We’ve heard a lot of doom and gloom about education at all levels lately, but here’s some good news: small colleges, which many have feared may be endangered, may be making a comeback.
Take my alma mater, Hope College in Holland, MI. Hope, which has a little over 3,000 students, recently announced an all-time record incoming freshman class. Many colleges and universities all across the country, from tiny Drury University in Missouri to huge schools like the University of Cincinnati are reporting record enrollments.
Not every place is, of course. But this news indicates that after the grim years of the pandemic, there may be sunlight on the horizon.
Last month, when summer was still at its hottest, my companion Patsie Evans and I visited Del and Sally Michel’s galleries overlooking Michigan’s Grand Traverse Bay. Del and I were two of 14 young faculty members that President Cal Vander Werf brought to Hope in the fall of 1964.
We didn’t dominate the place, but we sure shook it up. And then we hired other young faculty who did dominate the school. Starting in 1964, Vander Werf and his people brought the spoils of World War II research to the campus -- including the first electric typewriters, Xerox machines, infrared spectrometers, NMR (later MRI) machines, electron microscopes and more.
Most of these instruments had been in big university labs. But we brought them to a small private liberal arts college that fostered an intense energy and passion for undergraduate research.
Soon we began a geology department, expanded and grew the biological sciences on a more molecular level, and thanks to two other Hope alumni, Dick Brockmeier, Jim Van Putten and David Marker, brought Hope its first computer.
Brockmeier talked about “computers talking to computers” as he threw around huge rolls of that old perforated computer paper. The internet was years away, but that’s what he was talking about.
We also had absolutely excellent students. In the first organic chemistry lab I taught there were three boys lined up on the second floor of the old science building just waiting to be challenged by this young professor. One, Paul Schaap, told me “research was the best part of his freshman chemistry course.” Thirty years later he would buy Hope a new science building, now the A. Paul Schaap Science Center, to honor his father. He worked in my labs for three years before going off to Wayne State University where his career was made.
There were also many others, including the irrepressible Linda Kloote Dunn -- one of the first women to gain admission to the University of Michigan’s Medical School. Brilliant faculty hires came on board : Dwight Smith, later Chancellor of the University of Denver, F. Sheldon Wettack, later president of Wabash, and Michael Doyle, later president of Research Corporation in chemistry.
But on another side of campus was the incredibly prolific painter from Indiana: Delbert “Del” Michel. His studio has hundreds of paintings and other works of art. When we were there he and Sally were both dreaming of getting those paintings in galleries to be sold.
Sally, whose given name is Sara, sent us a copy of her 1984 book: With this Inheritance: Holland, Michigan: The Early Years. If you live in western Michigan and you do not own a copy, shame on you. It is beautifully illustrated by their husband Del and published by River Road Publications, which was run by Lynne Adams Deur, a publisher of children’s books who came to Hope because of her high school English teacher: Doris van Lente Neckers, my mother.
Albertus van Raalte, Hope’s founder, was a hard, tough man, who never looked as much the entrepreneur as in Del’s art. And Sally found van Raalte history that many historians miss: that Schuyler Colfax, Speaker of the House and Vice President of the United States under President U.S. Grant, was on Hope’s first board of trustees; and that van Raalte managed to get to Grand Haven to meet a young man named Thomas White Ferry. He became a U.S. senator and was President Pro Tem of the Senate in 1876, during the infamous Hayes-Tilden presidential election -- the one that really was stolen.
But my real point is that at the beginning of every school year, I remember the benefits one receives from an undergraduate liberal arts and sciences degree, and the even greater benefits of teaching at such a place.
One of my teachers and later a close friend, Paul Fried, told me about the trial of I.G. Farben executives, chemists who helped the Nazis commit atrocities, during the Nuremberg trials after the war. “Neckers, you’re going to be a chemist,” he said, “so read and write about Farben.” Studying those trials almost became an obsession, and eventually, I would chair the board of the Robert Jackson Center in Jamestown, N.Y. Jackson was a Supreme Court justice who was also the chief U.S. prosecutor at the Nuremberg trial of the leading Nazis after the war.
Meanwhile, my Hope colleague Del Michel taught my late wife Sue and I that because Hope was a place that insisted even an aggressive young organic chemist become familiar with the liberal arts and sciences, my family and I got to meet and even know Del Michel and his wife.
We came away forever transformed by our Hope experience. Sue had a lifelong appreciation of the visual arts, and I of the breadth and depth of the intellectual searches of my young colleagues. But those years studying and teaching in Holland, MI, made us forever feel that the undergraduate liberal arts and sciences experiment was and is well worth it.
Douglas Neckers is an organic chemist, the McMaster distinguished professor emeritus and the founder of the Center for Photochemical Sciences at Bowling Green State University and also a former board chair of the Robert H. Jackson Center in Jamestown, N.Y.