BERLIN — Heading into his first semester at its helm, Matt Wood can’t think of a better place to be than at White Mountains Community College.
On July 1 Wood was named interim president of WMCC for a two-year term, succeeding Katharine Eneguess who left to pursue other opportunities within the Community College System of New Hampshire.
With the Sept. 2 start of classes at WMCC just days away, Wood recently sat discussed how the 48-year old institution, located in Berlin — which also has an academic center in Littleton and this year has returned to Conway to offer courses — faces its share of challenges and opportunities.
Regarding prospective challenges, Wood pointed out that the number of New Hampshire high school graduates — a perennial source of incoming students for WMCC — is decreasing and will continue to drop over the coming decade.
According to Wood, the opportunities available include, with broadband Internet now firmly established, an immense chance to grow online and even “hybrid” distance learning.
During time while working in his previous position at New Hampshire Technical Institute in Concord, Wood, a native of Meredith, was responsible for learning opportunities and over a two-year period, and was able to increase enrollment in online learning by 36 percent, a success he hopes to replicate at WMCC.
Wood is an unlikely academic administrator, having made, by his own admission, several decisions “on a whim” that got him to his present place in his career.
A 1989 graduate of Inter-Lakes High School, Wood attended the University of New Hampshire where he earned a bachelor’s degree in physics with a minor in environmental conservation. Finding himself “jobless” after graduation, Wood worked for two years with his father, Harry Wood, in his surveying business.
Wood then decided to go to graduate school and went west to the University of Colorado at Boulder, where he earned a master’s degree in environmental science with a concentration in atmospheric science.
The academically-supportive atmosphere at UC, combined with its desirable location, “taught me that environment means everything to a learner,” said Wood.
After a stint at the Center for Environmental Sciences in Denver and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in Boulder, Wood — whose wife Heather had given birth to their daughter, Kate — felt the siren call of home and returned to his family’s farm in Meredith.
The Wood family currently splits its time between Meredith and their North Country residence in Pittsburg on the First Connecticut Lake.
Having moved back to the Granite State from Colorado, Wood took a job in the air-pollution control division at the NH Department of Environmental Services and while happy with the work he was doing there, “I got an immediate taste of cubicle life” and decided it wasn’t for him.
Seeing a “help-wanted” ad, Wood responded and was hired, to his admitted surprise, to teach physics at the New Hampton School. Several years later, seeing another ad, this one from NHTI, Wood applied and was hired there as a professor of physics and mathematics.
At NHTI since 2001, Wood was elected to serve as department head; helped establish the school’s online mathematics curriculum; and in the fall of 2012, was appointed NHTI’s Associate Vice President of Academic Affairs, responsible for all non-traditional learning formats.
An avid outdoorsman with what he said is a passion for fishing bordering on addiction, Wood – who is currently pursuing a doctorate in higher-education administration at New England College — explored taking a vice president’s position at WMCC before the president’s post became vacant.
Upon arriving at WMCC, Wood learned that the number of credits sold for the Fall 2014 semester was down 28 percent over a year ago, but thanks to the effort of many people, among them Fran Rancourt, who is the vice president of academic affairs, and Martha Laflamme, the president of student and community affairs, the shortfall has been reduced to 10 percent.
Although WMCC is in good financial shape for the 2014-15 school year, Wood said the future is less certain. Approximately 81 percent of WMCC’s annual operating budget is spent on personnel and unless WMCC can find more students, there may be “some difficult conversations” ahead with staff, said Wood.
That said, Wood intends to prevent those conversations, adding “We’re going to go out and find students” of all kinds, both recent high school graduates and adults.
Wood reported that WMCC has a lot going for it, including a welding program that continues to go “like gangbusters” and that nursing/allied health programs remain popular. He noted that the WMCC academic center in Littleton is growing and that, after an absence of several years, the community college is returning to Conway, specifically to Kennett High School where it will offer night classes.
Although the prospect for its bricks and mortar facilities is bright, Wood said the most promising area for WMCC is online growth.
Online classes — and/or “hybrid” classes wherein the student does most of his or her work online but also attends a class at a WMCC facility once a week — will attract more of the far-flung students, said Wood, like those who live in Haverhill or Lancaster and who find the long ride to the Berlin campus daunting and difficult, especially during the winter.
“Accessibility is everything,” said Wood, adding that the past two months have flown by since he came to WMCC and from what he’s seen there, “I would like to stay, I would like to take the ’interim’ off” his title and become the college’s permanent president.
“I really want to turn out a good product here,” Wood said, “and make a difference in people’s lives.”