Senior vice president of students affairs reflects on first 10 months

Dr. Martino Harmon was named the new Senior Vice President of Student Affairs at Iowa State University in 2016. Harmon has been involved in higher education for nearly twenty years and took over the position of senior vice president from Tom Hill. 

Nik Heftman

September 2015 – Students gathered outside the Cy-Hawk football game to protest the arrival of Republican candidate Donald Trump, wielding signs to express a disdain for bigotry. A woman approached one of the protesters, said a racial slur and ripped their sign in half.

“Students have been more forthright in coming forward and talking about things that are happening [since the CyHawk football game],” said Martino Harmon, senior vice president for student affairs. “Nothing that I’ve seen and experienced [as senior vice president] was anything I wasn’t ready for.”

Harmon, a University of Ohio, Toledo alumnus, has always had a passion for working with students and improving the student experience.

Harmon brought with him a slew of experience within the realm of student affairs when he arrived at Iowa State in 2013, having successfully held positions as executive director of student success and retention at Cincinnati State Technical and Community College, Cincinnati, Ohio; dean of student development at Rhodes State College, Lima, Ohio; and dean of admission, retention and student life at Washtenaw Community College, Ann Arbor, Michigan.

He also maintained several leadership roles during his career at the University of Ohio, Toledo, which spanned from 1996 to 2007. In 2013, Harmon was appointed the position of associate vice president at Iowa State University in 2013, eventually succeeding Tom Hill as senior vice for student affairs in 2016. Hill, a bronze medalist in the 1972 Olympics in Munich, retired after serving the students of Iowa State for nearly two decades.

“I was well prepared, by my predecessor, to take on the role,” Harmon said. “He had given what I needed to be successful.”

Since his appointment, Harmon has worked rigorously to maintain Hill’s vision of diversity and inclusion, as well as Hill’s vision of a better experience for students and staff at Iowa State.

“The world is changing,” Harmon said. “Corporations complain that students aren’t ready for the workforce, and part of it is team work, communication, diversity and inclusion. We would do students a disservice by telling them not to worry about diversity and inclusion.”

Though he feels that he’s accomplished most of his goals for the year, Harmon admitted frustration at the time it has taken for his team’s progressive ambitions to become reality.

“We spent so much time chasing cats, you know, with the posters, the election, and it gets exhausting,” Harmon said. “It gets hard to find time in the forward thinking things because we spent so much time reacting to things.”

Programs the Division of Student Affairs helped bring to life did not reign free of criticism, though most of the criticism stemmed from post-election support sessions hosted by Iowa State’s administration the night after the Nov. 8 presidential election.

In January, Republican Rep. Bobby Kaufmann introduced a bill named “Suck it up, buttercup,” a bill that targeted universities that facilitated said support sessions.

“People were just misinformed,” Harmon said. “We had [the support sessions] set up before the election. We didn’t know if we were going to have Trump supporters, or supporters of either candidate, at odds. We created the space for people to process [the election results] no matter who they were.”

Harmon’s office was responsible for the launching of three major programs within the division of student affairs: student health and wellness, assessment and research and student affairs fundraising. Matthew Pistilli, Liz McAllister and Mark Rowe-Bath were named the directors of the new student health, assessment and fundraising programs, respectively. Harmon said the new student health and wellness program is a more proactive approach to student health.

“It’s looking at how we can prevent students from needing to go to counseling,” Harmon said. “It will look at things like sleep deprivation and stress management. We want to be able to help people detect the signs [of health risks] amongst students.”

The division of student affairs also collaborated with the Iowa State Dean of Students Office, Office of Equal Opportunity, Office of Diversity and Inclusion and the ISU Police Department to launch a campus climate response team, a team charged with capturing incidents that happen on campus.

“If students report an incident to the police, we filter it through the response team,” Harmon said. “The goal of that team is not only to respond, but it’s also to track when and where the incidents are happening.”

Harmon said the next step would be to develop an online tool that will capture incidents in a systematic way so responders can be more proactive in preventing incidents from happening. Harmon will also seek to create a place where students and administration can track progress.

“We don’t have a place to show our response to things that are happening,” Harmon said. “It would be more efficient to have our own website where we could post initiatives that have been accomplished, or items that we’re working on. People need to see that we’re not just sitting around doing nothing.”

Harmon will also look to close achievement gaps outlined by Iowa State’s institutional research. The average four-year graduation rate for African-American students of the 2009, 2010 and 2011 entering classes is 23 percent. A similar trend exists for Hispanic students of the same class, which sits at about 31 percent. Harmon noted that male international students and veteran students face a similar achievement gap.

A lack of space, due to increased enrollment, is another issue that Harmon will try to solve.

“Our staff is very burnt out due to the increase in enrollment over the years,” Harmon said. “Space is our biggest challenge. As much as we want to grow, we’re finding challenge to find space for people to work.”

Despite all of the work Harmon will do in the coming months, he will be making a better effort to make himself more available to students. Harmon explained that he will use social media to connect with students, as well as set up visits to locations on campus where students can meet with him and talk about whatever.

“Overall, I think I am about where I thought we would be,” Harmon said. “I’m looking forward to going into fall 2017 with a set team and everything being firmly set in place. It’s been a fun ride, and fall 2017 is going to be good times.”