After seven years in the captain’s seat, university president Susan Martin is feeling bittersweet about stepping down in July.
When she took office in 2008, Martin was ready to turn things around.
“Eastern had been through some challenging times and turnover of leadership and everybody was just down,” Martin said. “I was like, ‘Can’t you see? This is a great university.’”
After Martin’s seven-year term, EMU’s enrollment is robust, with year after year of record-breaking freshman classes. Enrollment in the university’s Honors College has nearly doubled, raising the academic standard at the university, with the average GPA of incoming freshmen rising from 3.05 in 2010 to 3.27 in the fall of 2014, according to a university press release.
The university has also faced a rather large controversy over its affiliation with the Education Achievement Authority of Michigan, with local school districts and teachers’ unions abstaining from hiring EMU-trained teachers until the university severs ties with the authority.
As Martin prepares to leave her post, she sat down with The Echo to discuss the peaks and valleys of her presidential term.
Righting the ship
Martin always sought to reinstate a sense of pride at Eastern Michigan University, but she was surprised by what finally did the trick.
“One of the unintended effects of the zero, zero, zero campaign was that it just brought the alumni, the community, the campus together to be proud of Eastern, and to coalesce around the block ‘E,’ and to be proud … now you see a tremendous pride in this university,” she said.
Martin’s zero, zero, zero initiative in 2010 barred increases in tuition and room and board. Budget cuts the following year made the zero, zero, zero initiative impossible, but EMU is still one of the most inexpensive public universities in the state because Martin believed Eastern should be both exceptional and attainable.
Her parents were from Detroit, but Martin grew up on a farm. Her family didn’t have the money to send her to college, but when she scored well on a standardized test, she was offered free tuition at any of the public universities in the state.
“I’ve always felt I should pay that back,” she said. “If you look at what’s happening nationally … it’s very easy to leave the ordinary person behind because you get rewarded for taking the best and the brightest and that’s great we’ve doubled the size of our Honors College, we’re doing that too – but little Susan Martin still needs to have a school to go to.”
Martin said she believes Eastern is important to the future of Michigan because a majority of the student body comes from Michigan and stays in Michigan. She wanted the university to be a place for the working class and for the first generation college students who need more guidance and support.
“We’re that place that transforms ordinary people so that they do lead extraordinary lives,” she said.
In the process of trying to leave Eastern Michigan University better than she found it, Martin said she developed a meaningful relationship with the campus community.
The student body affectionately refers to her as “Su-Mar.”
“I still laugh when they call out my name that way, and I think that nickname from the students sort of captures that I was successful in communicating how much I love them,” Martin said with tears in her eyes.
Weathering the storm
Not every moment of Martin’s presidential term has been positive.
In 2012, Martin was accused of abusing alcohol during a trip to Washington D.C. She admitted to this inappropriate behavior and apologized for it, but the Board took a harder line on the issue.
The Board requested Martin go to counseling, which she agreed to, but she denied having a problem with substance abuse.
More recently, Martin has butted heads with the Regents on the issue of EMU’s affiliation with the Education Achievement Authority of Michigan.
Martin stood up at the December Board of Regents meeting and urged the Board to approve a resolution that would sever ties with the EAA, however the resolution was shot down and instead amended to allow for at least another year before considering a termination of the agreement.
“Obviously I’m disappointed, but I certainly respect the Board’s decision,” Martin said after the December Board of Regents meeting.
Despite these rocky moments, Martin said the most difficult challenge she has faced as president is dealing with the deaths of students.
“It never leaves you,” she said. “To this day I personally feel that I’m responsible – that I didn’t take care of their child.”
Martin said it can be difficult to overcome her own emotions when dealing with the death of a student, but that she always wanted to lead the campus to share feelings of empathy with the students’ friends and family.
After former EMU student and football player Demarius Reed was murdered outside his University Green apartment in the fall of 2013, Martin showed her support for the Reed family by attending the memorial service.
“I walked in, and this person comes over to me and says, ‘President Martin you have to do something’ and hands me the microphone … no one gives you a playbook for this,” she said. “I stood up and I started talking and I talked to them about how important and helpful it would be if … anyone could come forward and share a memory that would be very meaningful to the family so they can get a picture of Demarius in his day-to-day student life.”
Students, players and coaches all came forward and shared meaningful memories with Reed’s family.
“That was a very moving moment,” she said. “To this day, I don’t think it will ever leave me.”
Martin said experiences like Reed’s memorial service reminded her of the importance of being present during times of strife.
“You have to get up out of your chair and be present,” she said.
Leaving a legacy
Martin is Eastern Michigan University’s 22nd president and the first woman to hold the position, making her an immediate fixture in the university’s history.
She said the advice she most wants to impart to EMU students is never to miss an opportunity.
“If you’re given a great opportunity, just grab it. That’s what successful people do,” Martin said. “If you fail, you’ll learn a lot.”
As for being the first female president, Martin is no stranger to breaking up the boys’ club. Since the start of her career when she was an accountant she found herself surrounded by men.
“At that time women were just starting to get accounting jobs,” she said. “I can remember at Ernst & Ernst, the book I was handed was about how ‘gentlemen’ should wear a white shirt, ‘gentlemen’ should be proficient on a 10-key calculator – I mean, women were just breaking in.”
Taking opportunities is even more important for women, according to Martin. She said that too many women feel guilty about taking big chances.
“My advice is act like a man,” Martin said. “Just take those opportunities, grab them and go. That’s what I did and I’ve never regretted it.”