James Greco, courtesy of FGCU. Mike Martin was named president of Florida Gulf Coast University in July.

College try: School's new leader delivers energy, enthusiasm

Mike Martin has already left a big imprint on Florida Gulf Coast University, in less than a year at the helm.
By: 
May. 11, 2018

Not long after Mike Martin was named chancellor at Colorado State University in 2012, he found himself in front of a phone. Next to him was a list of some of the wealthiest people in the state — all potential donors for the public university.

Martin, who didn't know anyone on the list, dove in. The new chancellor’s first cold call, says Colorado State CFO Rich Schweigwert, who was in the room, was to someone Schweigwert calls one of the five most powerful people in Denver. Less than a half-hour later, with some chuckles in between, Martin had a new friend, and CSU had targeted a new donor.

Winning over people like that, usually quickly and with a disarming wit, is a hallmark of Martin’s leadership and career. “I’ve seen him do things like that 100 times over,” says Schweigwert, who worked with Martin for five years. “You guys have a real gem there.”

That leadership style also has served well in Martin’s latest college try: president of Florida Gulf Coast University.

Martin, 71, is nearing the end of his first year at the helm of FGCU, part of the State University System of Florida. FGCU’s 800-acre campus is in central Lee County, between fast-growing Bonita Springs and Estero to the south and downtown Fort Myers to the north. The school — its sports teams are the Eagles — had an operating budget of $236 million last year. It has some 15,000 students. 

Martin’s FGCU presidency, what he calls his “last lap around the track,” comes at a pivotal time for FGCU. The school, which turned 20 last year, is striving to improve a bevy of metrics, from graduation rates and its endowment to its image and sense of place among other Florida colleges.   

“We don’t want to play with Florida or Georgia or Michigan,” says Martin, who was vice president for agriculture and natural resources at the University of Florida, among many other academic stints. He and his wife, Jan, maintain a residence in Gainesville. “We need to be the best university in Southwest Florida and in doing that, we want to get some international attention.”

Martin’s appointment came after a lengthy process to replace former President Wilson Bradshaw, who retired last summer 2017 after a decade in charge of the university.

FGCU board Chairman Blake Gable says Martin’s infectious enthusiasm and energy won over the trustees. That, and a stellar résumé that includes running three school systems: in addition to CSU, the list includes New Mexico State and Louisiana State University. 

Gable, president and CEO of the Barron Collier Cos., hears from people every day who congratulate him on Martin’s hiring. Many cite a familiar refrain: Martin, with his Minnesota-bred Midwestern values, white goatee, suspenders and easy laugh, looks more grandpa than grandmaster of a college. (Martin is an actual grandpa – his grandkids are Logan and Charlie.)

But at the same time, says Gable, Martin is a doer — not an ivory tower occupant. “He knows what has to be done and is taking steps to do it,” says Gable. “I had high expectations with Mike, and he has surpassed them.”

Be bold

One of Martin’s best leadership abilities —  and a lesson for business owners and entrepreneurs — is his go-for-it bold approach to change management. He took that approach at New Mexico State University, when he was named president of the school in 2004. That was his first job running a major university, after a decade of senior leadership posts and 30 years of teaching.

Martin says when he got to the campus in Las Cruces, N.M., it was clear to him the school had a little brother inferiority complex with the University of New Mexico. “I set out to change the image. I didn’t want to be arrogant but I wanted us to have swagger,” says Martin. “I wanted us to have the confidence we could play with the big boys.”

Martin made big and small changes, from a new logo to bringing in new courses and programs. He even made jokes at the expense of rival UNM, the Lobos in college athletics. Like his stump speech joke he told dozens of times: How do you get a Lobo to get off your porch, Martin would ask the audience. Answer: You pay for the pizza.

'I’m an economist first. In many ways I still see the world as economist and that has helped me make decisions.’ Mike Martin

While Martin says he would like to see FGCU carry some swagger, he also learned a lesson about the limits of being bold at New Mexico State. For example, Martin says he brushed off and later had a somewhat acrimonious relationship with the area’s main newspaper that covered the school. That led to some issues with the community, he says, when he had to explain what he felt were incorrect stories or stories without proper context. He also believes he missed some opportunities to share positive stories with the community through the newspaper.

At Martin’s next leadership post, chancellor at Louisiana State University from 2008 to 2012, one of his first tasks, he recalls, was to cultivate relationships with all the media in town that covered the school.

Priscilla Allen, a professor and administrator at the LSU School of Social Work, says that side of Martin cane out with faculty and students. "He was very visible on campus," says Allen. "And he really too in what people were saying. He didn't just nod his head. He really listened."

Relentless focus

Another big factor in Martin’s successful career, says Tony Frank, who replaced Martin as president at Colorado State, is his humble, student-first leadership ethos. “If there’s an elitist bone in his body,” says Frank, “I’ve never seen it.”

Martin, in a recent interview on FGCU’s campus, says he goes into every meeting, decision and situation with one question on his mind first: What does this mean for the students? “He has a relentless focus on students,” adds Frank, “because he knows they are the reason there’s a university.”

Photos courtesy of James Greco, FGCU. Mike Martin welcomed students move into campus.

The focus on students is partially traced back to Martin’s childhood. He grew up in northern Minnesota in several small towns — including Hibbing, home to Hall of Fame basketball player Kevin McHale and music icon Bob Dylan.  

Martin’s dad, Ben, a diesel mechanic, worked in mines and later worked on equipment used in mines. Martin’s mom, Zorka, was a first generation Serbian immigrant. She didn’t graduate high school, but became mayor of another town the family lived in, Emily, Minn.  

Martin says he got his blue-collar toughness and sense of self from both parents, in addition to his plucky grandparents. That includes his grandfather on his mom’s side, who dispensed this tip when Martin was a young boy and got into some scrapes: “He told me if you are going to be a son-of-a-bitch, you better be a good one because there’s always going to be a bigger son-of-a-bitch out there,” Martin says. “That’s good life advice.”

Martin advanced in academics through the same values, outworking everyone around him. He earned a Ph.D. in applied economics in 1977 from the University of Minnesota, specializing in prices, international trade, public policy, transportation and business logistics. “I’m an economist first,” says Martin, on how he built a diverse career that’s taken him from New Mexico to Louisiana and Colorado to Hawaii. “In many ways I still see the world as economist and that has helped me make decisions.”

A mentor to dozens in academia nationwide, Martin also says an important lesson he’s learned in his career is to latch on to good mentors. Says Martin: “I’ve had the intelligence to take advantage of the good breaks that have come my way.”

Increased rates

Martin says his job now is to champion FGCU. The school’s nuggets to champion are varied and include at least $212 million in research and sponsored programs; 170 doctorates awarded; and 79% of masters degree recipients employed one year after graduation. Long term, he would like the school to get recognition for its research into worldwide water usage.  

On the flip side, FGCU’s graduation rates have lagged other universities in Florida. In one comprehensive study, in a five-year span from 2008 to 2012, FGCU’s six-year graduation rates for full-time, first time college students was between 40% and 50% each year.  Only Florida Atlantic University and Florida A&M posted lower six-year graduation rates, according to the report from the Florida Board of Governors. The University of Florida and Florida State, over 70% each year, lead the state.

Martin attacked the problem. Like Bradshaw, his predecessor, he has launched a task force to study the issue and make recommendations for solutions. He also brought in a consultant from Colorado State and created a new cabinet-level unit, the Division of Student Success and Enrollment Management, to focus solely on the issue.

While graduation rates are a priority, Martin’s experience in academia has taught him to look for the next challenge or obstacle and not to pump all the resources into one fight. Other topics on Martin’s mind vary from ongoing construction and expansion to a rising level of acrimony with college speakers at campuses nationwide.

And then there’s Martin’s biggest up-at-night worry: school safety. “The security of this campus and its people,” he says, “is a continuous wake-me-up at 3 in the morning with worry and wonder, am I doing this right?”