GVSU History


I. High Hopes

L. William Seidman, widely recognized as “the father of Grand Valley State University,” was interviewed for GVSU’s 50th Anniversary Video History Project shortly before his death in May of 2009. The Grand Rapids businessman, who became an economic advisor to Presidents Gerald Ford, Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, chair of the FDIC and head of the Resolution Trust Corp., among other national positions, recounted his attempts in the late 1950s to gain community support for a somewhat radical idea. He proposed to establish an independent, state-supported, four-year institution of higher education in West Michigan.

“We started having meetings with all kinds of organizations,” he remembered, “the labor unions, the various luncheon clubs, anybody that would listen to us … I would come in and I would take out what we used to call a recording machine, and I would play ‘High Hopes.’ You know, the song ‘High Hopes,’” he continued, describing Frank Sinatra’s Top 40 hit of the day, “the ant moving a rubber tree plant? Then we would tell them about this (college proposal) and ask them for their support. We did that for about a year. I must have gone to hundreds of meetings.”

Seidman and his team of community leaders had reason to set their hopes high. Following the end of World War II in 1945, the birth rate in the U.S. began to rise dramatically, peaking in 1957 with 4.3 million babies born, compared to an average of about 2.5 million per year in the decade before 1946. Those babies would begin to reach college age in the early 1960s.

Attitudes about higher education also were beginning to change. Returning soldiers took advantage of what became known as the G.I. Bill, which, among other benefits, provided funding for education and training for war veterans of every social and economic background. Although the original bill’s funding ended in 1956, the U.S. government had started taking a closer look at higher education and its implications for the country. President Harry Truman appointed a Commission on Higher Education in 1946, which produced a lengthy report recommending a dramatic expansion of educational opportunities, proposing a national goal of having one-third of the young men and women in the U.S. graduate from four-year colleges.

Advisors to Truman’s successor, President Dwight Eisenhower, also believed there was a national interest in higher education, warning that with the launch by the U.S.S.R. of earth’s first man-made satellite, Sputnik, in 1957, America risked falling behind the Soviets unless education in science and math improved. Congress passed the National Defense Education Act in 1958, providing $1 billion for college student loans, scholarships, and scientific equipment for public and private schools.

Michigan legislators were anticipating the impending tsunami of baby-boom college students as well. Beginning in 1955, a succession of appointed congressional and citizen committees resulted in the hiring of Dr. John Russell, Chancellor and Executive Secretary of the New Mexico Board of Educational Finance, to direct a survey of higher education needs in Michigan. Fourteen publications resulted from Russell’s work, but the most important conclusions for West Michigan were identification of the area as “the most likely location for a new state-controlled college,” and the recommendation that a new institution of higher education be created, “with its own administrative organization, fiscal structure, and program of offerings.”

The 1958 Russell Report conclusion was critical for the Grand Rapids area, where for several years a debate had been brewing over educational needs. The Grand Rapids Public Schools had already been dealing with the baby boom. New elementary, junior and high schools had been constructed, and by 1956 enrollment at Grand Rapids Junior College was up more than a third. A special committee was appointed by the Board of Education to study the need for higher education in the area. It became clear that the options were a state-supported independent institution, a city college supported by the Board of Education, a cooperative venture with the state and the Board, or a branch of an existing state institution.

Both Michigan State University and the University of Michigan had maintained extension centers in Grand Rapids for several years following the war, and there was activity by supporters of both for the branch option. A group of MSU alumni had progressed to the point of suggesting a site, interestingly quite near to the present Grand Valley’s Allendale campus, on M-45 (then M-50) closer to Grand Rapids. The University of Michigan group's primary goal was establishing a medical school.

Thanks to the conclusions of the Russell Report, and the agreement by community leaders that it would be best to transcend rivalries, the option of an independent, state-supported, four-year college was soon adopted by almost all involved. L. William Seidman, a 37-year-old partner in the accounting firm established by his father, had been active in the earliest efforts to establish a new, local four-year college. In late October of 1958 he joined a group of nine other men, including both U of M and MSU alumni, to form the Committee to Establish a Four Year College (CEFYC).

1963 doctoral thesis by Marinus Matthuis Swets

A complete history and analysis of the events leading to the founding of Grand Valley, including the formation of the Committee to Establish a Four Year College, can be found in a 1963 doctoral thesis by Marinus Matthuis Swets, who later was a long-time professor and dean at Grand Rapids Junior (later Community) College. Read A Study of the Establishment of Grand Valley State College.

It was not, perhaps, the most advantageous atmosphere for such an ambitious undertaking. After 13 years of post-war growth, the U.S. economy had hit its first recession since the Great Depression. Unemployment was up, auto sales were down, and by April 1958, 20% of workers in Detroit were out of a job. The state of Michigan was facing a budget deficit of $100 million. Not the best of times to propose a new, tax-supported state college. But Seidman and his team went to work, hitting the pavement to speak to business, labor, social, cultural and political groups across an eight-county area. In newspaper accounts of the day, Seidman’s mantra was repeated over and over: “There is no place in the state where the legislature can buy as much education for its dollar as here.”

The CEFYC, often meeting in one of Seidman’s favorite haunts, The Peach Nook at the Pantlind Hotel, was successful in attracting wide support for the proposed new college. Editorials and columns supporting the idea appeared in newspapers throughout the area, and by the beginning of 1959, more than 30 organizations had signed on in support. Preliminary work also had been done to establish a larger citizens committee to undertake the long process of making the project happen.

In February of 1959, Seidman and the CEFYC applied to the Grand Rapids Foundation for funds to collect data on the need for higher education in the area. $7500 was granted, with the stipulation that the study be under the direction of the Michigan legislature, and completed by the end of the year. Although no state funding was involved, it took four months of political wrangling to gain legislative approval. The CEFYC didn’t lose momentum during the process. They proceeded with identifying likely candidates for a Citizens Advisory Committee, and distributing 12,000 questionnaires to parents and students in second, tenth and twelfth grades.

House Concurrent Resolution No. 28 of the 1959 Michigan Legislature passed on June 4. The CEFYC had all its ducks in a row. Almost immediately the legislative committee appointed to oversee the project approved the hiring of Dr. John X. Jamrich, Director of the Center for the Study of Higher Education at Michigan State University, to direct work on the study that had already begun.

Jamrich had worked with John Dale Russell on the 1958 report, and had been in constant contact with Seidman and the CEFYC since its recommendations had been published. In an article Jamrich wrote for the GVSU History Department, he said that MSU had volunteered his time to work on the survey until his formal appointment in July of 1959. It was a canny move, considering that both the Grand Rapids Foundation and the Legislature, despite their dithering, had stipulated that the survey be completed by the end of the year. Nearly 10,000 questionnaires were returned. “Suffice it to say,” wrote Jamrich in his 1997 article, “that the data indicated then, as is true now, that this area was and continues to be a vibrant economic, cultural, business, agricultural, and industrial area, capable of supporting an additional college and benefiting from its presence.”

The House Resolution also required the appointment of a citizen’s advisory committee, “to assist, and to report its findings and recommendations to the 1960 Legislature.” Seidman and the CEFYC had been working since late 1958 to identify people in the 8-county area who would be most effective in realizing the dream of a new college. They solicited community leaders from labor, education, business and finance, service clubs, the farm bureau, PTAs, and many more, coming up with a group that included 52 from Kent County, 11 from Ottawa, seven from Muskegon, five from Allegan, three from Barry, four from Newaygo, and one from Montcalm. This group would not only help in the campaign to convince the legislature, and the West Michigan community, that the college was needed, they would provide the basis for the army of volunteers who brought the dream to reality.

James H. Zumberge, John Russell, John X. Jamrich, and George T. Potter

James H. Zumberge, John Russell, John X. Jamrich, and George T. Potter on the steps of Lake Michigan Hall. 

Read John X. Jamrich’s entire report, “A New College: A Report to the Legislative and Citizens Committees on the Eight County Study of Higher Education Needs in Allegan, Barry, Ionia, Kent, Montcalm, Muskegon, Newaygo, and Ottawa Counties, December 1959.”

II. High Aspirations

By the end of 1959, hopes were again soaring for the success of the fledgling college. At a November 30 meeting at the Peninsular Club in Grand Rapids, Jamrich presented his highly favorable report to 75 members of the Citizens Advisory Committee, area legislators and other invited guests. On December 30, The Grand Rapids Press ran a front-page, banner headline story reporting that Seidman expected to break ground for a new college in 1961.

The bill proposing the establishment of Grand Valley State College

West Michigan Congressman Thomas Whinery shows Governor G. Mennen Williams (tall man at center with bowtie) a copy of the bill proposing the establishment of Grand Valley State College. William Seidman is to the Governor's left.

West Michigan Congressman Thomas Whinery had agreed to introduce legislation in the House of Representatives, and did so on February 22, 1960. The following day, Seidman and other committee members met with area legislators in the office of Governor G. Mennen Williams to brief him on the project. The Grand Rapids Press reported that in the meeting, Williams commented that the college might need some millionaires to succeed. In a later exchange of letters, Seidman and Williams regretted that the comment had been so widely publicized.

Whether the somewhat offhand comment had an effect on the legislators or not has been debated. The upshot is, that when House Bill 477 proposing the new college was finally passed, it contained several significant amendments. Most important to the Grand Rapids cause was the requirement that before the college could receive a charter, the Board of Control must raise one million dollars by means other than public taxation, and secure a suitable site. Governor G. Mennen Williams signed Public Act 120 of the 70th Legislature of the State of Michigan, Regular Session 1960, into law on April 26.

A million dollars. Depending on the method used for comparison, that would be somewhere in the neighborhood of $10-$15 million today. No capital fundraising effort that large had been undertaken in West Michigan before then.

But the community was ready to go. In September 1960 the Grand Rapids Press reported that the Grand Rapids Foundation pledged $50,000 to get the ball rolling. Before the Herculean task could begin, however, a legal entity to receive the donations had to be established.

III. The Board of Control

In October of 1960, Governor Williams announced his selection for a nine-member Board of Control, as required in the legislation. Five had been recommended by Seidman and the CEFYC: Edward H. Frey, President of Union Bank of Michigan and the Grand Rapids Chamber of Commerce; Mrs. John Kistler of Grand Haven, former president of the Michigan Federation of Women’s Clubs and chair of the Adult Education Committee of the National Federation of Women’s Clubs; Dr. Arnold Ott of North Muskegon, President of Ott Chemical Co.; Dale Stafford, Editor and Publisher of the Greenville Daily News, and Seidman himself. Williams, with counsel from state and local democratic leaders, added Kenneth Robinson of Grand Rapids, Director of Region 1-D, AFL-CIO; James Copeland of Greenville, President of Security National Bank of Manistee and Wyoming State Bank in Kent County; Dr. Icie Macy Hoobler from Ann Arbor, a nationally recognized biochemist; and William Kirkpatrick of Kalamazoo, President of the Kalamazoo Paper Box Co. They were sworn in by G. Mennen Williams in his office in Lansing on October 17, 1960 and convened their first meeting there. Seidman was, according to the minutes, elected chairman by a “unanimous and enthusiastic” vote.

House Bill 477

House Bill 477 establishing Grand Valley State College became Public Act No. 120, signed by the Governor of Michigan on April 20, 1960.

The Board of Control

Board members left to right back row : Edward J. Frey, James Copeland, Dale Stafford, William Kirkpatrick, Icie Macy Hoobler, Kenneth Robinson; left to right front row : Arnold Ott, Grace Kistler, and L. William Seidman.

Many buildings on Grand Valley’s Allendale campus are named for founding members of the Board of Control.

The Board moved quickly to establish the new entity. At a meeting in the home of Bill Seidman at the beginning of November, they planned a contest to name the new college, and accepted the donation of office space by Union Bank, at the corner of Pearl and Monroe in downtown Grand Rapids. On November 22 the Board met in their new office and appointed 109 members to the new Citizens Advisory Council, many of whom had already served on the former committee which advised the Jamrich study. A list of Council members, chaired by Grand Rapids attorney David E. Dutcher, can be found in the Swets thesis referenced above, pages 158-161.

It also became clear that professional help was needed to begin organizing the new college. Bill Seidman had had conversations and correspondence with representatives from many of the state’s universities, and they were approached to loan administrators to assist in the initial planning of the college. In early 1961 Michigan State University, University of Michigan, Western Michigan University and Wayne State University, as well as Grand Rapids Junior College, all loaned consultants to help with planning while a search for administrators was conducted.

The Board agreed on the need to hire professional administrators to coordinate planning for many crucial areas. Fortuitously, at the same time, Dr. Chris DeYoung, Dean Emeritus of Illinois State Normal University, was living in Grand Rapids temporarily following his marriage to a local teacher. A native of Zeeland, Dr. DeYoung volunteered his services in late 1960 to help the fledgling college, and served as coordinator of the consultants team until April of 1961. He was compensated for his services by the Board at a later date.

A flurry of meetings, dinners, conferences, reports, recommendations, and correspondence in the first quarter of 1961 resulted in principles and suggestions for site selection, fundraising, president and faculty, curriculum and many other aspects of the new college that would have far-reaching effects that continue to be felt at Grand Valley State University fifty years later. (Exhaustive detailing of this process can be found in the Swets report, Chapter VI.)

IV. A Place for Us

Even before the legislation enabling the new college was passed, rivalry for its potential location was heating up in the 8-county area. A committee had been appointed as early as 1959 to begin looking at potential campus sites, and area communities were quick to come forth with proposals and rationales for locating it within their boundaries. Grand Haven offered 150 acres of duneland along its north shore; even Whitehall, far north of the center of the 8-county area, came up with a proposed site in 1959.

The most serious early contender was a parcel of land donated to the city of Grand Rapids by Jacob Aman, who requested that it become a park. That was somewhat problematic, as the land on M-45 was several miles west of the city limits. Several city politicians saw the opportunity to turn it over to a new college as a solution. The issue became something of a football in city politics, however, while several other attractive proposals were floated. A group of enterprising citizens in Allendale, a small community about ten miles west of Grand Rapids, actually secured options on land along the Grand River they felt was supremely suitable for a campus. A Grand Rapids architect designed a 13-story “Tower of Learning,” to be located in the center city in an area slated for urban renewal. A group of Marne residents also were taking options on land near their community northwest of Grand Rapids, near what was to become Interstate 96, and Wyoming, southwest of the city, proposed a former industrial site.

In early 1961 the Board of Control appointed an official site selection committee of 36 members, chaired by Circuit Court Judge Fred N. Searl and Richard M. Gillett, executive vice-president of the trust division of Old Kent Bank and Trust Company. By February, 20 sites were under consideration, from Lowell to Muskegon, from Wyoming to Whitehall.

The committee quickly narrowed the field. On February 15, 1961 they announced that they had chosen five finalists: Aman Park, Allendale, downtown Grand Rapids, Grand Haven, and Marne. Two communities scrambled to add their proposals after the deadline, Muskegon and Rockford, and the committee added them to the final consideration list. On March 10 the committee met to review its work to date. All sites had been visited and evaluated, and two were chosen as top contenders: Allendale and Marne.

Letters, telegrams, phone calls and petitions began to fly. The newspapers had a field day with recriminations and counter arguments. Backers of the Muskegon site were especially vehement, putting political, social, corporate and union contacts to work for their bid, and even taking their case to a committee of the Michigan legislature. But in the end, the central location of the Allendale site, unanimously recommended by the group of university consultants, as well as its physical beauty, won the day. Arnold Ott, the Board of Control member from Muskegon, told The Muskegon Chronicle that although he had been leaning toward the Marne location, after flying over the Allendale site he felt the “beauty of it could not be bought for a million dollars.”

Site Map

A map of proposed sites for the new campus was published by The Grand Rapids Press on January 8, 1961.

On Friday, April 7, 1961, the Board met into the wee hours of the next morning considering the selection, and on April 8 at a public meeting at Grand Rapids Junior College, announced that the Allendale site had been chosen.

The 876-acre site on the Grand River once included Blendon’s Landing, a 19th century logging settlement long since vanished. Cut by ravines, the land slopes up sharply from the river, with several large areas of buildable terrain. The natural beauty of the campus would become a touchstone for the college community, even as, in decades to come, it began to expand into many of the areas which so hotly contested its initial selection.

For more information about the natural and cultural history of GVSU’s first site, see the “Environment & Architecture” sidebar.

V. A Name for Us

Although the legislation enabling the new institution of higher education for West Michigan refers to the entity as Grand Valley, there was not universal agreement that the somewhat bucolic moniker was suitable for the high aspirations of the new college. Bill Seidman, in correspondence cited in the Swets thesis, leaned toward something along the lines of Kent State, variations on the names of the constituent counties, or Michigan College at Grand Rapids.

Grand Valley Nature

Grand Valley State University approaching its 50th anniversary.

At the meeting of the Board of Control in early November 1960, Greenville Daily News Editor and Publisher Dale Stafford was appointed to organize a contest among area schools to submit proposals for a new name. The prize offered was a four-year tuition scholarship to the new college.

By mid-January of 1961, more than 2500 entries had been received from approximately 1500 people. Among the most popular suggestions were: Wolverine State (59); Vandenberg (44); Wolverine (31); Wonderland (23); Great Lakes (19); Lakeland (16); Ko-mi-ban (many similar entries also were based on names of the area counties) (14); and 10 each for Arthur H. Vandenberg, Lake Michigan, Southwestern Michigan, Water Wonderland, and Western Michigan. Some suggestions had that mid-20th century ring of optimism: Learning for Life College, Bright Future, Bright Purpose, Bright Tomorrow, Dream Fulfilled, Paradise Gates, Peace, Utopia. Others set an idealistic academic tone: Athena, Cogito, Delphian, Octavo, Pallas Athene, Theta, Vade Mecum, Vale Vista.

Marinus Swets, in his thoroughly notated thesis, provides the entire list in Appendix XXVII.

In the end, nothing presented a more attractive alternative to the Board than the all-inclusive Grand Valley. In his Video History Project interview, Bill Seidman noted that "we decided we wanted a name that really sounded much more like an institution for the area that it was in."

Five people had submitted the name Grand Valley State College (a slight amendment to the HB 477 name Grand Valley College), so their entries were put in a hat and the winner selected. Frederick H. Brack of Grandville, age 20, was already a senior at Michigan State University. He designated his young sister Marianne Lovins, age 7, as the scholarship recipient, and in the fall of 1971 Marianne became a freshman at Grand Valley.

VI. Million Dollar Mission Accomplished

The issues of site and name for the new college drew much public attention, but at the same time the more crucial issue of finance was being quietly pursued by some of the area's most influential movers and shakers.

The legislation enabling the new college in the spring of 1960 stipulated that a million dollar nest egg must first be raised, as well as funds for a campus site. Bill Seidman told The Grand Rapids Press in October of that year, "We are the only college to start with no assets and a million dollar debt."

At their second meeting, November 1, 1960, the Board of Control decided to organize the fund drive themselves instead of hiring professional consultants, and named Union Bank President Edward H. Frey as finance chair. Drawing on the strengths of their members, they also put Kenneth Robinson in charge of organizing support from the union community, and James Copeland was asked to establish the fundraising program in counties outside Kent County.

Marianne Lovins, age 7

Marianne Lovins, age 7, was the recipient of a scholarship won by her brother in a contest to name Grand Valley.

Much of the task for the group was to convince their peers in the area that the new college was necessary, and would be a good investment.

And there were some who needed convincing. There were objections on economic grounds by those opposed to increased taxation. Others questioned whether the state was obligated to provide higher education opportunities to students of limited academic accomplishment (a prominent Grand Rapids woman resigned from the CEFYC because of that belief). The Muskegon area, smarting from their unsuccessful bid to locate the campus there, was not forthcoming in financial support. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce president was quoted as saying the "so-called shortage" of college and university facilities existed only in the minds of those who wished to see the Federal government take over the responsibility of managing and financing higher education. Luckily, the Grand Rapids Chamber of Commerce, and its president, Edward Frey, were wholeheartedly in support of Grand Valley.

More than 5000 donors pitched in, with contributions ranging from $1 to $200,000. The Grand Rapids Press on April 29, 1961 announced that contributions from members of the Kent County Medical Society and the GR District of the Michigan State Nurses Association brought the total to $1,010,000. Along with generous individuals and businesses, many organizations collectively supported the effort, such as the United Auto Workers, the Michigan Education Association, and the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People). The Grand Rapids Foundation (now the Grand Rapids Community Foundation), made a mid-April contribution of $150,000, bringing their total participation in the effort to $200,000, more than eight times any grant they had to that date given any individual campaign. It matched another $200,000 gift that had been given anonymously.

Bill Seidman remembers trying to raise $1 million for the new college.

View the L. William Seidman interview clip larger.

Many individuals worked long and hard to raise the staggering sum. But, according to Swets, in conversations regarding the effort Bill Seidman strongly emphasized the role of Richard Gillett, by then Old Kent Bank President. "He just went out and got 25 of the best fundraisers in the community and went to work," he said.

The legislature's requirements had been met. Governor John Swainson had proposed funding the new college in his January budget message, and on June 2, 1961, signed a higher education appropriations act that provided $150,000 for operational funding for Grand Valley State College for fiscal year 1961-62.

Grand Valley was now a reality -- the first new four-year institution of higher education to be established in Michigan in 60 years. In his concluding section, Swets writes about the unique role of the new college. "Seidman … stated that they had done research on the establishment of new institutions of higher education in the U.S. and that they had been able to find no new college that had been established as GVSC had been established within a quarter of a century. There had been branch colleges and several municipal colleges, scores of community-junior colleges, many private colleges converted into state-supported colleges, but no new institutions such as this one. And this occurred in a community that has been labeled the stereotype of the arch-conservative, arch-reactionary community. Their success refuted the gloomy prophecies of local seers and seem to belie the statements made by those who had pointed to the inhibiting factor of a conservative or reactionary community."

Expectations for the new college were high. It was up to the hard-working group of supporters to take a deep breath, marshal their forces, and plunge into the next step: hiring a president and establishing a curriculum.

Burning of the mortgage

Leaders of the new GVSC apply a match to what they jokingly referred to as "the mortgage," an enlarged portion of the 1960 state statute requiring $1 million and a site before obtaining a charter. Left to right: Philip Buchen, Edward Frey, L. William Seidman, Richard Gillett, and Arnold Ott.

Philip Buchen was profiled as Today's VIP in the Grand Rapids Press

The first officer of the new college, Philip Buchen was profiled as Today's VIP in the Grand Rapids Press, July 1961. Buchen would go on to serve as White House Counsel during the administration of Gerald R. Ford. Buchen was profiled as Today's VIP in the Grand Rapids Press, July 1961. Buchen would go on to serve as White House Counsel during the administration of Gerald R. Ford.

VII. The Right People; The Right Program

The Board of Control, as usual, was prepared to move immediately when their appropriation was approved. They named Philip Buchen as the first officer of Grand Valley State College, to serve as chief executive beginning July 1, 1961 while the search for a college president proceeded. Buchen, a law partner of U.S. Representative, and future president, Gerald Ford, had served the Board as volunteer attorney.

The Board also voted to purchase parcels on the Allendale site and to rent office space in the Manger Hotel on Michigan Street at Monroe in downtown Grand Rapids (later called the Randall House and then Olds Manor). The new office was "modernized with imaginative, unconventional methods that combine to give it a forward look," according to a Grand Rapids Press article July 27, 1961. This also included modernist sculpture and paintings, in keeping with the up-to-the-minute ideas envisioned for the new college. A furious debate in the newspaper's letters column about the merits of modern art ensued, foreshadowing the major role Grand Valley would come to play in the artistic life of West Michigan. Check the "Arts at Grand Valley" sidebar for more details.

Bill Seidman, Grace Kistler and Arnold Ott were appointed as a search committee charged with finding a president for the new college. A salary of $25,000 was proposed. A field of some 50 candidates was identified, and the position was first offered to a dean at the University of Michigan who had roots in West Michigan and had been assisting the Grand Valley group with curriculum planning. According to Bill Seidman, after Dr. Roger Heyns had accepted the job, he was offered another position he preferred (Heyns became Vice President of Academic Affairs at the University of Michigan in 1962 and Chancellor of the University of California at Berkeley in 1965). He asked to be released from his agreement with Grand Valley, and Seidman said that the stipulation they made was that he would assist them in continuing their search. Heyns was told, "We want to interview the top five candidates you have at the University of Michigan," Seidman remembered in his 2008 interview, "the ones you usually hide when recruiters come along."

A VW bus was donated by Peter Cook

To transport early staff and other officials between the business offices of Grand Valley downtown and the Allendale campus site, a VW bus was donated by Peter Cook of Import Motors, Ltd., above right with Phil Buchen.

Heyns complied, and in February of 1962 the first president of Grand Valley State College, James H. Zumberge, was appointed. A graduate of the University of Minnesota, Dr. Zumberge was a popular professor of geology at the University of Michigan and author of a widely used textbook. Only 38 years old, he had little experience in college administration. He was an internationally renowned geologist, and had led two expeditions to Antarctica, the first in 1957-58 during the International Geophysical Year, and a second two years later. Dr. Zumberge was appointed a delegate to the fifth IGY conference in Moscow in 1958, and a mountain in Antarctica was named for him.

One of the things that attracted the Board committee to Zumberge was his philosophy of education, closely aligned with the principles set out in the Russell and Jamrich reports. The new college would be targeted to a broad spectrum of potential students, and bold ideas about education would be embraced. In an interview with the Muskegon Chronicle, Zumberge said "We don't feel fettered by any previous program or system of ideas. We have to be bold in our moves and bold in our thinking, otherwise we'll be no different than the other nine state-supported schools."

Others in the West Michigan area were already agitating on behalf of their own bold, if somewhat retro, ideas. A group had formed, driven by the concerns mentioned above that providing higher education opportunities to students of limited academic accomplishment would not be a wise use of state tax dollars, and that it would dilute the prestige and tradition of excellence of a college degree. In July of 1961, the group, calling itself Grand Valley Citizens for a Better College, formulated ten principles which were published in The Grand Rapids Press, among them liberal education, enduring truths, intellectual discipline, and avoidance of vocationalism and highly commercialized programs of athletics.

President Zumberge inspecting construction

President Zumberge inspecting construction. Read biographies of GVSU's former and current presidents.

Harry Jellema

Although the ideas of Professor Harry Jellema were rooted in classical forms of education, he was one of the most popular teachers during the early years of the thoroughly modern Grand Valley State College. "Far more important than what the individual happens to think about this or that," he wrote in a pamphlet on education, "is the mind with which he thinks." Dr. Jellema's dedication to the ideals of liberal education still resonate at Grand Valley today.

Prominent in the movement to define the new school's focus, and a member of the citizens' group, was William Harry Jellema, founder in 1921 of the Department of Philosophy at Calvin College in Grand Rapids. He later chaired the same department at the University of Indiana, but returned to Calvin and retired at the mandatory age of 70 in 1963. He was hired first as a consultant to Grand Valley, and then as its first faculty member.

Jon Jellema, the son of Harry Jellema, joined Grand Valley's English faculty in 1972 and became Associate Vice President for Academic Affairs in 2005. In an article about Grand Valley Presidents in the Winter 2007 issue of Grand Valley Review, he wrote that, "Zumberge's strong credentials and academic reputation lent instant credibility to the foundling institution and helped attract a strong, albeit not very diverse, group of faculty."

In an article for the Fall 1995 GV Review, Dewey Hoitenga, who became a professor in the philosophy department at Grand Valley in 1965, quotes a letter written by Zumberge to Jellema's family at his death in 1982. "Harry Jellema began his second academic career at GVSC when he became the first professor that I engaged for the new college. He was the reason that we were able to field an unusually good faculty of fifteen to start things going. His presence set the level of quality that I was looking for."

Whether one or the other was more influential in the academic foundation of the new college, Zumberge and Jellema were definitely a powerhouse duo. Along with Bill Seidman, the fourth person to have a profound effect on the development of Grand Valley's first curriculum was George Potter. A graduate of Oxford University's Oriel College, founded in 1326, Potter was a strong advocate for the collegiate societies formed in venerable English universities, emphasizing a common curriculum of classic liberal arts. Potter was hired as President's Assistant for Academic Affairs in 1962, and became Grand Valley's first Vice President of Academic Affairs in 1966.

In a report written by Zumberge in 1964 describing the formative years of Grand Valley, he gives an account of a meeting he convened in June 1962 at Hidden Valley, a private club in northern Michigan. The weekend curriculum conference included Zumberge, Seidman, Jellema, and Potter, as well as Buchen, Grand Valley's new librarian Stephen Ford, and consultants from Michigan State University and the University of Michigan. Their goal for the weekend was to answer one question: what shall be the freshman program of instruction at GVSC? The pressing need was to produce a catalog with defined course offerings to begin recruiting faculty and students. The decisions made that weekend would have far-reaching consequences for the fledgling college.

1962-1964: An account of the formative years of a new liberal arts college in Michigan, by James Zumberge.

Report of the President, Grand Valley State College. Read the full text of the report.

Students peruse the first Grand Valley catalog.

Students peruse the first Grand Valley catalog.

The group decided to establish a foundation program in which all entering freshmen would be required to take nine courses, three each in the three 11-week quarters of the academic year. Each course would carry five credits, and students would also take a non-credit course in physical education. The proposed curriculum included courses such as History of Greece and Rome, Introduction to Moral Philosophy, Problems of Modern American Society, Frontiers of Science, and Foreign Languages 1 and 2, with choice of French, German or Russian. (The complete listing can be found on p. 14 of the Zumberge Report). Grand Valley would be strongly committed to undergraduate education and avoid the professional schools and graduate programs that dominated other regional universities.

Dr. Anthony Travis, who joined the Grand Valley History faculty in 1971, has written extensively about the college's early years. In an essay for the Grand Valley Review Fall 1995 titled "Community Pragmatism vs. Academic Foundationalism: The Beginnings of GVSU," he traces developments in American higher education across two centuries, and the conflict between those who were committed to a 19th-century classic liberal arts college model and the more contemporary idea that tax-supported institutions had a responsibility to the community to provide professional education in areas such as business and education. "The first ten years of Grand Valley State College … were dominated by two philosophical paradigms that competed to test which would form the academic culture of the new institution," he wrote. "The first of these I have termed 'community pragmatism' and the other 'academic foundationalism.' During the first ten years of (GVSC) these two educational philosophies were in creative tension."

There was another conflict for the idealistic group who were urging the latter model. They were under a mandate from the state legislature to keep costs low and enrollment high. The curriculum they proposed required intensive faculty-student contact, with small group discussions and tutorials in the classical education vein as the hallmark of the institution.

The Grand Valley Review: Vol. XIII, Fall 1995

The Grand Valley Review: Vol. XIII, Fall 1995, titled "Experiments in Education: The Early Years at Grand Valley," contains essays, recollections, vignettes and musings about Grand Valley's early years.

A definitely modern solution was proposed for the dilemma of how to inexpensively provide a faculty-intensive program to a large number of students. Bill Seidman had become interested in the earliest stirrings of information technology. He proposed an innovative system of audio-visual study carrels. Professors could tape their lectures and other materials, and students could dial up the tapes in individual carrels, greatly increasing the efficiency of student-teacher ratios.

Grand Valley's pioneering system of education technology drew national attention

Grand Valley's pioneering system of education technology drew national attention. Though it did not work as planned, it laid the foundation for sophisticated use of information technology as an important aspect of education at Grand Valley (the University is regularly named among 'America's Most Wired' in 21st century publications).

The expectation of large enrollments also presented a problem for the planned curriculum of individualized liberal arts education. George Potter, drawing on his experiences with small, relatively autonomous college societies within England's large major universities, designed a system in which new academic complexes would be created for every 500 students admitted to the college (later increased to 1500 students). They would share common facilities such as the library and science labs. The decentralization plan set the stage for what would become Grand Valley's famous cluster college era.

The decisions made that weekend about curriculum and campus organization would not only inform Grand Valley's development to this day, the vision of the group would find physical form in the architecture being conceived for the Allendale site.

VIII. Breaking Ground

The idea that the physical structure of the new campus site and buildings was integrally tied to the academic vision was evident in the decision made in September 1961 by the Grand Valley Board to hire the newly formed firm of Johnson, Johnson and Roy of Ann Arbor as chief consultants for site planning of the new campus.

The firm's principals included a landscape architecture professor at the University of Michigan, William Johnson; his brother Carl, and Clarence Roy, both practicing landscape architects. In a 2003 monograph about the firm, which became JJR, author Fiona Gruber quoted William Johnson in a statement of the firm's philosophy that still resonates on the Grand Valley campus today. "In most cases, the leading element shaping community is thought to be architecture, while open space is relegated to a secondary role. Properly understood and crafted, open space can often assume a primary position, well before building programs are defined. Open space can form the basis for a development strategy."

The firm moved quickly to propose a site plan that emphasized the deep wooded ravines and narrow plateaus of the campus overlooking the Grand River. James Zumberge, in his 1964 President's Report on the formation of Grand Valley, wrote that the firm had just one directive: that the planned academic program would be best served by groups of small general purpose buildings. "The site planners used a distinctive feature of the campus terrain to achieve the … objective," he explained. "Each plateau is ideally suited for the building of two clusters of general purpose academic structures constituting one of the collegiate units of the master plan."

The first land purchase

The first land purchase for the new college took place on the farm of John Van Huizen (in photo on tractor). Also pictured are attorney John Daugherty, second from right, and Marinus DeYoung, right, a leader in the Allendale business group which promoted the site. Also pictured is Mrs. Mary VanWestenberg, 94, widow of the original settler of the land who took title to 80 acres on 42nd street in 1903. According to the GR Press article, the college paid $32,000 for 99.5 acres, which included a house and a barn and other buildings on the core site of the planned campus.

In November of 1961, the Board selected architects Meathe, Kessler & Associates of Grosse Pointe to design the college's first buildings. They were confirmed at the December 15 meeting, and within a week, William Kessler and Carl Johnson had set up a design shop in one of the old farmhouses on the Allendale site, spending hours walking the land and staying in a nearby motel.

It was an exciting time for architecture, mirroring the enthusiasm and drive of the era of President John F. Kennedy and the post-war confidence of America. William Kessler had been a student of Bauhaus icon Walter Gropius at Harvard, and had been attracted to Michigan, along with Philip Meathe, to join the firm of noted Detroit iconoclast Minoru Yamasaki. They were a part of a movement to transcend the international modernist style that had produced a popular backlash against mathematical, sterile exercises in concrete and glass. Their designs for Grand Valley's first buildings reflected new concepts about flexible space, interaction with the environment, and innovative use of materials and technology.

The plans for the new college's first buildings incorporated upright arched supporting columns made of cast concrete that came to be known as "concrete trees". Masonry walls between the columns were to be faced with split Michigan fieldstone, adding to the impression of living structures growing from the ravine-edge landscape.

Planners live with GVSU

Architect William Kessler, left, and planner Carl Johnson at work on-site at Grand Valley.

The architectural design and site plan of Grand Valley's first buildings earned national attention, including several articles in Architectural Record. Check the sidebar section Environment & Architecture for more details.

In the spring of 1962, Grand Valley was asked to vacate its downtown Grand Rapids offices in the building which was slated to become Olds Manor senior housing. An army of volunteers -- cleaners, painter, plumbers -- descended on one of the old farmhouses on the Allendale campus to transform it into a new campus office. The college's Public Relations director, Nancy Bryant, and buildings and grounds superintendent Don Lautenbach, even planted a vegetable garden behind the old farmhouse, foreshadowing the renewed interest in local food that is sweeping the campus as it celebrates its 50th anniversary.

All the pieces were in place for the new college officially to break ground. On August 28, 1962, dignitaries gathered for the ceremony. Thoughtful and idealistic speeches were made, including James Zumberge's description of the design of the new buildings as "the marriage of the bride of beauty with the groom of function." Governor John B. Swainson hit the button to trigger a dynamite blast to break the ground, literally, at the site of the first new building. Nothing happened. He hit it again, and again nothing. In the archives of Grand Valley is a file of memos from Zumberge preparing for the event, including a detailed back-up plan for thoroughly cleaning out a barn to be used in case of rain. But there was no back-up plan for the failure of detonation. After a half-dozen tries, the Governor good-naturedly gave up. Master of Ceremonies David Dutcher announced, "Let us consider the ground broken," and proceeded with bringing the august occasion to a close. As the spectators and participants were dispersing, the dynamite finally ignited with a stupendous blast, prompting cheers from the crowd and signaling an auspicious beginning for Grand Valley's new home.

Academic buildings designed by Balthazar Korab

Grand Valley is fortunate to possess a portfolio of work by internationally renowned architectural photographer Balthazar Korab, documenting the design of its first academic buildings. View photo gallery. 

Volunteers clean the farmhouse that would serve as the first Allendale office for the new college.

Volunteers clean the farmhouse that would serve as the first Allendale office for the new college.

L. William Seidman, Gov. Swainson, and President Zumberge hold defective detonator.

L. William Seidman, Gov. Swainson, and President Zumberge hold defective detonator.

IX. Let The Learning Begin

Although there were some other glitches in the construction process (as was and ever shall be), including delayed bond sales and ill-timed workers' strikes, the stage was set for the first students to arrive at Grand Valley State College in the fall of 1963.

In the first brochure developed to describe the new college, ("Behind the Door," see above for link to archived copy), the prospective student body was characterized: "The college will be searching for able surprises -- students with a talent for creativity who give promise of rising to the challenge of an imaginative college program."

That description might also have served for the men and women brought to remote Allendale to teach these "able surprises." In his 1964 Report of the President, Zumberge described the first faculty hires. "They saw an opportunity to participate in building a sound academic program in an atmosphere unshackled by tradition and unhampered by an existing 'old guard' faculty," he wrote. "That the first GVSC faculty looked for such opportunity is, in itself, an indication of the caliber of people who were attracted by our fledgling school. They realized that their contributions to the success of the college would be important."

Glenn Niemeyer, who would become one of Grand Valley's longest-serving academics, remembered his arrival in a 2008 Video History Project interview. With a just-earned doctorate in history from Michigan State, he said there were many openings for faculty across the country, many new and experimental ideas in education. But Grand Valley offered something else that attracted him, "the opportunity to craft a history curriculum … There was a kind of excitement," he remembered, "the fact that we were beginning a university."

Grand Valley's first communication to prospective students

Grand Valley's first communication to prospective students, The Story Behind This Door, February 1962, could only depict the proposed campus in sketches and diagrams, with an outline of the curriculum and the proposed tuition costs.
Read the full text of brochure.

In the fall of 1962, the first students were accepted and enrolled. It was not an easy task for the small staff charged with recruiting them. "Because GVSC was established to fill a need created by more students clamoring for a college education," Zumberge wrote in his 1964 Report, "it is paradoxical that we were not deluged with applications. But there was a reason for it. Students who could afford to go away from home to college were not likely to list Grand Valley as their first choice. And most students who could not afford to go away to school were inclined to select an institution of established reputation in the area before taking a chance on a new, non-accredited college whose physical plant was still on paper."

Zumberge and his tiny admissions staff canvassed the area's high schools, attending College Night programs, talking to parents and potential students. He embarked on a vigorous fundraising program to establish tuition scholarships, and solicited letters from the University of Michigan, Michigan State University and Wayne State University stating that they would accept GVSC credits in transfers, prior to accreditation. He even hosted luncheons for high school counselors and principals, "hammering away," as he put it in his report, "at the virtues of the tutorial system." He concluded that it was this feature that finally won the sympathy and support of the counselors.

"My friends thought I was a little crazy," said Diane Paton in her 2008 Video History Project interview. Then Diane Hatch, she was the first accepted applicant to enroll at the new college. She describes being picked up in the college's VW bus with friends from Muskegon High School for a tour of the campus, which at the time was just a model on a table in a farmhouse, in the middle of cornfields.

By the fall of 1962, several dozen pioneer freshman had been registered in a garage on Lake Michigan Drive. The surroundings may have been improvised, but the college continued its innovative approach by becoming one of the first in Michigan to employ IBM's new punch-card computer technology to register students. After a winter notable for very cold weather and heavy snow, and a flurry of construction in the spring and summer, the new college was ready (just) to open in September, 1963.

View the Diane Paton interview clip larger.

X. A College in the Cornfields

In May, 1963, the first faculty meeting was held in the Allendale Township hall. With only 15 faculty members in 11 different subjects, the group organized informally into three divisions: humanities, social sciences, and sciences. None of the technology that was planned to assist in the faculty-intensive teaching program was ready for use, but the group agreed to the outline developed in the earlier curriculum sessions. Students would meet in large lecture groups of 90-100, break into smaller discussion groups of 10-20, and meet with professors for tutorial sessions of no more than 3-5.

By the end of the summer, more than 200 students had enrolled, and in August the college threw them a welcoming party, a "hootenanny," according to Diane Paton, including singing, hayrides and a barbeque.

A more solemn, if somewhat steamy, atmosphere pervaded the second floor of the theoretically air-conditioned Lake Michigan Hall on September 26, 1963. Opening ceremonies for Grand Valley State College assembled students, faculty in academic robes, parents, donors, and members of the Board of Control in what was the dining room for the college. "No event such as this had occurred in Michigan for nearly sixty years," wrote Zumberge in his 1964 report, "and we all felt at once a deep sense of humility and exhilaration at the thought of being part of this important endeavor."

Opening ceremonies for Grand Valley State College in September 1963.

Opening ceremonies for Grand Valley State College in September 1963.

Because of the problems with weather and construction delays, only Lake Michigan Hall was completed to welcome the 226 members of the pioneer class. But, ever plucky, all made do with what was at hand. The library, which had been a priority for the new President, was on its way well before opening day to establishing an impressive collection. Head Librarian Stephen Ford had been working on acquiring books for over a year, operating out of a small private house on the campus site. By the time they moved into temporary headquarters in Lake Michigan Hall, a staff of seven had been appointed and nearly 10,000 books had been catalogued. Business and administrative offices remained in the remodeled farmhouse, and faculty members doubled up in makeshift office space. Some of the problems were alleviated at the beginning of winter quarter, when Lake Superior Hall was completed in time for occupancy right after the Christmas recess.

The pioneer class rose to the challenge of creating student life on the new campus. A student government was formed and a student charter drafted. Physical Education, a requirement in the curriculum, was limited to outdoor track activities and shooting baskets in the hayloft of one of the old barns. A few showers were installed in one of the farmhouses. But the seeds of Grand Valley's longest running sport were sown before opening day, when racing shells for the rowing competition known as crew were purchased with a fund organized for that purpose by Grand Rapids businessman Mike Keeler. A crew house, nicknamed "Muscle & Corpuscle," opened in November and athletes began to train for what would become the college's debut in national intercollegiate competition. During the winter a ski club made use of the rolling terrain of the riverside campus, and a variety of inter-mural games were organized.

Also in November, the first student newspaper, The Keystone, published its first edition. Editor Elaine Rosendall wrote, "This is your paper; not the theorizing tool of the faculty." President Zumberge added a column enumerating his conception of the role of student newspapers, describing it as a "...forum for expression of student opinion and editorial comment." Somewhat presciently, if erroneously, considering events five years later, he concluded, "It is in this last role where many newspapers published by college students eventually end up at odds with the administration, faculty, townspeople, and parents. I don't think this is inevitable, however..

Students and volunteers unload racing shells for crew competition.

Students and volunteers unload racing shells for crew competition.

Grand Valley State College was on its way. In August 1963, a foundation had been established to receive gifts, donations and bequests for the benefit of the new college with Richard Gillett as its first president. The Loutit Foundation of Grand Haven contributed $300,000 to help construct a science building, the college's most significant gift to date and beginning a tradition of community support for growth that was to help the new college blossom over the next 50 years.

But not before some intense growing pains, and radical rethinking of almost every initial premise the founders had developed. The times, as one bard so famously put it, they were a'changing.

Seal for the new college

A contest was held to design an official seal for the new college. 60 submissions were received from nearly two dozen entrants, but the winner was, it was reported, an anonymous design found in the college mailbox with no postmark. The $100 prize was donated to the GVSC scholarship fund. A vote among students chose school colors of light blue, black and white.

Judging the official seal contest

Above from left, GV's first administrator Phil Buchen, with artist Gerald Mast, center, and Grand Rapids Art Museum director Walter McBride, judging the entries.