View from the president’s office

Courtesy Photo /
President Haas

Courtesy Photo / President Haas

Lauren Fitch

Facing another tuition increase, a changing state government and the usual challenges of balancing the different aspects of college life, some Grand Valley State University students have entered the Fall 2010 semester with questions and concerns on their minds. The Lanthorn sat down with Grand Valley State University President Thomas Haas before the start of classes to get some of these questions answered and hear the president’s thoughts on the upcoming school year.

>> Lanthorn: What are some of the main challenges you foresee for this year?

>> Haas: Uncertainty with the state. We have yet to receive our budget from the state, even though we have established our own budget. We mitigated tuition and I appreciate the faculty and staff and two of our union groups recognizing the challenges that our students and their families face with the Michigan economy. We froze salaries and there will be a change in the benefits around health (care) where the faculty and staff are going to pick up more of the obligation in the health area …

With the uncertainties, we need to anticipate, adapt and maybe lead some of the changes that are going to be prompted by what is happening around us. But I still want to maintain the stability and the quality of services that the students have come to expect at Grand Valley,

At the same time, we have a strategic plan in place. That strategic plan, developed last year by Julie Guevara and others across the entire campus including the Board of Trustees, really is going to provide a stable platform for us to make sure that our investments are made the right way with the right priority. For instance, we are going to be hiring a few additional faculty members to make sure that the courses that are so important to our students are going to be offered. I don’t want to delay a student’s ability to graduate because we didn’t look ahead and provide the resources to offer those classes. So the strategic plan is going to help us and guide us this next year with all the uncertainties with the state budget.

We also have new leadership coming in with the new governor, Senate and House leadership. That provides an opportunity actually. I don’t call it a challenge, I call it an opportunity for us to educate and highlight the contributions that Grand Valley’s making to West Michigan and the rest of the state. That, to me, is going to be very, very positive. So I’m going to spend some time, along with some of my staff, highlighting the successes that we’ve had and the potential that we yet have for our obligations to the state in producing people who are going to either go to grad school or who are going to join the workforce here in Michigan. That, to me, is an opportunity. Part of the challenge is, of course, making sure we offer the educational programs that are important to the state, which we will continue to focus in on.

So the budget and new leadership are some of the uncertainties that go with the Michigan economy. We’ll keep an eye on all these as we move through this year.

Lanthorn: GVSU has been growing very quickly compared to other universities, yet it is still receiving less state aid and continues be successful. Do you think the state government will continue to ignore GVSU because it’s doing fine on its own?

Haas: Actually, we’ve factored that in to our own strategic planning and I think we have to look that we will not continue to grow as fast as what we have. We’ll basically be topping off with what we have right now at 24,000 to 25,000 students. So, we know that the certain revenues come from tuition and some from the state. We also have the philanthropic community coming forward to help with scholarships and other types of aid for our students, which again I’m very, very thrilled with.

Lanthorn: You said you think Grand Valley is getting better and better every day. What is the biggest change you’ve seen in your time here?

Haas: I think one of the areas I am most proud of is in terms of the climate and culture that I found here, and that has definitely improved through the leadership of Jeanne Arnold and others in the Office of Inclusion and Equity. I know that we spent significant time listening and gathering people’s perspectives across the entire university- students, faculty and staff. Looking back over these past four years, that has been very satisfying … I see that as a very, very positive change, but we’re not going to rest at all. This area is so important to the success of Grand Valley and the success of our students to create the atmosphere and environment so that people can learn and bring more inclusivity and tolerance. I’m very pleased to see that evolve and mature.

The other area that I’m really proud of is our continuing emphasis on sustainabiltiy. That has been a success story. I think that’s been good. The third area is how we’re looking at our curriculum at both the undergraduate and graduate level. Looking at the relevant programs that are in health and assuring that the nature of liberal education, which is one of our foundations, is infused in all of our colleges- that has been very, very successful … Here’s a philosophical statement that I gathered while I was in the Coast Guard: you go onboard a Coast Guard unit and you try to leave it a little bit better than you found. I came here and I found an outstanding institution. From the previous Boards led by (Arend) Lubbers and followed by Mark Murrary, I found an institution that anyone would be proud to serve as its president. From that, I established three watchwords: relevance, stewardship and service. We make our decisions in alignment with those and our strategic plan has fulfilled them. I want to make it a little bit better than how I found it, and I still have lots of work to do and so does everyone else.

Lanthorn: In the past few years, do you think the overall value of a college degree has changed in any way?

Haas: I think the overall value of a degree is more important than ever, absolutely more important than ever whether it be through the degree that will open the door to a graduate program or open a door to a high pay, high skill job. The reason is, it’s very clear in my mind, that the days of a sustained career at a low-skill, high-pay position are gone. If that’s the case, a degree from Grand Valley State University is more important today than ever. Tomorrow or five years or 10 years from now, it will be even more so.

Lanthorn: What is your one piece of advice you would give students?

Haas: The faculty and staff are here to help our students achieve their potential. Seek out the relationships that are important to the students, whether it be a faculty member or staff member or coach. Seek out the ways to identify a mentor. That, to me, is a great way to help establish a student’s ability to know who they are, seek out that help and become good leaders. What I want to have at the end of the day is I want a graduate who has walked across that stage well-skilled in his or her profession having the abilities that are prompted by a liberal education and to have that confidence in there. The way that can happen is to seek out those role models … The second part is have fun. The opportunity for individual here at Grand Valley State is immense. I think that to have fun, healthy fun and healthy lifestyles, is very, very important. So work hard, seek out those relationships that are going to be advantageous to student development and have some fun.