Calvin cuts SAO, students uneasy


Joshua Polanski

Before getting cut, one of SAO’s poster slogans read “Changing the conversation about pop culture.”

This article has been updated since its original posting regarding SAO’s role on campus and the college’s response. First, Williamson’s comment about SAO paying back its costs has been clarified. Williamson was not only referring to finances but also more generally to the value SAO has for the Calvin community. Second, the article has been clarified to indicate that college’s administration did not respond to requests for comment prior to the story’s publication (a previous version simply stated that the college was unable to comment at this time).
Third, the headline has been changed from “Calvin cuts SAO and Ken Heffner from budget, students uneasy” to its current form to ensure accuracy. The reorganization of this office is not definite. Chimes regrets this error.
Finally, a previous version of the article contained unconfirmed assertions made by an unnamed source about leadership at the college. Those quotations have been removed. Chimes regrets this error.

The Student Activities Office (SAO) and its director Ken Heffner, will be cut next year in light of Calvin’s decreasing enrollment.

“The Student Activities Office as we know it will no longer be in existence,” said SAO director Ken Heffner, whose position will consequently be dissolved in the coming school year. SAO has been a part of Calvin for over 25 years and is known for bringing concerts and movies to campus. In recent years, SAO has hosted music artists such as Explosions in the Sky, Oh Wonder and fun. SAO also shows popular movies on campus, with recent examples including Green Book, Coco and BlackKklansman.

Some of the responsibilities of the Student Activities Office (SAO) will be absorbed by the Campus Involvement and Leadership Office, but things won’t look the same. Because the films and concerts cost money to put on, and that budget is being cut, those activities will likely only happen several times throughout the school year; they will not have the degree of discernment and engaging that has been integral to these activities in the past.

“[Pop culture] is one of the square inches” that Christ has claimed and renewed, Heffner said, referencing theologian Abraham Kuyper. Heffner believes that one of the most beautiful things about Calvin is that “here, we don’t have that tension between loving these things and loving Christ.”

John Williamson, who currently works in the Center for Student Success, previously worked in SAO for three years. He also attended many SAO concerts as a student. Williamson is passionate about the community SAO created, and he spoke of it as being one of the most important things tethering Calvin College to its theology of engaging God’s world.

“The SAO is one of the most pure distillations of the theology of Calvin College…. There’s no case that can be made that the SAO doesn’t pay for itself,” Williamson said.

According to Williamson, some years SAO’s revenue has made back its $50,000 budget, and has even earned a surplus of $10,000. “Ken’s job has paid for itself and more [in his contributions to the community],” he said.

I could’ve gone to Grand Valley

— Nathan Meyer

Heffner added, with great emotion, “I had hoped for the longest time that when I left, they’d replace me with a younger person who’s got some great ideas as well, but that’s not going to happen. It’s one thing to leave and know it’s going to someone else. It’s another thing to leave and know that it’s basically done. So it’s another kind of leaving, and it’s harder.”  

Students are finding that the loss of SAO is antithetical to Calvin’s mission. Sophia Medawar, a senior theatre and religion major, believes that this “violates a very core aspect of what Calvin claims to provide for its students as being [Christ’s agents of renewal in the world] and that includes the cultural world… [SAO] allows people to have intellectual conversations about [pop culture], and getting rid of that is getting rid of an essential thing that Calvin claims to provide for its students.”

Junior film major Ben Brushaber posted on Twitter, “I’m jealous of Calvin’s seniors this year because they’ll never not know a Calvin without Heffner.”

First-year student Ben Fabrizius, who attends SAO student board meetings, said he walked into a meeting late once to witness Heffner “blaring opera music with his eyes closed.” Fabrizius spoke highly of Heffner’s knowledge of and passion for the arts and music.

“I don’t know why we’re getting rid of [SAO],” he said.

As a branch of the SAO, the Cultural Discerner (CD) program will no longer look the way it does now. The CD is a student leadership position in every dorm which promotes discernment of popular culture among dorm communities.

“The CD department isn’t just a leadership opportunity for sophomores in their dorms,” said Heffner. He described it as a “pipeline” for going into other positions with a perspective of discernment.

Sophomore Abby Leon, a Cultural Discerner, believes that this cut to the CD program will likely result in even lower involvement. She and the rest of the Cultural Discerners were shocked into silence when Heffner broke the news to them.

Williamson spoke of the work that the SAO does to connect to the community.

“This is severing one of the arms that reaches into the community [that] says, ‘I know you think we’re a little conservative, but we’re doing some really interesting stuff here, and it’s a safe space,’” Williamson said.

Senior Nathan Meyer said, “I’m really distressed by this, and a tendency I hear from colleges about where they cut things, and where Calvin cuts things, is that art doesn’t look good in numbers. So it’s easy to cut, and that’s what’s happening here.”

Williamson said, “It’s frustrating and confusing that the people calling the shots at Calvin don’t even seem to know [its value]. My perspective was that the SAO had powerful allies and people that kind of got it. … I can’t see a single case against the work that [Ken] is doing or any case that could be made against SAO and its value, and this contradiction is against everything Calvin has been trying to teach me. It’s like there’s two different colleges. This is an incredibly short-sighted, foolish, embarrassing decision, and whatever, mix it up and add an even more provocative word to that and attribute it to me, too. I’m [willing] to risk my job to say this.”

Multiple students find it ironic that Calvin is defunding the SAO due to the lack of enrollment, considering that the SAO plays an important role in bringing students to Calvin.

“I could’ve gone to Grand Valley,” said Meyer, “but I came here because I appreciated what I’d heard about the atmosphere on the ground level and the activities to do on campus.”

Medawar is involved in planning activities for commuter students to get involved on campus. She says the SAO activities are a large part of their programming and the community of these events helps off-campus students to feel involved and connected at Calvin.

Heffner also has a separate contract with Calvin regarding his involvement with the Artists Collaborative program, so he will still be teaching the Developing a Christian Mind (DCM) course for students in the program, as well as travelling with them to Northern Ireland next interim, as he did this year.

Williamson raised the question, “Is the college willing to admit that they made a mistake letting the SAO and Ken Heffner go? … Maybe it’s a fantasy in my head that there will be a petition with a thousand signatures, or a protest, or a funeral to mourn the loss of the SAO.”

Leon, the Cultural Discerner, has heard rumors of students starting a petition in protest of the decision to cut the SAO.

“If Calvin doesn’t listen to that, it says a lot,” Leon said.

College’s administration did not respond to requests for comment prior to the story’s publication.