New president takes on his final professional challenge: transforming FGCU
After 46 years in education – the last 13 presiding over three major state universities across the country – you might think Mike Martin would be ready to kick back and enjoy the leisurely retirement he has earned.
Instead, the 70-year-old is relishing his “latest adventure,” as he terms it, as president of Florida Gulf Coast University. It is the smallest institution for which he has served in the top office and yet he is no less enthusiastic about it than he was serving as president of New Mexico State or chancellor of Louisiana State or the Colorado State University System.
He, his wife, Jan, and their 18-year-old schipperke mix, Agnes, have settled into a spacious rental in Miromar Lakes just a mile from campus as they acclimate to their new subtropical lifestyle.
It’s not what they’d planned as his time as chancellor of the Colorado State University system drew to a close. In fact, when he accepted that job in 2012, he intended it to be his last.
“Until February or March, Colorado was going to be my last job,” he says. “I was all teed up. We bought a place in Minnesota. We have a place in Gainesville. We were going to start splitting our time being grandpa and grandma and brother and sister and sister-in-law (in Minnesota), spending some winters in Gainesville. But another chance to make a lap around the track came along and here I am.”
That he chose to take on a demanding new job surprised absolutely no one who knows him.
His son, Sam, says, “I was telling my sister and mother, ‘If you really think he’s going to retire, you’re nuts.’ He’s not a guy who likes to sit at home.”
Jan Martin says, “I’m glad he didn’t retire. He’s just juiced about this job. He works 12-, 13-hour days, comes home, sits in his chair with his iPad and goes back to work. That’s the speed he’s always gone.”
That pace intensified in September when Hurricane Irma bore down on Fort Myers and FGCU became an evacuation site, filling Alico Arena and two academic buildings with members of the community and one residence hall with students who could not return to their families.
Along with members of his leadership team and staff volunteers, Martin slept on the floor of the Campus Support Complex to ensure he was available for any situation that required his input.
It was illustrative of the way he operates. He’s not an ivory tower kind of leader, something he learned about himself when he became a chancellor and found himself ensconced in a high-rise office building more than 50 miles from the nearest Colorado State campus.
“I always complained about the system guys,” he says. “So I got the chance and thought I’d try it. But I discovered it was a mistake. I wasn’t on campus anymore. I was in downtown Denver in a big tall building. It’s a great place to work if you want to be in Denver but it wasn’t where my passion was. I wanted to be back on campus.”
After exploring a couple of other possibilities, which also turned out to be more system than campus, the FGCU job came along.
“I knew of the place, had been here in ’99 when (Interim President) Gene Hemp was here. We were friends,” he says. “From a long distance I observed it. It was far enough out of range of where I’ve been to make it interesting for me and still in public higher education about which I think I know something.”
And so, in the final hour, he applied, adding his name to a field of dozens. He made the short list and was the unanimous choice of the FGCU Board of Trustees. He became the university’s fourth president July 1, replacing Wilson G. Bradshaw, who retired.
Martin believes his role, and that of all educators, is one of transformation. It is something he has devoted his entire working life to and it’s what he discussed with new faculty when the semester started.
He told them: “You are profoundly important. This is a transformational institution. You should be proud that you’re here. We have a job that’s just too important not to take seriously. The only people more powerful and transformational are middle-school teachers.”
He has never forgotten those who helped transform his life.
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From mines to mind
Martin was born and raised in Minnesota, in a family of Serbian immigrants. His mother was first generation while his father’s family was longer established. They lived in Crosby, on the Cuyuna Iron Range in northern Minnesota when the mines were thriving.
“Almost everyone I was related to worked in the mines,” he says.
In the late 1950s, as the mines began to give out, Martin’s father moved the family to Hibbing, where there were more mines. But recognizing that there wasn’t much future in mining, he moved the family again, this time to the Minneapolis suburbs where he went to work for a company that made mining equipment.
It was a move that “fundamentally changed my trajectory,” Martin says. “Where I’d grown up before, the assumption was you grew up and went to work in the mines. Now in a suburban high school, the assumption was you’d go to college.”
No one in his family ever had. It took his teachers to convince him that he could and he would.
He went to Mankato State College – now known as Minnesota State University.
“It was an almost open-access, public, regional university and it transformed my life,” he says.
While there, he had the good fortune to meet a faculty member who took a special interest in him.
“He took me aside and said ‘I think you have more potential than you’re living up to and if you decide to live up to it, I’ll help you,’ and he did,” Martin says. “He became my master’s advisor and helped me get into a doctoral program (in applied economics at the University of Minnesota).”
His mentor is now in his 80s and they remain good friends.
In 1969, not long after he graduated and took a job as an insurance adjuster, he had another lucky break: he went on a date with a Mankato State College student who was finishing her teaching degree.
“I had a crush on Jim Mahoney,” Jan Martin recalls. “I thought he was calling to ask me out but he wanted to set me up with Mike.”
Their first date was on Halloween.
She graduated the following spring and was going to start teaching. Martin was heading to graduate school.
“He proposed by saying ‘We’d better do this now or not at all,’” she recalls. They married in August.
Not the most romantic proposal perhaps, but the marriage has lasted 47 years and through his rise from faculty posts to top administrative ones and moves to Corvallis. Ore.; Manoa, Hawaii; Las Cruces, N.M.; Minneapolis; Gainesville; Baton Rouge; Denver; and now Fort Myers.
A firm foundation
“A series of things happened in my life for which I had no responsibility and can take no credit but I decided somewhere along that spectrum that if I could be a transformer – even one half as good as the ones who had touched my life – I was going to do that,” Martin says. “I’ve had the opportunity to do that for 46 years.”
Although he took a path that diverged from that of his parents, he learned a lot from them. His father was a mechanic so he learned to fix his own cars. Father and son would go hunting, fishing and snowmobiling together.
“I was never very good at any of them,” he says. “I killed virtually nothing. When we fished, I tried to listen to the (Minnesota) Twins on the radio. And an hour of snowmobiling at minus 5 degrees gets old. But I did those things because of the company.”
His mother didn’t finish high school but became mayor of Emily, Minn. She was successful at it, making friends and enemies along the way as she did what she believed was right rather than what was expedient, a lesson he applies to his own life.
Martin’s academic life began as an instructor, then a visiting professor at the University of Minnesota’s Hubert H. Humphrey Institute and Agricultural and Applied Economics Department, followed by a year at Oregon State in the Office of International Agriculture and two years at the University of Hawaii. From there, he moved up the ranks to full professor at Oregon State, then higher still at the University of Minnesota, rising to vice president for agricultural policy.
That led to a six-year stint as vice president for agriculture and natural resources at the University of Florida, then his first presidency at New Mexico State University.
It was there that he met Gov. Bill Richardson. The two hit it off well.
Richardson describes Martin as “extremely effective with the New Mexico legislature because of his very strong bipartisan manner. He persuaded me to start a Native American academic program at New Mexico State that I believe is one of the strongest educational legacies for Native Americans. He asked me for $10 million. I did it because of my belief in Mike Martin.”
When President George W. Bush asked Richardson to go to North Korea on a diplomatic mission to make inroads in areas such as healthcare, energy, technology and education, he took experts in each field with him. Martin was his education expert.
“Mike Martin has enormous strengths in many areas,” Richardson says. “He has a very strong academic background particularly in education and foreign affairs. We wanted to start an exchange of positions between North Korea and the U.S. Mike arranged for three North Koreans to spend a semester here. It’s the one exchange that did happen and it was because of Mike and New Mexico State.”
Christina Chavez Kelley was the assistant vice president for the office of Student Diversity and Outreach at New Mexico State University. An alumna of the university, she worked there starting in 1989 and was in the president’s office when Martin was president from 2004 to 2008.
“President Martin was a great leader. He has this great charisma and ability to unite people,” she says. “He’s a great communicator and the first thing you need to be is a good listener. It’s one of the things he can do so very well. He knows how to unite faculty, staff, students, alumni and donors.
“Mike was the first in his family to obtain a degree. He understands that the underprivileged need access to higher education and that is what endeared him to me.”
One of their accomplishments while he was there was the building of the American Indian Student Center, which helped in the recruitment of American Indian students. Enrollment rose dramatically and the university’s struggling athletics program got new life under Martin, she says.
“He wouldn’t stay in the skybox. He’d get his hot dog and walk through the stands. He’s a people person. He’s a walkabout person,” she says.
That’s certainly been evident at FGCU, where you are as likely to run into him at Einstein Bros. Bagels or chatting with prospective students and their parents on the Great Lawn as you are to find him in his office.
Chavez Kelley says when she runs into New Mexico state legislators they always ask about him, his wife and kids.
“He’s a leader, one-of-a-kind in higher education,” she says. “I wish we could clone him.”
From New Mexico State, he went on to become chancellor of Louisiana State, a position he held for four years and that involved overcoming state budget cuts, storm damage and a football recruitment scandal. He accepted the chancellorship of the Colorado State University System in 2012.
Alexandra Bernasek, an economics professor and senior associate dean in the College of Liberal Arts at Colorado State University, was the faculty representative on the Board of Governors for the university system when Martin became chancellor. The two economists felt an immediate camaraderie. “We understood one another,” she says.
His knowledge of economics contributes to what makes him a great administrator – “he has a set of skills that are useful in decision making, like cost-benefit analysis and how do you take scarce dollars and what do you do with them?” Bernasek says. “He’s got really good values, too. I think he makes good choices.”
She believes that a job as president, as opposed to chancellor, is ideal for him.
“It keeps him close to the people he is really there for and he cares about. What he will be able to do because of his experience is articulate a vision and mobilize people to get behind that vision.”
She says he has a “knack for empowering people.
“He’s genuine and he lives his values. It’s a really wonderful trait. On numerous occasions I asked him for advice. He never said no. That level of caring, it is not so common.”
Rich Schweigert, Colorado State University’s director of government affairs and, at the time of Martin’s hiring, also the chief financial officer, found something else about his new boss that impressed him.
“He has a faith and belief as he comes into an organization that everyone is competent in doing their job and you have to prove that theory wrong with him,” he says. “It’s kind of the reverse of a lot of bosses.
“What I love about Mike Martin is his passion for higher education. He is probably the greatest champion of higher education I’ve ever met with his belief that it changes lives. It’s at his core and it drives him every day.
“He didn’t come in as a know-it-all, even though it turns out he probably knows it all times two. He will never say that. You will learn that he is a very seasoned person.”
While his primary focus may be on educating students, he’s a family man, too.
“He’s a very loving father,” says his son, Sam, 38, a medical science liaison for a genetics company who holds a bachelor’s degree and two master’s. “When we were kids, he obviously worked but he always helped us out in everything – with our homework and when we got into sports, he helped there, too – baseball, soccer, tennis. He used to play me all the time in tennis.
“He wanted to be part of our lives as much as he could be. Even when he moved higher up in the administration, he always went to my games and my sister’s gymnastics meets.”
More recently, while his parents lived in Colorado and Sam’s job required him to travel a lot, he moved into their basement, traveling during the week and spending weekends with them.
“It was a good two years,” he says. “It was good to be able to see them so much.”
Among the things he says he learned from his father is that “if we had a problem, he asked us to think about the solution, not just come to him with the problem. He doesn’t just fix things. He makes you think about them, hoping you’ll come up with the solution.”
His sister, Amanda, was unarguably the most disappointed by her father’s decision to take another job so far from Minneapolis-St. Paul, where she lives with her husband, Paul, and their sons – 5-year-old Logan and 2-year-old Charlie.
“I cried for a week,” she says. “Then I moved on.”
Though painful for her, it was, she concedes, a good decision.
“As he cut back at Colorado, he seemed to get depressed. He’s really come alive again,” she says. “He needs to work full time and I know he can make a difference.”
She, too, recalls that her father was present for virtually all of her activities as she grew up, although she thinks that the fact that he was a professor played a part in that.
“If he had a job like this, he probably wouldn’t have been a good dad or he wouldn’t have been a very good president,” she says. “That came later in his life when we were older.”
As they matured and his jobs became increasingly more demanding, much of the family logistics fell to her mother.
“Dad got it all done because my mom made it possible,” Amanda Martin says. “They are a really good team.”
Crafting a new vision
Here at FGCU, Martin sees much to be done and views his role as a multitude of responsibilities.
“I’m the external representative of the institution in both a formal and informal way,” he says. “The president has to be an advocate with the legislature, with other decision makers, the governor’s office, so I think there’s an advocacy role.
“Obviously you have to be a decision maker. I prefer to be a consensus builder, but at times you simply have to be willing to step up and make a decision when it has to be made. You have to be a team builder. And in the process, you’ve got to be a mentor to those who can follow when you’re gone and sustain the core values of the institution.”
One decision he’s already made is that he won’t be the president to bring football to FGCU, citing the massive expense and what he sees as a decline in the number of top quality football players.
“I’m not interested in launching a program that’s likely to be permanently mediocre,” he says.
Among the actions he’s taken so far is to revamp the university’s five-year strategic plan, provide a week-long waiver of application fees for Florida residents in recognition of the hardships created by Hurricane Irma, and restructure his administration somewhat, including asking Provost Ron Toll to step down from his post as he seeks someone with fresh perspective for that key role.
A major challenge he sees is significantly improving student outcomes, but not simply by accepting higher-achieving students.
“I think the challenge is to serve those people that desperately need a higher education but will need more than a modest amount of assistance to finish it,” he says. “They are bright enough but face other challenges, whether it’s financial, academic background, cultural, whatever.”
Another area of concern: graduate studies. “We really have to start upping our game at the graduate level,” he says, “including adding a couple of highly visible excellence-driven Ph.D. degrees, raising the bar for faculty, recruiting students who can come in and challenge us.”
The emerging initiative to create a School of Integrated Coastal and Watershed Studies is a prime opportunity to “learn about and teach others about living in a growing, complex, tropical, fragile environment and pass it on to future generations.”
And he sees the demographics – a lot of well-off older people and many less-well-off younger people plus an ever-changing racial mix – as an opportunity to learn and to teach.
“I want to accomplish what other people want to accomplish as long as we can agree on what that is,” he says. “I want to be part of the team that figures it out but I’m going to bring my value system to it.”
Gov. Richardson praises what Martin did for New Mexico State and believes he’ll be just as good for FGCU.
“He’s going to put you on the map,” says Richardson. “You watch.”
WHAT I BELIEVE:
THE CORE OF A PUBLIC UNIVERSITY BY MIKE MARTIN
Over a lengthy career in higher education and through a number of roles at several institutions, I’ve come to believe six basic tenets that have framed my approach to university leadership.
Here they are:
- Excellence is a journey not a destination. Every university must continually seek new ways to improve and serve. Complacency will most certainly lead to mediocrity. Being truly great is a permanent aspirational goal. And in this regard –
- Universities are themselves an ongoing experiment. Since the University of Bologna (Italy) was established in 1088, this experiment has been ongoing. Great universities are unafraid to try new approaches. When a new approach proves successful, it is shared with others. When a new approach fails, the institution admits it and moves on to the next attempt at improvement. Willingness to take a reasonable risk is central in every useful experiment
- Faculty, administrators, staff, facilities, funding, all resources are a means to an end, they are not the end. The end is transforming individual lives through education so that an educated citizenry transforms the larger society. It’s not about us, it’s about who we serve. The most important part of individual transformation is to foster systematic curiosity so learning is life-long.
- Embracing diversity in all its forms is fundamental in the journey toward excellence. Every university that aspires for greatness proactively welcomes and builds a community around people from every race, ethnicity, gender, orientation, perspective and background so as to celebrate differences. Each member of a diverse university enriches the transformational experience of all others.
- While pursuing excellence, seeking to transform and embracing diversity, public universities should share their values and model civilized conduct for the larger society. Public universities should be “public” in every way.
- Every job worth doing should be interesting, rewarding and fun.