Centered for success

Presidential studies center makes impact amid current political climate

by Nate Hoekstra
photos by Bernadine Carey-Tucker

U.S. politics is a lot like a football game between the University of Michigan and Ohio State. Both have heated rivalries and hated opponents, both have winners and losers and, perhaps most importantly, both have a long history of tradition and continuity.

That’s the analogy Gleaves Whitney, director of the Hauenstein Center for Presidential Studies, likes to use to paint a picture of modern American politics and to explain the basis of why and how a center for presidential studies operates.

“The two major parties in American politics are just like those two teams. They hate each other! Their fan bases absolutely don’t like each other. Yet they agree to come together once a year and play the game,” Whitney said. “And when time runs out, they walk out of the stadium accepting the results. That’s democracy. We treasure the force field of tradition, that common bond that keeps the contest going. It’s the same in politics. It’s the tradition and the intangibles in our hearts and minds that keep us in the game.”

The Hauenstein Center brings speakers to West Michigan who can highlight the historical importance of the office of the president and help citizens search for the common good.

Current events are playing a larger role at the Hauenstein Center, as a divisive national political climate and Donald Trump’s presidency draw more people into the political realm, Whitney said.

“It’s been amazing to watch what has happened from 2015 when Trump announced his candidacy to today,” Whitney said. “All of a sudden people are looking at the presidency in ways they hadn’t before. I’ve been working to get people to study the presidency and read the Constitution for years, and now I can’t hand out enough copies.

“The center plays an important role in educating the public on the place of the presidency in our system of checks and balances and what can and cannot be done in the office today.”

two microphones

Finding common ground

Being based at a university provides the center a chance to consider the deeper history that surrounds the issues of the day to provide context and relevance.

To pursue that goal, the center started the Common Ground Initiative in 2012 with a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities. Speakers, including members of Congress, authors, historians, philosophers, journalists and more, have visited West Michigan to present unique perspectives on the history and process of American politics, policymaking and culture.

“When having conversations with people from across the political spectrum, I realized there was a hunger for meaningful conversation to happen in a space that would allow for real discussion, not shouting matches,” Whitney said. “We’re bringing in people whose ideas both complement and contradict each other as they explore the deep historical and political relationships that make American democracy possible.”

Whitney said the Common Ground Initiative is about having real conversations, and understanding it’s fine to agree to disagree, but it’s also about reaching that conclusion after taking time to consider uncomfortable and differing opinions.

“The easiest thing in the world is for conservatives to retreat into Fox News and for progressives to retreat into MSNBC to get their talking points for the day,” Whitney said. “Much harder is to listen and understand what those who think differently from you are saying. The best leaders in a democracy are not tribal but know how to build bridges across political divides.”


"I’ve been working to get people to study the presidency and read the Constitution for years, and now I can’t hand out enough copies." Gleaves Whitney

Creating ethical leaders

When Col. Ralph Hauenstein, the center’s namesake, returned from the European theater in World War II, he had seen people in positions of authority do terrible things. He realized that leadership is powerful, but that power was not always used for good. He vowed to use his resources from his success in post-war business endeavors to establish a program that would be defined by ethical leadership.

The center now features the Peter C. Cook Leadership Academy, which is a program that helps develop high-achieving students into the ethical and effective leaders of tomorrow.

The academy is working wonders for the students who go through it, said Allie Bush Idema, director of government affairs at the Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce, and an alumna of the program.

woman standing outside building

Allie Bush Idema, director  of government affairs for the Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce, is a Cook Leadership Academy alumna.

“It’s a community gem, it genuinely is,” Idema said. “It’s a unique kind of resource that not a lot of people have access to.”

Idema started the leadership program as a sophomore at Grand Valley and stayed active in the program until she graduated with a master’s degree in public administration. She said participating in the program changed what she thought she was going to do with her life.

“I thought I was going to be a history professor, but then I heard a speaker at a Cook Leadership event who was a policy advisor, and it changed what I wanted to do,” said Idema, who worked in Lansing as a policy advisor for the House of Representatives before moving back to West Michigan.

She also said the program does more than develop leadership, it gives students unique chances to meet brilliant academics, writers, politicians and scholars while building business and workplace skills.

Idema said she has built a strong network of peer support with other students from the academy, and they stay in touch personally and professionally.

“The leadership academy and the Hauenstein Center in general challenged me in a new way that was different than how I was learning in the classroom,” Idema said. “I learned how to be an engaged citizen, and I truly understand now that leadership is a lifelong pursuit.”

Chadd Dowding, the senior program manager for the Cook Leadership Academy, said students who are accepted to the academy are truly learning the skills that Hauenstein wanted to instill in young leaders.

“These students are building relationships, learning about effective leadership, and learning skills like public speaking and networking,” Dowding said. “They are also developing a strong relationship with a mentor and getting exposure to the area’s vibrant business and cultural community.”

Ralph's impact

The Hauenstein Center was founded with support from the late Ralph Hauenstein in support of his passion for politics, policy and effective leadership.

Gleaves Whitney, the center’s director, said Ralph’s vision is a major consideration for how the center runs today: “Ralph inspires everything we do here. Not one program that we’ve launched has been launched without Ralph’s due consideration, and now that he’s no longer with us, I have this filter mechanism — what would Ralph think, what would Peter (Cook, who supported the Cook Leadership Academy) think? Is the programming true to their integrity as human beings and their intentions as donors?”

Positioned for success

Being located at Grand Valley is a distinct advantage for a presidential studies center, Whitney said, especially given the outcome of the 2016 presidential election.

“We are a Midwestern center of study, and we embrace our geographic advantage rather than trying to imitate similar places on the East or West coasts,” Whitney said. “We’ve been saying for years that the fate of the Midwest matters to our country, and we were certainly vindicated last November when the election hinged on a half-dozen Midwestern states.”

Whitney said the combination of scholarship, leadership development, thought-provoking programming and events is critical to the success of the center.

“We’re better positioned than just about any other similar institution to study some of most challenging issues Americans face today,” Whitney said. “We plan to keep moving forward, teaching and informing students and audiences about important issues in a way that makes people take a second look at their preconceived notions of politics and policies.”

Page last modified August 11, 2017