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Grand Rapids Power Structure: Part VII – Universities and Colleges as Buffers against systemic change

June 25, 2018

Over the past few weeks we have been investigating the Grand Rapids Power Structure, beginning with a discussion about its framework in Part I; the most powerful family in Grand Rapids, the DeVos Family, in Part II and in Part III we looked at other members of the most powerful members of the private sector. In Part IV, we looked at the private sector organizations that have power and which individuals sit on the boards of those organizations. 

Two weeks ago, we looked at the next level of the Grand Rapids Power Structure, the local government, in Part V, and last week we investigated the role and function of the media, within Grand Rapids and how it serves power in Part VI

In the next series of posts, we will explore the various institutions that ultimately act as a buffer for the Grand Rapids Power Structure. When we say buffer, we mean that these institutions often redirect people from focusing on systemic problems and instead focusing on uplifting the individual. These institutions do offer some solutions to current social problems, but rarely do they call for systemic change and almost never challenge structures of power.

In addition, these buffer institutions often normalize systems of power by accepting the existing social order as it is, only to call for mild reforms. Buffer institutions also are often  ideologically and financially compromised, since they are recipients of funding from the existing power structure.

In Part VII of our analysis of the Grand Rapids Power Structure, we will look at the function of local universities/colleges and their relationship to power.

Institutions of Higher Learning

Amongst the universities and colleges in Grand Rapids, GVSU stands out as the best example of an educational institutions that acts as a buffer for those in power. This hasn’t always been the case, especially in the early years of Grand Valley State College, but once the DeVos Family became involved much of that changed.

Beginning in the mid-1970s, ever since Rich DeVos became a trustee at Grand Valley, the school went from being known as the Berkley of the Midwest to a university that collaborates with the Grand Rapids Power Structure.

Students at Grand Valley State College attempted to challenge the power of Rich DeVos in 1977, but the Amway co-founder offered the college an opportunity to not only become a university, but to shift its focus from a more progressive liberal arts college to a university that zealously embraces a neo-liberal capitalist view of the world. 

One indication of the embrace of neoliberal capitalism by GVSU can be seen in the so-called Wall of Fame, art the downtown campus, in the Eberhard Center. The Wall of Fame is made up of members of the Grand Rapids Power Structure, primarily business people, who have served on the board of trustees and donated large sums of money to expand GVSU’s economic influence. 

Much of this influence is documented in our Popular Guide to Wealth and Influence at GVSU, which you can download at this link. One example we provide of how wealth has influenced GVSU politics has to do with what happened in the 1990s, when faculty members, who were part of the LGBT community, were told that they would be getting domestic partner benefits from the University. However, word of this promise became public and Rich DeVos and Peter Cook threatened to take away funding they had promised for the new Michigan St. building. Then GVSU President Lubbers, withdrew his commitment to the LGBT faculty and the new building got the funds it was promised.

A second attempt was made in 2003, to get domestic partner benefits passed at GVSU, but then President Mark Murray blocked the attempt. Murray stated at the time, “As a University that has benefited from very generous support from the private philanthropic community, we must recognize the prevailing views of those who provide such support.”

This statement by Murray underscores the power that donors have had on policy at GVSU. This reality is consistent with the kinds of political and economic influence those in the Hall of Fame have had and continue to have in Grand Rapids. Many of those on the Hall of Fame continue to be involved in organizations like Grand ActionThe Right Place, the Grand Rapids Chamber of Commerce, the Acton Institute and the West Michigan Policy Forum, all of which we identified on Part IV of our analysis of the Grand Rapids Power Structure.

Another way that GVSU acts as a buffer zone is the increased focus on being a business school, that promotes neo-liberal economic policies. GVSU has been expanding this focus, with the growth of the Seidman School of Business and the Van Andel Trade Center. These programs are “complimented” by the Johnson Center for Philanthropy and the GVSU School of Social Work. These programs are the real buffer, since they re-direct people’s energy into doing social work through non-profits, which focus on serving people who are marginalized in society, instead of being part of movements calling for systemic change. These career tracks not only don’t advocate for systemic change, they often do not even recognize that what is being taught in the business school actually causes the kind of social problems that the populations non-profits serve are experiencing.

All of these dynamics are supported by those who run the university, such as those who sit on the Board of Trustees.  Virtually all of those who sit on the Board of Trustees are either part of the business community or work in local government positions, including some members of the Grand Rapids Power Structure, such as John Kennedy.

Then there is the GVSU Foundation Board, which also is made up of those who are part of the Grand Rapids Power Structure. In fact, most of the people we identified as being part of the GR Power Structure, also sit on the GVSU Foundation board, such as several members of the DeVos Family, Peter Secchia, J.C. Huizenga, Michael Jandernoa, Mike VanGessel, John Kennedy, Sam Cummings, Matthew Hayworth, Scott Wierda and Carol Van Andel. 

The GVSU Board of Trustees and the university’s foundation are designed to have members of the Grand Rapids Power Structure as active members, since they determine larger, structural policies and agendas for the school. These structures are designed this way as a means to protect and promote the long-term interests of the local power structure.

Calvin College, Aquinas, GRCC and Davenport are not that different from GVSU, in that they operate in the same fundamental way that most centers of higher learning do, which is primarily to promote and normalize social inequalities and to encourage people who want to try to do some good, to chose the non-profit administrative track.

Lastly, it should be mentioned that most of the private foundations, particularly the DeVos Family foundations, are major contributors to the local colleges and universities, thus providing another mechanism to control the long-term interests of the Grand Rapids Power Structure.

In our next article in this series, we will look at the role of organized religion, its relationship to power and how it often acts as a buffer against systemic change.

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