A last word on what Calvin was, is and needs to be

My final year at Chimes was one of controversy. Between budget cuts, pandemic fatigue and doctrinal disputes, it felt that our newsroom was often in the middle of a fight much larger than ourselves. And that fight centers on one question:

What is Calvin University?

The recent name change is a symbolic break. We can’t be Calvin College anymore, for reasons good and bad. 

Demographic changes mean it’s not enough to rely on CRC ministry shares and Christian K-12 students. Our faith’s demand to create an inclusive and diverse environment means it is a grievous sin to cling to the Dutch tribalism that has, until quite recently, characterized this school. Our old admissions strategies, marketing tactics and the mindset that ‘Grand Rapids is Jerusalem’ are out of touch with our current reality.

Although we should not hold onto all that was Calvin College, we cannot break with what was most important about it: that it is a Reformed liberal arts institution.

These two descriptors make great promotional buzzwords, but recent decisions don’t honor the weight that these adjectives deseve. To honor them, you have to have tangible, money-where-your-mouth-is commitments to them. 

As the powers that be decide how to make these commitments, they should keep these points in mind.

First, the goal of a university is to educate its students. When the university cuts budgets, the budgets that should be cut first are those either unrelated or tangentially related to the goal of educating students. In short, faculty lines should be the last things cut. If we need to scale faculty to the student body, then we should also scale staff. 

In my most recent article on possible faculty cuts, the accompanying graph was striking to me. Although the faculty population has declined steadily over the last decade, the number of staff hovered around 530 personnel until this past fall, when COVID-19 restraints necessitated that everything had to be cut. This is not to say that staff members don’t do good work, or that they don’t care about the university, but that when making difficult decisions about resources, Calvin needs to prioritize costs most important to its mission.

Second, undercutting Calvin’s mission means undercutting support of faculty, staff and community members. The community is willing to sacrifice a lot to keep this place afloat, because its members believe in the mission of the school. 

I worry that the administration, in its efforts to keep Calvin’s budget balanced, is cutting the legs out from underneath its identity. By diminishing the humanities and possibly getting rid of the Christian school benefit for professors, the university is losing sight of what it means to be both liberal arts and Reformed.

But as easy as it would be to shake my fist at those calling the shots, I have to acknowledge two caveats:

The challenges Calvin faces lack simple answers; there are fewer students, and of those students, even fewer are looking to study in non-professional departments. The pandemic has only multiplied these issues.

Additionally, those in the administration tasked with solving these problems are good people, smart people who care deeply about the university and its mission. They have looked at these issues from every angle and concluded that there are no easy answers. 

Both Calvin College and Calvin University have been good places for me to learn and grow. As this school navigates leaving the former and becoming the latter, it needs to maintain its commitments to being both liberal arts and Reformed.