Age Has its Perks

Power advice with Florida Gulf Coast University President Michael V. Martin

Is 70 the new 50? Certainly not, concludes septuagenarian Michael V. Martin, in his second year as Florida Gulf Coast University president. And that’s a good thing.

Because when a recruiter called him at his downtown Denver office, Martin, the Colorado State University System chancellor, realized two things: He missed the vibrancy of working on a college campus, and this particular Southwest Florida campus could use “a guy who wasn’t looking for another job.” In other words, someone who could shake things up and lead FGCU into its next developmental phase without fearing the powers-that-be giving him the ax.

“That combination sort of reopened the door for another lap around the track,” says Martin, who had been considering retirement before the recruiter came calling. “This is a place very close to the ground,” Martin adds. “If you want to feel the impact of your role, then it’s much more readily available to you here than at a larger, more tradition-bound, somewhat inert university.”

And FGCU surprised him. He had visited the university in its infancy in 1999 and predicted it would suffer a failure to thrive. “At the time I was simply fascinated by the process of trying to start a brand-new public university in the middle of a swamp,” Martin says on a recent morning in the conference room of the FGCU president’s office. He told a friend at that time, “If you have a going-out-of-business sale, give me a call and I’ll pick some things up,” he says. “And over time I kind of watched it emerge at a distance. And was appropriately humbled by what was going on.”

Age, it turns out, offers some distinct perks. Martin says he has the confidence to say what he thinks and also to admit when he’s wrong. That’s harder to do when you’re still climbing the academic ladder.

Martin makes career moves by staying mindful of a mantra: He takes only jobs that are interesting, rewarding and fun. And when they stop meeting that criteria, it’s time to move on.

The average college president is a man about 62 years old, according to the American College President Study by the American Council on Education, based on data from 2016. That’s up from age 52 when the same study was undertaken for the first time three decades ago. (Incidentally, 70 percent of college presidents are men; 83 percent are white.)

Martin is a baseball fan and uses the sport to explain the importance of playing to one’s strengths. He told a story of trying out for a town-league baseball team some years ago and wanting to play outfield. But he was assigned to second base because the coach told him he didn’t have a very good arm and he wasn’t very fast. At second base, the coach said, he could disguise Martin’s weaknesses.

That concept stuck with him. Martin hired James Llorens as interim provost because “I think he compensates for my weaknesses,” he says.

Which are?

“I tend to be a little shoot from the hip, impetuous in some ways,” Martin says. “I’m a softie with students, and certainly with my grandkids and my kids. My tendency is always to err on the side of the student.

“I don’t want to break the rules, just bend them enough that the student has the best possible chance. And if all you do is create very, very rigid rules that apply to anyone, you don’t need any of us, you just need somebody who can read the rule book. That’s real cheap to come by. Anyone can sit and be a bureaucrat and stamp things ‘yes’ or ‘no.’ It’s the judgments at the margins that make the difference.”

Martin was chosen “best celebrity comic” at the Laughter Is the Best Medicine fundraiser for SalusCare in August. Anyone present would have seen his affinity for a good quip. Plenty of them have to do with leadership:

“I say I’m from the Tom Sawyer school of management. I always want to get somebody else to paint the fence. But occasionally I have to paint it myself.”

“One of the first lessons in welding is also one of the first lessons in being president. Just because it isn’t still red, doesn’t mean it isn’t still hot. So be careful what you pick up.”

“Never accept a gift you have to feed. Particularly if it eats while you are sleeping.”