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Inside Iowa State, a newspaper for faculty and staff, is published by the Office of University Relations.

June 11, 2004

Showman, salesman, counselor

by Annette Hacker

It's pushing 5:30, what would seemingly be the end of a long day for Marc Harding.

Iowa State's admissions director had led meetings, fielded phone calls, crunched data, spoken with a reporter and zigged and zagged out of freshman orientation. He'd paused just long enough to pick up a dazed bird flailing on the sidewalk -- saving both the bird and the impression it might have left on campus visitors --- and managed to work that into his speech to a group of wide-eyed, would-be Cyclones.

That must've been the warm-up act.

Miss Piggy and JFK

Harding has just launched into his repertoire of impressions -- from Mickey Mouse to Miss Piggy, the Crocodile Hunter to Dr. Evil, and Jimmy Stewart to John F. Kennedy. ("You've got to be from Massachusetts to pull that one off," Harding said. He is.) He does a dozen or so voices convincingly -- though his Sean Connery still sounds a bit like Jimmy Stewart and, Harding admitted, his Kermit the Frog needs practice.

It is an unusual talent, honed during solitary car trips to "hundreds and hundreds" of high schools in an almost 20-year admissions career that has taken Harding to four universities, three of them land-grant institutions. He's been at Iowa State since 1997.

Harding, who earned a communications degree (and a minor in Chinese) from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, might have taken another career path -- radio, motivational speaking, maybe even stand-up comedy -- if he hadn't become smitten with admissions as an undergrad.

"I helped with new student orientation and worked as a tour guide," Harding said. "I loved what I did, I loved my alma mater, and I thought, 'It's pretty cool to be able to do that.' I loved giving tours because I had a stage."

Always "on"

Following graduation in 1985, Harding became a University of Massachusetts admissions counselor and left four years later as assistant director of admissions. It was there that he learned the importance of customer service and the parallels between performing and recruiting students.

"I learned to multi-task. The admissions business is a fast-paced, high-energy kind of profession that requires a positive attitude, a student-centered approach and a passion for working with people," Harding said. "There are a lot of Disney-esque features to admissions. When a parent and prospective student walk in the door, they don't care if we've met with 100 other students that day. They want to have their college visit experience. They want to be paid attention to. And they pay a great deal of attention to what we look like, what we say, how we act and how we treat them. Our folks always have to be on."

Disney business philosophy

Harding is a student and devotee of Walt Disney's business philosophy, which emphasizes customer service, innovation, entertainment and big thinking. Following a three-year stint as senior assistant director of admissions at Virginia Tech, Blacksburg, Harding moved on to the University of South Florida, Tampa -- near enough to Orlando to experience Disney World anytime he wanted.

"What an experience," Harding said of his five years there. "A metropolitan university, right in the heart of Tampa. But it was so different from the other universities I'd worked for previously, and it is nothing like Iowa State. (USF) enrolled more transfer students than freshmen, the average age for a student was 28, and it's a relatively new university -- a little more than 40 years old. And Florida is a state that has more prospective students than it knows what to do with."

Serving as associate director of admissions at USF gave Harding opportunities to grow professionally and to manage a large staff, experience that allowed him to land the admissions director job at Iowa State more than seven years ago.

"I was ready to come back to a land-grant university," Harding said. "It's my kind of place. I believe in the land-grant mission and it's a great fit for who I am, my values."

Excited about snow

Harding and his wife, Nicole, convinced daughters Ashley (now 17) and Victoria (now almost 13) to leave behind Sea World, Busch Gardens and the beach for Ames.

"We got them excited about the adventure. We even got them excited about snow," Harding recalled. "Florida was a fun place but it wasn't necessarily an ideal family-raising place. Here, my kids have found great neighborhoods, great schools they have wonderful friends, and they feel safe."

The numbers game

Today, Harding directs a staff of 50 in the admissions office and also manages, on an interim basis, day-to-day operations for enrollment services. He still visits about a dozen high schools each year to keep in touch and keep his skills sharp. He is equal parts showman, salesman and counselor -- juggling marketing, publications, presentations, staff development, enrollment projections and strategic planning.

"Marc's interests are so diverse and so many that you always walk away with another idea. He's always looking to move something to the next level, and always trying to include others. I think he could talk to a rock and get the rock to talk back," said vice president for student affairs Tom Hill, to whom Harding reports.

"You do whatever it takes to get the job done," Harding said. "We have a bottom line. There's always a number in sight -- a number that impacts revenue, course availability and the residence halls. Talk to any admissions director and the question is always the same: 'How are the numbers?'"

The numbers are perhaps more challenging than ever. Harding's office vigorously courts prospective students -- a 20-month relationship-building process that starts during a student's junior year in high school. Admissions staffers devise specific strategies to target in-state students, out-of-state students, international students, high-ability students and minorities. Hundreds of thousands of letters are sent and phone calls are made annually to woo prospective Iowa State students.

"We have an incredibly talented team of people who work their tails off to process applications and take care of our customers," Harding said.

Dwindling pool

But freshman enrollment is dropping -- from an all-time high of 4,654 incoming freshmen in fall 2001 to about 3,700 this fall.

The numbers are respectable, Harding said, but indicative of the times. The number of Iowa high school students continues to drop, while the state's 30+ private colleges, 15 community colleges and three regents universities compete in the same dwindling pool. Tuition has increased; state support has decreased -- a situation affecting virtually every state in the country, Harding emphasized. And national news coverage of the Veishea disturbances and CUFFS, a student organization promoting bondage and sadomasochism, has negatively affected enrollment to some degree.

"(These incidents) make people think more deeply about their decision. While I'd like to think that folks would be more rational about the decision-making process, the reality is that people are inundated with information and the decision of choosing a college is a difficult one. It's easy to make the irrational or illogical conclusion that 'it's not the place for me,'" Harding said.

He's confident that the university's strategic planning process, currently under way, and reaccreditation evaluation slated for 2005-06 will provide direction for Iowa State and help to determine optimal enrollment for the university.

"The university's future is very bright. It's just that we're at a crossroads. We must deal with the new fiscal realities yet remain a premier institution."

Official name reader

Harding has come to know the premier institution as both an administrator and a student. He plans to complete his master's degree in educational leadership policy studies this summer.

Harding said he'll definitely attend commencement, not only to mark the achievement but because he'll be there anyway. He's an official "name reader," recognizing graduates as they walk across the stage.

"I wonder if they'll let me read my own name?" Harding wondered.

Another opportunity to be on stage. He's delighted at the prospect.

Marc Harding

Admissions director Marc Harding does a lot of juggling -- both on and off the job. (Photo by Bob Elbert.)


"The admissions business is a fast-paced, high-energy kind of profession that requires a positive attitude, a student-centered approach and a passion for working with people."

Marc Harding