Davenport University celebrates 150 years in business


The school became a degree-granting institution in 1924 under the direction of President Michael E. Davenport. Courtesy Davenport University

On Jan. 25, 1866, Grand Rapids Business College held its first bookkeeping, penmanship, business law and arithmetic classes for 16 registered students.

One sesquicentennial later, the academic institution now called Davenport University launched the milestone year with an Anniversary Kick-Off Event at its W.A. Lettinga Campus, 6191 Kraft Ave. SE, Grand Rapids.

The event marked the beginning of a year-long celebration for the institution that began as a small private school and now is a fully accredited private university offering undergraduate, graduate and online degrees to nearly 9,000 students.

President Richard Pappas said 2016 marks an incredible milestone, not only for the university but also for the community.

“In the past 150 years, thousands of students have passed through our doors and gone on to succeed in their careers and contribute to their communities,” said Pappas.

“Davenport is an important part of Michigan’s history and is positioned to play an even bigger role going forward as we continue to reach new heights of excellence while helping students ‘Get Where the World is Going.’”

The anniversary celebration featured the unveiling of Davenport’s History Wall, an anniversary video highlighting the building of the university, and speakers, including Donald W. Maine, chancellor emeritus at Davenport, and Frank Merlotti, chair of Davenport’s board of trustees.

“You don’t get to celebrate 150 very often, and this is actually going to be a celebration throughout the entire year,” said Pappas. “We are also doing a major one for the community, on Sept. 29 at DeVos Place, and this will really be with a number of key people throughout the state who will sort of testify about the coolness of a homegrown university that really lived for this long.”

Davenport will celebrate its anniversary throughout the year at events such as the 150-hour-long Founder’s Giving Challenge beginning Jan. 25, the 2016 Excellence in Business Gala on May 6, and the Sept. 29 Founder’s 150th Anniversary Gala.

The university also is creating a history book about its background and establishment, according to Pappas.

The university was founded in January 1866 as Grand Rapids Business College by Civil War Army veteran Conrad G. Swensburg. Although the college was facing financial hardship when Michael E. Davenport assumed leadership in 1910, the next president oversaw the expansion of the school statewide and its establishment as a nonprofit institution in 1954.

“M.E. Davenport was a faculty member in Swensburg’s school, and when they started having financial troubles, M.E. Davenport took it over and made it a financial success and an academic success,” said Pappas.

Davenport served as president until 1959, when Robert W. Sneden, a World War II veteran and an alumnus of the then Davenport-McLachlan Institute, took on the leadership role until 1977. Donald W. Maine succeeded Sneden as president and oversaw the introduction of bachelor’s and master’s degree programs. Under Randolph Flechsig’s leadership from 2000 to 2009, Davenport College, Detroit College of Business and Great Lakes College were integrated into a single university based at the W.A. Lettinga Campus in Grand Rapids.

“We have had some entrepreneurial leaders and faculty and board members,” said Pappas. “Each president who has been here throughout our 150 years looked at what was happening in education and said could we do this differently that would benefit our students more, and I really think that has been the case. Otherwise, I don’t think an institution survives 150 years that is a private, not-for-profit.”

More recently, Davenport launched a new campus in Lansing, opened the Peter C. Cook Center for graduate studies in downtown Grand Rapids, and established a College of Urban Education with a master’s program.

The university also now offers a doctorate program in physical therapy, a competency-based MBA and executive MBA, and graduate degrees in nursing, occupational therapy and technology management.

“We have expanded the business curriculum with health care and technology and now urban education,” said Pappas. “We increased graduation rates 100 percent in five years, and Vision 2020 talks about adapting even more: more innovation and more talking about the potential of a three-year degree.”

As the school has adapted over the years, Pappas indicated some of its strengths are its quality, its ability to innovate and help students graduate, and its willingness to take risks, such as creating the urban education program.

“We must be innovative for us to really grow — and frankly, that is the fun part,” said Pappas. “Right now one of our great strengths is our measurable quality, and I also think our ability to make changes based on good data. We look at our data carefully and we are willing to take risks that would benefit our students.”

The university’s 150th year also began with support from the Great Lakes Intercollegiate Athletic Conference for Davenport to become a member contingent on an NCAA Division II approval.

Davenport also was named to the Honor Roll by the Michigan Performance Excellence Program, which recognizes higher education institutions for demonstrating “systematic, well-deployed approaches to the Baldrige Performance Excellence Criteria,” according to the Jan. 11 MIPEx letter to Davenport. Pappas indicated the performance award is the first step toward applying for the national Baldrige Award, which is a goal for the university.

“We received high marks in areas related to strategy and our customer, which tells us that we’re moving in the right direction,” said Pappas in the Jan. 14 release.

“Through Vision 2020, our five-year strategic plan, we continue to improve upon student outcomes like our graduation rate, which already has more than doubled since 2009. We are raising the bar for ourselves each and every year, and this Honor Roll recognition is a strong testament to the value of the work we are doing.”

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