New VP for Student Affairs envisions success in new position


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. 

Rakiah Bonjour

When it was announced that Martino Harmon, former associate vice president for Student Affairs would be taking over retiring Tom Hill’s vice president for Student Affairs position, Department of Residence Director Pete Englin was ecstatic.

“We’re excited across the division,” Englin said, describing Harmon as “refreshing” and “encouraging.”

Englin first met Harmon when the new vice president was interviewing for his former role. A friend of a friend got in touch with Englin to ask if he’d be willing to talk with Harmon.

Englin recognized that Harmon knew Iowa State “was a special place” right away, but was more impressed with his ability to care about others.

“The part I kept hearing from him was that he cared about student success,” Englin said. “He wanted to help more and more of the students get across the stage and graduate. That’s a part of his fabric, how he’s wired: to help students.”

Since his time began at Iowa State in 2013, Harmon has led multiple initiatives to help students. He headed a complete overhaul of the Thielen Student Health Center, even serving as the interim director in 2014. He co-leads a student success council at Iowa State along with ISU Associate Provost David Holger, and co-led the university to involvement with University Innovation Alliance, again with Holger, which is a consortium of 11 universities that share their practices on how to help students who may not do as well as others. He implements new data statistics into his work and revamped how Iowa State handles academic advising to improve students’ ISU experience.

Harmon said this new position is exactly what he’s always wanted, but he wasn’t always in a position that fit exactly what he wanted to do. Previously, Harmon was dean of student development at Rhodes State College and dean of admission, retention and student life at Washtenaw Community College.

“I remember mentors saying to me, ‘you’re going to be a great vice president of enrollment’ but I had an interest in Student Affairs … and I used to say, ‘no, you know, I really want to be a vice president of Student Affairs that has enrollment in the profile,’” Harmon said. “[I thought] one day I’ll find the right place and I’ll be that.”

The right place for Harmon turned out to be Iowa State, where he said he is “blessed to be on this campus” every day.

Being a member of the ISU community for nearly three years helped Harmon during his interview process.

“Once I started the interviews, I felt very comfortable,” he said. “I felt like I was talking to family and I was telling them about my background … and sharing my vision of where I would take the division of Students Affairs once I started.”

Harmon said being an insider has certainly helped him prepare for this position, but he said being an insider isn’t always a good thing.

“Sometimes you can be an insider and not be as engaged in your division and across other divisions as you should be and I think for me  and I do this for every position I’m in  I really make a strong effort to get to know people to understand the departments,” Harmon said. “Most importantly, I’ve been involved with students, student organizations and attending meetings … Because I did that and I had that process, that made me more comfortable.”

Harmon described his working style with the students as “very collaborative,” but Englin said Harmon is concerned with more than just students.

“He cares deeply about students and staff,” Englin said. “He pays attention and can articulate what that impact will be, [and] he takes the time to recognize everyone.”

Harmon’s concern with the staff is one of his two priorities in his new position. He hopes to fill interim cabinet positions as effective as possible, but recognizes the need for staff involvement in that process.

“We have a lot of interim cabinet members, so we have an opportunity to recruit the team, whether they be existing people or outside people, but listening will help me understand what we need,” Harmon said. “And then to share with people who are interested, ‘here is what my staff is saying, this is what we need, do you fit the characteristics that we are looking for?’”

Harmon’s other priority, which he outlined during his interview process, is to listen.

“The listening aspect and the understanding of where we are and where people think we need to go [is vital],” Harmon said.

He plans to start forums and smaller group discussions with students and individual student leaders. He also said he will have an open-door policy, which he’s had throughout his time as associate vice president. The policy helps him discuss campus needs with students, staff and directors.

“To me, that’s the most important part of listening, is understanding the needs but also understanding how to build a team,” Harmon said. “Listening started today … It’s not just the staff; it’s the students. It’s listening to them to understand what their needs are and how we set priorities based on that.”

Harmon’s already been listening to concerns and has ideas on how to address those. He said his big plans with this position are to have a new student life center, a focus on student health and to find solutions to shrinking availability of space.

“The most challenging concern is anything that is going to require more space,” Harmon said. “That is the most challenging concern because even if we know that we need to build a new building … that’s a need but it takes a lot of time, a lot of resources, a lot of planning. … Budget is always tough, but it’s about priorities. But space requires a lot of planning and a lot of resources.”

Harmon said finding a solution to this problem could require “a lot of creative thinking,” which he’s already begun to do with the plan for a student life center.

“My vision is that a student life center would be very comprehensive,” Harmon said, describing the center as being similar to the Memorial Union. “We have a very good Memorial Union. It’s historic, it’s a beautiful building, but really what I think we need is a second space for students that would have key critical services for students.”

The services Harmon envisions are different offices for things such as Greek Affairs, Student Activities and Student Counseling Services. He also sees it as an opportunity for students to interact socially with a soft space and dining spaces.

“We’re ready for that type of space, and I think we owe it to students to dream big and think big because a space like that would enhance the student experience and build excitement at Iowa State University,” Harmon said.

Megan Sweere, Student Government vice president, said the idea of a Student Learning Center is good because it’s important to continue to expand with the needs of the students, but Sweere is cautious of the idea.

“With the renovations being made to the MU … it’ll be important to be cognitive of what’s needed after those have been made,” Sweere said.

Student Government would help collect student input for what is needed, she added. 

Harmon also has plans for a health and wellness task force with a group of student-peer mentors and to strengthen areas of health on campus.

“Mental health, that is an area of critical need,” Harmon said. “It’s an area [where] we need to invest as many resources as we can.”

Harmon also hopes to improve responding to instances involving sexual assault and alcohol abuse.

“These are things I’ve been very concerned about and worked on since I’ve been at Iowa State University,” Harmon said. “There are areas we can pinpoint and be very specific [in fixing].”

Harmon has also played a vital part in collecting data and information to discover why there are student success gaps. He said students who don’t have a lot of financial aid are usually affected the most and tend to have a harder time staying in school.

“They’re here just trying to make it, trying to find a way to pay this back,” he said. “They’ve got the stress … and many times it catches up to them and they end up leaving. I would like to see if there’s a way to work on it from the front end … to find potential solutions but also try to fundraise through the foundation and donors for a gap fund.”

Harmon said the gap fund could be a loan with potential opportunity for forgiveness, or a grant, but he’s still working with data to find the answer.

The easiest part of transitioning to this new position, Harmon said, is that he already has “the knowing and understanding of the institution and departments.”

“I won’t have a problem understanding where I am and what the needs are,” Harmon said.

Sweere said his transition will be “smooth.”

“He already recognizes and sees the problems on campus and he’s already been involved with the students,” she said.

Sweere also said part of what makes Harmon good for this position is his availability to watch Hill perform throughout his time as vice president for Student Affairs. Hill will still work closely within the cabinet as an adviser to ISU President Steven Leath, which Harmon said he will take advantage of when needed.

“He’s been here 18 years, he’s a legend here, and to be able to tap him for his knowledge … ultimately it’ll be my decision and the direction of our leadership team, but having that institutional history and having him available, that’s a huge asset and I’m really happy he’ll be available,” Harmon said.

Englin said he loved working for Hill but is looking forward to transitioning with Harmon.

“[Harmon’s] recollection for facts and moments is incredible,” Englin said. “Working for an Olympian [Hill], the expectations are incredibly high. I expect to get that with [Harmon], but his efforts are to make sure staff are recognized, too.”

Harmon said the most difficult part of his transition will be “meeting the needs of students and Student Affairs into the overall university priorities.”

“We need to have an understanding of the bigger picture,” Harmon said.

Englin said Harmon will have a hard time remembering to take time for himself.

“He loves to work, but the needs within the university are relentless,” Englin said. “You could work 25 hours a day and still not be done, and we’ll all be encouraging to take time for himself. He spends all this time taking time for staff and students and we need to make sure he’s taking time for his own self.”

Harmon said he is looking forward to continuing to share the ISU experience with his family.

“Any time I’ve had to bring [my daughters] to this campus and experience that, that’s been the best time for me because I don’t have family here and sharing that Iowa State experience with them is really the best part.”

The best part for other ISU community members, however, is being able to continue to work with Harmon.

“He has such a humility about him,” Englin said. “He knows what to do and he’ll tap on the strengths and insights of those around him.”

Sweere said Student Government is excited to continue working with Harmon because of the positive experiences they’ve shared with him in the past.

“Our past experiences with him have been positive,” she said. “He comes to our meetings even when he doesn’t have to. We have such a close-knit campus feel. It’s important to build on that and also that the diversity issues will be addressed.”

Harmon said he’s just looking forward to continue making a difference in students’ lives.

“I really want the message to be for students that throughout my career in higher-ed I’ve had a lot of fortunate opportunities to make a difference in the lives of students, and this for me is my greatest opportunity to make a difference in the lives of students,” Harmon said. “I am very very fortunate and humbled and honored that I have the opportunity to do that and to lead and to serve.”