As the 1980s dawned, the Grand Valley College Foundation was reinvigorated with an expanded board of directors. Paul A. Johnson, a prominent Grand Haven industrialist and long-time college Board of Control member, agreed to serve as president and began to reorganize the foundation. He made it his mission to recruit the region’s finest talent and leadership from business and civic organizations. The foundation was at a crossroads, needing to grow in a time when access to funds was changing dramatically.
“Finding itself in a funding pinch at a time when it had just gained stature as one of the state’s leading colleges was an especially hard blow to Grand Valley,” Johnson said in the renewed foundation’s first annual report. “Somehow it didn’t seem fair. Grand Valley had fought too hard to get where it was, and it wasn’t going to be done in by a lack of dollars.”
The 1980s found much of the nation faced with a recession, and Michigan was no exception. Paul Johnson knew the task before him and the other foundation directors was challenging, but he expressed assurance that the West Michigan region would, once again, rise to the occasion. Johnson believed that Grand Valley President Arend Lubbers, the college, and its supporters had invested too much time and money to let it wither.
“The time has come for all of us to protect that investment so future generations of area citizens will have the opportunity to improve their skills in business, education, and public service,” said Johnson. He challenged the foundation leadership. “We have chosen to view this situation as an opportunity and to plan for the future in what we hope is a realistic way.”
The foundation directors unanimously approved a reorganization plan, bringing the foundation into a closer partnership with the college. The foundation would serve as a “citizens’ advisory body” to the college president and the Board of Control on all major educational projects requiring private funding. Joyce Hecht would become executive director of the foundation as well as director of the university’s development office. The foundation also voted to expand the foundation directors to include 30 “community leaders whose prestige and authority will encourage others to participate in an active relationship with the institution.”
Casey Wondergem, a Grand Rapids public relations executive and foundation director, agreed to lead the first membership drive, building a core of support from people who would make annual donations. The foundation and development office created a newsletter called Horizons for all donors and friends. The journey toward building a comprehensive, broad relationship and philanthropic partnership between the community and its college had gone to the next level.
By the early 1980s, Grand Valley’s endowment stood at $3 million. But that was far short of the amount needed to meet the college’s long-term needs.
Johnson, Lubbers, and the foundation’s directors set two formidable goals:
- By the end of the decade, the foundation should increase the college’s endowment to $10 million.
- In addition, the foundation should raise another $6.1 million to help build a planned campus in downtown Grand Rapids, the largest construction project in the foundation’s history. That effort was deemed the Grand Design campaign.
The foundation leadership agreed that a downtown Grand Rapids campus would put Grand Valley into the region’s population center, allowing it to meet the demand for graduate and undergraduate programs, particularly for working adults. The administrators and faculty also began planning for new programs in computer science, nursing, physical therapy, and facilities management, all of which would meet clear needs in the region’s growing economy but couldn’t be provided without the financial support from the foundation.
Jim Sebastian, a foundation director, proposed starting a school of engineering to meet a growing need by area businesses. He agreed to chair a “downtown committee” to begin to plan the Grand Rapids campus. In 1981, Grand Valley began by acquiring four acres on the west bank of the Grand River, all purchased with money that had been gifted.
By 1988, Grand Valley was able to open its first downtown building. The new building was named the L.V. Eberhard Center in recognition of supermarket entrepreneur L.V. Eberhard who gave $1.25 million. It also included the Meijer Public Broadcast Center named for another major donor, retail chain owner Fred Meijer.
The nine-story building was the first of many to be built downtown, and it included classrooms, a conference center, engineering labs, and a studio for the college’s public television station. At that same time, the foundation’s Grand Design campaign had exceeded its original $6.1 million goal, raising nearly $9 million from 4,100 donors.
By 1990, the foundation had made headway on its commitment to building the college’s endowment fund. It stood at $7.1 million with a significant portion of that money raised through the foundation’s annual Faculty and Staff campaign launched in 1981.
As Michigan Governor James Blanchard signed a bill designating Grand Valley as a university in recognition of the depth and breadth of its academic programs, the foundation renamed itself the Grand Valley University Foundation. The foundation board’s first move under its new name was to appoint a number of long-time supporters – William F. Beebe, Peter C. Cook, L.V. Eberhard, Richard M. Gillett, Robert Pew II, Edward Schalon, James Sebastian, Sr., and L. William Seidman – to what was called the Advisory Cabinet, the purpose of which was to recognize high levels of leadership and counsel the foundation.
The decade of the '80s became pivotal in the growth of Grand Valley, and the foundation was at the forefront of each new endeavor. The university’s Allendale campus needed a multi-denominational center for campus ministry and a life sciences building. In addition, foundation director and Amway Corporation co-founder Rich DeVos agreed to lead a fundraising campaign for Grand Valley’s Water Resources Institute that would help establish the university’s role in protecting the Great Lakes.
While most communities postponed fundraising efforts in the early 1980s in an effort to hold out for better economic times, the Grand Valley University Foundation had other ideas.
“The temptation to rest is enticing after prolonged effort and significant accomplishment,” Lubbers said in a 1988 speech. “Resting on laurels is heady stuff, but finally it is like a mental quicksand. Let’s keep our engines running. Let’s keep our enthusiasm for our quest…When we are enthusiastic, we make things happen that others thought impossible. We appear to work miracles. This foundation has done it before. Let’s keep doing it!”