"There is no question that the original academic program of Grand Valley College was a good one in theory. There was only one thing wrong with it: not very many students found it appealing."
--Grand Valley State College: Its Developmental Years 1964-1968 by James H. Zumberge, President, GVSC, 1962-1968 (left)
Everything seemed to be going well as Grand Valley State College's pioneer class came to the end of its first academic year. Despite a sea of mud and the constant clamor of construction, there was a palpable sense of pride in being part of an innovative and creative new institution that was drawing national attention.
The November 1964 issue of Fortune magazine cited five new campuses in the U.S. chosen "because their superior architecture and design seem best to anticipate the kind of educational world they will serve." In the section about Grand Valley, titled "Self-Reliance Near Grand Rapids," the article dubbed it "a brand-new college, not just a new campus for an old college," praising it as "handsomely designed to fit its unique setting," and enthusing about its "latest teaching devices," which, they said, would "encourage the students' self-reliance and avoid overdependency on formal instruction."
The November 1964 edition of Fortune magazine included Grand Valley as one of five new campuses with superior architecture. Above, the Little Mac Bridge under construction; at left, the Fieldhouse dome goes up.
The innovative technology envisioned for Grand Valley had also drawn national press attention. The August 1963 issue of Architectural Forum had a special issue focusing on "Plug-In Schools." Grand Valley was called a "radically new kind of facility: the learning center." The school's carrels and audio-visual system were described as "instant access through the twirl of a telephone dial." An article in The New York Times on September 5, 1965 noted that "Students at Grand Valley State College … are at work on experimental Astra-Carrels, made by the American Seating Company."
Meanwhile, back in Allendale, the Grand Valley campus was growing by leaps and bounds. The Great Lakes Group of classroom buildings, including Lake Michigan, Lake Superior and Lake Huron Halls were open, as well as Seidman House, which provided space for a student center, bookstore, and offices for student groups. The Little Mac Bridge was dedicated in September 1965, connecting the north and south areas of campus and opening access to the site of the college's first residence hall, Copeland House, and the Loutit Hall of Science. By the end of August, 1966, work was progressing on seven buildings, including a domed fieldhouse.
By the fall term of 1966, however, it was becoming clear that some things were not proceeding according to plan. Projections for enrollment that fall had been in the neighborhood of 1,800; only 1,340 students had registered. Earlier that summer, The Grand Rapids Press ran a stinging feature about problems at the new college, suggesting that Grand Valley "rushed into operation" and that enrollment predictions had been "wildly optimistic." Because admissions were slow, the article reported, the college had accepted two of every three students who applied, resulting in a student body that had been cited in an early visit by an accreditation team from the North Central Association of Colleges and Secondary Schools (NCA) as the school's "weakest link."
The administration were not unaware of the factors that hampered the college's appeal. In the fall of 1965, programs in teacher training and business administration had been added to the curriculum, over the objections of some who cherished the pure liberal arts dream of the founders. And some conditions that had pushed the creation of new colleges in Michigan had changed. In his 1969 report, "Grand Valley State College: Its Developmental Years 1964-68," President Zumberge wrote that once the recession of the late 1950s was over, parents could afford to send their students to colleges away from home. "On the very day it opened," he explained, "GVSC was in a buyer's market instead of a seller's market, exactly the opposite of what the experts had predicted."
Grand Valley also was facing a high drop-out rate. In surveys completed by students who were eligible to return but didn’t, two issues stood out: a limited academic program with demanding foundation requirements, and the lack of social life on campus. Although the college had abandoned the idea of remaining a commuter college and was constructing housing for students as quickly as possible, there was very little to occupy students outside class time. Allendale offered only a bowling alley, and Grand Rapids was a long drive away for an evening's diversion. In the Grand Valley Review of 1995, which featured essays about the college's history, Math and Statistics Professor Donald VanderJagt, who came to Grand Valley in 1964, dryly commented, "The regular sight of herds of cows and sometimes herds of deer on campus was simply not sufficient to satisfy the extracurricular needs of the students." In the early spring of 1965, four students were fined and two suspended in "Grand Valley's first panty raid."
More seriously, leaders of the new college realized that one factor crucial to attracting top-notch students was accreditation from NCA, the largest of the five regional accrediting associations for higher education in the country. The process includes detailed internal study by the institution, along with examination by a team of peers.
Zumberge first made contact with NCA in 1962, hoping that Grand Valley could graduate its first class as an accredited college. He hired a consultant, who visited campus in November 1963, just a month after classes began. The consultant helped the college prepare for an official visit by an NCA team in November 1964 that would determine if Grand Valley could be accepted as a Candidate for Accreditation. Their report was very favorable, although it did contain the line quoted in the Press: "The weakest element in the present GV picture is the quality of the student body. Relatively, the students fall far short of the quality of the faculty."
The college was accepted as a candidate in March 1965, and the administration were hopeful they might achieve their goal. But the NCA decided to deny the request for exemption from its requirement that one class graduate before considering the application for membership. "That ended the battle for early accreditation for GVSC," wrote Zumberge in his 1969 report.
Anticipating that possibility, however, the college had begun negotiations with the Michigan Commission on College Accreditation in December, 1964. "After much foot-dragging by that group and considerable prodding on our part," wrote Zumberge, an examining committee visited the campus in February 1966, and three-year accreditation was granted. Lack of NCA accreditation also prevented Grand Valley from providing teacher certification. An arrangement with Michigan State University made it possible for Grand Valley education students to enroll during their senior year so MSU could act as the legally authorized certifying authority, an arrangement which continued until Grand Valley was accredited in 1968.
In the fall of 1965, Academic Dean George Potter announced to the first meeting of the Faculty Assembly that changes must be made to the idealistic liberal arts curriculum in order to attract more students. A group calling itself the Committee on New Academic Programs was formed. In a 2009 interview for the 50th Anniversary Video History Project, Glenn Niemeyer, who retired from Grand Valley in 2001 as its first Provost, but in the mid-1960s was a professor of history, remembered informing President Zumberge about the group and their recommendations to expand the curriculum. "I went to talk to Jim about it," he recounted. "…He and I had a very good conversation about it. He seemed openly receptive to the idea of expanding the curriculum and adding professional programs to it. Shortly thereafter, Jim left."
In the fall of 1966, the Faculty Assembly voted to recommend granting the Bachelor of Science degree at Grand Valley. By January 1967, the degree was in place. The doors were opened, wrote Zumberge, for a broader range of majors, including business administration, physical education, group majors in social studies and general science, medical technology (in cooperation with area hospitals), and engineering (a collaboration with the University of Michigan). "The college was able, by its own internal action, to initiate change when change was needed in order to survive," wrote Zumberge in his 1969 report.
The changes had an effect on enrollment, in both quantity and quality. By the fall of 1967, one-third of the entering freshmen had high school grade point averages of "B" or better, compared to one-tenth of entering students in the fall of 1963. Geographic distribution also changed. 75% of the student body still hailed from the eight-county area, but Grand Valley was now attracting students from throughout the state, plus 3% from other states and Puerto Rico. Only 65% lived at home compared to 90% of the pioneer student body.
On June 18, 1967, Grand Valley State College held its long-dreamed-of first commencement. In a tent on the Allendale campus, 138 seniors, including 86 members of the pioneer class that started in 1963, received their diplomas from Michigan's newest college. Harlan Hatcher, president of the University of Michigan, gave the commencement address. Coincidentally, for this 50th Anniversary History of Grand Valley, he spoke at length about the year 2010. "You will retire around 2010," he told the young graduates. "No one could possibly chart your course through these years, or risk foretelling what the world will be like ... 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." He ended, "Best wishes between now and 2010."
While most of the faculty at Grand Valley were happy with the academic changes that brought more students to the Allendale campus, there were some who were disappointed by the diminishment of the school's traditional liberal arts focus. George Potter, now Vice President of the college, had been pursuing his earliest suggestions for decentralized collegiate societies, based on European models, specifically his experiences at Oxford University in England. In 1966 he appointed a Committee on Collegiate Societies, from which developed the Second Collegiate Society Study Group. The report of the group in 1967 proposed that a new satellite collegiate society would "recover the early commitment of Grand Valley State College to the tradition of liberal studies, but will also restore as the central feature of its program the pedagogical ideal implicit in the tutorial." They proposed a curriculum that focused on a "continuing community meeting," what came to be know as the "common program." The new school also would offer opportunity for independent study such as examination courses, seminars, off-campus projects, and special studies. Grades would be either satisfactory or unsatisfactory, with narrative evaluations by professors appearing on student transcripts.
There was a movement occurring nationwide as part of the social, political and demographic changes that were deeply affecting higher education in the 1960s. Many experimental or innovative new colleges, or divisions within established institutions, were attempting to redefine the experience of college students. Words such as experiential, interdisciplinary, student-designed curriculum, and participatory governance have been used to describe these programs, which appeared from Maine to California, from Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington to the New College in Florida. In Michigan, Wayne State, Michigan State and the University of Michigan had opened new units to attract students interested in innovative educational ideas.
In the fall of 1968, the School of General Studies (SGS) opened at Grand Valley State College with 80 students and three full-time faculty. Other professors in the larger division at Grand Valley now known as the College of Arts and Sciences had dual appointments in both schools. The curriculum was not exactly what Vice President Potter had envisioned for his new academic society. In an article written by Grand Valley Professor Lynn Mapes in 1995 for a History Department project on the early history of the college, he describes Potter as unhappy with the substitution of "concentration" for the traditional major, and with "no grades, no courses, no degrees." Mapes, who joined the Grand Valley faculty in 1968, quotes Potter as huffing, "The Board of Control do not view decentralization primarily as an opportunity to play around with wild notions of what a liberal education can be."
In the first brochure developed to describe Grand Valley in 1962, the prospective student body was characterized as "able surprises -- students with a talent for creativity who give promise of rising to the challenge of an imaginative college program." It was apparent from the first days of SGS that the progressive new program would be attracting exactly those surprising students. Dan Clock, formerly in the math department at Grand Valley and now the new SGS chair, told the Valley View student newspaper, "There was a feeling of euphoria among the SGS faculty and students, and excitement in starting from scratch reminiscent of the esprit de corps when the Pioneer Class arrived." In an interview with the Detroit Free Press at the end of SGS's first academic year, he quoted Kierkegaard in describing the program: "A teacher cannot teach; he only makes an atmosphere in which a learner learns."
The academic euphoria shared by the SGS pioneers would be somewhat short-lived. But first, the college as a whole would have to rise to its next challenge: finding a new president.
While college faculty were hard at work determining the academic direction of Grand Valley, President James Zumberge and the administration were still deep in the accreditation process necessary for the success of any curriculum. Just before the college's first commencement ceremony, Zumberge flew to Chicago with two copies of the required institutional self-study in hand. In August NCA notified the college that the study was accepted and scheduled an accreditation exam. A team arrived in January 1968. Their report, though mostly favorable, questioned the launch of the Second Society. Zumberge and Potter were off to Chicago again, "with a suitcase full of data and reports," wrote Zumberge in his 1969 report. "By the time we were ready to appear before the (Committee) at 8:30 a.m. on March 25, 1968, I felt more like an attorney than a college president," he wrote. The committee meeting lasted less than a half hour, and all the prepared data and reports were accepted without questions. "The final decision to grant accreditation for a ten-year period … was delivered to me Wednesday (March 27, 1968) morning and was almost anticlimactic."
NCA accreditation certified that Grand Valley State College offered an acceptable academic program and had the necessary resources to accomplish its stated objectives. While that may seem like a bland statement, it was the culmination of a decade of work by community, faculty, administration and even students to bring the new college into existence and raise it to its proper place among its academic peers. Was it a coincidence that just the next month, James Zumberge announced that he would leave the presidency of Grand Valley to return to teaching as the director of the school of earth sciences at the University of Arizona? While many people who were at Grand Valley at the time said that the general feeling was that President Zumberge was frustrated by the tribulations of administration and wanted to return to a more academic life, he later served as president of Southern Methodist University, and retired as president of the University of Southern California in 1991. He died shortly afterward.
The Board of Trustees appointed a search committee including college faculty, alumni, students, and members of the committee who had worked to establish Grand Valley. Bill Seidman remembered the next events in his 50th Anniversary Video History Project interview. "We heard about this youngest college president in the United States and he was out there in the middle of nowhere in Iowa," he recounted. "I remember I flew out there in our plane to take a look at a guy named Arend Lubbers, who happened to be the son of the president of Hope College. And Hope College was not one of the institutions that was enthusiastic at that time about Grand Valley getting started. I spent about a half a day with Don Lubbers and I said, 'I think this is the man we want.' So we went forward from there, fortunately we got him. Today’s world, I doubt if ever we could do that. He didn’t have a Ph.D. at the time, he was going through a divorce, a lot of things that in today’s so-called “open society” or whatever you want to call it, would have made it difficult. Fortunately he came, he met with the Board, he introduced us to his new bride-to-be, Nancy, who was terrific, and he was unanimously elected by the Board to be the president. I’ve often said I’ve worked hard for Grand Valley, but the best thing I ever did was recruit Don Lubbers to be the president."
Arend Donselaar Lubbers, who urged everyone to call him Don, grew up on college campuses. His father was president of Hope College from 1945 to 1963, and was professor and president of other colleges before that. Don graduated from Hope and earned his MA in History from Rutgers University in 1956. He taught at Wittenberg College in Ohio before returning to Rutgers in 1958 to pursue a doctorate. In 1960 he was appointed president of Central College in Pella, Iowa at the age of 29, becoming the youngest college president in the nation. Two years later, the young academic attracted national attention when Life magazine included him in its 1962 feature "Red-Hot Hundred," profiling 100 outstanding American leaders under 40.
Lubbers was still among the youngest college presidents in the nation when he accepted Grand Valley's offer in December 1968. He would need all the youth and vigor he could muster as he stepped into a swirl of contention and controversy that mirrored the mood of the nation as the decade drew to a close.
At the end of February 1968, the domed roof of the innovatively designed new Fieldhouse at Grand Valley had given way under construction, and a worker had been critically injured. Some with memories of Grand Valley's early years cite this as something of an omen, ushering in a period of dissension, strife and public criticism that would threaten the very existence of the fledgling college.
Before Don Lubbers' term of office officially began in January of 1969, calls from Board members alerted him to problems surrounding the college newspaper, the Lanthorn. Near the end of November 1968, deputies from the Ottawa County Sheriff's Department had entered the campus office of the newspaper and confiscated copies of the latest issue. On December 3, the Ottawa County Circuit Court issued a complaint charging its editor with publishing obscenity and an injunction stopping its publication. The offense was characterized as the use of supposedly obscene words. But it was felt by many that the real issue at stake was the newspaper's coverage of political matters that were tearing the country apart in the late 1960s: the war in Vietnam, the drug culture, criticism of military and police tactics, student rights and civil rights. The Lanthorn under the leadership of editor Jim Wasserman had improved in journalistic style and relevant academic, artistic and political content over its predecessor student newspapers, but no one could dispute that it had become radically left wing, at odds with the conservative values of Ottawa County.
Although the editor was fired and publication of the newspaper suspended, Grand Valley brought a lawsuit questioning the authority of the prosecuting attorney and the sheriff in issuing an injunction halting publication. In August 1969, the Attorney General of Michigan ruled that the Ottawa County authorities did not have legal authority in closing the newspaper. The editor stood trial in the district court and was found guilty. There was a great deal of debate among faculty, student, and alumni organizations about whether to ask the college to aid in the editor's defense; in the end the Board of Control decided it would not. According to a Grand Rapids Press article in October, 1969, "1968-69 was the year of the four-letter word on many campuses," citing clashes between administration and student journalists at Purdue and the University of Minnesota. "Only at GVSC, however," the article reported, "was the student editor actually arrested."
Students around the U.S. and internationally were mobilizing around issues of freedom, war, equal rights, and the environment, and even at remote Grand Valley, the wave of unrest could be felt. In 1967 the first political demonstration at Grand Valley was held by a group of anti-war students and faculty members who picketed U.S. Senator Phil Hart on a visit to campus, although his views about the war ended up being more in line with theirs. By the fall of 1969, when the campus was celebrating the inauguration of Don Lubbers, marches, demonstrations and moratoriums were an almost weekly function.
Grand Valley students were doing more than marching, however. Awakening activism spurred some to participate in community outreach programs established by the college, such as Project Make-It to help high school dropouts enter college, the Urban Studies Institute focusing on problems and needs in downtown Grand Rapids, and a new Latin American Studies program. Grand Valley also began to offer its first study abroad programs, offering students opportunities at the University of Lancaster in England beginning in 1969, a program in Merida, Mexico, and one in Tours, France.
The new President was sympathetic to the spirit of the students (not being all that much older than they were). He participated in National Moratorium Day activities, lighting a gas flame in Mackinac/Manitou Plaza intended to burn until the end of fighting in Vietnam. He encouraged debates, teach-ins, guerilla theatre and many opportunities for discussion of pressing issues, brought home to the campus by the deaths in Vietnam of two former students.
Lubbers and the Board of Control also realized, however, that the growing institution would continue to face the problems of any large group of people living and working together. In February of 1969, William A. Johnson was appointed the first Campus Police Chief at Grand Valley, responsible for setting up a college security force. Johnson joined the Grand Rapids Police force in 1940 and was Superintendent for over 11 years. In his initial statement to the Press, he referenced the civil unrest that had been sweeping the nation over the past few years, specifically riots in Detroit and Grand Rapids. "The philosophy of non-violence and persuasion that we advocated during Grand Rapids' summer disturbances," he stated, "is particularly applicable to work with students."
In his inaugural address on October 12, 1969, Don Lubbers faced the issues squarely. "Despair has grown in the midst of the affluence that characterizes this nation," he told the assembly in the newly dedicated Fieldhouse. "Our educational institutions were for generations the focal point of the nation's social and industrial optimism … they have not escaped from the spreading despair. …The conflict inherent in the outside society has incited simultaneously a vicious indictment of the entire American educational system. The same reason that young people see for despair in the world outside the university they see writ just as large inside."
Lubbers chose to frame the problem in terms of academic relevance. "I am not here to take sides," he declared. "I see the office of president of a college as a place where the inevitable human conflicts are arbitrated and issues settled. Let me bring some issues to bear to illustrate what I mean. I have been told by some that this college must choose between liberal arts and specialized or technical training. How many colleges have been fooled or pushed into a bifurcation of this issue? Is this college to take up the sword for liberal arts while ignoring a society that demands from its schools the trained personnel to keep our economy alive? Or are we to man the barricades for technical training at the expense of educating the critical and historically conscious minds that a healthy democracy demands? I will endorse neither such approach. This college was built on a solid liberal arts basis and there it will stay."
Grand Valley and President Lubbers set out to accomplish this broad goal by initiating a program of academic expansion and division that would result in the school's famous "cluster college" era, again drawing national attention for innovative new approaches to education while creating challenges of marketing these approaches to students and the surrounding community. It would take another decade of hard work to bring the goals put forth by the new President into sharp focus.