Martin University to lose its founder, but not his philosophy

In an 80-grit patch of the city fluent in poverty and despair, the Rev. Father Boniface Hardin lectures a visitor on how businesspeople need to learn the language and culture of countries where they operate.

If not out of deference, then do it for practical reasons, he says, painting a picture of foreign business partners who "bow their heads and say, 'This guy is one big sucker and we can rip him off,' in their language."

What at first sounds like Jack Welch preaching in the Church of Almighty Shareholder Value is the president of Martin University, adding a dash of the social justice gospel.

"The people who have good businesses know how to relate to people," Hardin adds. "If we could make up a good axiom … success equals good will–plus good business practices."

This Benedictine monk who founded a university in the unlikeliest of locations–the inner city–will soon speak the language of retirement: Hardin plans to step down as president of the state's only predominantly black university on Dec. 31 of next year.

That's the official date tucked inside the 29-year-old university's strategy.

The plan seeks to preserve Hardin's values and philosophy after he steps down. The departure of any university head comes with the risk of hiring a successor with antithetical ambitions and philosophies.

"We won't allow that to happen here," vows Marva Hunt, who heads Martin's Business Studies Department and chaired the strategy planning committee.

The 72-year old Hardin, even after shaving his beard, bears an uncanny resemblance to 19th century abolitionist Frederick Douglass (think a cross between boxing promoter Don King and scientist Albert Einstein).

Hardin "has created an institution that has set a lot of people free," said Thomas McKenna, former head of the Indiana Department of Commerce and for years a Martin University trustee.

Mixing poverty, professors

Since Hardin swung open the doors in 1977, Martin has awarded about 1,300 degrees and currently has an enrollment of roughly the same number. That's smaller than some high schools.

Martin's campus off Sherman Drive just north of Interstate 70 has a faculty of 40, staff of 45, and a budget that averages a wee $6.5 million.

Obscured by those diminutive measures, though, is the enormous difficulty that Hardin, and Sister Jane Schilling, faced in growing Martin in unpromising soil.

The Brightwood area about two miles northeast of downtown has a poverty rate that's double the U.S. average, at 24 percent. Per capita income of $14,034 compares with the U.S. average of $21,587, according to census data.

And while about 25 percent of Americans have a bachelor's degree, the rate in this part of the city is closer to 6.5 percent.

"Martin University students are, for the most part, economically disadvantaged and past the age where most are thinking about continuing their education," said Indianapolis developer and Martin supporter Michael Browning.

But Hardin "is an incredibly caring man who is helping those who are willing to work to improve themselves. … I would be hard-pressed to mention anyone I admire more than this man and his work," Browning added.

"Think of the challenges and the obstacles that entrepreneurs face, especially entrepreneurs of color, in starting a business from scratch. Multiply that by some factor and you can begin to realize the obstacles and challenges Father Boniface and Sister Jane have had to overcome," said Jesse L. Moore Jr., a Martin University graduate and trustee, who is manager of supplier diversity development at Purdue University.

"He's done something few human beings have. He created an institution of higher learning in one of the most impoverished areas of the city," McKenna said. "It just takes my breath away thinking of that accomplishment."

From monk to administrator

But for all he's done and his dozens of awards, including "Indiana Living Legend," bestowed by the Indiana Historical Society in 2002, Hardin isn't a household word outside of civic and academic circles. More people can probably name the Indiana Pacers involved in last month's stripclub altercation, who've done microscopically less to advance the community and improve the lives of thousands.

If anything, perhaps to a fault in the political world of academia, Hardin has done little to beat his chest in an effort to increase corporate giving to the university, according to associates.

"The funny thing about him is, I don't think he seeks attention. … He's [still] one of the better-kept secrets here in the city," said Martin dean Steve Glenn.

Perhaps it's his monastic upbringing. Hardin earned his master's in divinity at St. Meinrad School of Theology. He was ordained as a priest in 1959 and later worked as an associate pastor and became involved in the civil rights movement in Indianapolis. Inspired by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., one area of inequality Hardin wanted to tackle was helping blacks succeed in higher education.

"He came over to our house in the 1970s saying he wanted to start a college. I nearly fell down laughing," Glenn recalled.

Hardin "never took 'no' for an answer," Hunt said.

The monk-turned-college-administrator broke new ground in other ways, focusing on the older learner: Martin's average student age is 40.

"There were not four-year institutions focused on the adult learner 30 years ago," said former student Moore, who credits Hardin for encouraging him to finish his college degree later in life.

Mind and body

Appealing to the nontraditional student in a poor part of town involved a different approach. Many prospective students have no or limited access to health care. Martin has long been a place for residents to obtain health screenings, for example.

And then there was their state of mind.

"People come in, they're wounded. They're angry sometimes," Hardin said. "They really want to learn. They never had a chance … . We're the last chance for a lot of people."

Learning isn't through a traditional pedagogical approach, in which the instructor speaks from on high, but rather is andragogical: These older students are encouraged to bring their life experiences into the discussion as part of learning.

Another Hardin emphasis includes "weltanschauung," a German word for world perspective or community.

"Learning is mystical and we forget that we're made up of spirit and body and we can't do anything by ourselves," Hardin said.

The school's strategy embraces these Hardin approaches, reading almost as a creed preserving Hardin on paper for future generations.

Hardin "doesn't want the university just to become a university," Glenn said. "His greatest concern is for Martin not to lose its uniqueness."

Unfinished business

Hardin is finishing his decades-long term as president focused on the first phase of a $21 million capital campaign. The university has struggled over the years with gifts from alumni and limited corporate support. But believers such as developer Browning and family recently donated $250,000. And Martin has until the end of the year to receive dollar-for-dollar matching from Lilly Endowment Inc.

"The business community, with very little effort, could give that place total economic stability and independence," McKenna said.

Hardin's departure will not come before Martin expands its reach to younger students. His team is trying to recruit college-bound high school students. Hardin is there in the hallways, greeting prospective students and trying to inspire them about college studies.

Faculty are trying to strike more alliances with employers for internships and with community colleges such as Ivy Tech, to allow its students to transfer to Martin to obtain their bachelor's degrees.

Martin also is in talks with automotive firms about providing training for their displaced workers.

Hardin also hopes soon to provide a doctorate degree in psychology. There are few black psychologists in Indiana, he said.

But don't expect Hardin to go quietly when he does leave. He's been assured there will be room for him to teach, that is when he's not working on at least one book on higher education. He also plans to get involved in cancer issues, having survived prostate cancer.

He'll not talk about the date he'll pack up his office strewn full of globes–not in any of the dozen languages he speaks. It seems he's not done learning.

"I'll talk about passing on the torch, when it's lit."

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