April 21, 2023

Dean Wilson sets new course at Temple University

‘Quality international experience’ remains as ‘magical’ school grows

Kerry Furukawa Contributing writer

  • Name: Matthew Wilson
  • Title: Dean, Temple University Japan
  • URL: https://www.tuj.ac.jp
  • Hometown: Salt Lake City
  • Years in Japan: 15

A little after 3 in the afternoon, the lobby of Temple University Japan’s campus in Sangenjaya was buzzing with activity. Minutes earlier, a class period had ended, and now chatter and footsteps filled the previously empty air. The lobby was at that moment also the location of the photo shoot of TUJ’s dean and president, Matthew J. Wilson, for this article. Students crossed in front and behind. It was not happening.

Instead of asking students to wait a minute or change routes, Wilson, with variations of “Keep going guys, you’re good,” ushered them through. He fist-pumped some and advised others, “Just ignore me.” But at least one student could not. He walked through the shot a second time — just to be in it: “I came back, I wanna take a picture with you.” And his dean, of course, posed for a picture with him.

Wilson, who took over as the head of TUJ in midpandemic in 2020, is the first to point out that his style of guiding the more than 1,800-strong student body is not usual.

“Yesterday, I ordered 1,100 sandwiches from Subway. And so from 11:30 to about 1:45, I was downstairs with my team and we were wrapping Subway sandwiches and handing them out to students and telling them how much we appreciate them being here,” Wilson said.

That was a Dean’s De-Stress Day, which happens once a month while school is in session. He plays basketball with students and employees, and along with his wife recently took a group of 40 students on a trip to the hot spring resort town of Hakone.

“Work days are long, but it’s really the students that keep me going” | Cosufi

A lawyer-turned-professor before becoming an administrator, Wilson is driven in his unusual leadership style by one thing: “a service mindset, always.” It was service that first brought him to Japan in 1989, and service to his alma mater that brought him back to Temple after a 10-year break.

He came to Japan for the first time as an 18-year-old. “I volunteered to do a service mission for my church, for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints,” he said. “And you don’t get to choose where you go. You just volunteer to do missionary work. The church doesn’t pay you. So I submitted my application, and the church wrote back and they said, ‘We want you to go to Hokkaido, Japan.’”

On deciding to return to Temple after COVID hit, he said: “I was like, where can I make the biggest difference right now in the middle of COVID? It’s going to be a really difficult time for my alma mater in a place that I love so much, with the border being closed, so much uncertainty, who knows what’s going to happen to international education. And so really, it was kind of the heartstrings more than anything, wanting to help out.”

Wilson’s path to his unusual leadership style is itself not typical — he knew from the age of 3 that he wanted to be a lawyer and a teacher. The search in his 3-year-old mind for a profession started after he proudly declared to his mother that he wanted to be a fire hydrant. Firefighter, she corrected, and pointed out that it was a dangerous job. It was during a conversation with a neighbor on one of his typical Sunday afternoon strolls to houses in his neighborhood that Wilson hit upon the career he would pursue.

“Alice was a widow, and she loved me coming [to her house]. And I distinctly remember having a conversation with Alice of ‘Hey, Alice, I’m trying to figure out what I should be when I grow up.’ And I’m like, ‘What do you think that I should do?’ And Alice, she thought about it and she’s like, ‘Let’s think, what are you good at?’ And I’m like, ‘I don’t know, what am I good at?’ And she said, ‘You’re really good at talking.’”

She narrowed down the talking jobs to three: politician, teacher and lawyer. And so began his lifelong quest to become a lawyer because he could help people. In motivational speeches today, Wilson tells the Alice story.

“I kind of use that as a springboard of, you know, finding your strengths. If you don’t know what they are, ask people about it, trying to find guidance and direction. I grew up with the mission to become a lawyer, and I did.”


Wilson’s unexpected trip to Japan made him decide on becoming an international lawyer. That also led him to studying Japanese, which became an important tool. In addition to working for law firms and corporations on cases involving Japanese interests, Wilson has been a legal consultant in Japan. One of his cases, he recalled, involved U.S. and Japanese beverage companies that had a dispute over, “I gotta be really careful when I say this, a frozen shipload of orange juice.”

While he looks back at his legal career with fondness, he doesn’t practice anymore. In the last few years, he has led a string of turnarounds at universities in the U.S., and before that headed up law schools at several institutions.

As with many other universities, travel restrictions during COVID hit Temple hard. The school aims to pull students from all over the world to get an American degree in English in Japan, or simply to study abroad. Now, with borders reopened, Wilson is looking forward to a rebound.

Nevertheless, the pandemic provided the gifts of telework and online classes. Office spaces have been converted to classrooms, and students now have the flexibility of mixing online and in-person classes. Going forward, Wilson aims to continue with a reinforcement of TUJ’s core commitments.

“More than anything, a quality international experience,” he said. “One of the magical things about here is we’ve got students from 67 different countries. So priority No. 1 is putting students first and providing them with that quality international experience. We’ve got an interesting balance. It’s about 40% Japanese, 40% American and 20% from those 65 different countries. Part two is giving more people the opportunity to study right, and so we’re at 1,850 undergraduate students… an all-time high. Before COVID, it was probably around 1,200 students. I anticipate that we’ll go over 2,000 probably in the fall. And then making sure that our classes stay small.”

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