GVSU celebrates golden anniversary

August 30, 2010
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Grand Valley State University was born amid the optimism of the mid-century era.

Steelcase Inc. had recently begun offering metal office furniture in colors. Herman Miller’s now famous Eames chair had been on the market for two years. It would be another year before a couple of Grand Rapids entrepreneurs would start to sell household cleaners through their direct sales business.

In 1958, in response to a state study of higher education, local business and community leaders formed a committee to establish a university in West Michigan, according to the history posted on Grand Valley’s website. Led by accountant L. William Seidman, they used Frank Sinatra’s “High Hopes” as their theme song.

The names of many committee members still echo in West Michigan’s halls of business, such as Bissell and Goebel, and others ring in the ears of those familiar with Grand Rapids history: Daverman, Eberhard, Frey, Gillett. The names that adorn so many of today’s structures around West Michigan were not yet on the scene.

In a public-private partnership of the sort that has become de rigueur in 21st century Grand Rapids, legislators told the group to raise money before they would approve the endeavor.

“The legislature was not ready to charter it until $1 million had been raised privately,” said Arend “Don” Lubbers, GVSU’s second of four presidents. “So right from the beginning, Grand Valley has been a public-private project, and that continues to this day.”

The Grand Rapids Foundation, now the Grand Rapids Community Foundation, provided seed money. John Van Huizen’s cornfield in Ottawa County was chosen as the campus; its location was central to West Michigan but still within commuting distance of Grand Rapids.

In April 1960, Gov. G. Mennen Williams signed the bill to create Grand Valley State College, named in an area-wide contest.

Fifty years and thousands of students later, GVSU is planning a full slate of activities to commemorate its milestone 50th anniversary, including arts and sporting events, lectures, presentations and celebrations across the state. See www.gvsu.edu/anniversary for a calendar. The university also has produced a book, “Grand Valley Celebrates 50 Years of Shaping Lives.”

“I hope people will say we took care of our obligation to our community and we fulfilled our promise to them — students were educated, stayed here to raise their families and work in their professions and contributed to the quality of life, ” said President Thomas J. Haas, the fourth person to hold the job. “In 50 years, if we can say we have fulfilled that promise, we will have been successful.”

GVSU has grown to cover more than 1,200 acres in Allendale and now offers the Pew Campus in Grand Rapids, the Meijer Campus in Holland, and locations Muskegon and Traverse City.

Classes began in 1963, with 226 students and 15 professors. With this week’s launch of the 2010-11 academic year, there are more than 24,000 students, more than 800 faculty members and more than 1,100 other employees.

“Grand Valley is indeed a grand success story,” stated Meijer Inc. President Mark Murray, who served as university president from 2001 to 2006. Murray led an initiative to attract more students from outside of West Michigan.

“The institution attracts students from all over Michigan and beyond. It exposes them to great personal attention, and gives them opportunities for internships and to study abroad. West Michigan and all of Michigan benefit from the size, breadth and excellence of Grand Valley,” Murray said.

GVSU’s role as an economic development agent was always apparent, said Lubbers, who led the college for 32 years, from 1969 to 2001. One of the youngest college presidents in the nation, Lubbers, whose father had been president of Hope College in Holland, traded a job as president of Central College, a Reformed Church in America college located in Iowa, for the half-built public university campus in Allendale.

Lubbers said that economic development has always been part of the GVSU vocabulary. Haas, who reports to the community annually about the university’s economic impact, said that today it has a “$650 million footprint.”

“Most of the time, there was that economic development dimension,” Lubbers added. “When we were a relatively small institution, our development of curriculum — much of it, not entirely, but most of it — was directed toward the improvement of the economic and social life of the community.”

Lubbers said he promoted the idea of a Grand Rapids campus in the late 1970s, but an economic downturn prompted state cutbacks. That, coupled with declining enrollment and the disheartening collapse of the fieldhouse dome in 1980, delayed any effort to add a downtown campus by five years, he said.

“The questions always came: How can you — where there is not money around and people are cutting budgets — how can you be talking about a new facility downtown? They were betting against it, a lot of people were, and I think the media were skeptical,” Lubbers said.

Lubbers and Haas both said that working with Lansing to buoy higher education funding is critical, and Haas said he intends to vigorously educate 2011’s new green legislature and leadership team on the dangers of Michigan’s “policy of disinvestment” in higher education.

GVSU’s future will be based on “the three Rs” according to Haas: Relevance, responsiveness and return on investment, he said.

“Grand Valley has to be relevant to students and to the community it serves,” Haas said. That means focusing on undergraduate education while continuing to offer degree completion and graduate programs for working adults, he said. It also needs to respond to changes in its environment, such as the needs of employers, he added. Even in the 1960s, GVSU was working with local hospitals to train students for health care jobs.

“Return on investment — there are two sides of that coin,” Haas said. “One is talent shaping and development, and the other is our role in economic development.”

He pointed to the run-down warehouse next to U.S. 131 on the horizon outside his Pew Campus office window. Rebuilding the site for a new home for the Seidman College of Business — named for the father of GVSU’s founding father — will provide 200 construction jobs in the short term and 160 jobs over the long haul, Haas said. It also will house the university’s new full-time MBA program for new college graduates.

“I see it moving, continuing to move, in the direction set fairly early on to be the very best undergraduate education in the state of the state schools,” added Lubbers. “I think it has become that now. And I think that will be pretty well established by the 60th anniversary.”

Plans for the university were laid at the tail end of the 1957-58 recession. The baby boom generation, which saw peak birth rates in 1957, and the nationwide impetus to respond to the U.S.S.R.’s launch that same year of Sputnik, the first satellite to orbit Earth, seemed to align in the new college’s favor.

University of Michigan geologist James H. Zumberge, who died in 1992, became the first president. On his watch, GVSU held its first classes and first graduation and gained accreditation from the North Central Association. Zumberge went on to lead Southern Methodist University and the University of Southern California.

Back in 1967, Zumberge welcomed then University of Michigan President Harlan Hatcher as the speaker for GVSU’s first commencement. According to the GVSU history, Hatcher pointed out that the class of 1967, with 138 seniors, would be retiring around 2010.

“No one could possibly chart your course through these years, or risk foretelling what the world will be like,” Hatcher was quoted as saying. “One thing is reasonably certain: Your grandchildren will think you aged and old-fashioned, out of tune with youth and the modern world of the 21st century. And they will try to redeem and overcome all the grave mistakes you will make in bringing up and educating your children, running the government, devising an intelligent foreign policy, and fighting unnecessary wars.

“Best wishes between now and 2010.”

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