Martha Dunagin Saunders is the sixth President of the University of West Florida. In her 30-plus years in higher education, she has served in academic and leadership roles at universities in Florida, Georgia, Wisconsin and Mississippi. Her area of academic expertise is in public relations and crisis communication for which she has won numerous awards, including two Public Relations Society of America’s coveted Silver Anvils. 

Saunders led the University of West Florida to its status as a top-performing public university with the third-highest score in the Florida Board of Governors performance metrics. She established the UWF Innovation Institute, Center for Cybersecurity and the Office of Equity and Diversity. She oversaw the reorganization of the institution’s colleges, and under her guidance, UWF established two new named colleges–the Usha Kundu M.D. College of Health and the Hal Marcus College of Science and Engineering.

You can only Be the Leader You Are

by Dr. Martha Saunders

Saunders’ vision for UWF is for it to grow beyond its beginnings as a regional comprehensive university and be seen as a leader in innovation and cutting edge academic programs. She plans to build on the University’s strengths and its undergraduate traditions while creating programs that will attract the faculty and research funding needed to make the leap to the next level. 

As an entrepreneurial leader, Saunders is passionate about creating innovative solutions to deal with the dynamic challenges facing higher education. As a change maker, she drives action behind these solutions to propel higher education into the future.

Dr Martha Saunders: You can only Be the Leader You Are

Show Highlights

  • Martha shares how to be an authentic leader. 
  • How honest advice can make a profound impact.
  • Ways to recognize and reward top teachers 
  • 2 questions that will capture the essence of your school to help with teacher retention and recruitment
  • Martha’s advice on not letting intitivitives break your bank and zap all your energy
  • Lead with a “Frontier spirit” 
  • Leadership teams need balance to compliment your vision


“I read it in a book recently and it said, ‘if something scares you get closer.’ I think I would put that on every school because we pull away from things we don’t understand. And that’s true in every field. If we don’t understand something, we back off from it and we often deprive ourselves of some real growth. So I think that’s a rather provocative statement.”

Full Transcript Available Here

Welcome (00:00):

Welcome to the Better Leaders, Better Schools Podcast. This is your friendly neighborhood podcast. Host Daniel Bauer.

Intro (00:09):

Better Leaders, Better Schools is a weekly show for Ruckus Maker. And what is a Ruckus Maker, a leader who has found freedom from the status quo, a leader who makes change happen, a leader who never ever gives up. Imagine sitting in the lunchroom with colleagues, incomes, a university president who tells you you’d make a great university president, how would you handle that news? Especially if it’s before many women, we are a university president, meaning you’d be a trailblazer. How would you respond in that moment? That’s a sorry, dr. Sanders and I jumped into the front end of this episode, toward the end. We discuss how to attract and retain talent. And you won’t want to miss this incredibly practical tactic. So Ruckus Maker, thanks for being here. And before we jump into the episode, let’s take some time to thank our show sponsor the better leaders better schools. Podcast is brought to you by organized binder, which increases student active engagement and participation and reduces classroom management issues. Learn [email protected]. Today’s podcast is brought to you by TeachFX. It’s basically like a Fitbit for teachers helping them be mindful of teacher talk versus student talk. Get a special 20% discount for your school or district by visiting teachfx.Com/Blbs

Daniel (01:50):

Have you ever wondered what kind of leader makes a good Mastermind member? Well, recently I asked the leaders I serve and here’s what they said about their peers. Arlene, a deputy head in Qingdao, China said Mastermind members are supportive, wise and not afraid to kick your butt. Chris, a vice principal in Kamloops, British Columbia, Canada, courageous risk takers and learners are how I describe my Mastermind peers. Finally, Melody, a principal in Kentucky said, Mastermind members are generous, driven, and never satisfied with the status quo. If that sounds like you or peers that you’d like to surround yourself with apply to the Mastermind today at better leaders, better schools.com forward slash Mastermind.

Daniel (02:42):

Well, Hey there Ruckus Maker. I’m here with Dr. Martha Dunnigan Saunders, the sixth president of the University of West Florida in her 30 plus years in higher education. Dr. Sanders has served in academic and leadership roles at Universities in Florida, Georgia, Wisconsin, and Mississippi. Her area of academic expertise is in public relations and crisis communication for which she has one numerous awards. Dr. Sanders, welcome to the show. Thank you. I’m glad to be here. So will you take us to the moment you’re there? You’re having lunch with the University president and he mentions to you that you would make a great university president.

Martha (03:29):

Sure. I had a come up, the faculty ranks and I was a dean here at the university. I had a president at the time who really took a keen interest in the leadership on his campus and spent time with us. At the time we frequently ate together in the commons with the students. Faculty would go in or administrators and sit at big tables. So there we were, he and I were the last two at the table and he complimented something that we had done in the college and complemented our work.

Martha (04:11):

And, and then he said, you know, you’d be a good president. And I said, you know, go on. He said, really you, you would, but we taught you everything we can teach you here. You need to go some other places and learn some other things and that was about the most generous advice anyone in ever given me. I was in a place, my husband and I were in kind of a sweet spot where we could make a move together. So six months later I was gone. I was a provost at another place and so he had to find another Dean, but it was the first time I had ever, I think, even entertained the thought of being president.

Daniel (04:59):

I’d love to dig in a little more to why that moment was so profound for you and also the timeline of six months and your at a new place. I’m curious how you processed, what he shared, that we taught you everything we teach here. You’d be a great president. So I’ll stop there.

Martha (05:11):

Well, I think part of it, what I’ve always been receptive to new challenges and new opportunities when they pop up. I won’t say I’m impulsive, but I do process quickly. It’s either right for me or it’s not right for me. So when he said that I was so moved by his encouragement, I’ve been fortunate throughout my life to have people who’ve taken the time just to encourage me, not formal mentoring, but simply, Hey, you’re doing a good job. You should do that some more. I went home and talked to my husband and we were just as luck would have it in a place our last child had left for college.

Martha (06:09):

So a move was easy for us. It’s not always, that’s simple for some couples or some families. I thought, well, I’ll go look in the Chronicle and see what’s next. I was a Dean and there was a vice presidency available in Georgia. I was sitting at my breakfast bar with a friend reading the Chronicle and telling her this story and when I named that school, she said, Oh, I went there, that’s a great school. You should go. So I applied and it moved very quickly. I said, the following July was gone and moved on. Three years after that I moved into my first presidency.

Martha (07:02):

You mentioned that you could only be the leader you are. How does that guide your work? I think, you know, we, all, anyone in leadership probably are always keen to listen to podcasts and read books on leadership, and effective management and those things. But I’ve also learned that you can adapt and adopt best practices, but you’re only who you are. And you’re influenced very much by the world you came into ,the parents you had, the environment you grew up in the traits you develop, and your dispositions that you had early on. If you try to be somebody else, you’re just going to be terribly frustrated. For me, I had a little unusual, at the time my mother worked, she was a private duty nurse and in those days I’m dating myself a little bit. In those days before ICUs, if you were really sick, you had round the clock nurses.

Martha (08:11):

And so she was really good at her job, but she works seven days a week. It could sometimes be weeks and months until a patient no longer needed her. I say all that because I kind of raised myself. I had a sister who was six years older and I was very independent, got myself up for school. Did some things that maybe before, other kids had parents at home to help them do that. All that being said, it has made me fiercely independent, but there’s a flip side to that too. One of the things is I don’t ask for help, but I should. You don’t always think, well, there’s somebody out there that can give me good advice. I’ve regretted not reaching out to folks for assistance when I should have, because it just never occurred to me. It was there, but you gotta know that about yourself and then you have to work around your inclinations.

Daniel (09:22):

I appreciate that imagery you’re given us two sides to every coin, right. Fiercely independent side. Sometimes you don’t rely on others for help or ask for help. So now that you have that awareness Martha, does that impact how you show up and how you lead? I don’t know if it was a moment, like, why aren’t I asking for help? Or if that’s just something with experience and awareness know you know to reach out.

Martha (09:51):

It’s been more experience. Again, the older you get, the more you’re around the same problems. More than once. I think, you know, I could have called my colleague down the road and asked about that, but I tried to figure it out myself. It took time. It didn’t work all that well. So I think those are things that the longer you develop a wisdom from experience and that made a difference to me. I’m still very independent. I process quickly. I make quick decisions and I know I’m making quick decisions. So I make sure I have people around me who are a little more reflective. My provost and I are a really good team. I tell him he’s a historian so he see life in eras, but he’s going to reflect and think on things for a long time, I’m going to move quick.

Martha (10:50):

And between us, we make a pretty good administrator. Every now and then he’ll say something like, could you wait just a day before you blow up the campus and I treasure his advice because I know he is putting thought in to things. You need to know yourself so you can help people around you who can compliment you. I’ve seen people fear having folks around who are not like them and it’s a fairly unidimensional life. If everybody agrees then all, you know, is what you know, and not a lot gets done, I’d rather be challenged.

Daniel (11:33):

Absolutely. The challenge is the balance but also the strengths that he brings to the table, without that you said Univision, I’m thinking blind spots and the echo chamber and group think, and these things are toxic, to me for a culture. So I appreciate you bringing that up. Now, I want to bring us back to lunch and sit with the university president in hearing that you’d be a great president, because I know that there was bias. You had to navigate right to progress like you did through your career. I’m just very curious how you approach that.

Martha (11:54):

Well, when I was in college and often I’ll have students ask me did you think about being a president when you were a student in college? And my answer was no, because they didn’t make women presidents when I was in college or anything at all. And so for me, there weren’t an awful lot of opportunities for women. We were on the front end of what we now call the women’s movement. We did what we could and the opportunity that was there and that may be why I’m quick to jump on opportunities because that window closes pretty fast.

Martha (12:52):

I’ve had to learn sometimes to navigate without a five year plan or a one year plan, because those career paths had not been created. I think a lot and often the quote about, you know, leadership was like driving at night. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way. And so I think in my career, I could only see sometimes just as far as my headlights, but I could, I made the whole trip that way.

Daniel (13:29):

So what I’m hearing is about seizing the opportunity. I guess I’m putting words in your mouth, so correct me if I’m wrong, but if you can only see, as far as your headlights, it’s almost like one step after another.

Martha (13:44):

I think so. I mean you kinda sorta know where you’re going and you have a destination, but you just don’t know all the turns you’re going to take or the, the barriers in the way until often they’re right upon you, I’ve learned to respond quickly, not just to opportunity, but to challenges to meet them head on.

Martha (14:06):

I guess the barriers that many women have found in the workplace, I’m sure I had them. They just you know, in hindsight, and I get this question a lot in hindsight, I don’t remember it bothering me too much because I was so excited about where I was going and I’m on the road now and I don’t know how far I’ll get, but we’re going and that was enough.

Daniel (14:39):

Well, Martha, I’m really enjoying this conversation and hearing about how you got to where you’re at today. When we come back after this short break from our sponsors, let’s talk about the interesting work you’re doing at the University of West Florida.

Daniel (14:51):

Better leaders, better schools is proudly sponsored by organized binder, a program which gives students daily exposure to goal setting, reflective learning time and task management, study strategies, organizational skills, and more organized binders color coded system is implemented by the teacher with the students, helping them create a predictable and dependable classroom routine, learn more and improve your students’ executive functioning and noncognitive [email protected].

Daniel (15:26):

The better leaders, better schools. Podcast is brought to you by teach FX. Teach FX is a research driven app that uses artificial intelligence to give teachers feedback on the balance of teacher talk versus student talk, their use of open ended questions. Wait time and equitable classroom dialogue, learn more and get a special 20% discount for your school or district by visiting TeachFX.com/blbs.

Martha (15:58):

Alright, and we’re back. Martha, how do you use a mission as a touchstone in a barrier against the noise? I think the mission of the institution or in your personal mission, it helps you keep your eye on the ball. It’s very easy to be distracted recently in a staff meeting. I said when you’re in doubt, let’s go back. So what we’re here to do is to provide high quality undergraduate and graduate education. If what you’re doing is a stretch from that, it brings you back just center and helps you. It certainly eases the stress of multiple decision-making. There will always be Mirian opportunities out there for the university to do, but you do need to keep a strong eye on where you are going and it eases a lot of pain.

Daniel (16:58):

I was talking to a leader I work with one on one, and she was considering renewing a contract of a teacher because it is very difficult these days to hire teachers. There’s a teacher shortage. I don’t know if there’s a professor shortage, but I do know that universities are competing for the best. And I’m curious, how are you as a leader approach attracting talent and then growing the leaders within your organization?

Martha (17:27):

Yes. And we compete with the rest of the country for the best. I think one of the ways we have been successful, one is kind of creating a buzz around the institution. We want new faculty or faculty recruits to have heard about us and say, Hey there, whether it’s in specific field,

Martha (17:50):

They’re doing some cool stuff or just the institution in general. But what they tell me, the ones who come here, you know, the rock stars and they say, I like it here because I can make my mark. We get into this business we have to make a living, but we don’t get into higher ed and the professoriate to get rich. We get in to do the work we love to do. So the institution needs to make that opportunity available. And again, I’ve had more facility say, I can make my mark here. I can have an entire career here because we give them those opportunities and we encourage it. I think the entire institution has, I call it the frontier spirit, but an entrepreneurial spirit. And we encourage new ideas. We try new things. We don’t hesitate to say, well, that didn’t work.

Martha (18:50):

And then we pull it back and find new things. And I think that keeps things very fresh and very aligned for our faculty. We don’t lose faculty. They come here every now and then and I always pay attention if a tenured, especially a tenured, but a tenure line faculty member leaves, we try to find out why. Sometimes they are going to a place where maybe there’s a richer research enterprise with what they do, but we just don’t lose them. They stay and I think that’s because it’s a rich place where they can have a life and a career.

Daniel (19:32):

If you’re tapping into this idea of making your mark like you said, that’s a big draw for the Ruckus Maker. Who’s listening to this podcast episode. I’m sure they’d want to put that signal out. Right. I’m sure they believe that too. We want to lead organizations where people can make their mark reflecting on your leadership. Is there anything about it that you think is putting out that signal? So people know if I come here, I can make my mark.

Martha (19:56):

Well, we celebrate it for one thing we recognize and show appreciation for faculty who are making their mark. Not so long ago I asked the deans to give me the names of the top students in their colleges. Not necessarily the ones with the highest GPA, but I call them the golden children. The ones that they’re just taking everything, you can give them and their loving being there, the great students and I bought them all pizza, over several weeks and I’d ask them one question. I said, who’s your favorite teacher and why two questions?

Martha (20:45):

And they told me, so then we interviewed those faculty. The ones that the top students and you would be surprised that they weren’t always in their majors. They were sometimes someone they had taken. Then we asked them, what brought you here? What keeps you here? What feeds you in? A lot of what I heard was I have the ability to craft my own route and, and to make a mark. And then we celebrated it. We took pictures. We brand videos on those faculty. They captured the essence. We think of where we are. And we continue to do that. We also connected that those little people make your mark interviews with their department’s homepage. Also our HR homepage so that it says, why come to work here? And then you’re hearing people who work here and they weren’t all faculty. Some of them were academic support folks, but they say, here’s why I came and here’s why I am staying.

Daniel (21:54):

I love celebrating. So you gave a great story there with that. You’re using your human resources and the people that you serve on campus as testimonials for why they came here. And that’s just a very clever and wonderful thing to do. So, I appreciate those pieces that you have there. Yeah. Then I think it’s very practical too. This is what I heard interviewed top students and find out who their favorite teachers were. I go to them, figuring out what brought them here and what keeps them around and really amplify that story. That’s great. It was better than any survey I could have done. It’s just such a smart approach. I really appreciate you sharing that. Through that story, you mentioned that you’ve also learned from things that didn’t work. So here to dig into that, just a bit for us.

Martha (22:45):

We have lots of initiative ideas, but if they feel off, if they start to feel off, that’s usually a sign that they’re not working. I found that when things just get overly complicated, we’re trying to launch this program or some initiative and it just gets harder and harder. It’s probably time to say, let’s just take a breath and back off. I like to fund and seed new initiatives, but arguably, maybe a three year window. And we set some benchmarks, you know, at the end of three years, I would expect this, but I always put a sunset in there and say, all right, here’s here’s when we’re going to declare this didn’t work, waving the white flag. Yeah. I like that. Our needs to go on or come back later with a little or be revised.

Martha (23:48):

And I think if you take the time on the front end to say, we’re going to give this a go, but here’s how we’ll know it’s not working there. Aren’t so many hard feelings. Okay. And also then also there’s no assumption that it’s going to stay there forever because you can really go broke doing that. That’s been a way of, of trying new things without putting so much risk there. Well, Bernay Brown says clear as kind. And so by identifying what success looks like and what taking the project to the next level is also why you would say, okay, this is done. That’s just a wonderful way to communicate with the team. Usually, if they know they’re watching the dashboard too, and they make adjustments along the way and say, Hey, I know it’s not exactly where we thought it would be, but I’ve tweaked it. And you know, here we go. It’s teamwork.

Daniel (24:49):

We’re about at the time of the podcast where I get to two questions, I love to ask every guest. So we’ll start with the marquee question, which is what message would you put on all school marquees across the globe, if you could do so for just a day?

Martha (25:10):

Oh, there are so many, but one that has stuck in my mind. I think I read it in a book recently and it said, “if something scares you get closer.” I think I would put that on every school because we pull away from things we don’t understand. And that’s true in every field. If we don’t understand something, we back off from it and we often deprive ourselves of some real growth. So I think that’s a rather provocative statement. Parents might not be real happy, but I think it’s one that would, if there was one essence of what higher ed is supposed to be, that’s it gets closer to things you don’t understand.

Martha (25:44):

You’re building a school from the ground up. You’re not limited by any resources. Your only limitation is your imagination. How would you build your dream school and what would be your top three priorities? Oh, it would be totally immersive learning no walls. We might not even need buildings. We just need places to stay or sit or convene. In our community, especially Pensacola is a very old town with just layers and layers and layers of history. So we have the community. All we have to do is get out and walk around and lecture in so they see it and they touch it in my school would be problem-based.

Martha (26:43):

You know, students are gonna learn more when they can determine, “Hey, I need to know trigonometry to solve this problem,” but it needs to be a problem based on provocative problems, turn them on to learning and let them figure out what they need to know. So I’m like all immersive. If I had my way with, of course, with all the money in the world, we could take the students where they needed to be and bring the right people in to talk.

Daniel (27:12):

Martha, thank you so much for being a part of the better leaders, better schools, podcast of all the things we talked about today, what’s the one thing you want a Ruckus Maker to remember? Oh, I’d say ask for help. When you’re stumped, there’s a lot of help out there and people want you to succeed.

Daniel (27:35):

Thanks for listening to the better leaders, better schools podcast for Ruckus Maker. If you have a question or would like to connect my email, Daniel@better leaders, better schools.com or hit me up on Twitter @alien earbud. If the better leaders better schools, podcast is helping you grow as a school leader, then please help us serve more Ruckus Makers like you. You can subscribe, leave an honest rating and review or share on social media with your biggest takeaway. From the episode, extra credit for tagging me on Twitter @alien earbud and using the hashtag #blbs level up your leadership at better leaders, better schools.com and talk to you next time until then class dismissed. [inaudible].




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