GREENVILLE — Ron Snead came to Ferris State University for the first time more than four decades ago amid one of the most painful chapters of racial unrest in the school’s history.
He now is entering the final year of his eight-year term on the school’s Board of Trustees, serving the last two years as the board president.
Snead, who now lives west of Greenville, is Ferris’ second black board president. But blazing new trails for blacks is nothing new for him.
As a 24-year-old freshman in 1968, he was one of the 300 black students on campus out of the 7,000-student population. Snead, 68, was married and had two children at the time.
“My wife Dee and I were married right after high school and I went right to work,” he said. “I felt if I was going to go anywhere, I needed to go to college. Ferris had an open-door policy and when I got accepted, Dee and our boys moved in with my parents in Grand Rapids and I started school.”
Snead quickly got involved in campus life. He was a member of Ferris’ chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the group’s first student chapter.
Snead was president of the school’s NAACP chapter when race riots broke out on campus on May 20, 1968.
An Associated Press report from the time says 90 police officers broke up the riot, arresting about a dozen students. Fourteen people suffered minor injuries from fights and getting hit by thrown bottles, bricks and boards.
Several dorm windows got smashed, furniture in a dorm lounge was destroyed and 33 cars were damaged in the fracas. At least one Molotov cocktail was thrown.
Harold Husa, then Ferris’ president of student affairs, called Snead to ask for help in calming down the situation.
“He called and asked if I could come and calm things down,” Snead said of his conversation with Husa. “He said I was a role model, a leader and older than most of the students and that they looked up to me.”
Snead went into the maelstrom on campus but ended up being one of seven blacks arrested during the riot.
“(Husa) came to explain and my charges were dropped. But at that point, I was going to transfer somewhere else,” Snead said. “I was ready to go.”
However, Husa and others on campus convinced him to stay at Ferris. Snead partnered with Jerry Nielsen, a Greenville native and newly-elected student government president, on a campaign for racial harmony.
The campaign tagline was, “I’ve had it. Let’s start living and working together-now!”
Snead graduated in 1971 and began a career working at numerous firms before retiring in 2006.
He stayed involved with his alma mater during his working life by serving on the Ferris Foundation Board of Directors, the Jim Crow Museum Board and numerous search committees. He was named a 1995 Distinguished Alumnus Award recipient.
Gov. Jennifer Granholm appointed him to the Board of Trustees in 2005. His colleagues on the board elected him president in 2010.
As president, Snead’s duties include presiding over board meetings, appointing trustees to various board committees, representing the board at school functions and working with the university president on legislative matters.
Ferris President David Eisler said Snead remains a champion and advocate for diversity on campus.
“Everybody on the Board has a unique perspective, and adds to it by expressing their ideas,” Eisler said. “Ron is a strong advoacte for inclusion and pursuing the ideals of the university to provide opportunities to FSU students.”
Snead also is working to improve student retention and graduation rates.
“Ron really enjoys the students,” Eisler said. “He attends every commencement ceremony and you can see on his face that he has a special connection to those graduating. Ron attends many of the sporting events and you can often see him on campus, talking with the students.”
Snead has seen many changes at Ferris over the years, the most difficult being finances. He pointed out state funding has gone from about 70 percent of the budget to about 30 while tuition and fees have gone from 30 percent to 70 percent.
Snead is not sure whether he will receive another term on the Ferris board. The Governor’s Office makes the appointments subject to confirmation by the Michigan Senate.
“We will see when my term is up in 2012 if I am re-appointed by Gov. (Rick) Snyder,” Snead said. “At that point, Dee and I will talk about what is next.”
Correspondent Lori Hansen is a Greenville-area resident.