Lubbers Offers Keys To Success

June 5, 2002
| By Katy Rent |
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HOLLAND — Don Lubbers certainly has learned a thing or two during his 40 years as a college administrator.

Topping that list for the Grand Valley State University president may be the ability to create great leaders.

With an air of nostalgia and a sense of pride, among a sea of standing-room-only Holland Chamber of Commerce members, Lubbers offered what he calls his “recipe for success” during the chamber’s monthly early bird breakfast at Hope College.

Lubbers, who is retiring from GVSU on June 30 after more than 32 years at the helm, had plenty of tips for future college presidents.

He said focusing on enrollment is key for any college president.

“A temporary decline won’t hurt a president, but a continual decline will kill the president,” he said.

That’s a fact he learned — from a positive perspective — during his eight-year term as president at Central College in Pella, Iowa, where enrollment more than tripled under his tenure, going from 431 to 1,390 students. At GVSU, enrollment has risen from 2,000 to 18,500.

But maybe even more important than enrollment is developing a positive working relationship with the faculty.

“If you don’t do that you don’t stand a chance of building a university or a college. The quality of the faculty really determines the quality of instruction,” he said.

Lubbers said it’s also important to find staff who can do their own jobs better than you could do them and to maintain a good relationship with trustees.

“A president should pay a lot of attention to the trustees and who they are,” he said.

Lubbers also discussed some of the keys to good leadership, including giving encouragement, developing quality facilities, hiring quality people, keeping up with technology, avoiding deficits and listening.

“I found it important to just wander around. People will unload on you,” he said. “You will find out what’s happening.”

When assuming the post at Central College in 1960, Lubbers was the youngest college president in the country.

When he leaves GVSU next month it will be as the oldest.

In addition to enrollment and faculty relationships, Lubbers said a college president — or any company president — would do well to pay attention to quality facilities.

“It’s worth it to spend an extra 5 to 10 percent on construction costs,” he said. “The second best selling point is how it looks — the first is satisfied students. We deserve to have more beauty around us and if students have a beautiful place to be, they won’t trash it.”

Lubbers has a B.A. from Hope and said the trip back to the lakeshore school was a nostalgic one for him. Now living in Grand Rapids, for most of his teen-age years and young adult life his home was Holland, just a few miles from the Hope College campus, where his father served as president.

During Lubbers’ 32 years at GVSU, the school has grown from a small college on a single campus into a comprehensive regional university with three campuses that provide educational programs and services throughout West Michigan.

The president said he is particularly proud of the university’s programs in engineering, the health professions and in international study, all of which grew out of initiatives he proposed.

The establishment and expansion of the university’s campuses in Grand Rapids and Holland are recent initiatives that have made GVSU the state’s fastest growing university.

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