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The rise, fall and resurrection of Martin University

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Maintaining an existence as a successful institution of higher learning in today’s world isn’t easy. 

The demands placed on colleges and universities from state and federal governments to keep costs low and workforce output high coupled with satisfying the needs and wants of students and campus communities can create daunting situations for even the oldest institutions. 

The suspension of operations at Saint Joseph’s College in Rensselaer, Indiana is an example of how certain challenges can even break a long-standing institution. (St. Joseph’s College was founded in 1889.) 

So, Martin University’s upcoming celebration of 40 years of existence as an urban educational center of excellence is quite an accomplishment. And considering that it was just a few years ago that Martin was on the brink of demise, this benchmark is an even greater cause for celebration. Rest assured Indiana’s only Predominantly Black Institution (PBI) is not just alive and well — it is on a path for growth and development in the years to come.

A faith history 

For people familiar with Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), there are several that come to mind. Tuskegee University in Alabama, Bethune-Cookman University in Florida and Morehouse and Spelman Colleges in Georgia are a few of the more well-known HBCUs in America. 

The majority of HBCUs were founded and established in the mid-to-late 1800s at a time when freed slaves were hungry to learn. Education was a symbol of freedom and knowledge was something that could never be taken away once obtained — schools were places of hope for a better future.

Martin University was founded under similar principles, but was established over 100 years later.  Martin’s vision statement is “ to be a Haven of Hope, a Community of Support, and a Premier Leader among Institutions of Higher Education.”

Father Boniface Hardin, an African American Benedictine monk and civil rights activist, founded Martin University in 1977 with Sister Jane Schilling, a white nun from the Order of the Sisters of St. Joseph. Together, Father Hardin and Sister Schilling worked to create an education center designed to serve non-traditional (adult) minority students from low-income backgrounds.

“Because at the other places — the traditional universities — the students who are older and those who had had a GED found [other universities] very difficult and [uninviting],” says Martin University president Dr. Eugene White. “So they came back to Father and Sister complaining and eventually they did a survey of the universities in town and found that their campuses were not very inviting to the nontraditional students.”

Throughout his ministry and life, Father Hardin was known for being a champion for the disadvantaged and for  racial justice and equality. That service is reflected in the university’s name — Martin is a homage both to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and St. Martin de Porres, the patron saint of mixed-race people and all seeking racial harmony.

Hardin led the institution as president from its inception in 1977 until his retirement in 2007. During that time, Martin University grew into a small, non-denominational accredited liberal arts university  with undergraduate and graduate programs. The school started with one building at 35th Street and N. College Avenue and moved to its current location at Sherman Drive and Avondale Place in 1987. Alumni and current students alike describe the school as having a home-like atmosphere where faculty and staff treat everyone like family with the drive and support to see everyone succeed.

A slow fall

Martin’s success was grounded in sheer will and passion. White remembers Father Hardin fondly, recalling even then being impressed with his passion for his small urban university.

“That type of dedication you don’t see,” says White. “We read about Booker T. Washington and Tuskegee [University] and Mary MacLoed-Bethune and Bethune-Cookman [University] and William Hooper Councill and Alabama A&M [University]. You read about those legendary people who were so focused for their people that they gave their life to it. We don’t meet many of those people.”

However, a university cannot run on sheer passion and will alone. The young institution had its struggles with money over the years and had been long described as “financially insecure.” Father Hardin often wasn’t certain if payroll would be met once all other expenses were paid. 

“The first time I met Father Hardin, he was trying to raise money for payroll on a Friday. This was, like, on a Tuesday,” says White.

When Hardin decided it was time to retire, the board of trustees established a succession plan and determined that the next president needed to be able to fundraise in, as well as administer to, Indy’s young PBI. 

The board thought they had found that person in Dr. Algeania Freeman, who became Martin’s second president in January 2008.  But the next three years under Freeman’s leadership were tumultuous for the young university. Freeman inherited a $653,000 deficit in the school’s budget and was able to add over $450,000 to the school’s coffers through fundraising and personnel cuts. But those personnel cuts and other staffing changes were just a few of the negatives associated with Freeman’s tenure. Nearly half of the 16-member board of trustees resigned their positions, leaving the rest to field complaints from the remaining faculty and student body.

Freeman retired effective December 31, 2010 and the university’s leadership was put in the hands of Charlotte Westerhaus-Renfrow, who agreed to act as interim president until a new permanent president was found. That interim appointment lasted a year and three months.

Westerhaus-Renfrow handed leadership of Martin to George Miller, a chemistry professor with academic leadership experience from South Carolina. Miller only served as the university’s president for 18 months, resigning in November 2013. 

The instability of three presidents in a five-year period took its toll on the young university. By 2013, Martin was in peril. The deficit gap increased to $900,000, and the U.S. Department of Education placed Martin in Heightened Cash Monitoring, known as HCM2, which delayed payments for student loans. The financial status of the university resulted in a probationary status with the DOE, putting the school’s accreditation standing in jeopardy. Community leaders and philanthropists believed Martin’s days were numbered.

A new leader, a new life

Dr. Eugene White had retired as superintendent of Indianapolis Public Schools and was preparing to relocate to Georgia near family when he received a call asking if he would consider serving as interim president of Martin University. Having spent more than 30 years in secondary education, leading a university wasn’t something on White’s radar. But having known Father Hardin and how important the university was to him, White decided to help.

“I got here with the intent just to be interim, but things were so bad,” says White. “One of the primary functions of a president is to raise money. And, after talking to the various philanthropies and other individuals in the community, I found out that Martin wouldn’t get any money from anybody in this city anymore until it got its game together.”

White took the interim position in August 2013, but quickly realized that the school’s unstable leadership over the six years previous had worn down the very entities that had supported the school in the past. White heard over and over again that no help would be give until a permanent president was appointed and even then there were no guarantees — the new leadership needed to be trusted from day one.

White had earned the trust of entities like the Lilly Endowment, USA Funds, and other philanthropic groups known to support educational ventures in Indiana during his many years leading IPS and the MSD of Washington Township. It became clear that in order to save Martin, White needed to be all in.

“So I went and talked to my wife about that and kind of explained to her how even though we had selected a home in Fayette County, Georgia that we weren’t going to be able to go,” says White. “So I wore out three sets of kneecaps begging her to let me go help the university. And she finally said, ‘OK, I’ll support that.’”

White approached the Martin’s board of trustees in November 2013  with a strategic plan to get the struggling university back on its feet.

“I told them quite frankly that if they like the plan, I would be willing to stay two or three years to do the plan and if they didn’t then they would have to go with another interim,” recalls White. “Because, you know ... I’m not the status quo kind of guy. You have to be moving forward because we were falling behind.”

White’s five-year plan was simple in its objectives — get Martin University out of debt, off probation with the feds and back in good standing with the government as well as the community. The board of trustees agreed and by January 2014 White had a three-year contract to be the fourth president in Martin’s 36-year history.

White describes the beginning of his tenure as turbulent. Hard decisions had to be made in staffing. Programming and curriculum had to be re-evaluated, with low-performing programs eliminated. White cut his own pay from what previous presidents had been paid. White went back to those philanthropic organizations that told him “no” as interim president and asked again as the permanent president. He traveled to Washington D.C. to speak directly to DOE officials and learn what steps needed to be taken to bring the university back into good standing.

Throughout the process of digging Martin out of the hole it found itself in, White says he took inspiration from the faculty and staff that had stuck with Martin through the dark times.

“After talking to people in the community, the [philanthropic institutions] and talking to other individuals [as interim president], I knew that the university was on life support, and to just be truthful, it wasn’t going to make it,” says White. “[But] to see the dedication of the faculty and the people who believed in the place was kind of contagious.”

White had initially signed the three-year contract with the idea that once he got Martin back on its feet he could go back to his retirement plan. It didn’t take long for White to realize that the time in the first contract wouldn’t be enough to see his vision through. Convincing his wife, however, was another matter.  White believes that there had to be some divine intervention to help secure his future at Martin a little while longer. He says he was able to convince his wife to stay in Indianapolis a little while longer with the help of his daughter when she gave birth to her first child. That grandchild was a game-changer, especially when his daughter asked her mom to help with childcare. White says his wife was a lot easier to convince that they needed to stay with the babe in her arms.

“Father [Hardin] was looking down — because he’s deceased now — and he gave us a blessing with the grandbaby because all I was hoping for was another three years.”

White signed another three-year contract in the fall of 2016.

“And, so, during these next three years we’re going to kind of finish what we started. We have a lot of things going on. We are celebrating the 40th anniversary of the university, which is almost a miracle,” says White. 

The future of Martin

It took all of White’s first three years to bring Martin University back from the edge. But now with the immediate business taken care of, White and his administrative team are looking forward to the future. 

In this 40th anniversary year, White says there is a lot to celebrate and even more to come.

“It’s like coming through a storm with different parts,” he says. “You get the wind, the lightning and the rain come down here then it breaks out again over here. Coming through all of that — we are kind of at the day after that,” says White. “We are trying to make hay and plan for the next time [so] there won’t be a storm for us; [so] that we would have shelter and we have that kind of progress that will protect us from struggling for money or struggling for levels of credit and those type of things and making sure that we are not dealing with any type of accreditation issues in the future. And so we feel good about that.” 

The university is currently working through a strategic plan that has lofty goals for moving Martin forward. New degree programs will be introduced — a School of Education is planned to begin with a focus on early childhood development in preschool through 6th grade as well as a doctoral program in Urban Leadership and some associate degree programs. White has a vision of building a fourth structure on campus to serve as a student center, developing a choral music program, and re-establishing the University Counseling Center. 

“We would like to have three major choirs — a show choir, a gospel choir and a concert choir,” says White.  “And we would like to be like the place you go to for choirs or for that kind of entertainment in the city.”

The strategic plan also calls for deserved and needed attention to the faculty and staff in the forms of salary increases, professional development and reduced work time. White also wants to see a shift in the student body of more traditional students — students going into college right out of high school — as well as an overall increase in student population. Right now, Martin University is serving about 350 to 400 students. Ideally, White would like to see that increase to 600 students, with perhaps a long term goal of serving 800 students.

White says the challenge now is for people to know more about Martin University.  He believes that in the landscape of higher education in Indianapolis and Central Indiana, Martin fills a need for students who aren’t comfortable in a larger university setting or who need more individualized attention when it comes to focusing on school.

“We need a place that is small and somewhat intimate and really majors in relationships… There are some students who are very bright but they don’t function well in big settings,” says White. “You need a place for those people who wake up late and discover that in life, you’ve got to do something and Martin is needed for that.”