As tumultuous as 1964 events were, from the arrival of the Beatles and Ford Mustangs to war in Vietnam or Sister Lakes monster sightings, none of these events proved as transformative locally as the birth of Southwestern Michigan College.
College president Dr. David M. Mathews steeped his State of the College address to the Board of Monday night in history in honor of the College’s 50th Anniversary.
When voters on Nov. 3, 1964, approved the charter creating the college, it was such a big deal, observed President Mathews, that it merited a headline above both the Dowagiac Daily News masthead and above the “secondary headline” of “LBJ Runaway.”
Later that month, at its first meeting, the Board of Trustees elected Dr. Fred L. Mathews chairman. Every two years since that time, fellow board members have re-elected him chairman, making him now the longest-serving community college board chairman in the nation.
The College is currently planning a 50th Anniversary celebration for this fall, and continues to add artifacts to its own College History Gallery that it opened last year adjacent to the new bookstore. The gallery contains artifacts beginning with the campaign to establish the College to the present day. Photographs, newspaper clippings, national championship sports trophies, and assorted rare memorabilia all tell the story of the College over the last fifty years. Anyone interested in touring the Gallery is invited to call 782-1275 and arrange for a personal tour.
President Mathews observed that the past twelve months were also memorable for extraordinary developments, such as SMC leading Michigan’s 28 community colleges in enrollment growth last fall with 6.7 percent — a trend which continues this spring semester with another 6.3 percent gain.
SMC’s longstanding commitment to excellence once again placed it in the top 8 percent in the United States for transfer success in 2013, according to the National Community College Benchmarking Project.
Beyond the campus, SMC partnered with the City of Dowagiac to move its collection of local history artifacts to the former Behnke Paint and Floor Covering. “The college is committed to preservation of these artifacts,” Mathews said, “and retains ownership, but through this unique partnership we’ve actually been able to increase visibility in town, while at the same time giving us much-needed space on campus” where SMC unveiled a new Student Service Center (SSC) July 8. The SSC has been likened to a concierge desk for providing students services like guests at a high-end hotel.
Aug. 10’s grand reopening of the 1991 Niles Campus on U.S. 12 in Cass County’s Milton Township showed off the first phase of a $3 million renovation and program expansion project.
Additionally, SMC’s third residence hall opened in September, bringing the total number of students living on campus to 390. The college named the second and third apartment-style structures Thomas F. Jerdon Hall and William M. White Hall, recognizing long volunteer service by trustees who are the treasurer and secretary, respectively. They join Keith H. McKenzie Hall, named for the longtime vice chairman.
In December the board named the 1996 College Services Building for fifth President David C. Briegel, who guided the college a record 17 years, 1981-98, during 46 years at SMC.
“The way SMC has evolved with both career preparation and the total college life experience is trailblazing and reflects our trustees’ commitment to determining what the community needs educationally and providing that,” Mathews said. “Career preparation is more important than ever. Moreover, the recession that first hit Michigan in 2001 made a new financial reality. Parents simply cannot afford to send their students right out of high school to a $25,000–a-year state university experience.”
President Mathews said that “even though we are taking time to pause and reflect on the past, the College remains firmly focused on “what’s next?” We are in a constant state of evaluating how we’re doing. Our internal continuous quality improvement metrics tell us where we should put resources and institutional energy, where we are doing well, and where we could do better.”
While we are developing additional plans, several major improvements are already in the works for the coming year. With matching funds from the State of Michigan, complete renovation will begin of two original buildings on the Dowagiac campus, the Foster W. Daugherty Building and the William P.D. O’Leary Building. Beginning this summer, the O’Leary Building will be vacated and transformed into a 21st Century science building to support the College’s Science Technology Engineering and Math (STEM) curricula. Once this transformation is complete, the STEM programs will move from the Daugherty Building enabling the complete renovation of that space to support Communications, Humanities, and Social Service offerings such as criminal justice.
Also, Phase II of the renovation at the College’s Niles Campus will take place this summer, expanding the footprint of the renovated interior spaces to the entirety of the main instructional building.
Finally, beginning this month, SMC’s campus newspaper, The Southwester will be available online “to do an even better job of letting students and the community know all of the great things happening at Southwestern Michigan College.”
At 50, “We are where we want to be as a college,” Mathews said. “Known for affordable access and high quality in everything we do. High quality academics including career preparation and total college life experience; High quality services; High quality facilities; and collaborative partnerships with the community. SMC is stronger than it’s ever been.”