The year 1919 was one that saw the start of Prohibition, the beginning of Edsel Ford’s leadership of Ford Motor Company, the approval of the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution (giving women the right to vote), the end of World War I and, in Flint, the debut of the School of Automobile Trades. Today, that school is celebrating its centennial under its “new” name of Kettering University.
The school opened its doors on October 20, 1919. It was part of a booming Flint economy, formed in partnership with industry to train engineering and management personnel. Major Albert Sobey, a former major in U.S. Army intelligence during World War I, was tapped as the university’s founding president.
Just four years later, the school became the Flint Institute of Technology. It started to offer the four-year cooperative education program that distinguishes it to this day among colleges and universities. The year 1923 saw the enrollment of over 600 students. The innovative idea of cooperative education inspired the General Motors Corporation to assume financial support of the school in 1926. That year, it became General Motors Institute (GMI).
As industry grew and evolved, so did the school. By 1945 it had become a degree-granting college. With the economic downturn and the outsourcing of the auto industry, GM let go of the school in 1982.
The recession of 1980-1982 did not stop the determination of school officials to stay open for the benefit of students and the city. The university began charging full tuition and offering graduate degrees. It kept the name GMI, adding “Engineering & Management Institute.” In 1998, the school became Kettering University, named in honor of Charles Kettering, inventor and head of research at GM in the 1920s through 1940s.
It continues its century-old tradition of innovation and community involvement under its current president, Robert McMahan, Ph.D. As Flint undergoes a renaissance, Kettering is centering its efforts on making sure graduates are highly employable and improving parts of the community that surround it.
Kettering is unique in U.S. higher education because it was formed by the same group that started the auto industry in Flint. Familiar names like Mott, Sloan, Kettering and Durant came together to create the school based on co-op education. Students alternate between classes and professional roles throughout their education. There are no summer breaks but four equal academic terms per year. The students thus advance in their education and their professional standing at the same time. By graduation they have two and a half years of professional experience. Kettering graduates, with few exceptions, have job offers or are on track for graduate school.
Kettering students come from 40 states and 23 countries, and there are 2,500 students. Graduates have gone on to high-ranking positions in companies such as Gibson Brands, Disney, GM, Salesforce.com, Hurley Medical Center and Old Navy.
Kettering offers precollege programs for grades K-12, such as the FIRST Robotics Community Center. The 50,000-square-foot facility is dedicated to high school students from all over Flint. Teams have six weeks to build a robot from scratch for the annual global competition.
McMahan came to Kettering in August 2011 as the school’s seventh president and is now the longest tenured of Flint’s university leaders. He knows Kettering doesn’t succeed unless Flint does.
“We look at the area of greatest impact,” McMahan says. “The best strategy is to focus on a corridor and build outward from there. To spread out improvements here and there doesn’t change the dynamic of the community as a whole.”
In 2012 Kettering founded the University Avenue Corridor Coalition, a group of individuals and institutions improving the area. In the last few years there has been almost a 250 percent increase in membership, and surveys of people living in the neighborhoods show increased satisfaction.
The university has replaced more than 100 blighted buildings since 2014, amounting to a 78 percent decrease in blight, and replaced these eyesores with green spaces using Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design (CPTED). Landscaping, adding lighting, fixing broken-down buildings, covering graffiti and keeping sidewalks walkable are all part of CPTED. Speed bumps, bike paths, walking trails and motion sensors for speeding cars have all made the area safer.
Nearby residents often see campus police patrolling their neighborhood, and there is a Flint Police Mini Station on the corner of University and Chevrolet Avenues. Two party stores in the vicinity that attracted crime have been replaced with a Jimmy John’s/Little Caesar’s and an Einstein Bros. Bagels. Crime has decreased between 40 and 85 percent.
The Kettering University Employee Home Purchase and Renovation Assistance Program gives eligible employees $15,000 to buy and occupy a home in one of three nearby designated neighborhoods. Also, a $5,000 forgivable loan will be available to those who already live there for exterior improvements. Atwood Stadium had sat long in disrepair, but Kettering and a coalition of local players have renovated the sports arena to host concerts, sporting events and other community events.
Kettering owns part of Chevy in the Hole north of the river from Chevy Commons, where its GM Mobility Research Center is now. This is a vehicle and mobility systems development proving ground and outdoor research facility. It’s the only one of its kind on a college campus in the country and puts Kettering and Flint at the forefront of autonomous vehicle research and development, safety and technology.
With climate change, solar power and sustainability initiatives are high priorities. Three new solar charging stations sit on campus, and there is a community infrastructure cellular network. Transportation is a focal area, especially transitioning from petroleum to electricity.
Kettering offers a cross-disciplinary GREEN course cluster. GREEN stands for Generating Responsible Ecological & Environmental Neighbors and it is very popular. Priorities also include leading in STEM and business education and high-quality faculty and student research.
“The institution was once an ‘island’ and is now one of the top-ranked engineering schools,” McMahan says. “Companies are led by Kettering graduates but the school is ‘quiet,’ with an attitude of ‘put your head down and solve the problem.’ Kettering is an anchor, a jewel of higher education that people point to as an example. The community doesn’t even realize that here we have a school like Carnegie Mellon or MIT.”