Throughout this semester, I have experienced confusion, frustration, anger, disappointment and sadness about the decisions and processes that have led to the University’s separation from the Center for Social Research, the treatment of Nicole Sweda and the apparent delay of Professor Joe Kuilema’s reappointment decision. In the midst of these difficult emotions, my concern has continued to grow as I read the comments given by administrators in news coverage of these events. What I found profoundly lacking from these remarks is any sense of lament or acknowledgement for the significant losses we have sustained in separating from CSR, in losing Nicole as an employee and what we stand to lose if Professor Kuilema is not reappointed.
I first met Nicole when she was a student at Calvin and I served as her advisor for her psychology major. Nicole was a bright and thoughtful student with a great sense of humor, and it was a joy to watch her grow into an exceptional researcher and supervisor at the Calvin Center for Social Research. She embodied Calvin’s mission to think deeply in the frequent thought-provoking questions she asked in class and in our advising appointments. She pursued justice in her role at CSR, especially in her mentorship of student workers who were first-generation college students and/or people from historically underrepresented groups. Students of mine who worked at CSR under Nicole’s leadership grew in their skills and confidence in astounding ways. I am grieving Nicole’s absence from the Calvin community and the potential we have lost in her leaving.
Dr. Kuilema and I started working at Calvin within a year of each other, so we went through faculty training together and continued to collaborate as colleagues who shared overlapping interests and students. Dr. Kuilema loves Calvin University and has a deep family legacy at this institution. He is a person of integrity and persistence. He is willing to be honest about the difficult history and, at times, current injustice present in our denomination and university. At personal cost, he is vocal about the ways his faith commitments inform his views on issues of justice and equity. He was encouraged and trained to do this by the institution itself, during his time as a student. As the recent testimonials shared by his many current and former students can attest, Dr. Kuilema is an excellent teacher. He pushes his students to see overlooked history, listen to historically marginalized voices and make connections with the Grand Rapids community to participate in God’s work of justice. Calvin benefits from faculty like Dr. Kuilema, who pushes us to be better, holds us accountable and is an example for students.
Beyond the grief I experience in response to Nicole’s leaving and the potential loss of Dr. Kuilema, I also lament the trajectory of Calvin’s handling of LGBTQ+ issues over my time as a faculty member. Instead of growing in our capacity for creating a community of belonging for LGBTQ+ students and staff, we have been stagnant and in some cases, moving backwards. Fewer speakers with a variety of viewpoints on sexual orientation and gender have been invited to campus (even pre-COVID), individuals organizing events related to LGBTQ+ topics are encouraged not to publicize them too widely and a full-time position to support LGBTQ+ students and organize the Sexuality Series became part-time and is now unfilled.
Additionally, faculty were not provided with the clarity and consistency we needed to work with integrity. For example, rather than allowing faculty and staff to speak publicly about the denomination’s Human Sexuality Report using our various realms of academic expertise, we were instead encouraged to work through our churches. No matter the fact that plenty of faculty and staff don’t attend CRC churches and would have no standing. The internal document produced years ago related to human sexuality and academic freedom (HCL 3) is not readily available to faculty or openly available on our website, despite its use in adjudicating faculty behavior.
Ultimately, this lack of clarity and transparency about our institutional policies on these issues has left students and faculty guessing. In an effort to “have it both ways,” Calvin created the environment of a Rorschach, in which everyone could see what they wanted to see about the climate here. The institution encouraged affirming folks to emphasize that LGBTQ+ students were welcome and loved at Calvin and could provide care to the many students who came out to us or sought our support while at the same time, those unsupportive of same-sex relationships could point to the existing denominational policy. My hope is that these current events teach the institution that this approach is no longer tenable. Personally, I am finding it increasingly difficult to work at Calvin with integrity, and I fear for the additional losses we will sustain in students transferring or deciding not to come to Calvin.