After 13 years at Grand Valley, countless selfies with students, visits to Lansing to meet with legislators and handshakes with new graduates, President Thomas J. Haas looks ahead at one more month in office and reflects on time well spent.
How are you viewing this transition?
I’ve been thinking about that, and I’ve categorized my life in quarters. The first was growing up in New York, so that was all early education. I was in the Coast Guard for the next 25 years. I totally enjoyed every opportunity I had there to grow and understand who I am as a servant leader. The next 25 years, I was teaching and in higher education administration, a provost and twice a president. Now we’re going into the next 25 years, the last quarter, so to speak. Each quarter has been wonderful for me to serve where I could and provide the leadership where I was needed.
We’ll stay engaged professionally and personally in West Michigan, and we’re going to focus on family. I’m proud of my three children and now my grandkids. Marcia’s been along for this entire ride, and I couldn’t be more blessed. It’s been a remarkable adventure.
You are unabashedly in love with Marcia, and that is something you have shared with the community. It has affected the way people view you as a person and as a leader. How important has she been to your career and your life?
She’s my best friend. I was able to meet her during my time in the Coast Guard. I volunteered to be an escort during the Cherry Festival. They offered pizza, pop and a blind date, and I thought, “Hmm, that’s not too bad.” I could tell almost immediately that she was pretty special, and she is.
She’s been such a key part of your life at Grand Valley. She embraced the community and the community embraced her.
I could see the natural fit for a couple here. We had role models with Don and Nancy, Mark and Elizabeth, and now Marcia and me. Marcia is a good partner to help achieve the university’s mission. She’s an educator, a teacher, and she’s a natural with others. While I go around the perimeter of the room, Marcia’s focusing on the individual who’s right in front of her and really establishing not just a rapport but a keen relationship with that person. I learned a lot from her.
You talk about being a good steward and leaving a place better than you found it. What are you most proud of as you look back at your time here?
I went back to my investiture speech. I focused on student centeredness and student success. Throughout my time teaching or coaching, I’ve always wanted to stretch the student, stretch the player in basketball, baseball or women’s softball. I always wanted them to succeed with what they were doing at the moment, because those habits will take them through a lifetime. As educators, we are stewards. We’re stewards of that individual, and we’re stewards of the place where that individual is going to study, learn, live and play.
You’re known as being very accessible to students. How did that evolve?
It started on day one when I toured campus and met about 200 students at the Cook Carillon Tower. One woman asked, “What can we call you?” I said, “President Haas, Dr. Haas, Tom, informally,” and the woman yelled, “How about T-Haas?” The students started chanting it, and I felt the immediate embrace. I embraced the students because we have this very noble calling to help them succeed. That is important whether it’s in the classroom, during a performance, study abroad or internship. I want to make sure students know I am accessible, and I will show up.
People ask me what the most important part of being a leader is: it’s showing up. It’s demonstrating you are very much interested in that individual or group. It can be having dinner at the Connection before a basketball game, and sitting with students and chatting. That’s what makes the job rewarding for Marcia and me.
That is authentic for you. Your heart and soul is as being an educator, a teacher and a leader. What is your best memory from students?
Getting the nickname T-Haas, which has stuck for 13 years. Within the last few years, it’s getting selfies with cell phones, which I am told by students is a bucket list item. I never have said “no” to a selfie request.
Selfies and social media have exploded in popularity, and you’ve been a great sport in the videos we’ve asked you to do. You are comfortable showing the fun part of your personality.
The job is serious; it’s very complex when you’re the commanding officer or, in this case, the president of a university as complex as Grand Valley. But a leader has to have some humor and take the opportunity to have fun in a complex, serious job. So, when asked to show up for the Valentine’s Day or snow globe videos, you show up, and it’s not being silly. There’s real strategy associated with demonstrating the humanity you have as a leader. But you never want to denigrate the office, and I watch that, too.
What are the highlights of your Grand Valley years?
I was hired because of my background as an educator and my strength in strategic thinking and planning. In subsequent years, and with a great team, we’ve more than just met the accreditation standards, we surpassed them in almost every single case. We can look ahead and be entrepreneurial. You mentioned stewardship as being one of my watch words, so is relevance. We supply what students need to be successful in their careers: a good liberal arts foundation and then work within the professions.
I appreciated the opportunity to work with the NCAA. I was on the executive committee and then chaired the Division II committee and helped the NCAA have a better governance structure.
Another highlight was when I received the honorary degree from Cracow University of Economics in Poland in 2015. It was especially meaningful because in 1915 my grandparents immigrated from Cracow through Ellis Island. They came with a hope and a prayer to have a better life, and then I stood tall on their shoulders when I received that honorary degree. I felt so proud of my heritage. My mom and dad never graduated from high school, and they were supportive of me getting the education they didn’t have. But, boy, did they give me something much more important, and that was a work ethic. Both were great workers. They had integrity and focused on their family. I was thrilled with the recognition in Cracow that wasn’t just for me, but also for Grand Valley and the partnership we’ve had for more than 45 years.
Speaking of work ethic, it takes quite a bit to be president of Grand Valley. What do you look forward to after leaving this office?
I was known to go play basketball at noontime with some of the students and had a pretty good outside shot, but I had to give that up. So, I want to get back to that and get some additional exercise.
We want to make sure we’re available to help our children and their families. Our son in the Coast Guard is retiring soon in Alaska, and he’s building a brewery to support the tourist industry with home brew for the restaurants. He said he needs a water chemist, so I’ll work on that.
You’re leaving Grand Valley in good shape, but is there anything you wish you had done?
We are going to see some leveling, if not continuing decline, of traditional students. There are some good opportunities with continuing education. I wished I had spent a bit more time developing that market. But I’m pleased the board has hired Dr. Philomena Mantella, who will look ahead at additional markets that will help us serve the West Michigan region.
Grand Valley has a history of having former presidents stay involved. How will you stay connected to the university?
I hope to take some time off first; I haven’t taken a sabbatical in 42 years of teaching. Then I’ll be back offering lectures in chemistry, and leadership in the executive MBA program. I’ll help with development, especially with alumni. We have about 120,000 alumni, and I’ve probably shaken hands with 50 percent of them as they walked across the stage to receive their diplomas. We were able to increase the number of students here by about 8 percent in the last 13 years, and the number of graduates by 40 percent. We’ve seen great success, and I’m looking forward to staying engaged.
Have you made a promise to yourself to embrace the time off during that first year?
Yes. Marcia wants to take a couple of trips. One is to visit her family’s roots in Norway and Sweden. We’re also going to crew on a boat for a friend from the Coast Guard, and I want to play a bit more golf. We’re going to embrace the opportunities with family and friends.
As you face your last month here — your last commencement, your last “Toast with T-Haas” — how are you feeling?
I’m going to miss the daily engagement with a wonderful group of leaders in the President’s Cabinet. I have people there devoted to each other. We have a culture filled with, “How can I help you do what you need to do?” That particular interaction with my colleagues, including outstanding trustees, to help achieve the purpose of this institution is something I will miss. I’ll miss engaging with faculty and students. Walking across campus is not going to be the same. That is OK. I’m going back again to my Coast Guard experience. Commanding officers transition every few years. It’s a natural progression to see someone else come in with fresh eyes and perspectives, and embrace the mission and then fulfill the mission as it goes forward. There will be opportunities for Philly (Dr. Mantella) to come in and start her own trajectory, but the foundation is here.