In a month, Tom Haas will retire from the presidency at Grand Valley State University. Under his 13-year watch, GVSU has added 30 undergraduate programs and 16 graduate programs, opened the Detroit Center and developed 2.5 million square feet of new facilities. GVSU most recently attained reaccreditation for 10 years from the Chicago-based Higher Learning Commission. Haas departs as president June 30 and will continue at GVSU as a chemistry professor in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences after taking “a little time off” to spend time with family. He intends to remain active in the community. Philomena Mantella, senior vice president and CEO of the Lifelong Learning Network at Northeastern University in Boston, succeeds him as president on July 1. Haas, a former U.S. Coast Guard commander, spoke with MiBiz about his time at GVSU.
As you prepare to step away as president, how do you view the state of GVSU today?
I think our foundation is quite strong. Back in March, we found we had fulfilled every single one of the standards and exceeded most (for reaccreditation). It was probably the best report in my 30 years of doing accreditation work that I’ve ever seen. Combine that with, I think, a very, very solid financial base as well, because when I look at all of our ratios, we’re better off now than we were 10 years ago, and 10 years ago we were in pretty good shape.
We’re meeting the challenges of an eroding demographic with the number of 18 year olds kind of eroding away and will continue to do so for … at least the next eight years. We are positioned there to keep our strategic numbers between 24,000 and 26,000 (students). Bottom line: We came here 13 years ago and I think we’re leaving it better than we found it.
What do you believe has been the biggest change at GVSU during your tenure?
We came here as a very good regional public institution. I think we are now an exemplar of a public institution in the Midwest, and I think our numbers demonstrate that. Through our attention with basic planning and thinking and being more relevant to the students, we’re seeing our students now graduating in greater numbers and greater percentages. We have seen student quality increase as well.
We continue to be more relevant now than we were years ago, especially when we talk in the economic sense with our business communities that need the talent. We’re providing that talent, whether it be engineering or health sciences or nursing, and business and education — and always on a liberal arts foundation, because we’re sensing that the business community wants people who can think critically, work in teams, and have an ethical dimension as they bring their skills into the workforce.
How do the student numbers demonstrate GVSU’s effectiveness?
Last year, we had our second-largest freshman class and this year’s freshman class is on track probably to be about the same. That’s on top of probably one of the largest, if not the largest graduating class in 2018-19 of over 5,700, and we’re pushing 90 percent for those working or continuing their grad school experience right here in Michigan.
FOCUS: EDUCATION & TALENT DEVELOPMENT
How have college students changed over your 13 years?
I’ll talk of that in two ways. Technology and social media have changed the students and their expectations. We need to be faster than we were in the past. A good example is just in terms of safety and security. There are expectations of us being very, very responsive and responsible in the environment we are creating for student learning.
I do think that students now … are challenged even more so when it comes to some of the issues with social dimensions and mental health issues. It’s just a broad statement, but with the complexities in the world and the students we are attracting, they are a reflection of what we see in the national and the world dynamic. That has changed the stakes as well.
At Grand Valley, one of the real important changes is we are getting students that are academically well prepared and are fulfilling the requirements in a way that I’m very proud of, and doing it in a way to be more effective and efficient in the use of their resources, a.k.a. tuition dollars. So we need to ensure access and affordability in that regard. Many of them are coming with greater financial aid, and at the university, because of who we are, we’re getting more first-generation students.
How have you changed?
I have learned a lot and I continue to learn who I am as an individual and learn, of course, with my family dynamics changing. When I came here, we had one granddaughter and now we have six grandkids, and that changes a perspective.
I have learned a lot from our students. A good example is in the Coast Guard, I was involved in environmental protection and hazardous materials transportation. Here, it was highlighted from the perspective of this generation on sustainability. I learn a lot from the students in the perspective that they have for that value, and we continue to listen.
I believe I am a better person because I learn so much from our students and our faculty and staff, and listening to our community and those in the business community and delivering on the promise of what a degree means to an individual student, as well as those that are taking our students into the workforce.
I have learned a lot about who I am as a leader, but also doubling down on what I call the ‘four Cs’ of leadership: being competent, understanding the community, and commitment and character.
What are the best decisions you made while serving as GVSU’s president?
Undergoing an evolution on strategic thinking and strategic planning for the university. We had a strategic plan that went from ’06 to ’10, then another one to refresh from ’10 to ’15, and now a more strategic and refreshed plan going from ’16 to ’21, and this aligned well with our reaccreditation effort. I think focusing in on what I call my ‘three Ps’ – you plan, you prepare, and then you perform, and then I can add two more to that mix in that you make sure you connect people and purpose — if you do that, I think that focuses in on all the decisions that we make at the university to impact student success.
The other probably is to understand that we have great friends in the alumni and the community and working with them in developing our comprehensive campaign. We made a change in how we did development into a comprehensive campaign model.
In a lesser sense, but still very, very important, was for Grand Valley to understand the market and where we had a sweet spot in our STEM areas, particularly with health and nursing, by working with many in Grand Rapids and having an epiphany that we needed to act differently as an urban university in Grand Rapids. We acquired some properties and are now developing a health campus, and we have developed a significant number of health-related master’s degrees and applied doctorates. That, to me, was one of those decisions along the way that is going to be evident through generations of us providing the talent we need in those spaces.
What’s something you wish you could do over?
I tried continuously to help the legislators, the governor, too — both Granholm and Snyder, and now with Whitmer — understand that an investment in higher education is an investment with a great return. I tried all different tactics (and) strategies to help them understand they had a job to do in accordance with the state Constitution that the state shall maintain its public institutions of higher ed. I continued with policy direction all the way up to my last time in front of the House back in March.
I can’t say that I have failed, but I have tried my darndest to overcome some of the cultural perspective that I see here in the state when it comes to investing in this public good. I think we see that in roads and the like, and we can hear it now with Gov. Whitmer when she’s talked about talent and roads in the same breath.
I don’t know what I could have done differently, but I wish I had been more successful in trying to change the culture that education is not a cost center but an investment to the needs of our families and developing an educated citizen, and that will then translate into economic vitality for the state.
If you were put in total charge of higher education in America, what would you do?
I would create an endowment that would be producing significant revenues so that we would reduce, if not eliminate, tuition to where we were back in 1963 in Michigan where the taxpayers picked up 93 percent of the cost to go to (college). I would create a G.I. Bill right now across the nation with a massive endowment with those proceeds. People can invest in that endowment and use those proceeds to create the educated citizens for this nation and position us much better in the world economy.
You’ve developed quite a reputation on campus as someone who likes to take selfies with students. Does that serve as a constant reminder of why you’re here?
Indeed. Every time when a student comes up to me and they feel confident and comfortable enough to chase me down, or when they see me walk into Fresh Foods, and Marcia and I will go there for a bite to eat before a basketball game and just sit down with the students and have a slice of pizza with them — why not? That’s why we’re here. At my core, I’m an educator and however you can engage students in the process of their own education, so much the better. And we can do it inside the classroom and outside of the classroom.
What advice do you have for your successor?
What I believe is that you show up. We show up with our backgrounds as leaders and we engage in the core business. Whether it be to a student event, whether it be to a faculty event celebrating a retirement, or maybe one our colleagues whose mom passed away and you need to support her. You show up. You look at the calendar and say, ‘Sure. I can squeeze that in,’ and you do it because it is important to the individual that we’re really working for, whether it be the students, the faculty and staff. I do believe fully that when you show up, and you do it with great respect and integrity, then you can position yourself for great success while at Grand Valley State University and here in West Michigan.
Interview conducted and condensed by Mark Sanchez.