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Dr. White: “We’ve stopped the bleeding” at Martin University

INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. – Dr. Eugene White told the sold out audience at Martin University’s Founders Luncheon that he, “flunked retirement.”

The veteran Indianapolis educator fully intended to move south with his wife after wrapping up his career as IPS superintendent in 2013 when the Martin University Board of Trustees came calling, panicked and on the edge of higher ed calamity, asking White to take over as the east side school’s interim president after three other leaders tried and failed to turn the university around in four years.

Founded in 1977 by Father Boniface Hardin and Sister Jane Schilling literally on a prayer, Martin University had forever been long on best intentions and short of cash.

“We started out in the hole so over the years it’s always been a financial struggle,” said White, who found the university saddled with $900,000 in short term debt and risking missed payroll, laid off staff and had class reductions in order to keep the lights on.  “We were in danger of losing accreditation and because we were put on probation we still had accreditation and Martin has to have accreditation because if you don’t have accreditation our students are not eligible for Title 4 funds.”

Without access to federally guaranteed loans many Martin students could not afford a higher education at the private university.

“When you’re private, they have a rating scale called the Composite Financial Index. It’s a three point scale. One, you’re shaky, 1.5 you’re in good financial shape, 2 you’re great. 3 is kind of unheard of. When I got here Martin was at 0.6. At the end of one year we were at 1.5 at the end of two years we’re at 1.7 end of the third year we’re at 2.1,” said White.  “It took us three years to get probation eliminated so I’m so pleased to say as of February of this year we’re off of probation.”

Moving off probation solidifies Martin’s accreditation and as a result permits the university to move forward not only with establishment of its new School of Education this fall, but other plans to expand its mission of education and service off campus.

“We are working with partners to start an Education Zone in the Martindale Brightwood community to support families and children to make sure they have a chance to be prepared for school but not only that but to improve the quality of life in the Martindale-Brightwood community,” said White. “What we want to do is help families and children in five areas:  in the area of education, in the area of health wellness, in the area of mental wellness, in the area of social services and in the area of safety.”

White said 30 east side partners, including churches, schools and health care facilities, have united in creation of the education zone.

“This will come together in a comprehensive education program to make sure those children are ready for school, they’re ready to take advantage of opportunities if they have financial awareness and educational awareness, etc., and that starts before the baby’s even born.”

Not only is White reaching off campus to extend Martin’s reach in the greater east side community, the university is also expanding its footprint in its immediate neighborhood.

“In that triangle we’ve bought more than 24 properties,” said White. “We’ve torn down houses. We’re getting prepared to make that whole triangle eventually the campus of Martin University.”

Currently, the university has stabilized the immediate neighborhood with a minimal of abandoned properties while also serving as a responsible landlord for some residents who may also qualify as students.

“If they don’t have a degree or an associate’s degree, Martin University is right across the street for them to attend,” said Josephine Rogers Smith of the Martindale-Brightwood Community Development Corporation.

She notes that the area’s industrial and business base has crumbled over several decades. “That declined over time and now its taken us time to get the community back to a good economic base so that means having an institution like Martin University to serve as an anchor to help us with job training and education and the community in general,” she said.

Rogers Smith points to a new $5 million public library branch, the construction of 142 apartments at 16th St., the Monon Trail and sidewalk, street and infrastructure improvements as proof that Martindale-Brightwood is starting to turn a corner based on investment and not necessarily traditional government social services and subsidy support.

Meanwhile, Martin continues to double down on its mission to attract non-traditional older adult students focused on studies dedicated to service professions.

“We feel now that we’ve stopped the bleeding,” said White who inherited a shrinking classroom population that bottomed out last fall and has built back up to 364 students with an eye on more than doubling the total student body. “We have increased our retention, which means we’re not losing students.”

Martin currently offers 13 degrees and boasts an open enrollment policy which often requires education remediation to bring incoming students up to academic speed.

“Martin is the only university of its kind in the state of Indiana,” said White.