows the spike in global warming during the 20th century], I realized that for the first half of my life, I was a part of the problem. And now I’d like to spend the rest of my years committed to being a part of the solution.”

Matthews finds an exciting cohort of collaborators at the university more than willing to join him in his pursuit. “As a university, we have more of an opportunity to try things and tweak them to get them working right,” he said. “And then we can share those practices with others.”

Toward that end, Matthews is uniquely positioned to make positive changes on the campus, and to mentor students in the process. “I see our whole campus as a real living laboratory,” he said.

As to his approach with students, Matthews said he emulates what he has experienced firsthand. “I’ve always had a good mentor during my career as a maintenance electrician, then as a shop foreman, and as an assistant director of facilities” prior to joining Case Western Reserve. “And I know the best way to be a mentor now is to treat others as equals.” Matthews ensures that those with whom he works know they have a safe space to try different things.

“If it doesn’t work, that’s OK,” he said with a smile. “That’s good. Let’s just try again and give it another shot.”

Being nominated and winning this award has made quite an impression on Matthews. “I’ve never won anything in my life,” he noted. “Just that someone thought to nominate me felt like winning. It means that what I’ve been doing in my life has meaning for others as well and now I’m going to be doubly committed to giving students even more real-world experiences. I want students to know that they can have an impact on campus and I want to help them start something here and then have it grow over time.”