GVSU History


I. The Cluster Concept

As the 1960s drew to a close, it seemed as if the new ideas about education percolating at Grand Valley State College were beginning to reap rewards. Enrollment in 1969 hit an all-time high, and in fall 1970 passed the 3000 mark. Another living center, named for founding Board of Control member Grace O. Kistler, was constructed in the curving dorm complex along the north campus ravines in 1971, along with a Fine Arts Center on the south campus.

The new president of the college, Don Lubbers, moved swiftly to build on the cluster college concept that, although foreshadowed in the earliest talks about curriculum, had begun just before his arrival with the establishment of a "second society" in 1968. The School of General Studies (described in the previous section of this history), was renamed Thomas Jefferson College in the fall of 1969.

The idea of offering experimental education was not unique to Grand Valley. Lubbers, in a 2008 interview for the 50th Anniversary Video History Project, remembered that it reflected, "a society that was beginning to look for experiments in higher education - to change it, to improve it," or, he continued, "at least in that part of society that was young and college bound, there were a number of them who wanted alternative ideas in higher education."

President Arend D. Lubbers in front of a William James College display.

President Arend D. Lubbers in front of a William James College display.

While renewed interest in experimental education did not originate at Grand Valley, the college's 10-year process of developing separate academic units organized around ideas rather than residential groups was particularly inspired. Over the next decade, Grand Valley would become a proving ground for innovations in education that attracted faculty and students from across the country, and, while often problematic and controversial, set a stage for discussions of teaching and learning that still resonate at the college today, and, some believe, shaped Grand Valley as exceptional among similar public institutions nationwide.

II. William James College

As the School of General Studies (TJC) was emerging, yet another planning task force had been meeting, interested in new ideas about education but taking as a model the work of 19th century American philosopher William James.

Conceived as an interdisciplinary, non-departmentalized college with concentration programs instead of majors and a common core of study (similar to Thomas Jefferson), the new unit differed from the "second society" in a very specific delineation of goals in the original blueprint for the college: "William James College will be future-oriented, since its programs will correlate with society's projected needs; it will be career-oriented, since its concentrations will lead to clearly defined professional opportunities, as well as to advanced studies; it will be person-oriented, in that its programs will stress intellectual and personal maturation within a community of learners."

WJC students and faculty on the steps of Lake Superior Hall

WJC students and faculty on the steps of Lake Superior Hall under a mural depicting William James.

In the fall of 1971, 160 students and six faculty met in their new headquarters, Lake Superior Hall, for the first of what would become a hallmark of the school, the Synoptic Lectures. Designed as a counterpart to what many colleges offered as foundation or distribution courses, the Synoptic (literally "seeing together") Program that included the lecture series was planned to "acquaint students with a variety of intellectual fields," and provide an opportunity for "developing their own broad and comprehensive view of human experience." The initial series, titled "William James - Our Contemporary," featured scholars from the University of California Berkeley, Harvard, the University of Chicago, Yale and others, including Martin Marty, Jerome Kagan, and David Elkind.

In an article for the Grand Valley Review in Fall 1995, Richard Paschke, one of the first six WJC faculty, wrote that the demands of curriculum development and heavy teaching commitment "wreaked havoc on the personal lives and health of many WJC faculty and staff members in the early years. Yet," he continued, "so brightly burned the flame of William James' original vision that the pace of development held steady and even quickened in the second year of the college's existence: hired then were twelve new faculty members, including six women, one of whom, Adrian Tinsley, became its first full-time dean."

Over the next decade, the William James College philosophy of pragmatic education would draw national attention, including a prestigious 1977 grant from the U.S. Office of Education for a demonstration project in providing a career education at a liberal arts college. Students in several area concentrations would make an impact on the West Michigan community, including activities in urban and environmental studies, social relations, and information technology. But by the fall of 1974, according to a college self-study for NCA accreditation review, 34% of WJC students were concentrating in the Arts & Media program, a foundation for the strength of Grand Valley's current Film & Video major in the School of Communications.

Adrian Tinsley was Grand Valley's first woman dean

Adrian Tinsley was Grand Valley's first woman dean, appointed to lead WJC in July 1972. She held the post until June of 1980. In 1989 she became the first woman to be president of Bridgewater College in Massachusetts, serving until 2002. Read William James College's First Year: An Inside Perspective by Dick Paschke.

Barbara Roos, a member of the Arts & Media faculty who joined the School of Communications when WJC was closed, has made a one-hour documentary titled "William James College: An Unfinished Conversation." An introduction to the film and other footage of WJC faculty and students can be found on the web site Vimeo, #19121580.

III. College IV (Kirkhof College)

By 1972, the reputation of Grand Valley for innovative, experimental ideas about education was spreading nationwide. Federal grants were secured to develop a curriculum plan and faculty for another new college by the man who would become its dean, Dr. Robert Toft. Perhaps reflecting the very prosaic aims of the new venture, it took the name College IV when it opened in the fall of 1973, indicating its position as the fourth college in the cluster that now included the College of Arts & Sciences, Thomas Jefferson College, and William James College.

"It was the dream of College IV to remove many of the barriers which kept people away from higher education," wrote David Bernstein, one of the original faculty hired for the psychology area of the new college, in an article titled "College IV: Elegant and Lonely" in the Fall 1995 issue of Grand Valley Review. "Some of these barriers were in the physical and social environments," he wrote. "Classes that all students had to attend in 'lock-step' fashion prevented those with certain kinds of jobs and/or family responsibilities from enrolling in college. The typical course also assumed that most students were roughly equal in preparedness for the course and that, once in the course, most students would march along productively at the pace set by the instructor."

College IV

Read the Grand Valley Review articles The Fourth College at Grand Valley by Milt Ford and College IV: Elegant and Lonely by David Bernstein.

College IV proposed to solve some of these problems by offering a self-directed, self-paced curriculum of modules, units of study or blocks of material that broke courses into conceptual chunks. The College produced booklets that instructed students on how to master those "chunks," and then tested them when they were ready to earn the half-credit each module carried (Grand Valley was on the quarter system at the time, and most courses earned 5 credits). Faculty were available for tutorials, coaching and consulting when needed.

College IV's Module Mobile as a classroom

College IV used a Module Mobile as a classroom to take its self-paced curriculum to factories, businesses, and even shopping malls, during the 1975-76 academic year. The van eventually became the press box for the GV football field.

The College (CIV) was housed in AuSable Hall, with a core section where students could study, flanked by a learning and testing center and a laboratory area. Milt Ford, who came to CIV in 1973, also wrote an article in the Fall 1995 Grand Valley Review. "I was excited about designing a whole English curriculum for people who needed schedules which would not conflict with work and family responsibilities and would be free of speed requirements," he wrote. But, like his colleagues at William James, Ford found the curriculum extremely demanding for faculty. "When I think of those first two years, I think of double or even triple time," he explained, citing the demands of nearly 20 hours of office availability, plus what he called a "paperwork nightmare" of materials design, test grading, and credit audits for graduation.

Bernstein digs into the problems with basic assumptions behind the concept of the new college, but Ford cites another purely practical problem. While attracting many students who moved quickly and efficiently through the curriculum (students who went to graduate school after CIV did extremely well), the college, as part of its philosophy, did not impose deadlines on the process. "Because things are the way they are," wrote Ford, "students kept doing the things in their lives that had deadlines and time constraints and saved their studies for later. At the rate one student was completing modules, it would have taken over 150 years to complete a degree."

A local inventor and businessman had been following events at the new college. Russel H. Kirkhof, responsible for the development of dozens of electrical manufacturing devices, lived near Grand Valley in Tallmadge Township. Through his friend and neighbor John Scherff, GV's director of buildings and grounds, he had maintained an interest in the new college in Allendale. He had not been able to attend college himself, and was especially impressed by the practical nature of CIV. In October of 1978 he bestowed on Grand Valley its largest single gift to date, $1 million, and the Board of Control voted to re-name College IV as Kirkhof College.

In 1975, Toft left the new college and a new dean, Douglas Kindschi, led a revision of the original plan that added professional programs such as Hospitality and Tourism Management and Advertising and Public Relations, as well as a general education humanities program. Traces of these programs can still be found in Grand Valley's current curriculum.

Russel Kirkhof biography cover

Read Russel Kirkhof: Mechanic to Millionaire, a biography of the Grand Valley benefactor by Reid Holland and Gordon Olson.

IV. Graduate Education Comes to Grand Valley

While innovative ideas sparked life into the three independent cluster colleges that developed at Grand Valley, the largest academic division of the school, the College of Arts and Sciences, was also growing to meet new demands. In 1970, the Board of Control approved two new schools within CAS, the School of Business and Economics, and the School of Health Sciences, as well as degree programs in earth science, environmental science, public service, and theater. In 1971 majors in music and music education were added, and a four-year baccalaureate degree in nursing was approved by the Michigan State Board of Education. When students arrived to begin Grand Valley's four-year nursing degree in the fall of 1973, they became part of the only Bachelor of Science program in nursing in West Michigan. In the fall of 1972 a School of Public Service was established, developing programs in public administration, municipal government, police administration, criminal justice, and urban affairs. (All of these areas are still active parts of Grand Valley's academic offerings. More information about them can be found elsewhere on the GVSU web site.)

At the beginning of 1973, Michigan Governor William Milliken signed a law changing the name of Grand Valley State College, making it Colleges to reflect the cluster of academic units that was blooming in Allendale. The previous summer he had quashed a community group's hopes to establish a law school at Grand Valley by vetoing a section of a higher education bill that would have allocated funds for new law schools at three Michigan institutions, including Michigan State and Western.

But the most radical step in the works at CAS (now referred to by most students as "the straight school") was a proposal to establish a graduate school of business. Many of the faculty who had worked on Grand Valley's "pure" liberal arts curriculum at its founding, or who had come to the school attracted by that commitment, were concerned about the growth of professional programs, and especially alarmed that a graduate school would drain more funds and resources from liberal arts undergraduate education. Philosophy Professor Dewey Hoitenga and English Professor Anthony Parise issued a manifesto titled "Graduate School as a Cuckoo," warning, among other things, that introduction of graduate education would destroy any hope for the return of pure liberal arts education at Grand Valley State. "Clearly, to introduce graduate school into CAS, or into any other unit that intends to honor undergraduate education, is to put a cuckoo's egg in a nightingale's nest," they wrote, passionately imploring the administration to return to the fundamentals of "Plato, Aristotle, Whitehead, and Maritain, who all maintained that a true liberal arts education is one that pursues knowledge for its own sake." (Some cuckoo species, for the non-biologists among readers of this history, are known for laying their egg in another species' nest, then leaving it to be nourished at the expense of the fledgling natives.)

The pragmatists won the day. President Lubbers, for the first and only time, made his recommendation against the vote of the faculty, and in June of 1973, the Board of Control approved the establishment of a Graduate College of Business. At its August meeting they voted to name the new school the F.E. Seidman Graduate College of Business in honor of founder L. William Seidman's father. The college opened in the fall of 1973, becoming the fifth in the cluster colleges at Grand Valley. The undergraduate and graduate business programs were merged into one school in 1979.

In 1974, NCA reaccredited Grand Valley for graduate programs, and in 1975 the College of Graduate Studies was approved by the Board, which, at the same meeting, also approved a new Graduate School of Education.

New majors and programs continued to be added to the College of Arts and Sciences through the rest of the decade, including opening a Continuing Education Office in 1973 and the International Studies Institute in 1974. Classes were offered in Holland beginning in 1974, and a Grand Valley Center was established at Muskegon Community College in 1976.

V. Culture Clashes

National attention and accolades were coming to Grand Valley as a result of its educational experiments: the Ford Foundation had awarded the school one of only two Michigan grants in a prestigious national initiative for "support of innovative undergraduate programs," President Lubbers was named to the American Association of State Colleges and Universities' new Committee on Non-Traditional Education, and the chair of an NCA evaluation team wrote after a visit in May 1974 that Grand Valley was a "unique and interesting institution," and complimented the college for "fine faculty, enthusiastic students, courageous endeavors, attractive campus, academically sound programs, and representative government." But all was not well in the neighborhood of West Michigan.

1978 ceremony for the winner of the F.E. Seidman Distinguished Award in Political Economy

Marvin DeVries, a founding faculty member at Grand Valley who became Director of the School of Business and Economics and Dean of the Seidman Graduate College of Business. DeVries is pictured above, third from right, at a 1978 ceremony for the winner of the F.E. Seidman Distinguished Award in Political Economy, with the winner, Dr. Arthur Burns, to his left, and, from left, Grand Valley President Arend Lubbers, GV Board Chair William Seidman, Old Kent Bank Chair Richard Gillett, Southwestern at Memphis College President James Daughdril, and P.K. Seidman, brother of F.E. Seidman and uncle to William.

For many people in the area, Grand Valley increasingly represented the seismic cultural shift that was occurring throughout the nation, and, indeed, throughout the world. British writer Virginia Woolf once posited in an essay that "On or about December 1910 human character changed," observing that changes in human relations just before WWI were causing a shift in religion, conduct, politics, and literature. Some contemporary historians have pointed to "on or about 1968" as a similar marker in cultural transition.

In addition to the continuing and escalating conflict between those supporting and those opposing the war in Vietnam (many of the latter were college students) and the disillusionment of many young people following the political machinations that came to be known as Watergate, the social fabric of college life was changing rapidly, reflecting changing norms throughout society. At Grand Valley the time-honored tradition of in loco parentis, rules of conduct for students that put the college in the supervisory role of parents, was quickly coming to an end. In 1969 the Board rescinded the requirement that unmarried students under 21 must live in dormitories if not living with parents, except for freshmen, and in 1975 they abolished even that last vestige. Also abolished were rules that established curfews for women in the dorms and limited visitors. The use of illegal recreational drugs became more common, and Grand Valley had its first "pot busts" in 1968.

In 1971 an informal group of GVSC women addressed discrimination with "A Report on the Status of Women at GVSC," pointing out, among other things, that of the 152 full-time and part-time teaching positions at the college, only 29 were filled by women. A Task Force for Minority Concerns in 1977 pointed out similar disparities in the student body - only 7.2% of the more than 6500 students were minorities. In 1976 Paul Phillips, Executive Director of the Grand Rapids office of the Urban League, had been named by Governor Milliken to the Grand Valley Board, the first African-American appointed to the college's controlling body. The College's first Gay Alliance was organized in 1971.

But the lightning rod for people in West Michigan concerned about what they perceived as radical threats to their way of life was Thomas Jefferson College (TJC).

A TJC recruitment poster

A TJC recruitment poster features students and faculty in the 1969-70 academic year.

The group of faculty who had founded the School of General Studies in 1968 (renamed TJC in 1969) had mapped out a curriculum of rigorous liberal arts in a classic system of lectures, seminars, tutorials and independent work, conceived to provide academic freedom for serious, hardworking students. The leadership of the fledgling school was concerned, however, about attracting enough students to make the enterprise viable. In 1969, a division of a college in Maine that also was marketed as experimental education was slated to be closed down, and a delegation from SGS/TJC traveled east to visit the campus, resulting in an invitation to students and faculty there to apply to Grand Valley's new school. Some 50 students and three faculty from the Nasson College New Division joined SGS/TJC in fall 1969.

Much debate has ensued about whether the changes that followed in the next few years at Thomas Jefferson College were the result of the arrival of the eastern bloc, many of whom espoused a decidedly countercultural lifestyle, or a reflection of the general changing spirit of the times. Gilbert Davis, a founder of the second society and one of its first faculty members, wrote in an essay in the 1995 Grand Valley Review, that "Within a few years, our experiment in educational reform was subverted by counter-culture warriors, whose goal of deconstruction included, among other things, the complete abandonment of the Common Program." In addition to the influx of radicals, he continued, "many TJC faculty members, deeply committed to the human potential movement, replaced academic studies with courses in psychological voodoo, from Yoga and meditation to EST and Rolfing, and many students were only too happy to seek therapy rather than academic instruction."

In 1974, TJC faculty member Bill Baum, who left the experimental college to rejoin the CAS Political Science department, discussed the pivotal year in an interview with GV History Professor John Tevebaugh that is preserved in the Grand Valley archives. "I'm not so sure that some of these things wouldn't have happened anyway," he mused. "…the struggle with the Nasson people was that they did not agree with those of us who had formed the School of General Studies. They did not agree with us that there are things that everyone should know. That's what it boils down to for me."

Don Klein, one of the faculty members from Nasson who came to TJC in 1969, posted a comment on the TJC Alumni Facebook page in September 2009. "To set history straight: Nasson never invaded Grand Valley," he wrote. "It was the cupidity of the GVC administration in seeking massive growth for TJC that invited both students and faculty, hopefully having researched the philosophies & practices of the New Division of Nasson College before doing so. What did they expect?"

Whatever had been expected, the expansion of the TJC curriculum to include such infamous courses as 17 credits for organizing an initiative to amend the state constitution to limit lawmakers pay, or five credits for remaining silent for 28 days, drew widespread media attention and criticism from taxpayers. In 1972, the State Auditor General questioned the credits earned by TJC students for "performance over which the college could have provided very little supervision." In an interview for Grand Valley's 50th Anniversary Video History Project, former Vice President Ron Van Steeland remembered that the report was picked up by media all over the state. "It raised questions even on campus about whether some of those innovative academic programs were legitimate," he explained, "and how do we feel if we are in the College of Arts and Sciences teaching traditional Biology, Chemistry or English when our colleagues across campus are doing some of these “flakey” things, and they must be flakey because they are identified by the general public as being flakey."

War protest poster

Read The Foundering and Floundering of the School of General Studies by Professor Gilbert Davis, above circa 1966.

Flakey became the operative word for critics of TJC, and, by extension, Grand Valley State Colleges. But quieter voices also noted that many TJC students were among the college's most outstanding. "There was widespread agreement among faculty," wrote Gil Davis in his 1995 essay, "that TJC had Grand Valley's best and worst students."

President Don Lubbers, in his 50th Anniversary Video History Interview, described TJC as perhaps too far from the mainstream, but attracting excellent students, noting that "Thomas Jefferson College … was sending a larger percentage to graduate school than the College of Arts and Sciences."

VI. But - A Community Resource is Beginning to Bloom

Despite the glare of unfavorable publicity and criticism in media and legislature, many people in West Michigan were beginning to realize what was plainly clear to the founders of Grand Valley, and to most residents reading this history today: that the presence of a major college or university would serve the surrounding community as a hugely valuable economic, cultural, and social resource.

View the Don Lubbers interview clip larger.

Many efforts of the college to reach out into the community in the 1970s can be regarded as the roots of some of the most successful programs in today's university. Institutes were established with strong community involvement in Environmental and Urban Studies, International Studies, Educational Studies and Religion Studies; the University Consortium Center and Performing Arts Center initiated a variety of collaborative projects in the area. Good examples foreshadowing the incredible resource that Grand Valley would become include arts, public broadcasting, and sports.

Ironically, the college attracting some of the strongest criticism, Thomas Jefferson, was also the source of some of the most positive developments at Grand Valley, especially in the arts. In 1970, Michigan author Jim Harrison, who would be a favorite visiting artist at Grand Valley over the next four decades, made his first appearance on campus as a guest in the classroom of TJC professor Dan Gerber, his friend and co-publisher of the small poetry magazine Sumac. An enthusiasm for contemporary poetry at TJC, thanks also to professor Robert Vas Dias, resulted in National Poetry Festivals in the summers of 1971, 1973 and 1975. Dozens of the country's most honored and innovative poets visited the Grand Valley campus for workshops, exhibits, readings and other events, including such luminaries as Robert Bly, Allen Ginsberg, Donald Hall, Gregory Corso, Robert Creeley, Diane Wakoski, Diane DePrima, Galway Kinnell, Nikki Giovanni, Ishmael Reed, and many, many more. Annual poetry programs continue to thrive at Grand Valley, bringing back some favorites and introducing students and the community to both venerable and new voices. In 2005, Jim Harrison donated his papers to GVSU's Special Collections.

National Poetry Festival

Allen Ginsberg, holding a balloon on the steps of the Grand Valley Campus Center, with students and guests during a National Poetry Festival

TJC programs in theater also were making an impact. Stage III, a community theater in downtown Grand Rapids, was launched in 1972, offering contemporary and experimental drama not found elsewhere in the area, and United Stage, a traveling troupe of performers, provided experiences for schoolchildren and in parks throughout West Michigan.

The new performing arts center that opened in 1971, housing the 500-seat Louis Armstrong Theater, was named for sculptor Alexander Calder in 1972. Opportunities bloomed for performances that brought audiences to the Grand Valley campus, including concerts by the new Grand Valley String Quartet. Composed of first-chair players with the Grand Rapids Symphony, the campus's first resident ensemble gave open rehearsals and taught advanced music students, and appeared in concert each year beginning in 1972.

Former TJC students

Former TJC students reunited in the summer of 2009 for workshops culminating in a performance of story theater and theater games developed by United Stage in their college days. For more photos and information on further reunion activities, check Grand Valley's Alumni site

Robert Shechtman and Christine Loizeaux

A seven-car orchestra performed music by TJC professor Robert Shechtman, above, with choreographer and TJC professor Christine Loizeaux, who worked with 22 dancers in a multi-media event titled "Chris & Bob's Auto Show" presented in 1971 and 1974 on the Grand Valley campus. An album of music by the late Professor Shechtman was released in 2009 by Ogre/Ogress Recordings.

In 1970, the viola player for the quartet, Grand Valley music professor Dan Kovats, began bringing high school band students to the campus each summer for "Bandarray," which included a public performance by such well-known bands as the Glenn Miller Orchestra and the jazz bands of Stan Kenton and Buddy Rich. The GVSU Marching Band was established in 1977 by William Root.  Read a history of the Marching Band.

Also drawing large audiences to the Grand Valley campus were concerts in the new Fieldhouse dome. Primarily driven by student interest and volunteer effort, concerts began soon after the inauguration of both the new Fieldhouse and the new president in the fall of 1969. In early 1970, Country Joe and the Fish played a concert that reinforced public perceptions about the countercultural nature of the school. An eclectic array was on offer through the decade, however, ranging from Ike & Tina Turner and Sly and the Family Stone, to Aerosmith and REO Speedwagon, to Frank Zappa, Lou Reed and Dr. John.

“There was an amazing amount of creativity going on,” said Mark Schrock, a William James College student and musician who played with the noted Grand Valley-centered bluegrass band Cabbage Crik. “The staff there was so creative and young and vibrant and hip. It was very cool." Schrock's remarks are in the Spring 2009 issue of GV Magazine in an article that looked at the popular band and the atmosphere at Grand Valley in the 1970s.

The visual arts at Grand Valley, which would come to play such an important role in the growth and development of the college, were also emerging as a community resource. In 1973, Mrs. Irving Bissell donated to the college a major piece of kinetic sculpture, "Six Lines Hanging" by George Rickey, a precursor to a university-wide collection that has now become the envy of academic institutions nationwide. And the first building dedicated to studio arts was constructed, the Art Surge building, also known as Cedar Studios, southeast of Lake Michigan Hall.

A more in-depth look at the important role of arts and performance at Grand Valley can be found in the Sidebar section of this history titled The Arts at Grand Valley.

A retrospective of Dome Productions

A retrospective of Dome Productions was published in GV Magazine in the Winter 2007 issue. View a gallery of event posters.

On December 17, 1972 President Lubbers signed-on WGVC-TV, Channel 35, bringing public television to West Michigan. The culmination of years of organizing, application and engineering, the inaugural evening's programming offered local viewers their first look at Julia Child, the French Chef. The following summer, the biggest audience in the Fieldhouse to date would flock to see in person Big Bird, the beloved star of Sesame Street. The station, now WGVU-TV, and the affiliate National Public Radio station WGVU AM-FM, have continued to provide the residents of the area one of Grand Valley's most important public services.


WGVC-TV was not only a community resource, but also started many Grand Valley students on a path to successful careers in broadcasting and media. Television and radio stations in West Michigan and beyond are populated with Grand Valley alumni, especially graduates of the William James College Arts & Media program and its successor, GV's Film & Video major.

And of course, there was sports. Although no one in the 1970s could possibly have predicted the powerhouse athletic program that would evolve at Grand Valley, there was plenty of action to draw both participants and spectators to the Allendale campus.

In the 1960s, most of the athletic activity on campus was in the area of physical education, under the direction of Charles H. Irwin, although the crew team participated in intercollegiate competition against such rivals as Purdue, Notre Dame and Michigan State.

Soon after the arrival of President Lubbers, the college launched its first intercollegiate football season. The first full-time athletic director, Donald Dufek, was hired in the spring of 1972, just after the formation of the Great Lakes Intercollegiate Athletic Conference, which Grand Valley had helped to found at the beginning of the year. In the fall of 1973 the Lakers logged their first football win, topping Kalamazoo College in front of Grand Valley's biggest spectator crowd to date, 2,300 fans. That season, the first under the legendary coach Jim Harkema, is cited as the beginning of Grand Valley's football tradition.

For the first time, area sports lovers could cheer on their local public university teams, or follow their fortunes in the local newspaper. In 1972 the Lakers Basketball team earned a berth in post-season competition, a first for the school. In 1974 they competed in the national tournament in Kansas City, and in 1975 took their first GLIAC crown. The college wrestling team also began charting national championships, and local sports enthusiasts could follow remarkable successes by women's basketball, softball and volleyball teams. Coached by the legendary Joan Boand, women's sports were to become a continual source of pride at Grand Valley. In 1974, Grand Valley became the first school in the state to award a women's athletic scholarship. More about the history of athletics at Grand Valley can be found in the Sidebar section of this history under the title The Sporty Side of Grand Valley.

VII. Doom and Gloom

The scales measuring criticism of Grand Valley against appreciation for its increasing contributions might have balanced in the 1970s, but there was a finger pressing down on the negative side. Between January 1973 and December 1974, the New York Stock Exchange's Dow Jones Industrial Average dropped over 45%. Markets all over the world followed, and a new term was introduced into the American vocabulary, "stagflation," the simultaneous occurrence of inflation and economic stagnation. Conflict over Middle East politics had led to an oil embargo by Arab members of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) in the fall of 1973, and Michigan, dependent on the auto industry, was hit hard.

Grand Valley's first football win

Grand Valley's first football win came in 1973 with the defeat of Kalamazoo College.

By the mid-1970s, job prospects for college graduates were looking bleak. State appropriations for colleges and universities were slashed. Stories in the Grand Rapids Press during the summer of 1973 recount an embattled President Lubbers defending Grand Valley against attacks by legislators bent on curbing spending by the "cap and gown set," some centered on the questionable curriculum of Thomas Jefferson College (one story tied legislators' objections to the previously mentioned study of their pay by a TJC student who then led a petition drive to limit their salaries, all for college credit).

In addition to funding cuts and other economic pressures, Grand Valley also was feeling the strain of a drop in enrollment, especially in the liberal arts. Reflecting trends nationwide, students were turning to business and professional education in reaction to financial uncertainty. Beginning in fall 1977 enrollment at Grand Valley began to decline, reducing tuition income, and appropriations from the cash-strapped legislature continued to be cut.

Nearly everyone who was around the campus at that time recalls a widespread rumor that the legislature was considering closing a number of state-funded institutions of higher education, and as part of that plan, Grand Valley would be turned into a prison. Documentation of that plan, however, does not exist in the Grand Valley archives, nor in any private or public collection searched for this history. Any reader who might have such documentation is invited to contact the Grand Valley archives.

Whether true or not, the rumor was an indication of the mood of the college as the decade drew to a close. Tribulations piled on, as the Press launched an investigation of faculty and administration compensation, zeroing in with an attack on the pay and fringe benefits of the President. Compensation security, along with other issues, also led Clerical, Office, and Technical staff at Grand Valley to vote to join the Michigan Educational Support Personnel Association in January 1979.

The following year members of the Grand Valley faculty made a third push to unionize academic personnel at the college, which had been tried without success in 1974 and 1977. In the spring of 1980, the faculty again voted to deny the proposal.

Perhaps portentous of the falling spirits on campus at the time was the collapse of the Fieldhouse dome. The crumbling physical education building was slated for demolition to make way for a new facility to be funded by bonds already approved by the state. On January 17, 1980 a wrecking ball hit a support beam, and the dome, which had been describe by architects earlier that week as "safe and usable," came tumbling down.

VIII. Survival

As the 1970s drew to a close, President Lubbers and his administration embarked on a drastic reorganization of the college. They proposed to merge the six undergraduate and graduate units into a four-college federation. CAS would include graduate programs in health sciences and social work, as well as a single School of Education for graduate and undergraduate programs. Seidman College of Business and Administration would also include both levels. William James College and Kirkhof College were included in the federation, but Thomas Jefferson College would be phased out by summer of 1980, with some of its programs to be transferred into other Grand Valley units.

The move was not unexpected. Students and faculty at Thomas Jefferson had been unsure of their future since 1976, when Dean Dan Gilmore was reassigned to a different division at Grand Valley. Still, they put up a fight. At a Board of Control meeting in April 1979, nearly 500 TJC supporters backed impassioned pleas to save the school. "This is the most painful recommendation I've made in the years I've been president," said Lubbers, but TJC enrollment now stood at only 260 students, down from its high in the early '70s of nearly 800. Despite other statistics put forward, including the highest continuous enrollment percentage across the college and the highest rate of graduates in graduate programs, the Board voted to close TJC. On June 2, 1980, students and faculty gathered at Lake Huron Hall's north entrance to dedicate a memorial plaque on a large stone beside the stairway. Quoting Thomas Jefferson, the plaque, which can still be seen today, reads "This institution will be based on the illimitable freedom of the human mind."

Grand Valley's Fieldhouse dome

Grand Valley's Fieldhouse dome, shown here ca. 1969, was both beloved and maligned, home to rousing crowds of athletic fans and music lovers, plagued with structural problems from its inception. By October 1979, many echoed the sentiment printed in a headline in the Lanthorn, memorably read aloud by singer/songwriter Tom Waits as part of his stage show in Louis Armstrong Theater: "Nuke the Dome … We're Sick of It."

William James College and Kirkhof College, although spared the ax during the 1980 reorganization, could read the writing on the wall. It was only three years before another restructuring, covered in the next section of this history, would absorb their functions into the larger college. Howard Stein, a professor of Biology at Grand Valley, wrote an essay for the Fall 1995 Grand Valley Review titled "The Good Old Days at Grand Valley: A Personal View," in which he mused about the lasting impact of the cluster college era at the college.

"Although that decade may be remembered by some faculty as troublesome, Grand Valley served as a microcosm on one campus for most of the types of experimentation in higher education which were occurring in isolated centers throughout the U.S," he wrote. "It may have been hell to live through at times, but, in retrospect, it was an exciting decade for us. Important understandings of GV's later role were formed in the crucible of debate which characterized the college from its inception. The faculty and the administration learned from its errors and successes. We are probably a better university because of that history."

Many other difficult decisions were made as part of the 1980 reorganization. President Lubbers and his vice presidents agreed to salary reductions; 50 positions at the college were eliminated. When asked about the turbulent period for the 50th Anniversary Video History project, President Lubbers said ruefully, "I'm amazed I survived that time." Describing vehement criticism and difficult decisions, he continued, "People have asked me as I retired in 2001, 'What is your greatest accomplishment?' And I tell them survival."

But Lubbers and his team, along with canny members of the Board and other community supporters, had more in mind for Grand Valley than mere survival. In 1979 an anonymous donor gave the college $600,000 in a trust to be used for a campus site in downtown Grand Rapids. As the country, and the college, emerged from the dark days of the late 1970s and early '80s, Grand Valley would become a major player in the Renaissance on the Grand, the rebuilding of central Grand Rapids.

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