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Jim Zietz | Senior Photographer | Eddy Perez | Photographer | LSU Office of Public Affairs
Fall 2008

Martin Reflects on an Interesting, Rewarding and Fun First 100 Days as Chancellor of LSU

Metaphors of traveling are often applied to a person’s life. But for LSU Chancellor Michael Martin, describing his life as a journey down a river wouldn’t be very far from the truth.

“I tell people I’ve just been making my way down the Mississippi,” he laughs. “I started out in Minnesota, not that far from the founding waters – and now here I am near the mouth of it.”

As Martin, a native of Crosby, Minn., reflects on his first 100 days at the helm of LSU, he knows his journey has been rather unique. Most college administrators hit the ground running in a new job, but not headlong into a hurricane. But then Martin would say that one thing he’s definitely learned is that LSU is not like any other place.

“It’s gone by in a hurry,” Martin said of his first 100 days as Chancellor, a tenure that began Aug. 4. “But everybody here has been inspiring and comforting at the same time.”  

In the bulk of those 100 days, Martin has spent his time learning the ins and outs of running LSU, of how the business of higher education works within the state, both at the academic and political levels, and traveling around the state meeting the various constituencies he serves – current, future and former students.

He’s grown to love the energy of the University and of Louisiana as a whole.

“People have an enormous passion for this place,” he said. “You certainly see it on a Saturday during football season, but you see it every day. The people that I encounter have an incredible interest in this place.  It’s just amazing to me, how many people here, not even connected to the University, know who I am.”

Martin’s career has taken him literally from coast to coast, with stops at Oregon State University, the University of Florida, and his most recent stop as president of New Mexico State University. Throughout those travels, he’s always asked himself three questions before any endeavor: Is it interesting? Is it rewarding? Is it fun?

Affirmative answers to those three have certainly punctuated his tenure thus far.

INTERESTING

Louisiana is known as a unique place for a litany of reasons, and the state’s relationship with Mother Nature would certainly make that list. Martin came to Baton Rouge from the arid climate of New Mexico, so weather concerns were nothing new.

But then Hurricane Gustav, a category three storm, barreled straight into town.

“It was certainly a learning experience,” Martin said.

Hurricanes weren’t a totally strange experience for Martin – he’d felt their effects during his time at Florida. But he’d never seen a town take the direct hit that Baton Rouge took the morning of Sept. 1.

“It wasn’t scary so much as it was unsettling,” he explained. “I found it fascinating to watch the power of nature. It reminds you of how fragile we are in the face of nature, but that how together, we as a community can rise above the hardships it can cause.”

Through the storm and its effects – the LSU campus lost primary electrical power for three days and parts of Baton Rouge were without power for weeks – Martin marveled at the performance of the University community. He emphasized four areas that particularly impressed him: LSU’s ability to shelter more than 3,000 students in-place in campus residence halls and apartments, the University’s willingness serve as an evacuation site for hundreds of special needs patients from other affected areas, the ability of LSU staff to brace the campus for the storm’s effects and their ability to return the campus to working order after the storm passed.

“These things were done extremely well,” he said. “And nobody saw us taking the direct hit from the storm like we did. People at this place rose to the occasion. It’s really a credit to my predecessor, Sean O’Keefe, for creating the Emergency Operations Center and its procedures, having an established protocol and parameters and putting the right people in place to execute them.”

D’Ann Morris, executive assistant to the chancellor and interim director of emergency operations, said that Martin’s “supportive leadership was comforting and inspiring” through the hurricane and its aftermath.

“He allowed the Emergency Operations Center to make decisions for the campus based on the situation at hand,” she said. “He was quick to respond when needed and had the best interest of the campus in the forefront of his mind at all times. It was obvious to everyone that he was not only our leader – he was on our team.”

One of Martin’s most vivid memories is of watching the storm’s 91 mile-per-hour wind gusts rip the roof off LSU’s Natatorium building.

“I kept thinking to myself ‘this can’t be happening’,” he said. “I was standing out there, and suddenly we saw the panels start to shake, and then bang! They were gone.”

But normal life had to resume sooner or later. And within a few days, LSU resumed classes – allowing Martin to learn more about what life is like on campus day-to-day.

“Every university, in certain ways, functions the same,” he explained. “But it has been interesting learning the rituals and customs and little things about how LSU works.”

Campus traditions like Fall Fest, the dairy store, and various activities from the Greek organizations caught his eye.

“I don’t think any other campus I’ve been to has its own dairy store,” he said. “And Fall Fest – I thought it was going to be 20 people having hot dogs on the quad and I get out there and there was the marching band and this whole show and thousands of kids!”

REWARDING      

Seeing the way the community pulled together following the storm was a particular source of pride for Martin. It all goes back to the pride and passion for LSU he sees throughout Louisiana.

“There is a Southern charm and gentility to this state,” he said. “People know how to work together.”

What’s more, he sees how great his opportunity is to impact both LSU and the state as a whole.

“I think there are very few states that need their flagship university like Louisiana needs LSU, whether it’s our work with the coastal environment, community outreach efforts or our affect on the culture and the customs of this state,” he said.

And more than perhaps anything else about his job, Martin just loves working on a college campus and dealing with students.

That was particularly on display when LSU held the first Chat with the Chancellor, an opportunity for students to meet the University’s head man in an informal setting. Martin strolled over to the LSU Student Union where the event was held. After a short detour to the LSU Bookstore to pick up a hat to protect his head from sunburn, Martin spent the next few hours meeting his chief constituency: his students.

“Hi, I’m Mike,” was his greeting – belying Martin’s easygoing and informal matter. Personable and gregarious by nature, Martin discussed world events and even dispensed a little advice with the touch of a family friend.

“These are nice kids, good kids,” he said. “And the reason you do this job is because you like working with kids. It’s been fun.”

FUN

Martin has a self-reflective side that often leads to him wondering exactly how a boy from rural Minnesota came to be the head of a major university. And there are times when his younger side shows itself.

“This is a really cool place,” he exclaimed.

“It has a terrific energy to it,” Martin added. “It is such an honor to work here.”

Martin has even been able to find some connections to his past. On Oct. 6 he was the guest of LSU Board of Supervisors member Stanley Jacobs at the New Orleans Saints-Minnesota Vikings Monday Night Football game in the Superdome. A Vikings fan from his youth, Martin still found himself cheering for the Saints on occasion. He was also able to meet one of the Vikings’ great nemeses in former LSU All-American Jim Taylor, who had a Hall-of-Fame career with the Green Bay Packers in the 1950s and 60s.

He was even able to spend some time with one of the biggest – literally and figuratively – personalities in the sports world – former LSU basketball star and alum Shaquille O’Neal.

“That was so neat,” he said. “Shaq has such a huge persona, but he’s not what you see on TV.”

The chancellor has enjoyed his interactions with alumni, from high-profile people like Shaq, former ARCO Oil Chairman Lod Cook or former Exxon Mobil Corp. Executive Vice President Harry Longwell to the hundreds of thousands that flock to campus every Saturday for a home football game.

“You meet a man like Harry Longwell, who is a true titan of industry, and he’s as down to earth and friendly as anybody,” he said.

Those are qualities he sees in Louisiana residents in general.

“Whenever you come to a new place you worry about how they will view an outsider,” Martin explained. “But that’s not the case; I haven’t felt any of that here. I love the generosity of the people here.”

Martin believes over the next 100 days and long after that, he will continue to learn, be surprised and deepen the affection he has grown for this place.

“It is definitely the most unique place that I have been,” he said. “Everywhere has its own flavor, but I don’t think there is any state quite like Louisiana. Or any university quite like LSU.”

Billy Gomila | Editor | LSU Office of Public Affairs
Fall 2008


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