Calvin’s future depends upon remaining a place of courageous inquiry

Calvin is at a crossroads. Undergraduate enrollment is at a low while graduate growth soars to new heights. Navigating the denominational loyalty-academic freedom tightrope has become more challenging (and more of a public issue) than ever. A surge of negative press (largely due to the previous issue) has pushed administration to protect Calvin’s image by all available means. Faculty and staff morale is struggling to recover from a one-two punch of cuts and loss of trust in administration. Calvin’s long-term financial strategy involves years of deficit that gamble on high returns in an uncertain future. And Calvin is still negotiating its transition to being a university with a new school structure as well as a leadership transition. Additionally, there are challenges that higher education as a whole is facing — not to mention that all of these changes are taking place in a polarized political climate.

In this unusual moment, what paths are available to Calvin? What should Calvin be willing to lose in order to survive and what things are essential? How might Calvin tell a better, truer story about itself, and how might that story save the university?

Here are some options, and an argument for the one I prefer.

First, Calvin could cling to its old ways and fail to keep up with the changing market of higher education. This option would have looked like continuing to try to rely entirely on traditional enrollment markets, majors and programs. By investing in graduate and professional programs and reaching into new markets, Calvin has already rejected this option. Survival is still uncertain with this option, however, and similar choices have not been universally sufficient to keep other institutions with rich histories afloat.

Second, Calvin could jump with both feet into new ways and lose its distinctive identity as a liberal arts institution home to Christian academic excellence — a strong concern among many students, alumni, emeriti and many faculty. If what Calvin needs to do to survive is to become a university focused on STEM and professional programs, with small humanities and arts departments and no clear connection to any particular tradition or history, then what it needs to do to survive would be to not be Calvin. Or worse, Calvin could take the route of Trinity International University and sacrifice residential, undergraduate programs entirely in favor of more financially sustainable online and graduate programs.

Third and finally, Calvin could embrace what has truly made it unique — across markets, programs and majors — and carve out a new niche in the higher education market.

It is clear that neither of the previous options are desirable if what people at Calvin care about is not just some institution with the name of Calvin continuing to exist but Calvin truly continuing to be Calvin. I do not mean that people want Calvin to stay exactly as it is or has been. On the contrary, I actually think that part of Calvin’s commitments entail continual evolution. But what guides that evolution is academic excellence, the liberal arts and a theological emphasis on sovereignty and humanity’s role in God’s redemption project. Which, to me, are qualities worth holding on to.

Calvin must embrace as part of its brand what truly makes it unique: the strangeness of its position and the willingness of faculty and students alike to embrace the questions and that strangeness. Imagine a Calvin brochure that reads: “We’re still trying to figure out how to live our mission of faithful inquiry and patient renewal well in a changing world, in a community of diverse views, where learning to live with deep differences is part of the education.”

Who in these times does not need to learn to live with difference? What Christian community is not trying to find its place in a changing world? What if the challenges and figuring out how to sort them out was embraced as essential to Calvin’s mission?

By centering questions, not answers, in the story it tells about itself, Calvin could become a hub for students interested in depolarization, bipartisanship, interfaith dialogue and serious academic inquiry about the good life and the common good.

This would not be some radical remaking of what Calvin is. Rather, it would mean owning up to what Calvin already is — marketing the thing we have as what it is. Positioning itself boldly as a place of tough questions, a place to face up to seemingly intractable challenges would give current community members a stronger sense of school spirit. It would also give potential future community members a clearer picture of what makes Calvin special, helping the university to stand out from the rest of the fray of higher education institutions trying to stay afloat.

This honesty in messaging must start at the top, with administration and Calvin Communications and Marketing. Be honest about the things that are still being sorted out and invite prospective and current students, faculty and staff, and alumni and supporters into the process of learning to live with deep disagreements.

Of course, none of this works if these aspects of the Calvin experience that I have highlighted are eroded, that is, if Calvin becomes a place where brave questions are disallowed or where only approved perspectives are allowed into the conversation. This is, unfortunately, a real possibility, and something administrators will need to work hard to avoid at and after Synod meets this summer.

But there is also a clear role in this for current students, as well as faculty and staff. When we talk to prospective students, our parents, peers at other institutions, or other Grand Rapids community members, we should be honest about the challenges both Calvin and the members of the Calvin community are facing. We should also, however, be honest about the value of this situation. The deep divisions in the Calvin community are a microcosm of the larger culture, and here on the frontlines people are being formed to work with and through these divisions.

Alumni and supporters, you have power to help keep the university on-mission. I know that questions often come with more fear and uncertainty than answers and that embracing questions can feel like a threat to the answers some have found. Please believe that uncertainty and questions do not have to be without purpose, and that the survival of academic freedom and courageous inquiry at Calvin is essential to the university’s future. They can be a path forward — a way of being and teaching to be that equips us to reflect and serve God in a complicated world. Please hold the university accountable to this high aim.


This piece has been updated to reflect that it was Trinity International University, not Trinity College, that was referenced.