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Self-Study Report: Introduction

An Overview of Calvin College

The Higher Learning CommissionThis report has been designed to meet the requirements for an institutional self-study established by the Higher Learning Commission of the North Central Association of Colleges and Schools. In it Calvin College reviews its progress since the completion of its last accreditation review ten years ago and evaluates its ongoing work according to the Higher Learning Commission’s criteria for accreditation published in February 2003. Ultimately, the aim of this report is not merely to win re- accreditation but also to show that Calvin College is effectively evaluating itself as part of an ongoing process of institutional review, planning, and development. It reflects a process that involved all units of the college and demonstrates the college’s capacity for recognizing and meeting its changing needs in keeping with its academic mission.

The Mission of Calvin College

One of the most striking traits of Calvin College is its passion for stating its principles. No significant proposal for changes in policy can go forward here without a lengthy prologue establishing the “principial” basis and context for the action. Not many colleges have 60-page mission statements or 42-page purpose statements prefacing their general education requirements. Mission matters at Calvin, so discussion of mission must come first.

Calvin College has a clear identity and mission as a comprehensive liberal arts college in the Reformed tradition of Protestant Christianity. The Board of Trustees, the administration, the faculty, the staff, the students, and the constituency of the college embrace the identity and mission of the college while engaging in an ongoing, active discussion of the primary religious, intellectual, social, and economic challenges that it faces.

The mission of Calvin College is articulated in five foundational documents, notably An Expanded Statement of the Mission of Calvin College (1992, revised 2004), Report of the Faculty Organization Study Committee (1972), An Engagement with God’s World: The Core Curriculum of Calvin College (1999), Professional Education and the Christian Liberal Arts College (1973, revised 1986), and From Every Nation: Revised Comprehensive Plan for Racial Justice, Reconciliation, and Cross-cultural Engagement at Calvin College (2004).1

The college’s shorter mission statement, available in a mere brochure, identifies the three purposes of Calvin College: first, “to engage in vigorous liberal arts education that promotes lifelong Christian service …, education that is shaped by Christian faith, thought, and practice”; second, “to produce substantial and challenging art and scholarship”; and third, “to perform all our tasks as a caring and diverse educational community.”2

Informally, Calvin College embraces a set of characteristics that might appear to exist in a certain degree of tension. Calvin is distinctively Christian but insists on academic excellence. Calvin expresses a Christian identity that is clearly Reformed, yet the intellectual ethos of the college is open, drawing students from a diversity of backgrounds and a broad range of Christian denominations. It offers a comparatively inexpensive education and practices a relatively open admissions policy. Yet Calvin attracts generally competent and diligent students, many of whom are very strong, and it gives them a high-quality education. The college has high expectations for the teaching of its faculty and, judging from student and peer evaluations of teaching, faculty members frequently achieve such teaching performance. Despite these high standards for teaching, the college’s faculty has established a national reputation, especially within Christian circles, as a community of productive and creative scholars. Calvin’s identity as a liberal arts college is given real substance in a relatively large liberal arts core curriculum, yet half of its student body graduate with professional degrees. The college is small enough to maintain a vibrant sense of community and a discernible unity of focus and mission, but it is also large enough to offer a range of programs and give them depth and breadth of coverage.3

The History of Calvin College

Calvin College is a comprehensive liberal arts college in the Reformed (i.e., Calvinist) tradition of historic Christianity. The college grew out of the literary department of a preparatory school that had been established in 1876 to educate potential ministers of the Christian Reformed Church, a denomination established in 1857 by immigrants from the Netherlands. Calvin has been a four-year college since 1920.4 Its present campus was purchased in 1956 and has served as home to the college since the mid-1960s.

Over the century and a quarter of its existence, Calvin College has built a strong record of teaching, learning, and scholarship while sustaining its Reformed Christian identity. It has been able to attract and maintain a dedicated faculty, administration, and staff who carry a deep sense of calling. Its alumni form a body of 50,000 members worldwide. As an institution, Calvin College constitutes a closely knit Christian intellectual community connected by shared confessional loyalties, identification with the college’s mission, and responsibility for carrying it out.

Demographic Context

West Michigan

Calvin College occupies a 370-acre campus in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Grand Rapids is the most important urban center in the heavily populated region of West Michigan. According to the 2000 census, Grand Rapids, the second largest city in the state of Michigan, had a population of 197,800. Of this total, 62 percent are non-Hispanic white, 20 percent are African American, and 13 percent are non-African Hispanic.5

During the decade of the 1990s the population of West Michigan grew by 16.1 percent, a rate greater than both the state average and the national average. The total urban and suburban population of the greater Grand Rapids-Holland-Muskegon area of West Michigan is 1,088,514. The Dutch-American ethnic community that has traditionally formed the largest constituency of Calvin College comprises approximately 22 percent of this total. 6

Calvin College Students

Calvin College currently enrolls 4,332 students. Although the college has an ongoing commitment to keep educational opportunities open to non-traditional (i.e., adult) learners, the vast majority (96 percent) of its students are traditional undergraduates in the 18- to 22-yearold range. They hail from all 50 states and more than 50 foreign countries. Fifty-four percent of Calvin students come from the state of Michigan. About 58 percent of the student body attended Christian high schools; about half of these—nearly three in ten Calvin students—are consistently drawn from seven Christian high schools in West Michigan. About 8 percent of Calvin students come from outside the United States. Over half of these (4.5 percent of the entire student body) are Canadians.

The religious composition of the student body is overwhelmingly (over 98 percent) Protestant, and a strong majority (63 percent) of students come from Reformed or Presbyterian denominations. Just under half (49.1 percent) of Calvin students are members of the Christian Reformed Church, the denomination with which the college is affiliated. The children of Calvin alumni make up 37 percent of the student body. The student body is 56 percent female and 44 percent male. North American minorities make up 4.6 percent of the student body, including Asian Americans (2.5 percent of the whole) Hispanic Americans (0.9 percent), African Americans (0.9 percent), and Native Americans (0.5 percent).7

Calvin consistently attracts a student body with a fairly strong academic profile. The current student body includes 78 National Merit Scholars and 511 Presidential Scholars (minimum 3.9 GPA and 30 ACT). More than one-quarter (26.5 percent) of current Calvin students graduated in the top 10 percent of their high school class, and more than half (52 percent) graduated in the top 25 percent of their class. The middle 50 percent of Calvin’s incoming freshman class in 2002 reported composite ACT scores between 22 and 28 and SAT scores between 1060 and 1280. Calvin students are split rather evenly between liberal arts majors and professional programs.

Calvin College Faculty

Calvin College employs 305 instructional faculty members with regular and term appointments and 77 part-time faculty. While the number of total faculty has increased over the past ten years, it has not increased through the use of part-time faculty to fill curricular needs. Rather, the percentage of faculty members on full-time appointments has remained rather constant despite the continuing rise in the total number of faculty.

Table I.1 Distribution of the Number of Full-Time and Part-Time Calvin Faculty over Time

Total Faculty
Full-Time Faculty
230 78.2%
244 80.3%
263 81.2%
262 82.6%
269 83.8%
278 83.2%
284 81.4%
284 80.5%
291 77.8%
305 79.6%
Part-Time Faculty
64 21.8%
60 19.7%
61 18.8%
55 17.4%
52 16.2%
56 16.8%
65 18.6%
69 19.5%
83 22.2%
77 20.1%

The following table highlights a variety of patterns among the full-time faculty:

Table I.2 Characteristics of Full-Time Calvin Faculty over Time 8

Total Faculty
Tenured Faculty
144 62.6%
139 57.0%
140 53.2%
132 50.4%
135 50.2%
133 47.8%
137 48.2%
138 48.6%
141 48.5%
159 52.1%
Terminal Degree
185 80.4%
202 82.8%
218 82.9%
211 80.5%
210 78.1%
221 79.5%
233 82.0%
236 83.1%
239 82.1%
252 82.6%
AHANA (Ethnic Minority)
10 4.3%
14 5.7%
13 4.9%
13 5.0%
12 4.5%
13 4.7%
15 5.3%
15 5.3%
19 6.5%
21 6.9%
44 19.1%
54 22.1%
63 24.0%
70 26.7%
74 27.5%
87 31.3%
84 29.6%
90 31.7%
92 31.6%
92 30.2%
Junior Faculty
40 17.4%
50 20.5%
66 25.1%
74 28.3%
76 28.2%
88 31.7%
79 27.8%
86 30.3%
94 32.3%
95 31.2%

Several important changes have occurred over the past decades, and these changes will be discussed more fully in subsequent chapters. As the number of total faculty has increased, the percentage of tenured faculty has declined, so that a little more than one-half of Calvin faculty are currently tenured. The percentage of “junior” faculty (defined as those holding the ranks of instructor or assistant professor) has also increased over the past ten years. Efforts to increase minority representation on the faculty have experienced important challenges, but the data reveal that both their numbers and their percentage among the faculty have increased over time. But perhaps the most dramatic change in the faculty since 1994 has been the number and percentage of women faculty members, which have grown from 44 (19 percent) to 92 (30 percent).

Calvin College Administration and Staff

Calvin College has traditionally maintained a comparatively lean administrative staff. The college employs a total of 657 people, including 355 administrative staffers in addition to the teaching faculty. The full-time staff to full-time faculty ratio is 1.18 to 1. Of the 355 full-time administrative staff members, 191 (54 percent) are women, and 164 (46 percent) are men. Twenty (5.6 percent) are members of North American minority groups.9


Calvin College is a Christian, urban, comprehensive, principally undergraduate institution. Its Calvinist religious ties and commitments are still quite strong, but it is now attracting students from a variety of Christian traditions. Calvin depends on its region and its sponsoring religious community for a large percentage of its student body, but compared with nearby private colleges and state universities, it draws from a broad geographic realm. With more than 4,000 students and some 90 academic concentrations, Calvin is more a comprehensive undergraduate university than a typical liberal arts college. Yet it sustains a robust commitment to a liberal arts general education program, even for those earning professional degrees.

Calvin is both deeply religious and resolutely academic, regionally rooted yet cosmopolitan in reach, relatively open in admissions yet demanding in expectations for its students. “Embracing the tensions,” as Calvin’s new president put it in his 1995 inaugural address, is an apt characterization of Calvin College’s basic posture. As we shall see in the chapters that follow, this posture has brought the college both challenges and opportunities. This ensuing study will attempt to be open about the former, but not so self-effacing that it neglects to point out how much it has done with the latter.

1 These documents are all available in the self-study resource room.

2 The Mission of Calvin College: Vision, Purpose, Commitment, n.d.

3 Gaylen J. Byker, “The Embarrassment of Riches,” in Keeping Faith: Embracing the Tensions in Christian Higher Education, ed. Ronald A. Wells ( Grand Rapids, Mich: Eerdmans, 1996), pp. 11-19.

4 On the history of Calvin College, see Harry Boonstra, Our School: Calvin College and the Christian Reformed Church ( Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2001).

5 Area Connect, “ Grand Rapids, Michigan, Population and Demographics Resources,”

6 Community Research Institute of the Dorothy A. Johnson Center for Philanthropy and Nonprofi t Leadership, “Demographics: Overview and Figures,”

7 The fi gures are in the “Fall 2003 Day Ten Report.” This is the principal report of record for this self-study with regard to enrollment and staffi ng patterns. See enrollment/day10/ethnic.pdf.

8 “Fall 2003 Day 10 Report,” enrollment/day10/

9 National Center for Education Statistics, “ IPEDS Staff Survey,” Fall 2003.