Martelle L. Cushman was born March 9, 1908, in Kalamazoo, Michigan. In 1928, Cushman graduated from Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo with a Life Teaching Certificate. He served as principal of Ellsworth High School in Ellsworth, Michigan from 1928 to 1931. He re-entered Western Michigan in 1931, and graduated with a Bachelor of Arts in 1932. He was employed as a teacher and coach at Kellogg School in Augusta, Michigan, from 1932 to 1935.
He married Florence Haas on June 20, 1933 in Kalamazoo. The couple had four children: Clifton, Cedric, Marnita, and Marlene. In 1935, he was hired as superintendent of schools in Cedarville, Michigan. He graduated from the University of Michigan in 1937 with a Master of Arts. His master's thesis was titled "Natural Community School Survey of Mackinac County, Michigan." From 1938 to 1941, he was superintendent of schools in Richmond, Michigan.
He left Michigan in 1941 to attend Cornell University, in Ithaca, New York, where he earned his Ph.D. in 1943. His doctoral dissertation was titled "An Evaluation of Rural School District Reorganization in Michigan." He served in the U.S. Army Air Force as an instructor on the B-24 bomber from August 1943 to March 1945.
He joined the faculty of Iowa State College in Ames in 1945. Directing work in rural education, he specialized in the areas of school administration, finance, and school district reorganization. He also directed the 1950 Iowa Study on School Finance in cooperation with the Iowa Department of Public Instruction. After rising to the rank of professor, he left Iowa State in 1954 to become dean of the College of Education at the University of North Dakota.
Under his leadership, the College of Education underwent a steady growth in enrollment. This growth was assisted by the reinstatement of the elementary education program in 1958. The foundation of a program in special education was undertaken in 1967, and the Northern Plains Indian Teacher Corps Program was established in 1969. Cushman also led the college through the process of receiving its first national accreditation.
Following the completion of a large-scale, statewide study on the issue of education in 1967, significant changes were made to the structure of the College of Education. An experimental college in teacher education, the New School, was established outside of the College of Education. This occurred despite reluctance from Dean Cushman and other members of the College of Education. Cushman went so far as to personally lobby the State Board of Higher Education to reject the restructuring of the College. Dr. Cushman took leave from UND in July 1972 to pursue research and writing. He formally retired the following year.
Cushman was a prodigious scholar who authored numerous articles. He was an active member of Phi Delta Kappa, an honorary education fraternity. He served as president of Phi Delta Kappa International from 1955 to 1957. He was also active in the National Educational Association, the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education, and the National Association of State Universities and Land Grant Colleges.
He died November 28, 1982, in Port Charlotte, Florida.
The M.L. Cushman Papers have been divided into five series:
Series 1: Associations of School Administrators
Series 2: North Dakota Educational Organizations
Series 3: Teacher Educational Organizations
Series 4: Professional Organizations
Series 5: Assorted Materials