Bill Furr receives prestigious E. J. Shaheen Faculty award during 48th annual Glen Oaks commencement

Working as a business professor at a community college was probably not on Bill Furr’s radar early on in his career. In fact, his introduction to Glen Oaks was quite coincidental and came through a personal business venture.

Furr was selected as the recipient of the 2016-17 E. J. Shaheen Teaching Excellence Award. The announcement of the award was made by Glen Oaks President David Devier during the 48th Glen Oaks graduation ceremony on May 6.

A Detroit native who spent most of his childhood in California, Furr moved back to Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, during his high school years. Shortly after he started classes at Oakland Community College, and with a draft number of 42, he reported to Fort Knox, Kentucky, for basic training in 1970, followed by nine weeks of infantry training in Fort Polk, Louisiana, and two weeks of Leadership School. He married Susan Beckett before being deployed to Viet Nam.

“A Labrador retriever, serving as our tracker dog, saved our unit,” said Furr. “It was in the dark of the jungle, and I was leading a ground unit. Unknown to us, we were heading right into an enemy’s tunnel complex when the dog alerted us to the situation, thus changing our course.”

Furr served in the 101st Airborne Division near the demilitarized zone as a part of a helicopter rescue and recovery team for eight months before returning home from service in 1972. “The timing was right so that I never had to spend a Christmas holiday away from home,” said Furr of his time in service.

Upon his return, Furr re-enrolled at Oakland Community College where he received an Associate of Business Administration degree while working full-time as a stocker at the former A&P grocery store.

He accepted a position as president’s assistant at Walsh College, in Troy, Michigan. This was his introduction to employment in higher education. During his ten years there, he held a number of positions and took advantage of educational assistance. He graduated with a Bachelor’s in Business Administration in 1977 and attended Central Michigan University’s regional campus in Troy, Michigan, where he received his Master’s in Management in 1982. He was serving as director of admissions, records, and financial aid when he left Walsh in 1984.
 

From College Campus to the Auto Industry

By 1984 the Furr’s had three children when Bill took a position as director of admissions and records for Grand Valley State University in Grand Rapids, Michigan. He worked there until late 1985 when he received a call from a former dean from Walsh College who told him about an opportunity at General Motors in Warren, Michigan.

“We were both hired to build an in-house training program from scratch to help the engineering staff complete their education,” said Furr. “The challenge was to find a way to make classes flexible enough for them to fit in their busy schedules. We first worked with Purdue University in Indiana to develop the first distance learning course that utilized videotapes allowing students to view graduate engineering courses at a time convenient for them. Then we developed a doctorate in engineering from the University of Michigan.”

“To this day, the program with the U of M was one of our most significant projects,” said Furr. “It was fun working for one of the largest corporations, some of the largest colleges in the world and a truly inspiring boss. We were pioneers—videotaping training sessions for use with degree programs.” Furr’s boss during this time was Bob Eaton, who later became the CEO for Chrysler.

During his eight years at GM, Furr and his co-worker had developed programs at 12 different GM locations worldwide, ranging from associate to doctorate degree programs.
 

The Glen Oaks Connection

In 1993, Furr and his GM co-worker, left the company to form Educational Enhancements, Inc., a company still in existence today. “Our mission was to work with colleges and businesses to develop distance learning opportunities that would benefit both. Our first client was Macomb Community College, who had already established a university center but wanted to offer degree programs from Michigan Tech in the Upper Peninsula.”

“It wasn’t long before were asked to speak at a gathering of the then 29 Michigan Community College presidents,” said Furr. “Former Glen Oaks President Phil Ward was at that meeting and was fascinated with our new business. He invited us to talk with the board about establishing a university center on the Glen Oaks’ campus.

Furr soon moved his family to Sturgis to dedicate time to Glen Oaks. His first commitment was to bring in $50,000 to the college through his business. “This was the beginning of distance learning at the college as well as the first for-profit university center in America in 1998, and it all started at Glen Oaks,” said Furr. “It exploded, as within a year we went from 4 to 30 courses.”

Soon after, the University Center became part of Glen Oaks, and after a year of administrating the college-run University Center, Furr left to continue educational consulting opportunities until he was offered a full-time teaching job at the college in 2003.

Furr still resides in Sturgis and has four grown children who all studied at Glen Oaks, three of them who have Glen Oaks degrees.
 

Fun Times at the College

Some of the most fun Furr had at the college was when he and Lester Keith, professor of business, teamed together to coordinate activities for students. “We created ‘Fun Day,’ a day in late February, when students were tired of the dreary winter blahs,” said Furr. “We took over the concourse, and did things like create an obstacle course with an inflatable slide and offered cash prizes for those who could get through the fastest.” Furr also recalls planning egg toss competitions, cake walks and karaoke on the concourse along with starting the original holiday turkey bowling and the Turkey Trot at Thanksgiving. “It was mindless entertainment, but these were some of the most entertaining things that we put on, and it was fun to be a part of all of this,” said Furr.

“It was usually me who came up with some pretty unique ideas,” said Furr, “but in 2010, it was Lester, who saw a Jimmy Kimmel show, where Kimmel set a record for the World’s largest edible meatball. He came to me with an idea to break that record, and that is another whole story in itself,” said Furr. “But, yes, we did set a new Guinness World Book edible meatball record in 2010, and fed over 900 people with a 254 pound meatball at the event!”
 

Changes Through the Years

So how have students and teaching changed throughout the years? “Students are younger,” said Furr. “Today, 40 percent of our population are in high school, mostly due to dual enrollment. There are different dynamics in the classroom with the larger range of age….there’s a tolerance level for maturity, or lack of maturity,” said Furr.

“I’m an ‘old school’ instructor,” said Furr. “Technology has changed drastically and makes teaching better. “We first offered distance learning through videotapes, and now we link to sites, or we watch in real time.”

Furr’s favorite class to teach is Organizational Behavior. “It deals with ‘people stuff’ at work and in life. I have a required project where students write a paper based on a 30-stanza poem titled ‘Let it go,” said Furr. “The students present the paper to the class at the end of the semester. I videotape them ….the students often become very emotional, and past students have written/talked about stress, suicide, violence, drugs, relationships, etc. I’m always surprised at how in-depth these are. A lot is learned about attitude – that’s the one thing one can control.”

Favorite pastimes for Furr are family and golf (he plays on two golf leagues). “With four grown children, and particularly when they and our 11 grandkids and friends gather, it’s always been known as “Furr Family Fun.”

The E. J. Shaheen Chair for Teaching and Excellence Award was initiated in 1984 with a generous donation from E. J. Shaheen, one of the original Glen Oaks Board members. Shaheen, a college professor, lawyer and business owner, placed a high value on education and spent much of his later life promoting high quality education and educational institutions, including Glen Oaks.