Points of View

7 Questions with President Thomas Haas

Sam Stebbins

In February, Grand Valley State University (GVSU) President and Talent 2025 CEO Council Member Thomas J. Haas announced that he will retire in June. We caught up with President Haas to hear his thoughts on his career, education, and growth in West Michigan. 

 

Talent 2025: During your presidency, GVSU saw huge change. What are you most proud of looking back on your time as president?

Thomas J. Haas: I’m a Coast Guard guy, and you always want to leave the unit a little bit better than you found it. I found a university here that had a great foundation with the boards and other presidents. I think now, after 13 years, we’re leaving it a little bit better than we found it.

With that being said, I think the focus on student success is the part that I’m most pleased with. The numbers are there with people coming in the front door; we’ve seen some growth. But probably as important, if not more importantly, the number of graduates we’ve seen in these past years has increased from around 4,000 a year to now over 5,600 a year. That, to me, is demonstrating that students at the undergrad and graduate level are choosing Grand Valley and persisting to get their degree, joining the workforce, or continuing on to new educational opportunities.

 

Talent 2025: West Michigan has changed as well. How has the university responded to what students need in the changing labor market of West Michigan?

Thomas J. Haas: That’s a great question, and something that I tend to, with the provost, faculty, and staff, listen to our community to address.

An example is what we are doing on Medical Mile. We are creating a health campus and responding to the needs of the health care delivery systems that we have here, whether it be Spectrum, St. Mary’s, Mary Free Bed, Metro Health, or others. We’re creating the talent necessary, in nursing and health professions, to fulfill their needs and have a healthy and safe community in many regards.

That’s just one area in which we have created relevant programs at the undergraduate and graduate level to support a particular opportunity. Another area that I’m keenly interested in is STEM. We’re seeing increases in our undergraduate engineering population through these past years.

Finally, when you think about Talent 2025 and some of the other listening opportunities I have, the businesses large and small want talent that is contemporary, that can think critically, talent that understands the global view, talent that can really use technology, talent that understands the nature of diversity and inclusion. So, what we’re doing is making sure we have a curriculum here that is founded on liberal arts, and I think it’s really helped shape the kind of talent necessary for West Michigan.

 

Talent 2025: So, even with a focus on STEM, liberal arts education is still very important?

Thomas J. Haas: Yes. I hear this time and again from business leaders who want talent: to have a degree in a certain discipline is important, but so is the ability to change and be adaptive for future programs and job opportunities that are going to evolve over the next 10-20 years.

An education in the traditional liberal arts gives one the ability to use that foundation to think and adapt and to take the initiative we need to be entrepreneurial. Many of our graduates, whatever program that they study, are using their expertise to create new businesses.

 

Talent 2025: Grand Valley is part of the Workforce Development, K-12 to Post-Secondary, Returning Citizens, and Talent Demand working groups. What projects have interested you the most, and what impact have you seen?

Thomas J. Haas: I was one of the first members of T2025, and the initial concept was to address what we could do along the 131 corridor to connect our higher educational opportunities for students and workers with businesses. Grand Valley’s business, so to speak, is helping create the talent needed for businesses in the Talent 2025 region.

The efforts in K-12 and third-grade reading come to mind. We’re making a dramatic statement using some of John Kennedy’s resources and the resources of Talent 2025. We must look at education as a public good and as a continuum that starts pre-natal. I know we often say pre-k, but we must look along the entire continuum. I was the chair on the Governor’s 21st Century Education Commission. We need to look at this as a framework for the state policy makers to use moving forward in their efforts as well.

Talent 2025 can enable some of those discussions because of the engagement of business leaders along with members of the K-12 education and higher education space. We can make a difference, and I think we already have, by helping policy-makers make good policy for the vitality of West Michigan and the rest of the state.

 

Talent 2025: What improvements are you most eager to see in West Michigan’s labor force?

Thomas J. Haas: As we look at some of the outcomes of the Commission report, we can use the infrastructure in the 4-year institutions and our community college efforts to continue to create the workforce we need to enable our businesses to thrive in a global, competitive environment. I’m really pleased with some of the efforts that have been put forth.

I really believe, in my heart of hearts, that we need to continue to attract a diverse talent pool to our region and then retain that diverse talent pool. That’s what’s necessary for the rest of this century and beyond. The efforts in diversity, equity, and inclusion are critically important.

 

Talent 2025: You’ve served as both president and professor and built a great relationship with Grand Valley students. How can mentors help students prepare to enter the workforce?

Thomas J. Haas: In fact, that’s the most important point of job satisfaction as an educator, I think, is that you are not just sharing content in your discipline but becoming a mentor to students.

I get into the classroom each semester to teach a little chemistry with a lecture or two, and that is critically important to me. Making those connections with students is one of the greatest, most rewarding aspects of being a teacher, an educator, and a mentor.

Here, my first day on the campus, I was given the nickname of “T Haas” by students, and it has sustained itself over these past years. Now, within the past five or six years, I’ve heard that students want a “selfie with T Haas,” and I have never said no to one of those opportunities.

Now, we even have a “Toast with T Haas” before commencements, where students gather and we can celebrate student success. At the end of the day, that’s so important as an educator, as a president: engaging with the students, seeing them thrive and put themselves into a great position to succeed in their futures.

I hope that because my health is great, and Marcia’s health is great as well, we’ll continue to support Grand Valley and West Michigan however we can.

 

Talent 2025: Throughout your career, you’ve spent time studying at the US Coast Guard Academy and University of Connecticut and previously served as the president of SUNY Cobleskill, but now you’re choosing to remain in West Michigan after your retirement. What influenced that decision?

Thomas J. Haas: Marcia and I have felt at home in the many, many areas that we’ve had the opportunity to serve, whether it was in the New England area, Washington D.C., Iowa, or upstate New York.

My wife is from Michigan, and we have family here as well. Our children love coming to Michigan, and have through the years as they were growing up. We would return here to a small town near Battle Creek called Union City, where my wife was raised, so we have seen Michigan as a second home for these past decades. I grew up in New York City, and I still have family there. We love visiting them too.

But now, being here for thirteen years, we have strong roots and great friendships that have developed. We will continue to call West Michigan home, and if I can I will stay involved when I finish up my presidency and take a little bit of time off—maybe come back to the classroom a little bit or help out the university with the support of the new leadership.  

Really, we see West Michigan as our home. There’s a quality of life here that is phenomenal. There are great people and we have a collaborative spirit here. We are going to continue to serve as we can, because this is, in fact, our home.

When you are in a home, in a community, you need to continue to serve it. That’s what we will do here, with a deep appreciation for the time we have already spent and looking forward to the years ahead.

 


Talent 2025 extends thanks to President Haas for serving GVSU, West Michigan, and our CEO Council as well as for his time interviewing for this blog post.

Additional thanks to Mary Eilleen Lyon and Bernadine Carey-Tucker from GVSU University Communications and Rachel Siglow from the Office of the President.