Porter, who died June 27, served as Eastern Michigan University’s 17th president from 1979-89 and was known for establishing the College of Technology, record enrollment growth, strengthening and adding academic programs, building the Rec/IM facility and creating the College of Business in downtown Ypsilanti.
Porter was unanimously elected July 17, 1979 as EMU’s first African-American president in a special meeting of the Board of Regents; he replaced former EMU President James Brickley, who left the university to become Michigan’s lieutenant governor in January 1979.
The presidential candidate search lasted almost a year (the position was first posted Aug. 31, 1978) and cost the state of Michigan about $10,000 according to former Regent Richard Robb, as reported by The Eastern Echo in July 1979.
Porter initially withdrew his candidacy for the position Jan. 5, 1979 saying he could not be president of a university so divided, as there was contention over the selection process. Some faculty and students believed the regents had already preselected the next president and would effectively ignore faculty and student input on the potential candidates.
In response to the Board of Regents selecting the presidential search committee members, former Student Body President Judy Keenan told The Echo in August 1978, “Having the regents choose the [search committee] members totally destroys the purpose of having student impact in the screening process. Student members should be chosen by students.”
Porter, one of the initial 75 presidential applicants, later said he would re-enter as a candidate if the search process was acceptable to all those on campus, and ended up interviewing for the position May 30th and 31st.
“If you recall the developments, I … was not interested in being selected unless I could be evaluated by the faculty, staff and students,” Porter told The Echo in July 1979.
During Porter’s ten-year administration he reversed declining enrollment, with an increase of 28 percent from 1980 to 1987; gained university accreditation by the North Central Association of Colleges and Secondary Schools; was credited with revitalizing intercollegiate athletics, with the football team winning the Mid-American Conference Championship and the California Bowl in 1987; and created the university’s first doctorate program, which was in educational leadership.
Current EMU Board of Regents Chairman Roy Wilbanks, who worked closely with Porter during his time at EMU, said Porter was a great leader and supporter of urban education in Michigan.
“While his 10 years at Eastern might be considered a small part of his career, it was a very important time for Eastern. He led [a] decade of advancement, stabilizing enrollment following a downturn and bringing new respect and vitality to the university. His impact at Eastern lives with us today,” Wilbanks said in a press release by EMU’s Executive Director of Media Relations Geoff Larcom.
Porter was born Aug. 13, 1931 in Fort Wayne, Ind. where he graduated from Fort Wayne Central High School, as a member of the National Honor Society and an all-city athlete.
Porter received his undergraduate degree from Albion College, where he played varsity basketball and was selected the most valuable player in Albion’s conference. He went on to earn a master’s in counseling and guidance and a doctorate in higher education administration from Michigan State University.
In 1960, Porter was the director of Michigan’s guaranteed student loan program for college students, and in 1970 he proposed the Michigan Accountability for Elementary and Secondary Educational Improvements program.
Before coming to EMU, Porter served as state superintendent of public instruction for Michigan schools, which at the time made him the youngest chief state school officer in the U.S. and the first African-American to serve as a state’s head of schools.
During his career, U.S. Presidents Johnson, Nixon, Ford, Carter and Clinton all appointed Porter to commissions and councils addressing higher education, employment and mental health, according to the press release by Larcom.
In 1989, Porter left EMU to serve as the superintendent of Detroit Public Schools, before returning to the university two years later as the president and CEO of Urban Education Alliance Inc. from which he recently retired.
When Porter announced his retirement from EMU in February 1988 he told The Echo, “I had indicated all along that if I were successful in my first four years as president, I would leave the university within ten years. I believe we have been successful.”
Former Board of Regents Chairwoman Geneva Titsworth told The Echo in the same article, “Dr. Porter has taken EMU further than most would have dreamed or hoped possible. Unquestionably, he will leave EMU a far, far better place than he found it. We will be forever grateful.”
EMU President Susan Martin said, in a June 29 press release, Porter left behind a remarkable legacy at the university.
“He will always be remembered for his outstanding leadership, his innovations and for the stabilizing presence he brought to the institution,” Martin said.
EMU’s John W. Porter College of Education was named after him in tribute to his contributions to the university, and the annual John W. Porter Distinguished Chair in Urban Education speaker series was also created in his honor, which is the first endowed chair in EMU’s College of Education.
Porter, who was living in Ann Arbor, is survived by his sons Earl, John Jr., Levon, David and Steven; and daughters Valorie, Portia and Donna. He was preceded in death by his daughter Mary and wife Lois.
Visitation will be held July 6th and 7th at Liberty Road Chapel of the Nie Family Funeral Home, at 3767 W. Liberty Road in Ann Arbor, from 3 p.m. to 8 p.m. The funeral service will be held Monday, July 9, at 2 p.m. at the same location.
Donations in his name can be made to EMU’s John W. Porter Distinguished Chair in Urban Education, John W. Porter College of Education Scholarship, John and Lois Porter College of Health and Human Services Presidential Department Scholarship, John W. Porter Undergraduate Research Excellence Scholarship and John W. Porter – Wade McCree Scholarship; Washtenaw Community College’s John W. Porter Scholarship; and Albion and Olivet colleges Dr. John Porter Community Responsibility Scholarship.
Related material: John W. Porter photo gallery