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Weekly Wisdom Episode 10: Transcript of Conversation With Harold L. Martin, Sr., North Carolina A&T University Chancellor

Weekly Wisdom Episode 10: Transcript of Conversation With Harold L. Martin, Sr., North Carolina A&T University Chancellor

Note: This interview, Episode 10 of the Weekly Wisdom Series, originally aired on June 22, 2020 as part of the University Innovation Alliance’s Innovating Together podcast, appearing live on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn.

Click here to access our summary, along with helpful links and audio from this episode.

Harold Martin, Sr.:
And I think what I say to young aspiring leaders who want to lead institutions or serve as administrators in higher education, you’ve got to be willing to have courage to have these open and frank discussions. You’ve got to put yourself in a position to foster these kinds of discussions. And sometimes, more often than not, you will listen to your constituency and they will have the better solutions. 

Bridget Burns:
Welcome to Innovating Together, podcast produced by the University Innovation Alliance. This is the podcast for busy people in higher education who are looking for the best ideas, inspiration, and leaders to help you improve student success. I’m your host, Bridget Burns. You’re about to watch another episode of Start the Week with Wisdom, which for those of you who are at home if you have not seen this before, these are weekly episodes where we conduct an interview with a sitting college president or chancellor, and we want to talk to them about how they’re navigating the challenge of this moment. We’re in a really unique time and we want to focus on their leadership and unpack how they are making decisions, how they are navigating, and hopefully it will leave you with a sense of optimism, a bit inspired, and give you a bit of hope.

Jeff Selingo:
I’m Jeff Selingo joining you from Washington D.C., where I’m an author, a journalist, and a special advisor at Arizona State University. Delighted to bring you a conversation with Chancellor Harold Martin from North Carolina A&T University, where he serves as chancellor of what is the largest historically black college or university in the country for the last 11 years. Previous to that, he was in the University of North Carolina System, which includes the University of North Carolina System institutions across the state, and prior to that, also in the State of North Carolina, Winston-Salem State University, where he was the chancellor. It’s great to have you with us today, Chancellor Martin. Thanks for joining us.

Bridget Burns:

Harold Martin, Sr.:
Thank you very much, Bridget and Jeff. Delighted to be with you. 

Jeff Selingo:
So could you talk to us a little bit about how you’re holding up right now and really what advice do you have for your counterparts across the country who are dealing with not only, starting back in February, the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, but now over the last couple of weeks, also the issues of racial and ethnic equality and also of course the calls for justice in the murder of George Floyd. What can you tell us a little bit about not only how you’re dealing with it on your campus, but given the enormity and the depth of these crises now facing, not only the country, but also higher education. What advice do you have?

Harold Martin, Sr.:
Well, holding up well. And I think fundamentally for us at our university and certainly within the U.N.C. System, our faculty and our staff and our families and our students are expecting from us a level of calmness and leadership. They want to know how they will continue to maintain employment as faculty and staff at our university. Whether we are going to continue to provide an ongoing quality educational experience for the students we serve in significant ways. 

And quite frankly, business leaders want to know if we are going to be available to continue to provide collaborations and partnerships with those in our region and throughout our state who are critically interested in the bright and talented students who we have on our campus and are graduating year over year. But also the economic impact we have in our community and throughout our state as well. 

So it’s holding up exceedingly well, and I think a lot of that comes from several things. One, it is my personality and my nature, but the other is when we have a series of experiences, there are very few things, very few tough decisions you deal with on a regular basis that are not coming into play today. And secondly, I really have an excellent group of colleagues as our leadership team, who really are helping us think through the tough issues we’re struggling through today as a university to ensure that we are providing quality, competitive answers to all of our constituency. To our level of satisfaction, we’re going to be able to open our university in a healthy and safe way in fall 2020.

Now, we’re doing all of this at a time when the pandemic here in North Carolina and in many states throughout the nation were seeking to reopen, and we’re beginning to see the coronavirus having an uptick in number of cases every day, and more and more individuals going into our hospitals as a result of the impact of the virus. And so we are continuing to monitor that in very significant ways so that we are able to continue to update the very critical plans we have created and shared extensively. This is a moving target. And so we want to make sure that we’re continuing to be smart and very strategic in what we are seeking to do with contingency plans so that at some point, as we continue to frame out our plans for opening our university, we may have to pivot and make a critical decision to do something different about fall plans over the next two to three weeks, quite honestly.

So when you couple that with the growing challenges of unrest throughout our state and throughout our nation, we as a university are having very open and frank and candid discussions with the remarkable students we serve on our campus, because we have a history of social justice engagement from students on our campus and faculty and staff over the years, dating back over the years in significant ways, and some of the most significant focus has been through the A&T Four, who began the sit-ins with discussions among our students and having a commitment and courage to go into the Woolworth counter in downtown Greensboro and refusing to leave until there was a recognition by providing service to African Americans in Woolworths counter and similar such counters throughout the nation. So students have come to us throughout the years following that, encouraging successful strategy of courage by our students, wanting to similarly make a difference in their communities as well.

So one of the things that we have set up with our student leaders in the last two weeks or so, one is to encourage them to let their voices be heard. And I have said that to them directly, through my communications with them and through social media as I’ve engaged them. Go out and be engaged, let your voices be heard, but understand why you’re protesting, and do it in a safe and healthy way. 

So we have our first forum with our student leaders in conversations, and we’re expecting thousands of students of our university to be engaged in a forum tomorrow evening with our student leaders for a couple of hours to talk through how this protest has impacted them, how these murders have impacted them, how disparities in America have impacted not only our graduates and our students, but their communities as well. We will have two follow-up forums as planned by our student leaders in July and one in early August to continue these discussions. I did not want to wait until the beginning of the school year to begin such discussions. So we’re having very aggressive, very open, and very frank discussions both about planning to open our university on one hand, while also enabling stimulating conversations with our students and by our students and with our faculty and our staff and our alums about what’s happening in America today.

Bridget Burns:
That’s super helpful. I think it’s good for folks to hear the example of bringing folks together, the kind of conversations you want to have and how you can engage folks. We’re getting some great comments about student activism and its connection, obviously with social justice, but their connections with the higher education institutions and our role in the past and today. 

So I wanted to ask a slightly different question which is, looking at your background, you have a very unique vantage point in that you have led system level, you have led public and smaller institutions, and now you’re leading the largest H.B.C.U. in the country. You have a much deeper bench, I think, in terms of experience and wisdom to share, and I’m wondering if there are any experiences earlier in your prior presidency or when you were at the system, or even early in your chancellorship. Are there any past experiences that you’re drawing on that experience today, and it’s helping you know when to respond, know how to be more proactive with communication and things like that?

Harold Martin, Sr.:
Well, I think part of the experiences I’ve gained over time has been my willingness to have open and frank discussions with student groups, with faculty and staff irrespective of the topic, irrespective of the energy and emotion in the conversation, so that if there were levels of unrest or concerns among faculty and staff, it’s always been my approach to deal with those head on to open the conversation, have frank discussions, and forge answers, forge solutions to those challenges so that we end up in a better place where all of us have contributed to framing solutions. 

So it’s not just me trying to come up with answers and solutions or members of my leadership team seeking to do that, but really understanding where our faculty and staff may be coming from as part of what is expected in higher education to shared governance solving complex issues. Students are looking to find their way, their path, their strategies for how they see themselves making a difference, and they’re always based across the diversity of our students, a variety of conversations with them. Very exciting, very interesting conversations. And those experiences of working with and engaging with and confronting challenges in various constituency groups head on over the years have given me the experiences of being very comfortable having these challenging discussions with them today. 

So what I say to young aspiring leaders who want to lead institutions or serve as administrators in higher education, you’ve got to be willing to have courage to have these open and frank discussions, you’ve got to put yourself in a position to foster these kinds of discussions, and sometimes, more often than not, you will listen to your constituency and they will have the better solutions. And allowing them to help you shape out what the best answers are and the best direction may very well be to solve those issues and solve those problems. So I share that with young aspiring leaders, and I speak to them on a regular basis about having the courage to listen and allow their solutions to come out of those types of collaborative discussions quite honestly. 

Jeff Selingo:
So how do you think higher education is going to change for the longer term coming out of this? Obviously, we’ve been talking for the last couple of minutes, particularly about the current moment we’re in, the next couple of months, mostly this fall, but how do you think higher education, because of this, is going to change more for the long term?

Harold Martin, Sr.:
Well, when you back away and begin to look at how we have engaged with students and we have the business model we’ve created, has created an expectation of face-to-face instruction in significant ways, high levels of engagement in touch as we interact with students and as we provide comfortable settings for faculty and staff to do their very best work. But it’s amazing, as we have moved over the last three to four years, and putting more and more of our degree programs as we have sought to enhance operational efficiencies through the use of technology and engage with our staffs to bring more and more of our services and to provide them online to our faculty and our staff and our students. There was always opposition, fear of change, and the like. 

It’s amazing how the short amount of time that we had to pivot from face-to-face instruction, prop up technologies and engage our faculty and move all of our instruction to online, and move the predominance of our students home to continue their instruction off campus has enabled a large number of our faculty and staff to recognize that this wasn’t as complex as they made it to be. We learned a lot of ways in which we must provide not only enhanced training and additional technology to support our faculty, but how we reward and enable and incentivize our faculty and staff to be engaged in more significant ways. We also heard from students. They didn’t like being online for instruction. They had come out of high schools all over America and really all over the world, based on the diversity of our students, and they were accustomed to sitting in classrooms, interacting with other students, studying in study groups, and the like. And so when they went home and had to force themselves into higher levels of independence and engagement and study, they began to realize that it wasn’t all that bad. 

Of course we had to fill in more online services to engage with our students. We moved our health services, advisement, our career advisement services, our counseling services where we found many students felt a little more isolated and a lot more tension and pressure and depression, we put a lot of these services online. So now we’re beginning to talk very candidly, from a leadership perspective, where the administrators around campus and faculty and staff, about how we come out of the pandemic with a very different business model for our university to more effectively engage our students, support our faculty and staff, deliver education, engage in research, partner with our alumni, engage with business partners to ensure that we’re continuing to provide well-prepared graduates, but also we’re partnering with businesses to provide ongoing educational opportunities for continued education, lifelong learning experiences, and the like. 

So there are a variety of lessons learned, if you will, that we are crafting into reports to ourselves and that we’re sharing so that we can begin to start thinking about how we deliver education differently and more profoundly, how we train our faculty, skillsets we’re looking for in new employees of the future, quite honestly, and quite frankly, how we impart new modalities of learning to our students to build on their lifelong learning expectations from employers when we send them out into the world of work, quite honestly. So there are lots of opportunities for us to rethink the way we deliver education and the way we build our university through innovative ways well into the future.

Bridget Burns:
That’s great. That is smart to be focusing on how we help our students adapt now, because the employers are definitely going to be expecting it, and who knows what will be happening ahead, so as much as we can help them translate that, that’s great. I want to ask a question that I think calls upon, again, your depths of experience. What we’re hearing from presidents and chancellors and what we’re seeing is just the constant barrage of it’s not this, then it’s something else, and it’s daily just getting overwhelmed, and I think just being a human being right now is pretty hard. So I’m just curious about how you as a leader have built the muscle of figuring out what to focus on when there is just a ton of other things that are hitting you on a regular basis. How do you stay laser focused on what really matters when you’re being inundated with the challenges of the day?

Harold Martin, Sr.:
It’s an interesting question, because when I took over the leadership of our university here at North Carolina A&T, one of the things that I observed while the chief academic officer for the university system was that as I observed enrollment trends in North Carolina and enrollment trends in higher education across our nation, I began to see as I shared with the board for the university system and the leadership of the University of North Carolina System at that time, the university was beginning to experience what I characterize as increased browning. That meant that a larger number of our historically white institutions in the U.N.C. System were focusing on and were being increasingly more successful in recruiting African American, Hispanic/Latino students, Asian students, minority students in general to their university. Some institutions were doing that more successfully than others. 

When you look at African American students in particular here in North Carolina, there are five public H.B.C.U.s and five private H.B.C.U.s who had built their enrollment significantly so over the decades on the strong high school population of graduates coming into the historically black college and universities over the years. Over the last two decades itself, again, we’ve seen transitioning of predominantly white institutions in the state of North Carolina, and this is true throughout the South in particular. These enrollment trends shifting, and what you saw in the '90s, and into the 2000s, were enrollment declines at historically black colleges and universities. 

Now, from those experiences in my mind, we had to back away as the university at North Carolina A&T, the university also had the experience in enrollment decline over four or five years before my arrival. And we recognized that bright students, no matter what ethnicity, were at a premium and all universities wanted to have their fair share of these well-prepared students on their campus. We as a university, as a historically black college university whose predominant student population was African American, had to back away and focus a new strategy on how we were going to position ourselves to recruit a fair share of those African American students and non-African American students at North Carolina A&T. 

So to answer your question, we have to make sure that we were sharing with families and students and administrators and public higher education in high schools all over North Carolina and throughout the nation that our university, as a historically black college and university, has strong academic programs, with a strong brand and reputation and that the graduates of our university were receiving job offers and competitive pay, and that our retention, graduation rates, and other analytics associated with our university were just as good, if not better than of our peer institution as predominant white institutions in the U.N.C. System.

So in answer to your question specifically, we framed a well-defined strategic plan that we were very laser focused on within the second year of my tenure here as chancellor. And we have not deviated in any significant way from the critical tenets of that strategic plan. We have revised it, and we’re in the second phase of that plan, but the key aspects of that plan were to demonstrate to our constituents and a peer group of universities that the nation and others viewed as being highly regarded and well respected based on their analytics, our analytics could be no less as good, if not better. 

So we have moved our university into a position of demonstrating how competitive we are based on those analytics against the benchmarks, against what we consider to be a strong group of peer institutions that society deems as being very competitive, high-quality universities. And if those universities are viewed to be strong and competitive in that space and our analytics are as good, if not better than those institutions, then society would view our university as being as good, if not better. Our brand recognition has soared as a result of focusing very strategically, and we have been laser focused on those peers, those analytics and our progress in realizing those analytics. Long answer, but that pretty much focuses on the context of what is making the difference for our university. 

Jeff Selingo:
So Chancellor Martin, just one last quick question before we wrap up. You really seem to approach your job with a sense of purpose and optimism. Can you share a lens that has served you well in the past or serving you right now, just quickly for our guests and our viewers, that is serving you right now to kind of keep up that sense of purpose and optimism?

Harold Martin, Sr.:
Well, I think many people who grew up in a similar way in which I grew up; I grew up in a segregated environment, neighborhoods, churches, high school, middle grade through high school, all segregated schools, and then I went off to college at North Carolina A&T as a historically black college and university. In that realm of engagement from my parents, who were not college graduates, to teachers who engaged me, to professors who engaged me and set high expectations and demands, there was never an expectation of underachievement. 

There was always a focus on being the best you can, being an overachiever, and quite honestly, education was the great equalizer in creating a platform for success in life. And that has served me well, quite honestly, and those in the circles in which I grew up and I’ve never ever compromised on building an environment wherever I’ve been that suggests that competing and being the best you can be always serves as a framework for success in life, quite honestly. That has driven me in every role I’ve ever served, and it serves and drives me in a passionate way as Chancellor at North Carolina A&T University.

Bridget Burns:
Well, we’re so grateful for you sharing a bit of your wisdom today. It’s clear North Carolina A&T is definitely being led by a strong leader who has a real depth perspective of the challenges and is really responding well. So thank you for that and thank you for providing some of that insight for those of us in other institutions and in the field. For those of you at home, we hope that this has been an inspiring conversation. Thank you again, Chancellor, we really appreciate it. And our hope again is that this gives you a little bit of perspective to start the week with a sense of hope and optimism knowing that we are figuring this out, we are building the plane while we fly it here in higher education, but that we’re going to get there so long as we work together. 

Bios of Guest and Co-Hosts

Guest: Harold L. Martin, Sr., Chancellor, North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University
Harold Lee Martin Sr., Ph.D., has served as North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University's 12th chancellor since June 8, 2009. The first alumnus to serve as the university’s chief executive, he brings over 30 years of transformative experience as higher education leader. Dr. Martin’s tenure has been distinguished by a focus on long-range strategic planning and tactical leadership, dramatically improving North Carolina A&T’s standing among the nation’s land grant, doctoral research universities, as well as among historically Black colleges and universities (H.B.C.U.'s). Examples of his work include two strategic plans: A&T Preeminence 2020: Embracing Our Past, Creating Our Future and A&T Preeminence: Taking the Momentum to 2023. Under Dr. Martin’s leadership, the university became one of America’s top producers of African American graduates in engineering, mathematics, statistics, agriculture, journalism, visual and performing arts, marketing, and physical sciences. Since 2009, the university has continually increased student enrollment, sustained educational quality, and grown its statewide economic impact to more than $1.5 billion. Dr. Martin was instrumental in establishing and fostering strategic partnerships such as the Joint School of Nanoscience and Nanoengineering, and playing a significant role in Opportunity Greensboro, the city’s nationally acclaimed alliance between its seven colleges and universities and the business community. Before his election as chancellor of A&T, Dr. Martin served as Senior Vice President for Academic Affairs for the U.N.C, System; the 11th chief administrator and seventh chancellor of Winston-Salem State University; and in A&T administrative posts including Vice Chancellor for the Division of Academic Affairs, dean of the College of Engineering and chairman of the Department of Electrical Engineering. He was named an education and business thought leader in TIME magazine’s August 2020 edition of The Leadership Brief; honored by the Thurgood Marshall College Fund with the 2019 Education Leadership Award; and named America’s most influential H.B.C.U. leader for 2017 by H.B.C.U. Digest. In 2015, he appeared on the EBONY Power 100 list. A native of Winston-Salem, Harold Martin received his B.S. and M.S. degrees in electrical engineering from A&T, and a Ph.D. in electrical engineering from Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University. He and his wife Davida, the former county attorney for Forsyth County, North Carolina, have two adult sons and three grandchildren.

Co-Host: Bridget Burns, Executive Director, University Innovation Alliance
Dr. Bridget Burns is the founding Executive Director of the University Innovation Alliance (UIA). For the past decade, she has advised university presidents, system chancellors, and state and federal policy leaders on strategies to expand access to higher education, address costs, and promote completion for students of all backgrounds. The UIA was developed during Bridget’s tenure as an American Council on Education (A.C.E.) Fellowship at Arizona State University. She held multiple roles within the Oregon University System, including serving as Chief of Staff and Senior Policy Advisor, where she won the national award for innovation in higher education government relations. She was a National Associate for the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education, and has served on several statewide governing boards including ones governing higher education institutions, financial aid policy, and policy areas impacting children and families.

Co-Host: Jeff Selingo, author, journalist, special advisor at Arizona State University
Jeff Selingo is an author, a journalist, and a special advisor at Arizona State University.  He has written about higher education for more than two decades and is a New York Times bestselling author of three books. His latest book, Who Gets In & Why: A Year Inside College Admissions, was published in September 2020 and was named an Editors’ Choice by the New York Times Book Review. A regular contributor to The Atlantic, Jeff is a special advisor for innovation and professor of practice at Arizona State University. He also co-hosts the podcast, FutureU. He lives in Washington, D.C. with his family.

About Weekly Wisdom
Weekly Wisdom is an event series that happens live on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn. It also becomes a podcast episode. Every week, we join forces with Inside Higher Ed and talk with a sitting college president or chancellor about how they're specifically navigating the challenges of this moment. These conversations will be filled with practicable things you can do right now by unpacking how and why college leaders are making decisions within higher education. Hopefully, these episodes will also leave you with a sense of optimism and a bit of inspiration.

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