Firmly rooted within the Calvinist tradition and Reformed heritage of Calvin University and globally connected, coming from one of the most populous and diverse cities in the world, Wiebe Boer ’97 believes he is uniquely positioned to lead Calvin University as its 12th president.
Boer’s experience working across the private and social sectors in four countries over the past two decades has provided him with a distinctive perspective—one that Calvin’s board of trustees trusts will help guide the nearly 150-year-old institution into innovative territory.
Boer most recently served as CEO of Shell–All On, a renewable energy investment company in Lagos, Nigeria. He has spent his career promoting economic development in Africa.
The son of Christian Reformed missionary parents, Boer was born and raised in Jos, Nigeria. He graduated from Calvin in 1997, with a history degree, and earned a PhD and two master’s degrees from Yale University, also in history. He has spent the last 12 years in Lagos.
His wife, Joanna Bachew ’03, has a master’s in human resource management from the University of London and most recently served as the CEO of Empire Jane, a Nigerian soft home furnishings company. The couple has four sons.
Following Boer’s appointment, Spark spoke with the new president about his past experience, his connection to the university, his leadership style, and his hopes for the future of Calvin University. Some of the following responses were also taken from an interview with Calvin faculty and staff.
How do you think the skill set you’ve developed over the last several years has prepared you for this next chapter in Calvin’s history?
I haven’t had the academic administration experience, but I am aware that there are a lot of changes happening in American higher education. I see all of these dynamics that are altering the landscape, many of them are demographic; there are forces that are beyond any of our control. There is a need for someone who is able to look from the outside in, learn a new sector, and then think of ways to innovate. Several times in my career I’ve moved to completely new sectors, and basically built them in whatever country or business to which I was called. I think that experience, as well as an innovative approach to problem solving and resilience developed from running companies in Nigeria, has prepared me for this role.
I also believe we need to discern what the future of Calvin and higher education can be, and then we need someone who can drive that movement and be an evangelist for that movement. This is something I’ve done with impact investing, with African philanthropy, with renewable energy in Nigeria. And, I really look forward to doing it now with Calvin University.
What was it like for you as a student at Calvin, and how does this shape how you want to interact with students now?
When I came to Calvin, it was really the first time in my life that I was in a community where everybody looked like me. We think that’s what third-culture kids, or missionary kids, yearn for, right? But I’m on the other side. I didn’t want anybody to mistake me for not being from Africa, from Nigeria, so it was actually a pretty difficult transition at first. I got very involved: I was on the cross country team, the track team, Student Senate. I pursued a history major, and it was in the classroom where the issues of faith and learning, the significance of faith for any subject, any topic, was just something that delighted me.
I was in Grand Rapids reasonably often as a child, but it’s very different when you are actually moving here. What it made me realize, when I’m coming back now, is that we need to ensure that the campus is a place where everybody feels welcome, and where diversity is appreciated. I think there is some work that needs to be done in that direction. But I’m looking forward to making that happen and to building a global campus where everyone feels welcome from the minute they express an interest in Calvin.
Would you have been surprised as a student if someone had told you that in 25 years you would be Calvin’s president?
Yes and no. As a student, the college president is not really at your level. I imagine I would have thought there’s no way that is possible. I don’t fit in enough here, and that’s not really my personality. But on the flip side, my childhood ambition was to be the UN Secretary General.
How do you think Calvin’s liberal arts education prepared you for life?
It’s one of the things I talked to students about in Nigeria because the Nigerian system is modeled after the British system, in which you are assigned what you are going to study. You arrive believing you want to study law or medicine and you are assigned zoology, and then you have to spend four years studying something you have no interest in, and you aren’t allowed to study anything else.
So, particularly in that context, the liberal arts education is amazing. When you arrive on day one, you don’t have to know what you want to study. Even many of the students who come in thinking they know exactly what they’re going to study, by the end of the first semester have been exposed to so many other things, they’ve completely pivoted.
For me, as a historian, I still studied science, and math, and economics, so that by the time I graduated, I had a much broader base. And even for engineers or nurses or other professionals, graduating with that grounding expands who you are and what you know; it makes your life more rich.
How has your faith impacted your life? And, particularly, how does it impact you now in this season of transition?
I grew up on the mission field; my dad was a pastor. He was a Calvinist theologian. He’s a Kuyperian to the core. For those of us who are CRC missionary kids, who were raised in that Reformed tradition, we understood that whether your father or mother was a pastor or a missionary, or an engineer, or they’re in the government, or whatever, it’s all valid as part of the renewal of the world. And it really empowered me to know that my father is a pastor, but I am not called to be a pastor. I have been able to work at the highest levels in many great organizations around the world as an agent of renewal.
I’ve always considered, “Will this job, or this opportunity, provide a way to create impact?” What’s exciting is that this is an opportunity to directly influence, in a very positive way, the lives of thousands of young people going through the most important formative period of their life and at the same time position Calvin as a global institution, which has influence far beyond the students on campus.
What did you do in your previous role before joining Calvin?
The role I had at Shell was to establish a company that invests in renewable energy companies in Nigeria. Considering that Nigeria’s close to the equator, with almost endless sunlight, you would think that solar and renewable energy would be quite popular and prevalent. Strangely, it’s not. Nigeria has the largest energy access gap in the world. There are 100 million people who are not on the electricity grid, which is one-third of the population of the United States. The remaining one hundred million are basically sharing 4,000 megawatts, which is probably the amount of power that half of Grand Rapids uses.
What has happened is Nigerians are now the world’s largest users of diesel generators, so they’re burning immense amounts of carbon to power the nation, generator by generator. Our mission was basically to invest in companies that will bring renewable energy products to the market, particularly to low-income communities and small businesses. Without power, education is poor, health care is poor, economic activity is limited, even security is poor. Once electricity is available, it changes everything. Every investment we made was usually fulfilling or empowering the dream of a young Nigerian entrepreneur. It was incredibly impactful and inspiring.
You’ve pivoted in your career a few times in the last 20 years. What have you learned from that?
While I have pivoted between sectors, the commonality has always been about seeking opportunities to create impact and innovation. Whether that was in economic development or philanthropy or renewable energy, I’ve had the same approach throughout.
I’ve learned there is a cycle, and you need different leaders for different parts of the cycle. There are times when you need people to start something; there are other times when you need people to turn things upside down and around. Every institution is at a different point and needs a different skill set at a different time.
For Calvin, we’re at this moment where American higher education is transitioning and being disrupted. We need to not only keep up with the impact of that, but get ahead of it. We almost have to reposition Calvin as a 150-year-old startup, and to me that is exciting.
What are your hopes as you make this transition?
My desire is to connect well with everybody here. The last time I came to campus as a new student, there was an adjustment; there’s going to be an adjustment now. We lived in a city with 25 million people. That is two and a half times the population of all of Michigan. So, moving to a smaller town, and moving into this new environment, is a big cultural adjustment, but my family is looking forward to that. I’d like to ask everyone in this community, “Let’s be part of this journey together.” I think we’ll learn a bit from you, and you’ll learn a bit from us.