Can you tell us a little bit about the history of thought behind Calvin’s change to Calvin University?
Some people seem to know this, and then a lot of others are really surprised to hear that this conversation started within the Christian Reformed Church back in the 1960s. There were both members of the academic community who had roots in the Reformed Christian faith and those in the denomination who believed that the church really needed a university, that it needed a bold and broad vision for intellectual engagement with culture, society, the challenging issues of the day, and the big scientific questions.
Then, the composition of our student body, the composition of our faculty, the distribution of the programs that we offer has, I’d say over the last 50 years, really moved in the direction of what in higher education would be called a comprehensive university.
And finally, the addition of master’s programs—beginning with education but more recently adding speech pathology and audiology and the master’s of accountancy and future plans for the expansion of graduate education—seemed to be pushing in the direction of a university.
Why do you feel like the time is right now if it’s been talked about over the last 50 years?
Looking back, the time’s probably been right for Calvin to do this over the last 25 years. This moment, though, is important for us for a variety of reasons. One, as we look to the future and we consider the populations of students that we serve, we already know that that’s expanding. And technology is enabling the institution to have a reach with its educational programs that would have been difficult in times past. We’re excited about those possibilities.
The other thing that we heard during the visioning process over the last two years is, “I so value what Calvin has to offer educationally. I just can’t make it work with my full-time job, so I would love it if you could do something that could meet me where I am. I would love to get a Calvin master’s degree in accountancy, but I live in California. How can you make that possible for me? I’d love to have a faith perspective on the field that I would like to enter into. How are you making that possible?”
Technology makes that possible. The globalization of higher education makes this more likely. And, as it relates to the international population that we serve now, what we also know is that in most countries around the world “university” is clearly post-secondary school, higher education. In those countries, “college” usually refers to high school or middle school. So the populations globally are a little confused by that designation. “University” is very clarifying for them.
Since Calvin already has basically been a university—or has had university features—over the last several years, will it be different going forward?
That’s a great question. I think for the traditional undergraduate student, most of their experience will be the same. When I say most, I’m leaving a little wiggle room for what I can’t imagine yet over the next decade. But traditional undergrads will still participate in a residential, undergraduate program with full-time PhD faculty teaching them, small class sizes where faculty can mentor and spend time with students, and a community built around a strong Christ-centered mission that’s very invested in the spiritual-formation process that students are undergoing in these critical years of their development.
The mission of the institution does not change: to equip students to think deeply, to act justly, and to live wholeheartedly as Christ’s agents of renewal in the world. That won’t change for the traditional undergraduate.
What will change is who we think of as our students. This will expand to include graduate students. It’s already expanded to include students who are in the Handlon Correctional Facility down the road. So it will expand to include new degree programs. We’ll have on-ground programs, but we’ll also have online programs.
That’s probably going to be the biggest change for us. And those who are interested in that form of education will be learning something new about Calvin. But for those of us who work in the faculty and administration, it’s going to involve some significant change to think about: “OK, how do we make it easy for someone to get advising when they’re half a world away? How will we make library resources available to students who are learning at a distance? How will we serve students with their personal and developmental needs when they’re not here with us?”
Overall, in becoming a university, where people will notice a difference is that Calvin is going to be trying a lot of new things. Becoming a university grants us permission to think expansively about what might be possible over the next decade in learning. So it’s the same mission but applied in new ways and seeking to reach new populations.
Calvin has a new vision plan that will provide direction for the next decade. Obviously, becoming Calvin University is a big part of that. Can you highlight a few key points from Vision 2030?
I would say that one of three core areas involves the development of our faculty and staff. In recent years, the people that we are hiring are deeply committed Christians that have never been given the opportunity to think about how their faith cuts across the discipline that they’re going to teach. They’re experts in the discipline and they’re committed Christians, so we need to provide more educationally to our faculty and staff so that when they begin here, they are ready to undertake a Christ-centered approach that is rooted in Reformed theological understanding.
The second thing, I think I’ve already addressed in terms of becoming a university: what that means about who we serve and how we adapt.
But the third element that I would emphasize is we are really challenged and excited about the opportunity to think about how we tell our story to new audiences, how we describe the mission. We’ve got a great mission statement; it’s succinct and it explains us well. But when I ask our alums, “What did you love about your Calvin education?” the most common answer is really amazing: “Calvin taught me how to think as a Christian about whatever I do, and other people notice that.” So that’s what they love.
Calvin was the guide, the wise adviser to these great alums and will be the wise adviser to the students who come here, to help them develop a way of thinking, a worldview that serves them for a lifetime. For us, it’s always been a nuanced and complex story to tell.
So I’m really excited to continue to tell this story of how the Calvin mission affects the lives of students who go on to make a meaningful difference in every field, every profession, every area of study. We’re going to experiment with new ways of that storytelling and new ways to get that word out. We’re excited by that challenge.
Speaking of challenges, what do you see as the biggest challenges facing higher education and Calvin specifically in the next decade? And what is Calvin doing to prepare itself to meet those challenges?
The biggest challenge is demography. And actually, we’re seeing this now. This is the first time since World War II where the traditional undergraduate population in the United States is getting smaller. And it’s getting smaller in some regions of the country, including the Midwest and Northeast, more so than others. In 2012, there were 120,000 high school graduates in Michigan, and in 2017, there were 100,000. In 2022, 80,000 are projected. So just in Michigan, which is a state that is hit a little bit harder by this than some others, there’s a 33 percent decline in that 10-year period in the traditional college-bound population. We’ve got to adapt to this new reality really quickly.
That means that either we just get a lot smaller, or we reach outside of the region and reach outside of the country, where education is growing. And the fastest growing segment of the educational sector is the population of students who are post undergrad, usually working full time and trying to complete a degree part time.
This is part of our approach to adaptation in seeking to serve students. What we hope is that in 2030 we do have 4,200 students, but what we expect is we might have 3,200 traditional undergrads and 1,000 graduate students. Now,
of course, none of us knows for sure, but as we look over the next decade and over the horizon, we think that that’s a fairly likely proposition.
One of the things that makes me really encouraged about our ability to meet that challenge is how highly regarded Calvin is in the wider Christian higher education network and in the wider higher education network. Just one sign of the high regard for the quality that we deliver in our educational programming is the acceptance rate of our undergrads who go on to grad school.
You don’t get accepted at the rates that our students do if other institutions don’t have confidence in the students that we graduate. So that continues to be a sign, and an encouragement for us, that Calvin is a highly regarded institution.
What are some of Calvin’s new initiatives that are attractive to students?
One of our goals from the prior strategic plan was to continue to work to make Calvin affordable and to make sure we’re fundraising to provide other financial aid opportunities for our students. And we’ve had success with that. For our students, the average amount of indebtedness has dropped from $32,000 to $29,000 over the last five years. That’s one example of what we’re doing to try to make this education obtainable and affordable. We also recognize that when students and their parents are paying for an education, they expect quality, and they also want to know that there’s a pathway to meaningful work.
“One of our aspirations is that we would develop the capability to be a resource long-term for Calvin alums...”
What we developed to respond to this is the Calvin LifeWork Program, a voluntary program for all majors. It offers a series of developmental experiences from the day that students arrive on campus so that they’ve done some faithful reflection from a Christian point of view about what their calling is, that they’re called, not just into work, but they’re called to be good parents; they’re called to be faithful spouses; they’re called to be servants of their communities and schools.
We also want them to develop the practical skills associated with being ready for work. It’s employment readiness that we’re working towards, but we’re doing it every year so this isn’t a mad rush that students engage in the last month before they graduate.
A third thing that we knew was really important for our community is we wanted our students to have a good grasp of personal financial management. And a fourth area is navigating workplace culture. This program is really about building a bridge from whatever a student decides to study to life and work after college so that we can say with confidence that we’ve done everything we can to help them be ready.
Another initiative related to Calvin LifeWork is the development and deepening of our employer relationships. Thanks to the generosity of a donor, we’ve launched an employer relations program, and we’re going to be working to deepen our partnerships with companies and organizations in the region, but also nationwide, that hire our students.
What can alumni do to help Calvin succeed in the next decade and beyond?
For those who are working in a company or a nonprofit organization, be mindful of how to make connections with our career center. For instance, this past summer, we had many students in internships all over the country, and they didn’t know anyone in the community that they were going into. Helping these students connect with some alums and build some relationships, either in the workplace or in the community, that’s really beneficial.
One of the other things that we anticipate is once we develop this program, we believe there will be components of it that will be great resources for our alums, too, especially those who are making a transition from one job to another, or changing careers, or who might need some career advice. We want Calvin to be there for our alums throughout their lifespan. One of our aspirations is that we would develop the capability to be a resource long-term for Calvin alums who are out there working and thinking about making a significant change in what they do.
What have you personally found most challenging in your seven years as president?
For me it has been the dynamics and forces that are really pressuring higher education to change rapidly. And it’s a real leadership challenge for me to remain current, fresh, energized and to move quickly, to live within our means, to think about the future, and to figure out how we invest in the future in smart ways. Those are all part of this dynamic of change in higher education.
What have you found the most rewarding?
The faculty, staff, and students: I would just say each for different reasons. Whenever I get chances to hear faculty speak, when I have time to read their writing, when I hear about how they think and how advanced they are in bringing a Christian worldview to bear on their subject matter, it is so inspiring to me. I’m so excited by what faculty can do and what they have to offer the world.
I think one of the hidden secrets about our staff is they are so committed to the mission, but they’re such can-do people. They have ideas, and they want to be helpful, and they want to think in new ways about how we solve problems. And I feel like we have a group of staff right now that are very encouraging in terms of their willingness to adapt and their willingness to engage and rise up to meet the challenges of the day.
If I were to say one thing about our students, it’s that they’re passionate. They really care. It can be challenging to manage a student environment where everybody’s passionate in a lot of different directions, but it’s so much better to have a passionate group of students that disagree with each other than to have a group of students that don’t care. They’re passionate about their faith; they’re passionate about what they study; they’re passionate about making a difference in the world. It’s tremendously encouraging.
“...I hope it will be said that this was a turning point where Calvin really began to spread its wings and reach new populations... .”
In 25 to 30 years, what do you hope people say about this time in Calvin’s history?
It’s amazing to see how the same mission endures in different forms over time at Calvin. What I hope is still true is that we’re equipping students to think deeply and act justly and live wholeheartedly as Christ’s agents of renewal in the world. I hope that every part of that whole sentence is still true.
Then I hope it will be said that this was a turning point where Calvin really began to spread its wings and reach new populations—populations around the world, different age groups. And that it really became an education of heart and hands, with new programs, new approaches.
The third thing is that I hope that we’ll be able to tell our story in such a compelling way that it just continues to invite more people into this way of living out our faith and this way of learning for a lifetime. I do think it’s a gift. I think it also provides very important tools for living in and understanding this world that is getting ever more complicated and challenging.
What is the one thing you really want people to know?
I want them to be reassured that the Calvin they believe in is going to endure along with the mission they believe in. But I also want them to see that we’re not going to be complacent; we’re not standing still; we’re dynamic; and we’re going to move forward.