Martens Made “Computers For All” UB’s IT Philosophy

Release Date: April 28, 2000 This content is archived.


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Hinrich R. Martens is retiring after a long career at UB as one of the university's most ardent advocates of computer technology

BUFFALO, N.Y. -- Ask Hinrich R. (Hinni) Martens, associate vice president for computing and information technology at the University at Buffalo, about the downside of technology -- on this, the occasion of his retirement after 38 years at UB -- and the normally expansive statesman of UB's wired world grows suddenly quiet.

"That's a hard one," he says, searching.

"I'm probably the wrong person to ask," he answers finally. "I don't see a downside."

People who know him probably would agree that Martens doesn't see a downside to a lot of things.

A UB faculty member in the departments of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering, and Electrical Engineering since 1962, and in his present post for 15 years, Martens has presided over the equivalent of several lifetimes of technological change in education. And he's all for it.

From room-sized mainframes and analog computers to desktop PCs and the ubiquity of the World Wide Web, Martens has watched information technologies undergo quantum change.

Most importantly, he has seen people change their perceptions that computers are the proprietary responsibility of mathematicians and engineers to a belief that computers can play some role in nearly everyone's life. At UB, Martens often was the main driver behind that change in perception.

"I'm an advocate for, and apostle of, information technologies," he says. "I only see how they support the needs, desires and expectations of people."

His characteristic enthusiasm for the potential of technology and its life-enhancing power was evident even when he was a boy, growing up in Luebeck, Germany, a small city east of Hamburg, during World War II.

After the war, Martens began to develop his passion for all things mechanical. The aftermath of combat had turned Martens' hometown into a strange landscape of abandoned trucks, airplanes and other military equipment, all of which became great treasures for Martens.

"I liked to scavenge things, mostly radios, batteries and other electronic parts," he says.

He soon found a good use for all of it.

"We were having a lot of brown-outs then, and there were periods each day when there was no power at all," he says.

Martens, then 12, took the batteries he had found on abandoned aircraft and converted them into a supplementary lighting system that he wired directly into the house where his family lived so, even during blackouts, they could use the electricity.

"My wiring didn't pass any codes," he adds, smiling, "but I had a lot of customers in the neighborhood. They were very appreciative."

In 1952, Martens, his mother and three sisters emigrated to the United States.

He earned his bachelor's and master's degrees in mechanical engineering from the University of Rochester, and a doctorate in systems science from Michigan State University. He joined the UB faculty as an assistant professor in 1962.

Not long after coming to UB, Martens became an active member of the university's fledgling Computer Advisory Committee. In the early '70s, he was named chair, in part, he thinks, "because I might have said one too many things about how we had to do better in technology."

In 1973, he received a Distinguished Faculty Award from the Faculty of Engineering and Applied Sciences and a year later received the SUNY Chancellor's Award for Excellence in Teaching.

Throughout his tenure, Martens has believed strongly in the power technology holds for all the academic disciplines, even when computers were so new in some areas that he often was the target of skepticism.

For example, one of the very first computer labs he set up for students was actually in Clemens Hall for the Department of English back in 1982.

"Although it was still very primitive, I was starting to see the wonderful capabilities that computers had for word processing," he recalls. "We were still at the point where the only mechanical tool widely available for students was the typewriter. They were bogged down by the tedium of having to retype their papers."

So Martens, along with some very progressive colleagues in the English department, proposed and set up a computer lab for English composition with 14 computers. It did not meet with universal approval.

"People questioned what I was doing," he recalls. "They wanted to know why I was doing this for English and not engineering."

But the lab was a big hit with students and it wasn't long before the skeptics turned into believers.

"It was evident to me from the beginning that we were going to have to break with the obvious tradition of emphasizing computers in only the sciences," he says.

Martens continued to work with all the academic units, both within and beyond the sciences and engineering, to institute more and more student labs.

In 1981, he became director of University Computing Services and in 1985 was named to his current post, where he has overseen the planning and delivery of all computing, telecommunications and instructional-technology services at UB, supervising a staff of 160 and administering a budget of $15 million.

In the mid-'80s, he directed the mainframe purchases for all of the SUNY university centers. Martens also is a founding member of NYSERNET, the consortium of institutions in New York State that are constructing the very-high-speed-backbone network designed for supercomputers.

"Hinni Martens is a pioneer and a leader," says UB Senior Vice President Robert J. Wagner. "He also is a balancer: he has had one of the most difficult jobs in the university, balancing exploding demands for service with modest resources. He also is a problem-solver, willing to step in to help units having problems with technology.

"He has always had a 'we' not a 'me' attitude," Wagner adds. "In the best sense, I have always seen him as a citizen of the university."

Balancing the demands for more and faster service in an environment where resources are modest is an extremely difficult task and one that is similar in colleges and universities across the U.S.

That tension was underlined in the mid '90s, when Martens prepared a strategic document, called Vision 99, outlining the need for new resources in order for the university to keep pace with the rapidly changing world of technology.

"In that document, I identified the serious need for substantial investment of new money, not reallocations of existing funds, to cope with the ever-rising demands for computing, networking and network support," he says.

Unfortunately, resources remained insufficient for several years until the student technology fee was instituted, a move that was being undertaken by many universities.

"The students aren't complaining about the fee," says Martens, "but they do want to know, 'what are you doing for me with that money?'"

Martens is leaving UB just as the university has completed one of its most ambitious initiatives designed for students -- the Access99 program (recently renamed iConnect@UB) -- where computer access is required for all freshmen.

According to Joseph J. Tufariello, who headed up the program as senior vice provost for educational technology, Martens played a large role in that program's success.

"Martens threw the entire weight of CIT behind Access99," Tufariello recalls, "supporting everything from training CDs and software for the students to training sessions for students together with other units -- all of these things were supported right down the line. Access99 always was a top priority for Hinni.

"This also was a case where the academic side had to work closely with the service side, and even though we were charged with accomplishing something in one year that should have taken two years, in this case it worked without a hitch."

Asked about his most important achievements at UB, Martens points to two things: that he provided steady, incremental growth for IT at UB, and that he developed an outstanding technical staff.

An excellent communicator, Martens keeps his conversations remarkably free of technical jargon, a characteristic he says goes back to his roots as a professor.

"It's always been my practice to make communication a priority," he says. "My books are always open, my goals are clearly stated."

The challenges that remain make it harder for him to leave, he admits, for they are challenges that he still would like to take a crack at solving.

But he looks toward to retirement with the same enthusiasm he has brought to his work: he will spend more time with his wife and their six children and 11 (soon to be 13) grandchildren -- most of whom, by the way, are introduced to computers around the age of 3.

Martens also will have a chance to spend more time on his music -- a string bass player, he once was a member of the Amherst Symphony and played in a jazz group while a student at the University of Rochester.

His favorite tunes?

Two classics sung by Louis Armstrong: "On the Sunny Side of the Street" and "What a Wonderful World."

We are not surprised.

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