Spring Arbor University was founded in 1873 by leaders of the Free Methodist Church. Called to minister to the poor, the early Free Methodists advocated freedom for slaves and free pews for all worshipers. In 1860, the year Abraham Lincoln was elected president of the United States, B. T. Roberts organized the Free Methodist denomination in New York and three years later Edward Payson Hart began evangelistic meetings in Michigan. Hart was the driving force behind the establishment of Spring Arbor Seminary, an academy for elementary and secondary grades. Located near the site of a former Potawatomi Indian village, the academy was built upon some old school property that once belonged to Michigan Central College (now Hillsdale College). Devoted to the promotion of earnest Christianity and sound, solid learning, Spring Arbor Seminary was open to all children, regardless of religious convictions or beliefs.
Development of the University
Spring Arbor Seminary’s enrollment grew to around 200 students in 1907, declined during World War I, but recovered after the Armistice. As one of its principals, H.A. Millican observed that the academy remained committed to its original aim to urge holiness of life and thorough Christian training, together with the highest type of mental culture. In 1923, as the school celebrated its 50th anniversary, the board of trustees voted to add a junior college to the academy. Some first- and second-year courses were offered over the next few terms, and in 1929 the school became Spring Arbor Seminary and Junior College. As the emphasis shifted toward higher education, primary and intermediate classes were discontinued in 1930.
In 1960, when the school achieved accreditation by the North Central Association of Colleges and Schools, the trustees changed the name of the institution to Spring Arbor College. Soon the high school program was dropped, as plans were developed to make Spring Arbor a four-year college. Under the leadership of President David McKenna, Spring Arbor College launched its four-year program in 1963, graduating its first senior class in 1965.
On the air
Prior to the inauguration of the four-year institution in 1963, the University’s 10-watt radio station (WSAE) went on the air. WSAE grew to broadcast to numerous communities with 3,900 watts of power and served the cities of Battle Creek, Kalamazoo, Lansing and Adrian through the use of broadcast translators. In 1998, WSAE began broadcasting on the Internet.
WSAE’s sister station, KTGG-AM, signed on the air in 1985. Besides providing great Christian music and programs for the University and community, both stations served as a training ground for Spring Arbor University students, who consistently place well in state and national broadcast competitions. A television studio was added in the early 1980s, when Spring Arbor opened a communication major.
In May 2005, SAU launched 89.3 the Vibe (WJKN-fm), which went on the air in May as a Christian rock/CHR format. The format switched to a Christian Adult Contemporary Music and teaching format in August 2008 when the VIBE was changed to The Message.
In September 2005, Spring Arbor University launched HOME.fm, a hybrid radio station with a blend of mainstream and Christian AC “Music that Makes You Feel Good.” As a place where families can connect and enjoy the same music and programming without worrying about inappropriate language or subject material, HOME.fm helps SAU Radio reach a new audience with its positive message. Broadcasting across Michigan through multiple translators and to a worldwide audience online, HOME.fm has the potential to establish a large listener base with its unique sound.
On the cutting edge
The College continued its expansion, adding locations and degrees over the subsequent years. In the early 1980s, the College began offering the first of its degree completion programs for adult learners in nearby Jackson. The initial class of students to earn a degree in management of human resources graduated in 1983. New programs and new locations soon followed as the College developed degrees in health-related fields and opened sites in Lansing and Flint. Over the past decade, Spring Arbor has become a leader in the design of degree completion programs and the University has a network of 20 affiliate colleges that have adopted or adapted the Spring Arbor curriculum.
At present, SAU operates 12 learning sites throughout Michigan. At these locations, students can choose from seven accelerated bachelor’s degree programs, which include business, Christian ministry leadership, education and teacher certification, family life education, organizational management, nursing, and social work programs. Students can also pursue their associate degree by choosing either associate of arts or associate of science in business.
During the late 1980s, Spring Arbor developed its Cross Cultural Studies program and the University has gained recognition for its efforts to offer courses in international settings. Each year, students and faculty from the central campus travel to such places as Africa, Asia, Central America, the Caribbean, Europe and the Middle East. Along with the international programs, Spring Arbor University encourages students to undertake course work in urban settings within the United States.
The master arrives
Graduate education began at Spring Arbor in 1994 with the inauguration of the Master of Arts in Management degree, which is now the Master of Business Administration. Soon afterward, the University began to offer its Master of Arts in Education. Spring Arbor is one of the few schools among Christian universities with accreditation from the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education at both the undergraduate and graduate levels. In 1999, the Master of Arts in Organizational Management was introduced. The Master of Arts in Counseling began in the fall of 2001.
MAC, MAE and MAOM degrees are offered through some of the University’s regional sites. At present, over 1,000 students are enrolled in Spring Arbor’s graduate degree programs with an additional 100 students attending graduate courses for professional development. The Master of Arts in Family Studies began in Fall 2002 and the University’s first entirely-online graduate program, the Master of Arts in Communication, began the following year. Master’s degree options include business administration, communication, counseling, education, family studies, nursing and spiritual formation and leadership.
A college graduated
On April 30, 2001, Spring Arbor College became Spring Arbor University. In part, recognizing the wide-ranging growth of its degree offerings, its locations and its structure, the change in name also acknowledges new aspirations and an ambitious vision for the future. The move clarifies the school’s status internationally, positions the institution to better reach a growing constituency, pushes the entire collegiate community to guard our spiritual heritage and challenges the organization to excel academically and administratively.
Expanding the campus
Since July 2000, SAU has added 174,000-square-feet and renovated 69,000-square-feet. The total price tag for these projects is nearly $40 million. Among the new buildings are seven village housing units and a new women’s residence hall, Gainey Hall; the Hugh A. and Edna C. White Library, a state-of-the-art, 40,000-square-foot building; the 80-foot-high McKenna Carillon Tower and surrounding University Plaza; Dunckel Gymnasium, a 30,000-square-foot auxiliary gym; and Ganton Art Gallery, the state’s largest single-room gallery.
In November 2006, Spring Arbor University broke ground on the $8.5 million Poling Center for Global Learning and Leadership, a 38,000-square-foot facility that houses the Gainey School of Business and Management, the Hosmer Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation, and the department of social sciences. SAU dedicated the Poling Center on Feb. 2, 2008, making it the first academic building constructed on campus since 1970 when the Whiteman Gibbs Science Center was completed. In Fall 2010, Spring Arbor University opened another residence hall, Andrews Hall, which is similar in construction to Gainey Hall and houses male students. The University broke ground on the new residence hall on November 6, 2009.
Entering the 21st century
Maturing from college to university status in 2001, SAU has set enrollment records and balanced its $49 million operating budget every year. Both traditional undergraduate enrollment (1,570) and total enrollment (4,002) have increased over 40 percent. In addition, the University has secured $33 million in deferred gifts since 2000 and recently surpassed the Concept of Promise fundraising campaign goal, raising 107 percent of the $43.5 million goal three months ahead of schedule.
On June 1, 2009, President Charles Webb announced that Spring Arbor University is the recipient of Michindoh Conference Center, a legacy gift from the Orville D. and Ruth A. Merillat Foundation. This is the largest legacy gift Spring Arbor University has received. Located three miles outside of Hillsdale, Mich., and 35 miles from Spring Arbor University’s main campus, Michindoh has conducted ministry, educational and family programming through conference services for nearly 100 years. Sitting on 250-acres, of rolling hills, wetlands, streams and a private spring-fed lake, Michindoh Conference Center has become the ideal destination for developing youth retreat/camp opportunities that produce dynamic life-changing ministries.
Current and past SAU presidents
Clark Jones (1873-1875)
Clark Jones, W.C. Calland, Walter Sellew (1875-1876)
Walter Sellew (1876-1877)
Clark Jones (1877-1883)
Albert H. Stillwell (1883-1893)
David S. Warner (1893-1905)
Burton J. Vincent (1905-1909)
Harold R. Millican (1909-1912)
Henry S. Stewart (1912-1917)
Paul R. Helsel (1917-1919)
Verne L. Damon (1919-1920)
Henry S. Stewart (1920-1924)
William V. Miller (1924-1926)
Merlin G. Smith (1926-1934)
Clarence L. Nystrom (1934-1935)
LeRoy M. Lowell (1935-1944)
James F. Gregory (1944-1950)
Charlie D. Moon (1950-1955)
LeRoy M. Lowell (1955-1957)
Roderick J. Smith (1957-1961)
David L. McKenna (1961-1968)
Ellwood A. Voller (1968-1979)
Kenneth H. Coffman (1979-1987)
Dorsey W. Brause (1987-1991)
M. Allen Carden (1991-1997)
James L. Chapman (1997-2000)
Gayle D. Beebe (2000-2007)
Gerald E. Bates (2007-2008)
Charles H. Webb (2008-2013)
Brent Ellis (2013-Present)