Mantella marks one year as president of GVSU

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Photo of President Philomena V. Mantella
President Philomena V. Mantella
Image Credit: Valerie Wojciechowski

It was a year no one could fathom. A year of unique and unprecedented challenges for any university president, let alone a first-year president.

When Philomena V. Mantella began her tenure on July 1, 2019, as Grand Valley's fifth president, she established a dynamic vision and energized the Grand Valley community to shape the university as a leader in the future of education.

See a photo essay highlighting President Mantella's first year.

As she laid the foundation for her goals, no one could predict she would face an accelerated timeline while confronting the crisis of a lifetime. Mantella would label it "a trifecta of conditions with profound impact on our community, well-being, and nation that include the global COVID-19 pandemic, racial injustice and unrest, and a faltering economy."

Her undaunted leadership is moving the campus forward to a Fall 2020 semester with plans for face-to-face classes as well as those that are online or hybrid. 

"It's during times of trial that you discover the character of people and institutions," said Mantella. "I am grateful Grand Valley is full of people of strong character who value our students and their education and experiences. The work of the moment, during a pandemic and all its effects, as well as a renewed commitment to facing racial inequities, is critical and it has focused our efforts. This has been a very full first year. We talk about reaching higher together, and now we know we must stretch to fulfill our mission in both changing times and on shifting ground. With the thoughtful decisions and a spirit that calls us to come together. we will prevail."  

In her first few months on campus, Mantella engaged with more than 5,000 faculty, staff, students, alumni and community leaders. She engaged stakeholders again when responding to the pandemic through town halls and a commitment from the university to call more than 24,000 students, and when developing an action plan to address racial injustice. 

Here are some of the key moments from Mantella's first year at Grand Valley. 

In fall 2019, she identified an engagement strategy, the Reach Higher Together plan, designed to set the course for the future of Grand Valley. This included "Grand Huddles" held across campus for students, faculty and staff to share their ideas for the future. Sixteen huddles were held with more than 900 participants offering 3,200 comments.

Hundreds of people attended Mantella's November 15 investiture ceremony in the Fieldhouse on the Allendale Campus. The audience included representatives from colleges and universities around the country, in addition to students, faculty and staff members. Mantella was joined by her husband, Robert H. Avery; her mother, Lucille; and other family members. 

During this time, Mantella announced five commitments as part of her Presidential Priorities, which include the Laker Lifetime Learning (L3) Commitment, $1,000 for every graduate to use for future classes at Grand Valley, as well as a talent epicenter to attract entrepreneurs and employers to the talent of Grand Valley.

A few months later, in January, Mantella announced the Innovation Fund to invest in new initiatives to propel Grand Valley forward and to activate ideas that emerged as institutional priorities. The fund has shifted to address high-impact COVID-19 issues, in addition to supporting presidential priorities. The Innovation Fund is independent of the university's general fund and includes resources from reserves and donor funding. 

Mantella was joined by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer on the Pew Grand Rapids Campus in February to announce a new accelerated online degree program to help adults complete their bachelor's degrees. Whitmer said, "I look forward to partnering with President Philly Mantella to continue GVSU's legacy of helping our students access higher education, complete degrees and prosper here in Michigan." 

Grand Valley had been monitoring the spread of COVID-19 since January. Mantella said in all of her plans as a first-year university president, she couldn't have fathomed a disruption with no guardrails like COVID-19. 

For the health and safety of the campus community, Mantella called for the university to switch to remote learning in mid-March, which was accomplished in just four days.

She immediately scheduled a series of virtual town halls for enrolled students, admitted students and parents, faculty, staff members, alumni and the community to discuss the impact of COVID-19 on the university. 

Mantella established Networks of Support, asking the Grand Valley community to harness its collective talents, intellectual capacity and compassion, and volunteer to assist Michigan residents during the COVID-19 pandemic. Networks of Support include assistance for small businesses, K-12 education, medical supply and development, vulnerable population support and more. 

In the midst of navigating the coronavirus, the nation reacted to the May 25 death of George Floyd while in police custody in Minneapolis. Mantella sent a message to the Grand Valley community addressing racial injustice and announcing several action steps to support social and racial justice at the university and to assist the greater community. 

"As an institution that educates the next generation of leaders, we will fail them, our communities and ourselves if we do not act when we know that more than words are expected of us," Mantella said. "Learn. Understand. Act. Lead. These are the standards against which we must be measured."

In an April 2020 article for EdSurge, a national education outlet, Mantella reflected on her decision to come to Grand Valley. 

She said: "Many times during my first months in the position, I was asked why I took such a risk. I always responded with confidence, saying I looked carefully for the right institution: an institution delivering a high-quality education at an affordable price, with a faculty deeply dedicated to learning and the unique journey of each student; an institution confident in what it is and not struggling with what it wants to be; a university with steady growth and a stable financial picture; one that has made real progress with inclusion and equity; an institution with demonstrated agility and one that was fully embraced by its community; an institution, in my assessment, perfectly poised to embrace the tectonic shifts in the educational landscape and with foresight and passion to make a more profound impact. I found all this and more at Grand Valley."