Mirta Martin
Provided by the University of Montana

When Mirta Martin wanted to go to college, she didn't have money for the application fee.

"I remember people giving me a chance. I remember a teacher actually wrote the check to apply that got me to Duke University because we had no money to even write checks for those applications.

"Now, it's my time to pass it forward. It's my time to help others achieve what I've been able to achieve," Martin said.

Martin is one of four finalists vying to serve as the next University of Montana president. The Cuban immigrant is currently managing director at the Kirchner Group, a merchant bank. In academia, she most recently served as president of Fort Hays State University in Kansas.

At Fort Hays, a campus of nearly 15,000 students, Martin drove up enrollment, boosted retention and launched a $100 million capital campaign, according to her resume. Former colleagues confirmed her recruitment abilities and fundraising prowess.

She also made an impression on students. Emily Brandt, president of the student body, said the president's house is on campus at Fort Hays, and Martin told students that if her porch light was on, they were free to come in for a visit.

"She's really great. She's very passionate. She's very fiery," said Brandt, also student body president last school year. "She definitely knows her stuff about higher education. I think she served as a great administrator, and I think wherever she's an administrator next, she's going to do a lot of good."

But the candidate's tenure at Fort Hays lasted only from July 2014 to November 2016, and her departure was rocky.

A news story from the Hays Post last November said Martin resigned abruptly after the president of the Faculty Senate delivered a letter to regents outlining allegations against Martin including an "impulsive attitude" and cronyism in hiring.

The Hays Daily News reported Faculty Senate President Carl Miller complained to regents one month earlier about Martin and alleged mismanagement. At the time, he said he was representing other instructors who shared their concerns with him in his "sort-of investigation" into the president.

Miller told the Hays Post he wanted the regents to force her resignation, but he did not respond to voicemails and an email seeking comment from the Missoulian last week.

Martin herself declined to address her resignation and said she wanted to focus on achievements and look to the future.

But two current faculty members and one former professor who worked at Fort Hays under Martin said she is a dynamic leader who faced racism, sexism and an untenable situation: the longest-serving president of 27 years, Edward Hammond, stayed on board in a different capacity after Martin's inauguration.

"I don't care if God came in after that, he would be railroaded out of here," said faculty member Terry Crull, who liked both Hammond and Martin.

Crull said no one ever publicly presented evidence to support allegations against Martin, and he believes some people on campus simply didn't want a Hispanic woman at the helm.

Clayton Christian, commissioner of higher education in Montana and head of the search committee, declined to speak in specific terms about Martin's resignation. But he said she spoke frankly about the situation with search committee members.

In the end, Christian said committee members liked her focus on students and felt they needed to have the courage to introduce her at UM. He said Martin can tell people in Missoula about herself, including talking about her strengths and her departure from Fort Hays.

"We thought her explanation was credible, and ultimately, her passion for higher education and student success was of interest to us," Christian said.

***

Martin left Fort Hays last November and she started at Kirchner in July.

Since leaving Fort Hays, though, she has continued to seek university leadership positions, and she has landed on short lists for hires at the University of Alaska-Fairbanks with 9,300 students; McNeese State University in Louisiana with 7,600 students; and Fairmont State University in West Virginia with 4,000 students. 

In an interview, Martin said higher education is her calling and purpose, and she believes it transforms lives. She also said she believes specifically in the potential of UM and the community of Missoula.

"The University of Montana is a place that has a global outreach and impact, yet it has a local heart," Martin said.

UM's research is compelling, and it includes but isn't limited to sciences, she said. "Charting the history of a people is research, charting how a composition is formed in music is research, and it provides, it enlarges, it augments the basis for wisdom."

She said UM has a powerful story to tell, and she's ready to hop on the bus and start sharing its achievements across Montana. In particular, Martin lauded UM's work in climate change, but she also said she appreciates scholarship across the spectrum. 

"We only have one Earth, and we need to look after it," Martin said. "So research that promotes sustainability, research that advances the quality of life for humanity, research that enriches the wisdom of our generation by providing them access to literature, to music, to art, to geography for that matter, is research that needs to be heralded, that needs to be supported, that needs to be acclaimed."

***

Enrollment and retention have been challenges at UM, and Martin achieved successes in those areas.

At Fort Hays, Martin counted a 3.8 percent increase in enrollment in the fall of 2015 after she took the helm in July 2014. In fall 2016, before she departed, enrollment jumped another 3.11 percent, "defying all state and national trends," she said in her resume.

Sue Boldra, a faculty member and former legislator, said Fort Hays was the most financially sound regents' institution in Kansas under Martin. She also said it grew to surpass the size of Wichita State University in one of the state's largest cities with Martin's push to recruit minorities and support distance learning.

Martin boosted retention as well, both at Fort Hays and at the Reginald F. Lewis School of Business at Virginia State University, where she worked from 2009 to 2014. At Fort Hays, she counted a retention increase from 68.7 percent to 72.3 in one year, according to her resume.

At the School of Business, retention rates increased 30 percent in nine core courses. However, she said she does not know if the solution there would translate to Montana; rather, she said she would have to investigate the issue at UM.

In Virginia, Martin said a quantitative and qualitative analysis showed some external factors affected students, but the primary reason they struggled is they did not have money to buy books.

Sometimes, four students would share one book, she said. So she said the university worked hard to start offering materials digitally instead, a new idea at the time, roughly a decade ago.

"We became the first school in the nation to launch core curricula in totally digital fashion," Martin said.

Her resume said the change not only upped retention, it saved students a total $1.12 million in textbook expenses over six semesters. She said she would use a similar investigative process in Montana; she would ask questions, seek answers, and listen to determine the roots of the problems.

"I need to understand why things are happening, and then we create strategies to be able to mitigate some of those," Martin said.

***

Martin's career includes significant fundraising experience inside and outside academia.

As an assistant bank vice president, she increased deposits 219 percent from 1988 to 1993 in the Richmond, Virginia, area. She counted a 62 percent increase in assets in three years and 270 percent increase in donations as executive director of the foundation of John Tyler Community College in Virginia.

At Fort Hays, she achieved revenue increases from enrollment, donations and research dollars. She launched a $100 million capital campaign right before she left, with $57 million raised in the private phase, and she noted two colleges named with two of the largest gifts to Fort Hays of $5 million each.

Boldra said it was impressive that Martin was able to raise more than half the money in just a year and a half.

"She had donors," Boldra said. "She had alumni who had been successful in their business in other parts of the country who gave us money. She was an incredible fundraiser, and people liked her."

She said Martin brought in her own people, typical of new leaders. But a group of "stodgy old men" didn't want to see the newcomer succeed, and she said the former president stayed on campus in a different capacity and "stirred the pot."

"Quite frankly, they didn't want to see a woman in charge, and especially one that was very successful and most people liked," Boldra said.

She said Martin was a "mover and a shaker" who started new traditions, such as a downtown walk with students to get acquainted with the shops. The stores would stay open late.

"Little things like that she started that we still do, but nobody ever gives her credit for it," Boldra said.

Yuri Yerastov, a former linguistics faculty member at Fort Hays who worked under Martin, also praised her fundraising abilities and her ability to recruit minority students, in particular.

"She did phenomenally well with fundraising, much better than the previous president, which was particularly good for our university because we were in a very bad budgetary crisis," Yerastov said, citing legislative cuts.

He also said she faced "shadow influence" because the former president remained on campus and influential, and he announced at one point his desire to be president again.

"That was one of the biggest challenges she had as president," Yerastov said.

Eventually, Boldra said she believes Martin grew tired of the meddling and resigned.

Students held at least one rally in support of Martin. Student body president Brandt said Martin made the campus feel like home.

"Students really, really like her here at Fort Hays," Brandt said.

In an email, Hammond declined to comment on whether he wanted Martin to resign or if he had expressed interest in returning to the job of president.

"Sorry, but I cannot be of assistance," Hammond said.

Miller, who collected complaints against Martin and made public comments to the Hays Post about wanting the regents to force her resignation, did not respond to requests for comment.

At the time, however, Miller denied to the local newspaper that the allegations against Martin were motivated by racism and sexism. He also told the Hays Post he found sufficient evidence of lack of leadership in his review of complaints against Martin.

Martin said people see situations through different lenses. She said she does not want to be evasive, but she does want to focus on the positive outcomes she helped achieve at Fort Hays.

***

In a phone interview, Martin also said she's looking for more than a title. She said she's looking for a new community, and she believes in Missoula.

"I believe this is where my heart calls me to be," Martin said. "This is a place that believes in opening doors through education for others. It's a place that believes in improving the human condition. It's a place where people can have a voice and be heard.

"Very honestly, I yearn for the opportunity to be part of that family, to be able to unite my voice with the voices of the faculty and staff and students of the University of Montana to reclaim its rightful place as the jewel of Montana."

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Reporter for the Missoulian