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Vision, Faith, Commitment: Calvin College Stories

Institutional Vision

The Calvin College sign at Burton Street

Commemorating 50 years at Knollcrest

In 1955, the leadership of Calvin College recognized that the college had outgrown its campus. The 10-acre Franklin campus was intended to accommodate no more than 1,500 students. With enrollment at 1,541 and increasing at a rate of more than 100 students a year, a decision about the future of Calvin College had to be made.

“It was not an easy decision,” said President Emeritus William Spoelhof. Options included purchasing land adjacent to the Franklin site; maintaining the Franklin campus and buying land farther away and operating a split campus; or selling the Franklin campus and moving to a new site.

Knollcrest Farm signage
"No forward move was ever made without the boldness of faith. Using the talents of judgment which God has given us, resorting much to prayer, and enjoying the confidence of our constituency, we can and must be daring."

— Calvin College long-range
planning committee, 1956

After reviewing the options, the board of trustees recommended the third option to the Christian Reformed Church Synod of 1956. Following much debate, Synod agreed, and a deal was made with Knollcrest Farm owner J.C. Miller on June 29, 1956, to purchase his sprawling 166-acre estate.

“It took tremendous foresight, confidence in the constituency and faith to take the kind of risks that they did,” Calvin President Gaylen Byker said of the visionary Christian leadership demonstrated in the past. “They believed the college was a very strong asset for the community and the Kingdom and there was justification in growing the college.”

In the years following, a master plan was developed, and buildings began springing up all over the new campus.

“Oh, those were exciting days,” said Spoelhof, “but we still needed to raise the money. It seemed almost an impossible thing to raise that much money.”

The constituency strongly supported the institution, and opportunely, low-interest government loans became available, which helped fund many of the college buildings. Seventeen buildings were constructed in the first 15 years of the campus at a cost of $17 million.

“The efficiency and effectiveness with which these buildings were built and the care with which they are maintained is a model,” Byker said. “These structures will last for 100 years, but that doesn’t mean they don’t need to be maintained and renovated. None of us live in houses or businesses that have been untouched for 40 years.”

Campus sustainability is an issue the college faces today.

In addition, like the early days, there is a window of opportunity to complete the campus, Byker said. “The time to finish the campus is now,” he said. “The timing now is every bit as providential as it was in the early years of this campus. We have alumni and friends of the college who are in position to help us construct a wellness center and full-fledged campus commons.”

These are facilities that are critical to Calvin College’s future, according to college architect Frank Gorman.

“It’s hard to imagine Calvin would have grown as it has without this campus,” Byker said. “We are thankful to God and thankful to those who had a vision for Calvin that we have been able to prosper on the Knollcrest campus these last 50 years. And we hope to be here for many years to come.”

Claudia Beversluis talking with students

Connecting Locally and Globally

Past Calvin College Chief Academic Officers

  • 1919–1941
    Albertus J. Rooks, dean
  • 1941–1964
    Henry J. Ryskamp, dean of the college
  • 1964–1982
    John Vanden Berg, vice president for academic administration
  • 1982–1985
    Peter DeVos, provost
  • 1985–1996
    Gordon Van Harn, provost
  • 1996–2006
    Joel Carpenter, provost

When Claudia Beversluis became Calvin’s first-ever female provost on July 1, 2006, it was a historic moment. But for Beversluis, the moment was important not because of where Calvin has been, but because of where it is headed.

Calvin’s growing global connections will be a focus for Beversluis, who has made two trips to Korea in recent years to lecture on Christian higher education. But so will maintaining and strengthening Calvin’s place in the city of Grand Rapids.

“Getting Calvin students involved in the city helps them understand that ideas matter, and it helps them understand that they can make a difference,” she said. “Those have been important considerations for Calvin for many years and will continue to be an emphasis for me.”

In addition, Beversluis, a Chicago, Ill., native who has a master’s degree and Ph.D. from Loyola University, said that Calvin has an important role to play in the world of higher education, both Christian and nonreligious.

“I think that Calvin is a recognized leader in the realm of Christian higher education,” she said. “We have a tradition here of taking the life of the mind seriously, of taking reason and discernment seriously. We’ve been in this field a long time. But I think we also have a lot to offer secular higher education. The intersections of religion and culture are happening in lots of different places: politics, science, entertainment. These are areas where Calvin has been working for a long time. So I think we can be a real resource in such areas.”

Joel Carpenter in Africa

“Our Lord instructs His followers to go out and make disciples, literally learners, of all nations. People who see believers and churches come into being where they did not exist before come to expect that this gospel they preach will make a difference somehow in the environs they inhabit. Such work does not happen automatically; it takes much thought. The Nagel Institute is all about the growth and flourishing of Christian thought in this new era of world-pervasive Christianity.” —Joel Carpenter, director, Nagel Institute for the Study of World Christianity

Linking Scholars Worldwide

Since 1900, the number of professing Christians in North America and Europe has decreased from 80 percent to 40 percent. In Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Pacific, however, Christianity has flourished.

If Christianity is thriving in the global South and East, yet resources for Christian teaching and scholarship remain primarily in the North, how do we make the connections necessary to deepen the practice and study of Christianity around the world?

Gaylen Byker, Doug and Lois Nagel, and Joel Carpenter
Left to Right: Gaylen Byker, Doug and Lois Nagel, and Joel Carpenter
Enter the Calvin College Nagel Institute for the Study of World Christianity.

“If we have one short motto of what we will be doing, it is ‘linking scholars worldwide,’” institute Director Joel Carpenter said. Through conferences, seminars and a prolific Web site, the institute is designed to foster global communication and scholarship among Christians.

As opposed to larger institutions, Calvin may be uniquely positioned for this work, Carpenter said at the institute’s May inauguration. Not only can Calvin be unapologetic about its Christianity, but nearly 25 percent of its full-time faculty are already teaching and doing research germane to this field.

Furthermore, Calvin’s relatively small size makes the college attractive as a partner to Christian study centers elsewhere in the world. “They can hope that we will come alongside them in genuine partnership and invest in their Christian intellectual development,” Carpenter said.

The institute’s benefactors, Doug and Lois Nagel, see this vision as both timeless and timely. “In our minds, the institute’s work fulfills the Great Commission,” Doug Nagel said. “The more we learned about it, the more we were excited about it.”

Jeff Bouman, director, Service-Learning Center

Of the 1,900 Calvin students who particpated in community service projects last year, 420 students contributed 20 or more hours a semester. “Our community partners serve us and teach us in ways that traditional texts and lectures can’t.” —Jeff Bouman, director, Service-Learning Center

Celebrating Service and Learning

On March 9, in the Great Hall of the Prince Conference Center, with cake on hand and friends gathered ’round, the Service-Learning Center celebrated its 40th birthday.

“It was electric,” said Jeff Bouman, the current director of the center. “It was a very magical night because we were looking at history, and we were looking at the future.”

Students participating in a Service-Learning projectThe Service-Learning Center began in the fall of 1965 (making it slightly older than 40, but nobody is counting candles) as Kindling Intellectual Desire in Students (KIDS), a tutoring program in Grand Rapids city schools. That original programmatic root swiftly grew a welter of service branches — work-study opportunities, hospital volunteering, emergency moving services, a mentoring program, blood drives, Big Brother and Big Sister programs, Streetfest and service-learning spring break trips — and in 1980 changed its name to Student Volunteer Services (SVS).

When the program became the Service-Learning Center in 1993, the name change recognized that the college had been steadily and intentionally integrating service learning across the entire curriculum. Calvin currently offers between 35 and 50 classes that incorporate service learning — from reading programs to urban planning — and Bouman fields a lot of calls from colleges wanting to found a similar program.

And yet, Bouman said, the original spirit of the program remains, and it was present at the 40th bash: “There were people there from the ’60s, ’70s, ’80s, ’90s and aughts,” he said, “which was pretty amazing.”

High-tech research lab

The summer of 2006 was a banner year for summer research at Calvin College. Ninety-one students, teamed with faculty mentors,worked at Calvin and around the country on a wide array of projects in all fields of science. The summer’s record number of researchers reflected a 15-year effort on the part of Calvin’s natural science division to expand its research offerings for students, an outcome that benefits both Calvin science students and faculty members.

Providing a Dynamic Workplace

Contemporary science education at Calvin is based on a simple, proven strategy: Students learn science best by participating in research. In fact, the majority of Calvin science faculty members establish ongoing research programs that provide opportunities to build their own scholarship and mentor students.

“Calvin is attractive to scientists because it provides a faith-filled environment that encourages inquiry and exploration,” said David DeHeer, chair of Calvin’s biology department. “We also have gifted and supportive colleagues, motivated students and up-to-date equipment and facilities that scientists need for education and research.

Labortory research“Add the satisfaction that comes from working with young people as they discover their gifts and grow as scientists, and Calvin becomes an exciting, dynamic workplace.”

Undoubtedly, that’s why Calvin was named one of the top 15 U.S. institutions in the “Best Places to Work in Academia” survey by The Scientist, a magazine for the life sciences now in its 20th year.

More than 2,600 academics who responded to this year’s blind survey identified relationships with peers, a sense of accomplishment in their work and access to research resources as key factors in their job satisfaction.

"Calvin’s biology department is dedicated to providing a vibrant learning environment that helps students discover, develop and dedicate their gifts to God’s service,” DeHeer said. “A rewarding work environment results when faculty members can use their own gifts and research in a way that benefits the lives of their students.”

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