GV professor a local, national superhero

Courtesy Photo / GVSU News & Information Services
Johnathan White

Courtesy photo

Courtesy Photo / GVSU News & Information Services Johnathan White

Liz Garlick

Everyone dreams of being a superhero. Grand Valley State University professor Jonathan White made it happen.

White has fought terrorism, demons and ignorance all in the latter half of his life, working as a history, criminal justice and honors professor, partner of local and national crime-fighting organizations and preacher.

During his almost 30-year career at GVSU, White has served as the dean of social sciences, founded the criminal justice program and helped develop the homeland security initiative at GVSU, of which he is the executive director.

Although White, who describes himself as “curious about a lot of subjects,” is well-established in many fields, becoming a professor has not always been his top goal.

He originally planned to go into the seminary and become an army chaplain, but said he was not mature or worldly enough to be a pastor at age 22. He also intended to get a doctorate in history, but instead received his doctorate at Michigan State University in criminal justice and started out in law enforcement. While serving on the SWAT team in Jackson, Mich., in the 1970s, he became interested in terrorism.

Since then, White has written nine books on terrorism and has had experience with police and military agencies nationwide as well as hundreds of state and local agencies. He was the advisor to the Turkish Nation, involved in the police in Pakistan operated with the intelligence centers of the FBI joint and military police forces of the Middle East and Europe.

A strong background in history and religion prompted him to study the connections between religion and terrorism, and he taught a class on religion and terrorism in the seminary.

He was fully ordained in 1992 and served as a parish pastor around West Michigan. In 2010, he retired from active ministry, but still does occasional weddings and baptisms, and he even baptized his own grandson.

“Terrorism drove me to the ministry,” he said. “I need contact with something positive.”

However, White said he greatly enjoys teaching at GVSU, which he chose despite offers from other institutions. He said even prefers teaching over the higher-paying administrative positions. When offered jobs such as provost, dean and even president, White said his wife “very profoundly asked him if he wanted to live an administrative life after being given the opportunity to teach.”

The answer was no.

“It was the best vocational decision of my life,” he said, despite his vast experiences in the world of counter-terrorism.

White’s many careers keep him very busy and often times away from his family, with whom he said he is close. Balancing his work life with his family life is strenuous, he said, adding that he and his wife totaled up their time spent away from each other since Sept. 11, and they had been apart for two years over a span of 11 years.

White said he hopes to slow down with his work in the government, but that could change if another major terrorist attack happens. He left GVSU to work for the Department of Justice after Sept. 11, but returned in 2005 and became the executive director of homeland security at GVSU, giving him the freedom to carry a full teaching load and still travel to give intelligence briefings to the Department of Justice.

“I had to come back because I missed it,” he said.

He said he was excited to come back because he could bring all of his worldly experiences to the classroom.

“What I don’t plan on doing is retiring from GVSU,” he said. “This job is fantastic, the students are unbelievable, and teaching is the best thing for me.”

[email protected]