College presidents celebrate three decades of partnership

The number of Michigan public colleges and universities creating shared relationships is increasing, a point made obvious by the posting of continuous updates by Michigan Association of State Universities from across the lower and upper peninsulas.

But someone had to be first and that came in 1986 with a relationship between the Grand Rapids Community College and Ferris State University.

The initiative, the first two-year/four-year link-up, is being credited to Grand Rapids Junior College President Richard Calkins and Ferris President J. William Wenrich as the GRCC Applied Technology Center was amidst funding and construction.

Storied collaboration
The two higher education institutions celebrated the storied collaboration in Grand Rapids in late May when Ferris President David Eisler honored GRCC President Bill Pink during a “partner celebration” punctuated by success stories of recent grads of the dual programs.

While the unique West Michigan collaboration continues to be celebrated almost 30 years later, its most important aspect was underscored by Pink: “The product of that intentionality is an educated citizen.”

FSU President Helen Popovich celebrated the beginning of the collaboration in 1991 when Ferris first opened classrooms in GRCC’s new Applied Technology Center (a project which, itself, brought together several economic development, community investors and leaders in storied Grand Rapids partnership style. Former Cascade Engineering CEO Fred Keller raised cash and in-kind contributions of equipment and furnishings from 173 individuals and companies).

Remarking on his predecessors, Eisler noted, “They did something that had never been done before. … A student can begin their education right at home at GRCC and then — in the same building — continue with their education… still taking GRCC courses and taking FSU courses at the same time. That’s the beauty of this arrangement,” he said. And then he stressed that while the opportunity is commonly used by traditional-age students, Eisler added, “It’s a lifesaver for adult learners,” who budget time and resources between jobs, families and education. “We’re creating an educated workforce for Grand Rapids and West Michigan,” he emphasized.

Pink noted GRCC is the oldest community college in Michigan and one of the oldest in the country. He half-joked that after taking the office of president two years ago and seeing how the partnership worked, he wanted to call former colleagues to say, “Hey, guess what we’re doing!

Being intentional brought results
“It’s all about intentionality,” Pink emphasized, “That follow up must be there and must be sure. That’s what this partnership is all about, intentionality. It was a whole other thing (back then) to move into one’s building and then have people in that (shared) building collaborate.”

Pink pronounced, “The product of that intentionality is an educated citizen. A graduate. Someone who walks across the stage, walks into a job, walks into a career that is meaningful. And that’s why this partnership works.”

In 2001, the institutions signed a concurrent enrollment agreement and 10 years later inked a reverse transfer agreement that allows coursework completed at a four-year university to be transferred back to a community college, satisfying requirements for an associate degree.

The schools have also partnered to offer 2+2 and 3+1 programs that allow students to move more efficiently toward the completion of a degree.

The ATC (renamed in 2008 to honor the financial support of David and Michelle Bottral and Tom and Joyce Wisner) houses labs for a litany of fields, among them CAD; plastics technology; computer applications; electronics; robotics; energy management; machine tooling; air-conditioning, heating and refrigeration; materials testing; hydraulics and pneumatics; the Secchia Institute for Culinary Education; nuclear medicine; molecular diagnostics; respiratory care; digital animation and game design; and digital media software engineering.

Sustainability took a step forward with the 2007 installation of a “green roof” on GRCC’s building.

The two institutions re-signed an agreement in September of 2016, committing to continued learning opportunities for West Michigan students. And in early May of this year, GRCC Foundation campaign leaders celebrated having raised $12 million toward a $15 million community-based fundraising goal. The public-facing effort follows support from the State of Michigan and Foundation for scholarships and a 20,000-foot expansion of the ATC.

“Our work engages partner organizations that in turn make our programming more robust and valuable to students,” said officials from Ferris State. “The celebration showcases how FSU and GRCC work together to have a transformative effect and change lives — the positive difference innovative collaboration makes for area families.”

Both presidents left the podium of the May event, perhaps only rhetorically asking, “What’s next?”