SAO Response: Jeff Bouman, Service-Learning Center Director

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SAO Response: Jeff Bouman, Service-Learning Center Director

Graphic by Yolanda Chow

Graphic by Yolanda Chow

Graphic by Yolanda Chow

Graphic by Yolanda Chow

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I wrote in a Facebook post on March 30 that I am “furious and heartbroken” over the recently announced decision to eliminate the Director of Student Activities position and reorganize the work of the Student Activities Office (SAO). As of this writing, there are 2,683 members of a Facebook group started five days ago named “SaveSAO#KeepKen,” with numerous threads with a range of deeply emotional laments, energetic ideas to raise money, and many, many claims to the effect that the work of Ken Heffner and the SAO have been “one of the most pure distillations of the theology of Calvin College,” and that SAO was “the most public metaphor for what we are trying to do at Calvin.”

On Tuesday, President Le Roy sent out an email to try to clarify and calm things down in the face of the many messages of outrage and surprise, promising a town hall meeting for questions and answers with Vice President Sarah Visser next week. I look forward to that. My current thoughts about the college are complicated by over 35 years of investment in it, and my research on students’ experiences with faith in 19th century college settings, and my understanding of what it takes to authentically embody our institutional mission and vision in community. President Le Roy makes a claim in his letter that has left me cold, suggesting that sometimes people have to “leave us for budgetary reasons,” and that “these people have become my friends.” I believe he should not have used the language of friendship, not because he isn’t a kind person who imagines a friendship with “these people,” but simply because his shift in tone is not believable in the light of the facts on the ground. I’m glad he is inspired and encouraged by incredible people like Ken Heffner (and the many others we will soon learn have also been downsized or let go for budgetary reasons). But I don’t think it is friendship that is in play.

What is not being talked about is the rationale that is being used to evaluate positions, and to make decisions. We are told to trust the (compassionate, capable) judgment of a leadership team. I respect many members of this team. But budget decisions should reflect the values of an entire institution. The message from the president correctly states that the college must spend within its means. This is true. The relevant question is whether the decisions that are arrived at by the leadership team will properly reflect the values, mission, vision and future needs of the institution. And the degree to which the stakeholders of the institution have been properly informed and consulted in the process and sometimes the aftermath. In decisions as weighty as this one — and there will be more coming — the leadership team should inform the larger community as clearly and quickly as possible what factors, data and values were in play in decision-making, and how decisions connect to the mission and vision of the college.

I am clearly not alone in my sadness and anger. One way to interpret the recent deluge of commentary is as a “love letter” to the college (believe it or not, these are Ken Heffner’s words to me). If you distill it into a single narrative, you begin to see that what SAO has done for many, many students (and staff, faculty and community members) over the past 26 years has been deeply appreciated. Students have felt heard, challenged, connected, supported and loved, and they have learned (and put into practice) unique skills in critical thinking, in embracing ambiguity, in engaging music, art, culture and society with intellect, emotion and faith. I will simply add one more emotion to my response to the current narrative, and that is gratitude. Thanks be to God for the work of this movement at Calvin College. To know that it is alive and growing in many places and through many people around the world is sufficient reward for many years of hard work. I am not confident that the work here can continue with an even smaller investment than it has been receiving from the general budget, but I cannot know, of course. I hope I am wrong, but I am sympathetic to the notion that what we are witnessing is the death of an era that has defined an institution, and it is my view that the legacy of this era should be named as such and remembered with honor and gratitude.

Jeff Bouman

Director, Service-Learning Center