A day in the life of T. Haas
President Haas speaks on life, family and his role at GVSU
GVL / Robert Mathews
Around 8:15 a.m., tables on the back deck of an East Grand Rapids home were covered with
burgundy tablecloths, nice plates and silverware. There was enough seating for about 60 guests,
and a dozen or so people were scurrying about completing any final cleaning and setup before the
commencement of the event, which was a brunch to honor Emeriti professors—faculty who have
retired but retained their rank or title.
In his suit, Grand Valley State University’s President Thomas J. Haas was wiping down the cover of
the Jacuzzi, which sat on the deck and had collected some moisture overnight. He came from
humble beginnings and doesn’t mind doing a little work to help out. He’s used to a larger load,
anyway. On any given day, his schedule as chief administrator at GVSU can be booked tight for 10,
11 or more hours, but it doesn’t wear him down.
“The energy has been there,” Haas said. “I, again, feel very blessed to have good health and good
people helping me, too.”
He usually starts his day around 5 or 6 a.m.
“I’m a morning person,” Haas said. “I do enjoy my first hour with a cup of coffee, seeing what’s
happening in the news, and at times getting right into the work of the university, too, with email
and the like.”
He views his day as broken up into two sections. From the time he wakes up until 5 or 6 p.m., he
deals with a number of meetings, speaking engagements and events on and around campus. After
that, he and his wife, Marcia, are usually busy six nights a week, engaged with university activities
or opportunities in the community, until he hits the hay around 9 or 10 p.m.
“I sleep well at night,” he said. Who wouldn’t?
Back at his home at about 8:45 a.m., the helpers have gotten everything ready and the first guests
start arriving for the brunch. Haas and Marcia are at the front door greeting each one with a warm
smile, a firm handshake and a few hugs. They do this for the next 50-odd people until everyone is
accounted for, then they join their guests on the deck.
The house, which has five bedrooms and two and one-half bathrooms, was built in 1928 and
acquired by GVSU in the late 1960s as a place for the president to host fund-raisers and other
university-related business, such as these brunches. Though the residence has no assessed value
because GVSU is exempt from paying taxes, the entire piece of property has a True Cash Value of
more than $950,000, according to documents obtained from the city of East Grand Rapids.
But still, it’s no elaborate mansion, and several times a year the president and his first lady host
events at their residence. To some, it might make the house feel less like a home, but Haas doesn’t
“It is our home and we merged our own furniture and personal art with items that the university
already owned,” he said. “The benefit of having a university home is that it is part of the university
and part of the community.”
Establishing a strong relationship with the community on behalf of GVSU is part of what the
president does every day.
“I think that’s one of the most important responsibilities of a president, to create the myriad of
relationships that help people understand the mission and the desired outcomes of a public
university, and specifically what makes Grand Valley special,” he said.
Haas has earned a number of degrees over his lifetime, and though he’s not currently pursuing any
more, he said his learning hasn’t stopped.
“I might not be working on any particular degree, but I’m always continuing to learn whether it be
through the students and my engagement with students here or interacting with our community,
our legislative leaders (and) with the business community,” he said.
Somehow, he finds time to get back to his teaching roots and still gets excited when he steps
behind the lectern to teach a course in chemistry or strategic planning.
“In fact, Marcia will tell you clearly,” he said. “She knows when I come home after teaching; she
knows that I have. She knows because my energy level is up, (and) she knows that I’ve been
involved in the core business of education and helping students learn to succeed.”
Haas has a master’s degree in environmental health sciences, which may have played a part in his
role of continuing GVSU’s mission of sustainability.
“(Sustainability) was here already,” Haas said. “And it was here already because I know that the
students were challenging us as an institution to say ‘this is important to us,’ and I love listening
and hearing what is important to students. I truly do. It helps me do my job.”
Haas came to GVSU in 2006 and continued the path of getting LEED certified buildings and other
ventures to improve GVSU’s sustainability.
“So we went from, in our strategic plan, to saying sustainability is a strategy to help us achieve our
mission, to now it is indeed a value that we hold as an institution,” he said. “So I think that my role
is to help sustain it and to continue to listen to our students and get the right people who could
help with designing curriculums (and) designing interactions with the community members.”
Haas has never been shy about serving as a leader, which often includes a bit of public scrutiny.
“I know that I’ve always aspired to have leadership roles, because through leadership the paradox is
you’re serving others, and I think that is a motivator to me,” Haas said.
He added that he loves being in a university or college atmosphere, which he sees as energizing. “I
was told when I made the decision to become a faculty member many, many years ago—in the early
‘80s—some of my classmates from the Coast Guard Academy said, ‘You’re going to get bored,’” he
said. “Well that was 1981, and frankly, I’ve never been bored.”
With the quantity of events he has throughout the week, no one would think he has time for the
occasional trip to Lansing, which he takes a number of times each month in his work with Matt
McLogan, the vice president of University Relations at GVSU.
“It depends on what season it is,” Haas said. “The budget season comes around, we have to show
our impacts with the legislative folks, so I sit down with them from time to time.”
It’s important to continue to educate legislators, Haas said, considering term limits when
everything changes and new people take office who occasionally need to be brought up to speed.
“I think it’s incumbent upon presidents, and I exercise this to help them do their job,” he said. “In
order to make good decisions they have to have good information and it has to be accurate, and
I’m always willing to share perspectives, as well, with our legislative folks.”
In addition to his university duties, Haas is involved with so many organizations he couldn’t put a
number on them.
“I have dozens,” he said. “And it ranges in a very eclectic mix,” from Spectrum or the NCAA, to the
Grand Rapids Opera.
When he finds the time, he likes watching golf in the summer or football in the fall.
“I love going to the Grand Valley football games, and volleyball games and soccer games—you
name it, it’s on the calendar,” Haas said. “I try to get to at least one of the home matches or
contests every sports season.”
At GVSU’s opening football game, he stepped out of the box to get a closer look at the dance team
and listen to the band. Performance-based music has always been a big part of his and Marcia’s
Throughout high school, and part of his time at the Coast Guard Academy, he played the tenor sax,
clarinet, bass clarinet and was a drum major. Occasionally, Marcia tinkers around with their
daughter’s baby grand piano that sits in the lounge of their home, but she has played the baritone
sax and the clarinet, as well.
PANCAKES, FAMILY AND TRADITION
“I never see it as busy,” Haas said. “We do look toward our downtime from time to time.”
The Haases have a cottage they occasionally escape to and always try to make time to visit with
family, though their children don’t live nearby.
“We do a lot of Skyping,” Haas said. “We connect pretty much every weekend.”
They have two sons, who have children of their own, and a daughter who is married, as well.
“It’s fun, too, especially with the younger two out in California, we will join them for breakfast,” he
said. “We will be at the table, we will have our pancakes here at 801, and they will be out in Bodega
Bay, which is just north of San Francisco, and they will be at the table and they will have their
All of his children have served in the military, and his eldest son is stationed in Japan with the Air
“Truth be told, it’s a fun activity, but I do Words With Friends with my kids, and it helps us stay
connected,” Haas said. “Every morning I do Words With Friends with my son who’s over in Okinawa,
which is 12 hours away—the other side of the world. It’s fun to exercise technology like that.”
In addition to cooking pancakes and eating them with his family through Skype, there’s a tradition
that brings the executive team of the Student Senate to the president’s house for a pancake
breakfast around 9 a.m. before a home football game.
“I do specialty pancakes,” Haas said. “We do Granny Smith apple, oatmeal. We do pumpkin pie
pancakes, and of course there’s the old standby called chocolate chip. That’s what our kids love.
They still love it. Now in their 30s they still say ‘can we have some chocolate chips in our
He also cooks pancakes with the president of Student Senate during Family Weekend, where they
serve about 600 people, he said.
“We have some of those traditions that we continue because we enjoy it and can interact with our
students in so many different ways,” he said.
Though he’s already engaged in the countless number of activities that fill nearly every hour of his
schedule, there’s one thing Haas would like to add to his calendar.
“The only thing I wish I had,” he said, “was a little bit more time for exercise—Marcia tells me I need
to do that, too.”