New Kettering Leader Ponders Changes

December 2, 2005
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GRAND RAPIDS — Some changes could be in store for Flint-based Kettering University and its co-op program now that Stanley Liberty has taken over the reins. Many Kettering students work in West Michigan as part of the work co-op experiences.

Liberty joined Kettering July 1 from Bradley University in Peoria, Ill., where he had been provost and vice president for academic affairs since January 1998. He earned his bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees in electrical engineering from the University of Notre Dame. He succeeds retiring president James E.A. John and is only the sixth president in the institution’s 85-year history.

The new president wants Kettering to take a hard look at the way the school runs its co-op program, including its impact on student life. He’d also like to see more program offerings to attract a more diverse student body, more research — especially research that supports local economic development — and stronger graduate programs, possibly even adding a doctoral program or two.

“These are just questions I’m posing to the community right now,” he said. “I characterize all of it as looking at more flexibility and options for students in terms of the offerings of academic programs and the way we package them together, along with a stronger student life experience.”

Liberty lauded Kettering alumni.

“I came to Kettering University as the last rung on my career ladder for a handful of reasons,” he told the Business Journal on a recent two-day visit with a number of West Michigan employers. “One of those reasons is that the alumni of this institution have had absolutely wonderful success in their professional careers. Any university in the United States would be proud to claim the Kettering/GMI alumni as their own.”

But Kettering’s academic calendar is somewhat challenging, Liberty said, because school starts in mid-summer and then goes into alternating cycles, with all students spending 11 weeks on the campus and 11 weeks away from the campus at a job site. Kettering is the only institution in the United States to run on that kind of calendar; most other co-op schools run on a trimester system. Liberty thinks Kettering ought to look at some possible adjustments in the calendar.

Kettering is not going to give up the work learning experience, he said, but he does question whether the university should continue to require that of every single student and every single program. Kettering is very dependent upon the economic conditions and the job market for the co-op experiences, so a downturn or upturn in the job market impacts the number of applications, Liberty explained.

“Just like a business, we need to find a way to manage those cyclical behaviors, and one way to do that is to provide more options for students, like not starting co-op right away.”

Liberty also thinks the co-op program creates some challenges in regard to student life.

“In terms of the cultural and aesthetic development of students and the opportunity for them to get exposed to contemporary issues and debate them, we need to look for ways to do co-curricular things for the full development of the students,” he said. As an example, he mentioned his own experience during school as a musician.

Liberty also would like to see a breadth of program offerings that will appeal to a more diverse population, including women and minorities.

“Kettering has a focus on science and technology and has the ability to generate intellectual property, to provide development support for small businesses. In collaboration with other institutions, we can create an entrepreneurial environment and the support mechanisms to support entrepreneurial business startups, particularly of the science- and technology-based nature.”

In the years to come he’d like to see Kettering generate more sponsored research activity in the applied sciences that would play a role in supporting local economic development. Furthermore, he’d like to see the institution move its co-op program into the development of future entrepreneurs, not just graduates that will go to work for large industry.

“Innovation is where it’s at,” Liberty said. “Companies want people with entrepreneurial spirit who will take risks and really move things forward in their own organization. We also need people who will go out and start spin-off companies or other enterprises in their communities, which leads to a healthier economy.”

Looking ahead, he anticipates the strengthening of Kettering graduate programs, which are almost exclusively distance education programs. He wants the university to be stronger in research, and said that could ultimately mean a doctoral program or two.

“I don’t see Kettering moving far from its science and technology focus, but I see it fleshing out.”    

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