Celebrating 85 years

Oct 15, 2004

From its beginnings as a trade school to its current status as a world-renown engineering and technology university, Kettering's 85-year history is marked by progressive leadership and innovative changes.

October 20, 2004, marks the 85th anniversary of the founding of Kettering/GMI. From its beginnings as a trade school to its current status as a world-renown engineering and technology university, Kettering's 85-year history is marked by progressive leadership and innovative changes.

The idea that sparked Kettering/GMI first appeared in a talk by Charles Kettering in Flint in 1916. Walter Chrysler, chairman of the Industrial Committee of the YMCA, had invited Kettering to Flint to talk about his views on practical education.

Inspired by Kettering's presentation, the Industrial Committee of the YMCA arranged for factory workers to receive instruction adapted for their work in the factories. Under the committee's supervision, the resulting School of Automobile Trades offered a variety of classes over the next three years.

Kettering/GMI dates its official beginning to 1919 when Albert Sobey came to Flint to continue developing and expanding the educational program of the Industrial Fellowship League (IFL) of the Manufacturers Association. The program was designed to extend the training of factory workers in engineering principles and skilled trades to meet the needs of the burgeoning automobile manufacturing industry.

In 1923 the IFL, reorganized as the Industrial Mutual Association, expanded the program and named the school the Flint Institute of Technology. At the same time Sobey began developing an approach to cooperative engineering education and a formal program was launched in 1924.

General Motors Corp. purchased the Institute in 1926 and renamed it General Motors Institute (GMI). From 1926 until 1980 the Institute met the major educational need of the corporation in the area of engineering and management graduates.

In 1982 General Motors established GMI as an independent, non-profit, tax-exempt institution, donating the campus and facilitiesto theneworganization andproviding a multi-million dollar transfer grant over a three-year period. They also agreed to continue financing renovation of the Academic Building and continued to hire approximately the same number of co-op students over the next five years. The corporation eventually reduced its sponsorship to less than 50 percent of the total student enrollment.

Originally a trade school, the Institute was authorized to award bachelor's degrees in 1945 and in 1962 received accreditation by the North Central Association of Colleges and Schools. In 1977, all of the Institute's engineering curricula received accreditation through the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology.

The early days

In the early years of Albert Sobey's tenure (1919 to 1950), the school grew and moved many times before settling at its present location on the corner of Third and Chevrolet avenues. Its first home was in the original YMCA on Saginaw Street. From there it moved to the old St. Michael's school and then to the Industrial Bank building. After General Motors purchased the Institute in 1926 it constructed a building that opened in 1927 as the General Motors Institute. The building has been renovated many times and is still in use as the primary classroom building on campus, known as the Academic Building.

When the building first opened it contained a library, laboratories and an auto lab. The building continued to expand to meet the needs of the Institute while Sobey worked to gain recognition for the school's programs. The first building expansion was needed by 1928. In 1938 enrollment reached a peak of 11,477 in all programs with all but two of the major General Motors plants represented. Students came from 41 states and 51 overseas operations. To accommodate training needs for industry as well as pre-war build-up, asecond expansion tookplace in 1940. A third expansion in 1941 added a cafeteria and gymnasium. In 1945 Sobey's hard work paid off with permission from the Engineering Commission for Professional Development to grant bachelor's degrees in Engineering.

The next phase

During the 1950s, under President Guy R. Cowing, the school's growth focused more heavily on scholarship and meeting the needs of students. Curriculum changes from 1950 to 1955 included adding courses and establishing academic prerequisites. Cowing continued to build on Sobey's foundation and from 1955 to 1961 five curriculum studies resulted in even more changes and the addition of an Electrical Engineering degree in 1960.

Another 85,000 square feet were added to the Academic Building in 1954 with improvements in laboratories and classroom facilities. In addition to academic expansion, Cowing was interested in improving students' non-academic life. He strongly supported the fraternity system and instituted the Student Relations Department. A student loan and health program appeared on campus in the early 1950s.

Moving on

Harold P. "Dusty" Rodes became president in 1960. High on his priority list was accreditation, institutional first, and then curricular.

By 1960 the Institute had two distinct educational activities, the full-time education of future engineers and administrators, and the part-time education of corporate employees to prepare them for advancement. To meet these general objectives, programs had separate educational offerings, instructors, administrative staff and resources.

Rodes moved the college forward in its educational missions, receiving North Central Association of Colleges and Schools accreditation in 1962. His nextgoalwasto have the Institute'scurricula accredited by the Engineers Council for Professional Development (ECPD - later the Accrediting Board for Engineering And Technology). In 1965 the ECPD turned down the Institute's request for accreditation.

Around this time the school was starting to feel a physical pinch again. Including the Engineering program, part-time Management Training Program, Personal Evaluation Program and Specialized Technical Programs offered on campus and at General Motors' plants, GMI had 23,448 students.

To help alleviate the squeeze in the Academic Building, which housed all classrooms, laboratories, the library, cafeteria, bookstore and administrative offices, the former Hasselbring estate, encompassing 34 acres south of Third Avenue adjacent to the Flint River, was purchased. A ten-year campus re-development program proposed by Rodes included plans for a campus center, residence hall and parking deck.

The Campus Center Building, Frances Willson Thompson Residence Hall and 650-car parking deck were opened in 1968 after a slight delay. The Campus Center and Alumni Carrillion were dedicated at the 50th anniversary celebration of GMI in 1969.

Also in 1968 an additional degree program in Industrial Administration was added to the curriculum along with 70 new courses. Other changes in the 1960s included the first-time recruitment of minority and women students. The first African American students were enrolled in 1963 and the first woman student enrolled in 1965. By 1971 there were 135 minority students and 30 women. The following year the numbers jumped to 372 and 112, respectively.

In 1974 General Motors told GMI to cut its operations by 30 percent. Rodes postponed his retirement to reduce operations and cut staff to address the school's financial difficulties. He announced hisretirement in 1975.

Continued growth

Following Rodes, Kettering/GMI's fourth President Dr. William B. Cottingham enhanced the school's cooperative education program, academic programs and commitment to developing students' leadership abilities. It was during his tenure, 1976 to 1991, that the Institute was spun off from the General Motors Corp. in 1982.

Like his predecessors, Cottingham's administration and the first fully independent Institute underwent progressive changes. The number of faculty with Ph.D. degrees took a dramatic upswing, curricula were reviewed and new courses and curricula were developed. In addition laboratories and instructional facilities were renovated as the Academic Building underwent a major modernization that included a new library, and after the downsizing of the early 1970s, the Board of Trustees authorized Cottingham to increase freshman enrollment from 573 to 750.

Cottingham also took up the banner, carried by previous presidents, to earn ECPD accreditation. He convinced faculty, staff and the board of trustees that accreditation would enhance the academic reputation of the school. In 1976 the ECPD began reviewing the Institute's curricula and relationships with industry. In October of 1977 the ECPD accredited degrees in Electrical, Industrial and all five options in Mechanical Engineering at the Institute.


Cottingham's successor, current President Dr. James E.A. John, continued the heritage of physical growth and academic excellence.

When he arrived in 1991, it was to become President of GMI Engineering & Management Institute, a world-renowned cooperative engineering college. The school contained a campus with three buildings, bounded by aging manufacturing and retail facilities. Upperclass students lived off campus with freshmen occupyingdorms without air conditioning.

UnderJohn a master plan was created that resulted in the construction of the Connie and Jim John Recreation Center, the C.S. Mott Engineering and Science Center (the $42 million construction project is the first completely new academic building at Kettering in 70 years), Campus Village student apartments, and the Harris playing fields with the Miller Golf Center. Land was donated by Delphi and General Motors for a research park, and air conditioning of the dorm was accomplished. Realizing these dreams required planning and funding.

In addition to physical changes, the school's name was changed to Kettering University in 1998 to encourage and reflect the more than 700 companies sponsoring cooperative students, and to recognize the support and encouragement that Charles F. (Boss) Kettering, former head of R&D at GM, gave the school in the early years.

To further encourage and support diversity in the student population, John established the Office of Minority Student Affairs and, as a result, Kettering's retention of minority students is one of the best in the country. He also initiated the Women's Resource Center and established the Office of Women's Programs, which has helped to enhance recruitment and retention of women students.

Looking beyond borders, John's initiatives also extend globally with Kettering University being one of the first technologically-oriented universities to initiate student exchange programs with international universities. Domestically, he has grown graduate programs and added B.S. degrees in math, physics, chemistry, computer science and computer engineering.

What the future holds

Looking into the future, John would like to see Kettering and the surrounding area become a vital academic community. "A place where students come, not only for the academics," he said, "but for the environment around campus aswell."

He envisions Kettering asaleader in the technological fieldsandcontinuing to maintain close relationships with leading U.S. corporations. "I see Kettering as a quality university, striving to be the very best in its areas of expertise," said John, "attracting the best faculty and students."

Written by Dawn Hibbard
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