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Self-Study Report: Chapter 8


At the time of this self-study, Calvin College presents itself as a well-equipped, accomplished, confident institution with a robust sense of mission. It has experienced a dynamic period of growth: in enrollment, faculty, staff, programs, and facilities. As this study has shown, the college has not been shy about sorting out and addressing its outstanding concerns. It has vigorously pursued a variety of efforts to improve the quality and character of its instructional programs and campus life.

Calvin and the Criteria

Each of the new criteria for accreditation approved by the Higher Learning Commission has proven useful in prodding Calvin College to evaluate its recent record and current work and to shape an agenda of the unfinished business for the years to come. What follows is a summary of the main findings of each chapter and the criterion each addresses.

Criterion One (chapter two) asks whether the college "operates with integrity to ensure the fulfillment of its mission through structures and processes that involve the board, administration, faculty, staff, and students." This study demonstrates that Calvin College devotes enormous attention and intellectual energy to discerning and articulating its mission. Calvin professors have produced a small library of publications on the topic. The college engages faculty, staff, and students in understanding and living out what is called the “Reformed project.” Mission-mindedness is a great strength of Calvin College, and, as is the case with muscularity more generally, it needs continual exercise and challenge to maintain its might. Faculty and administrators alike are cognizant of the historic patterns of secularization in North American and European higher education. Institutions that were once confident of their religious and philosophical underpinnings have made dramatic departures from these foundations—in some cases, over the course of only one generation. The current struggle to define the Christian identity of American Catholic universities is one of the most dramatic examples. It is especially relevant because the older Catholic vision for faith and learning was heavily theological and philosophical, as is the neo-Calvinist worldview that animates Calvin College. The Catholic story suggests that each academic generation must re-engage and renew the traditions of thought and conviction that drive its community and apply them afresh to the vital issues of its time. Rearticulating and renewing its mission must remain on Calvin’s agenda.

The college’s mission is both focused and nuanced. The college recognizes the need to address the diversity of its students, its constituencies, and the social matrix in which it serves, and it is capacious enough to engage in this task. Chapter two outlines briefly how the college, once a monocultural ethnic institution, now addresses diversity from within its mission, both with internal programs and external initiatives. Chapters three through six each elaborate on this theme.

Calvin College is governed responsibly and has procedures and policies in place to guide and channel its organizational work. Lines of accountability are clear and well documented. The reconstituted Board of Trustees is more responsive, engaged, and supportive of the college now than in recent memory. The college continues to wrestle with changes in governance, however, both in structure and in patterns and habits. The transition in 1995 from a full faculty assembly to a faculty senate form of governance has limited the opportunities for any given faculty member to participate directly in many policy decisions. Faculty members still numerically dominate the policy-making committees that feed these items to Faculty Senate, but some professors feel “out of the loop” regarding important decisions. Contributing to this feeling is the fact that Calvin has become busier and more complex than ever. The college sustains this pace by depending increasingly on administrators to take the initiative and guide faculty committee work in planning, proposing priorities, and crafting programs and policies. The faculty’s structured-in role in governance remains strong, but there are calls from within the faculty for better consultation and communication. Of particular concern is the process of forming annual budgets and developing the priorities that feed budgetary decisions. Several changes have been made to improve open and regular communication—between the faculty committees and the senate, between the President’s Cabinet and the Planning and Priorities Committee (PPC), and between PPC and the faculty more generally. The college should continue its efforts to engage faculty and staff in consultation about campus-wide priorities in order to honor and sustain its principle of participatory governance.

Criterion Two (chapter three) seeks evidence that the college’s “allocation of resources and its processes for evaluation and planning demonstrate its capacity to fulfill its mission, improve the quality of its education, and respond to future challenges and opportunities.” This study shows that in response to the advice given in the last accreditation review—that the college should strengthen its institutional research and planning—Calvin has greatly increased its institutional research and has instituted a systematic approach to strategic planning. Research and planning have become part of the rhythms and cultures of nearly every sector of the institution, and assessment plans and programs have been built out across the Academic Affairs Division. Even so, there is room for improvement in making this process more routine. The college now collects mountains of data in survey and operations research, and has begun to apply its findings more deliberately to its evaluation and planning.

Calvin has dramatically expanded its resource base in support of teaching and learning, and now has the capacity to serve its learners well into the future. The college continues to recruit an excellent faculty, and it has whittled away at the student-faculty ratio. Faculty and staff salaries and benefits have been sustained, and measures have been taken to improve the competitive standing of faculty salaries. New policies have made employment at the college more “family friendly” as well, while the number and percentages have increased for women on the faculty and for persons of color on the faculty and staff.

The college has experienced an enormous expansion of facilities and services over the past decade. Not counting the work done for dormitory and apartment renovations, the college has added or renovated nearly 500,000 square feet of space and has spent $65 million in the process, most of it directly devoted to instructional and research needs. The Development Division has more than kept pace with the demands for fresh funding, not only for buildings and equipment but also for student scholarships and grant-funded projects. The college has been raising more per year in recent years than it did during the entire capital campaign that ended in 1996. Calvin has also experienced some dramatic upgrades in information infrastructure and services. In its library, its computing, and its telecommunications, and throughout its newly created Information Services Division, these points of service have been linked more closely, via teaching and consultation, to the academic program.

These efforts have been guided by institutional research and evaluation—most notably, a major study of information technology and services, an extensive new campus master plan for facilities and grounds, and several consultative studies of the college’s approach to advancement.

Budgeting for all of these initiatives remains an adventure, and as noted in the discussion about governance, faculty concerns focus on what sometimes appears to be an opaque budgeting process with some last-minute, ad hoc budgeting decisions. A recently revised budgeting calendar, with structured opportunities for communication and consultation, should prove helpful. Even so, the college’s robust capacity-building success of the past decade stands in contrast to the sense of limits and concerns about sustainability that attend to annual planning for the general operating budget. One alternate subtitle for chapter three, therefore, might have been “a tale of two budgets.” While the college has achieved enormous success in raising funding for facilities, information technology, and new programs, it has experienced more of a struggle to build some reserve capacity for its “general and educational” operations. A number of objectives within the current strategic plan address this concern, and the college needs to make sure that it is given some sustained attention.

Criterion Three (chapter four) requires the college to provide “evidence of student learning and teaching effectiveness that demonstrates it is fulfilling its educational mission.” It is quite clear that Calvin College intends to keep teaching and learning central to its mission. Moreover, the college communicates lofty goals for learning that reach far beyond the immediate operational and instrumental outcomes of an instructional program. It posits learning about nature and culture to be an act of honor to the Creator, Sustainer, and Redeemer in whom “all things hold together” (Col. 1:17). To learn is also to prepare for service as God’s agents in the world. One particular challenge the college has been facing in meeting this criterion has been to gauge how well it is serving these ultimate aims. The new core curriculum has presented a fresh occasion for stating goals and seeing how well they are being met. Every department continues to work at this task as well, and the recent work performed to meet the NCATE and State of Michigan standards for teacher education has sharpened their assessment plans and operations. So has the work of each professional program to meet its accreditation standards. There is much room for improvement, however, particularly in completing the loop between evaluative research and program planning and development.

Faculty members clearly expect to make teaching their highest job priority, and they are given a variety of opportunities, such as workshops and funding for projects, to improve their teaching craftsmanship. Faculty members are evaluated regularly and comprehensively, with teaching effectiveness being the foremost criterion for promotion and tenure, and the college singles out exemplary teaching for presidential honors. Commitment to learning is strong at Calvin, extending into the realms of student co-curricular life as well as into the classrooms, laboratories, and library. In response to the accreditation review of ten years ago, the academic and student life professionals have greatly increased their collaboration in teaching and learning. This collaboration is most evident in the first-year program of the new core curriculum and in an area that is becoming a Calvin College distinctive—academically based service-learning. Calvin vigorously underwrites learning with facilities and with support services, and it continues to expand and enhance both of them.

In sum, Calvin is strenuously engaged in improving and sustaining its teaching and learning, and the college increasingly turns to teaching assessment and institutional research for insights on how to improve this work. The next challenge is to develop a more natural and regular connection between assessment and program improvement.

Criterion Four (chapter five) requires Calvin College to show that it “promotes a life of learning for its faculty, administration, staff, and students by fostering and supporting inquiry, creativity, practice, and social responsibility in ways consistent with its mission.” Calvin’s commitment to being a community of learning, scholarly inquiry, and cultural creativity is both strong and well articulated. It is rooted in a Protestant confessional tradition that has strenuously supported education at all levels, has demanded learned leaders, and has developed a significant body of religious and cultural thought. Calvin College’s Reformed heritage shares little of the anti-intellectualism that has plagued American revivalist movements. The college views advanced learning not as a challenge to its faith but, rather, as a calling that is encouraged and even demanded by its religious convictions.

Calvin College lives and breathes a regard for the life of learning. It has attracted a talented faculty and has taken measures to ensure that it will continue to do so: establishing endowed chairs and research institutes, funding programs for scholarship, sustaining a robust tradition of academic freedom, and upholding high scholarly expectations. Both internal funding and external grants for faculty and student scholarship have increased significantly over the past decade. Recent national surveys have shown that Calvin faculty members are much more productive, as scholars, than their peers at other private four-year colleges.

At a time when consumer demands for entry-level career training have made a liberal arts education increasingly rare, Calvin has recommitted itself to educating for a breadth of knowledge, skills, and outlook. Its new core curriculum reinforces that commitment, and in response to the new core, a variety of academic departments have decided to incorporate many of the aims of the core into their majors and minors as well. Calvin has developed an increasing number of means to engage its students in learning that is integral to living. The college offers residentially based living-learning programs, service projects and service-learning components within courses, workplace internships, cultural and artistic projects and events, and a wide array of student-run organizations. The college also provides a variety of opportunities for cross-cultural engagement, in the United States or elsewhere in the world. Assessment has driven the development of many of these features; student and alumni survey results have challenged the college to make Calvin’s learning more international, intercultural, and responsive to the world of work. One of the largest educational changes overall has been toward inquiry-based learning, with several departments reforming their majors to feature active, hands-on learning of the discipline. In response, the college has increased its support, both through internal budgeting and with external grants, for programs of student research.

The main challenge in each of these areas is sustainability. The college has added value to its programs faster than it has increased tuition. It has implemented a number of new programs, including its new core curriculum, with major assistance from external granting agencies. Calvin’s faculty members also have produced much scholarship, taking advantage of both additional resources and an extraordinary work ethic. If Calvin is going to sustain these strong efforts in inquiry, creativity, and service, it has to find ways to make support for them more certain. Early returns on the quiet phase of the new capital campaign are quite encouraging on this front, but the challenge of sustainability will remain.

Criterion Five (chapter six) requires that the college, “as called for by its mission,” identify its constituencies and serve them “in ways both value.” As chapter six makes abundantly clear, Calvin College has dramatically expanded its community engagement and service during the past decade. This service extends in many directions: across the higher education scene on local state and national levels; among the networks of Protestant Christianity in the region, nation, and overseas; with its alumni and fostering denomination; and with myriad community-serving organizations in West Michigan: health care agencies, schools, cultural organizations, commercial and professional networks, and neighborhood development agencies. The college regularly gathers opinions and evaluative comments from the communities with which it partners, and it makes adjustments accordingly.

If Calvin can maintain these relationships, they will bear fruit for many years to come. In order to sustain them, the college will have to meet three major challenges. First, it must keep its educational mission foremost in its external partnerships. Second, it must have better coordination of its many programs and projects. Third, it must find reliable long-term funding for those programs that need to continue. The challenge remains to decide what needs to begin, what needs to remain, or what needs to run out its course, without stifling creativity and initiative.

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From Self-Study to Strategic Planning

This study is fitting well into Calvin College’s ongoing cycle of strategic planning. It has proven to be a fairly comprehensive scan of the current conditions, issues, and opportunities confronting the college—in effect, providing a helpful SWOT (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, threats) analysis. This report is thus setting the stage for the college’s next planning phase, a mid-course review of the current strategic plan, to be followed by a proposal for conducting the next major strategic planning effort. Perhaps it would be helpful, then, to conclude this study by beginning to apply its findings to the salient challenges identified in the current strategic plan. As reported in chapter two, the current plan has five main goals:

  1. Strengthen the college’s vision and practice as a Reformed Christian community of teaching and learning
  2. Fortify the college’s role as a center for Christian scholarship
  3. Make the college a more effective agent of God’s shalom in its educational partnerships, both at home and abroad
  4. Foster a communal environment in which the college’s students, faculty, and staff are encouraged and supported in their efforts to discern, declare, and pursue their callings
  5. Enhance the college’s performance and reputation by improving the quality of its services, facilities, and financial base, while sustaining its affordability

1. A Reformed Christian Community of Teaching and Learning

It may strike some observers as rather odd that Calvin College would continue to wrestle with its religious identity and mission when these features seem so robust. Yet these beliefs have been the wellspring of the institution’s vigor as an educator of Christian students and its leadership in the Christian movement within North American academic and intellectual life. The college cannot afford to let the spring go dry. An old Calvinist motto helps explain this concern: “Always Reformed, Always Reforming.” Behind it is the idea that every generation needs to take up, use, and advance the heritage of thought and conviction, or else it will stagnate and die. As this report shows, the college continues to pour resources and creative energy into faculty development efforts that foster a fresh appropriation of this Christian tradition for the college’s teaching, scholarship, and service. An ongoing challenge for this theological and philosophical kind of faculty development will be to give faculty members the space to engage this tradition with critical solidarity. Faculty members need to be asking new questions, testing old answers, and keeping these ideas and commitments supple enough to address new concerns as they arise. Evaluations of faculty members’ theological and philosophical commitments and of the college’s efforts in faculty development show that faculty members are overwhelmingly supportive of the historic Reformed mission of the college and appreciative of the programs to acquaint new faculty with them. Yet they are still wary of the implications for academic freedom and creative inquiry. Members of the college have been leading national spokespersons for the creative use of “reason within the bounds of religion,” as the Calvinist philosopher Nicholas Wolterstorff provocatively put it years ago. So the college has the intellectual and perspectival resources to temper, nuance, and thus strengthen its efforts to engage its current faculty in a Reformed Christian vision.

Likewise, the new core curriculum and recent efforts to renovate majors, minors, and professional programs have been occasions to reinforce the distinctive Reformed Christian vision of the college. The new core curriculum has become identified with Engaging God’s World, a book on Reformed Christian cultural theology that all Calvin first-year students are assigned for the January Interim. Likewise, the Nursing Department’s work on a new curriculum is resulting in a book of essays on the ways in which Reformed Christian perspectives can be brought to bear on the profession of nursing. But in curricular work as well as in faculty development, the task going forward is to keep these Reformed Christian ideas fresh and compelling, and to subject them to sharp-minded conversation. As a variety of evaluative projects have shown, Calvin students have very strong radar for anything that looks like an attempt to indoctrinate, and very little patience for repetitive conversations that lack in range and depth. So the challenge going forward is to make sure that all students engage the core ideas of the tradition for faith, learning, and living, but that they are challenged to test and try those ideas freely and to plumb them beyond the introductory level. Hence some of the goals in the strategic plan focus on revising major and minor concentrations to extend core learning objectives, and on implementing a strong assessment program for the core curriculum, including its senior-level capstone courses.

Especially because it follows the Higher Learning Commission’s new criteria, this self-study underscores the importance of the strategic plan’s focus on strengthening teaching and learning. It does so, however, with an important difference. The strategic plan emphasizes inputs: new programs, curricular innovations, faculty teaching development, and the like. The self-study, while full of evidence of the college’s programmatic energy and creativity, also shows the college making a stronger turn toward programmatic evaluation, research, and assessment. In its current level of development the college has become more active and adept in taking soundings and gathering evidence regarding current performance. It has yet to develop robust patterns of digesting what it is collecting and turning it into useful insights for the improvement of programs and practice. The challenge going forward, then, is to develop regular patterns of analysis and reflection. The college must build in regular expectations that proposals for developing new programs or changing old ones must argue from evidence gained in solid programmatic research. These patterns must apply not only to the Academic Affairs Division but to the other divisions as well.

At the core of these evaluative efforts will be the new core curriculum. The new core is still fresh, and the college has yet to graduate its first class that has worked fully under its requirements. The implementation of the new core has been the college’s primary focus, but the structures are in place for ongoing assessment. Already the college is finding that parts of the system need adjusting. Fortunately, the plan has included a standing committee so that the evaluation process and the adjustments can take place regularly. The next five years will be critical, however, in finding out, by means of the core assessment plan, what might become a sustainable core system for a long time to come.

2. A Center for Christian Scholarship

The strategic plan for 1997-2002 bristled with proposed measures to strengthen Calvin’s support for scholarly work: chairs, study centers and institutes, a research and scholarship office, increased course release and sabbatical budgets, more summer research fellowships for students, more seminars and conferences, and the like. The current strategic plan is more focused in that regard; its aim is for the college to make many of these ventures, already begun, more sustainable.

The self-study underscores that pattern. As chapter five shows, the college has been energetic in advancing the “discovery” agenda in recent years, and it has a great deal to show for it: increased support for faculty and student research and scholarship, and increased opportunities to pursue learning in a variety of venues—in community-based work, in overseas programs and exchanges, and in partnership with state and regional agencies. Underlying all of this activity, however, is the question of sustainability. Can faculty sustain their extraordinary levels of scholarly productivity from this small-college setting, given the other trends that the HERI survey shows: increasing time pressures, multiplication of tasks, and higher levels of stress? One tempting response is to say no, and to back off on expectations for scholarly engagement. But Calvin College could not pursue that option with integrity. The college has a leadership role to play in the contemporary Christian intellectual movement; it has a historic mandate to be a center for Christian thought and scholarship. The college has a responsibility to educate its students according to the best canons of higher education pedagogy, which emphasize engaged learning, inquiry-based education, and apprenticeship. Students learn to be scientists by doing science. They learn to be humanists by practicing the careful study of text and context. Students need senior scholars who can model such learning and serve as mentors. So the college needs to find ways to sustain and underwrite its gains in faculty scholarship.

One answer to the sustainability question implicit in the strategic plan, and also addressed in this self-study, is to fortify the resource base. As the college’s current capital campaign planning documents show, the campaign’s success will be judged not only on whether some significant building projects are funded, but also on whether the college can raise significant endowment funding for institutes, chairs, and faculty and student research. As the college’s development officers prepare to take the new campaign public, the signs are very positive.

3. An Effective Agent of God’s Shalom

One of the most dramatic changes at Calvin during the past decade has been its vigorous efforts, in many venues and directions, to engage in service and outreach. Chapter six overflows with evidence of such activity—with churches, schools, teaching hospitals, research institutes, and community-serving agencies in the greater Grand Rapids region; with off-campus programs and sister universities in Asia, Europe, Africa, and Latin America; and in a variety of educational consortia in North America. Programmatic partnerships with its sponsoring denomination, the Christian Reformed Church, have become more frequent and more creative as well. One of the major developments of recent years has been the college’s vigorous examination of matters of race and ethnicity and its recommitment to justice, reconciliation, and partnership across these cultural lines.

The main lesson for Calvin going forward in its many partnerships is, once again, sustainability. Many of the current programs are funded with grants and gifts. Several are the result of the active engagement of one or two members of the faculty and staff. All take active maintenance, and all require careful prioritization within a busy institution. After periods of expansion and dispersion of effort must come periods for concerting and conserving effort. To address some of these concerns, the college has created a new position of director of community engagement. In each of the other realms in which the college is partnering, Calvin continues to develop its capacity to provide oversight, sustain interest, and steward people and resources.

4. A Communal Environment

Calvin continues to grow busier, and its institutional patterns of activity are becoming more complex as well. Questions about the character of campus common life and the integrity of its relationships and processes are arising from within and becoming more insistent. The college has devoted special attention in recent years to students, faculty, and staff of color and to the issues of justice, reconciliation, and partnership that arise from their experiences on campus. With the passage of From Every Nation, the college has a plan for making continued progress on these issues and, one hopes, the will to pursue it. The college has made progress in addressing gender concerns as well. In the last decade it has more than doubled the number of women on its faculty and has increased the number tenured by 50 percent. It has instituted employment policies that allow more flexibility for faculty and staff members with young families. Female representation is substantial on the most influential policy-making committees and has increased among dean-level administrators. Gender climate concerns remain, but the current pattern of action suggests that Calvin is addressing them effectively. The campus has worked hard to accommodate the growing number of students with special needs because of physical or other disabilities. It has a prioritized list of projects to pursue as it proceeds with renovations and new facilities in order to make them accessible for the physically disabled. For those with other learning challenges, the relevant service centers on campus need to review their current operations and consider fresh approaches in order to meet the rapidly growing demand for support.

This self-study deeply underscores the areas of need outlined in the current strategic plan regarding faculty and staff professional development. The college needs to find ways to devote more time and energy to the professional development of its administrative staff, and thus to demonstrate its desire to enhance and conserve the great value and loyalty it enjoys from their service. It needs to take a careful look at the changing patterns of faculty activity and responsibility, roles and rewards, and to consider some restructuring of these positions. The Lilly-funded vocation project has been a boon to students in becoming more vocationally reflective and aware; this effort needs to be extended more intentionally to staff and faculty, even as the project grows and matures in its work with students.

Many of the concerns about the quality of community life point to how the community makes decisions, allocates scarce time and funds, and communicates these processes across the campus. How vested and invested do the various members of the community feel about the process? As the self-study has shown, many of these concerns have focused on faculty governance and on decision-making processes regarding budgets, new programs, and strategic directions. Is governance transparent? Is it inclusive? Are the processes being properly communicated? The campus has devoted a fair amount of time and energy to these questions over the past decade, and it must continue to devote problem-solving attention to them in the years to come.

5. A Sustainable Future

The self-study has revealed a dramatic, decade-long expansion of programs, services, and facilities. And more is planned. How will it all be attained? The strategic plan calls for a capital campaign, and in recent months, its quiet phase has begun, after a wait of at least two years while the economy has been on the mend. Yet while the capital campaign and strategic plan stress new building, the self-study adds the need, identified by Physical Plant staff, to step up the pace of renovating existing buildings. Program growth and change need to be matched by the renovation and reconfiguring of existing facilities to serve new programs or the changing needs of older ones. Likewise, the college continues to struggle to find a sustainable formula for maintaining its programmatic quality and dynamism while dealing with the constraints imposed by patterns of enrollment, tuition pricing, and rising costs. Capital campaign infusions for student scholarships and for research and programs should help, but they do not provide the total solution.

Across the college and the many dimensions of its work, the largest outstanding issue is, in a word, sustainability. Calvin College has been on a fast track for curricular and programmatic innovation and growth, building construction and renovation, expanded outreach, inter-institutional partnerships, and international connections and relationships. Faculty research is up. Student course loads are up. College program offerings are up. And spending is way up—spending of tuition funds, gifts, grants, and the energies of faculty, staff, and students alike. How sustainable is all of this? It is tempting to answer with a Thoreau-like response, such as “simplify.” Yet the college probably would be injured more by a major dampening of the creativity and imaginative energy of its students, staff, and faculty than by its current busyness and intensity. To stand still is to stagnate, to grow complacent and insular. So the answer is not stasis or retrenchment but planning and priority setting—in a word, stewardship.

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