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"Signing the Form: Reformed Identity and Institutional Purpose at Calvin College"

Comments presented at the session: "Religious Affiliation and Institutional Identity: How to Tell an Anchor from a Hobble", Association of American Colleges and Universities/American Conference of Academic Deans, Washington DC, January 15, 1998.

David J. Diephouse | Calvin College
For oral presentation only; not to be quoted without permission.

One of our tasks as deans at Calvin is to supervise a ritual known as "signing the Form." We set up appointments with new faculty members and ask that they sign a declaration called the "Form of Subscription," pasted into an old Board of Trustees minute book, which among other things commits them to "apply the principles of God's Word as interpreted by our Reformed standards in the teaching of the subjects assigned to us." Faculty have been doing this since Calvin became a degree-granting institution. Our signatures are all there in the "Book of Life"--mine and David Hoekema's along with that of B. K. Kuiper, the college's first historian and one of its ideological founding fathers, who was denied reappointment in 1928 because, the minutes record, he "had not refrained from movie attendance." These days Calvin offers a major in film studies and counts at least one well-known Hollywood writer-director among its alumni. Few of us can generate much passion for the particular subtleties of doctrine that inspired Dutch Calvinist churchmen to devise the Form of Subscription back on the eve of the Thirty Years War. Still, the form survives, and the ritual continues.

I mention this because I think it stands as a useful marker for the relationship between religious affiliation and institutional identity at Calvin College. It is no accident that the undertaking faculty sign is virtually identical to the one required of ordained clergy and other office-holders in the college's supporting denomination, the Christian Reformed Church ("CRC"). Despite decades of growth and ferment, Calvin remains substantially and unapologetically what its immigrant preacher-founders intended it to be, namely a college of and for the church. Until very recently, active membership in the CRC was mandatory for faculty, and the range of permissible alternatives remains carefully circumscribed. The denomination continues to provide a "living endowment" in the form of direct grants amounting to nearly $3 million a year. Its governing body, the Synod, continues to exercise pro forma oversight over faculty appointments and decisions of the Board of Trustees. As late as the 1960s, CRC members made up well over 90% of the student body, and they still constitute an absolute if shrinking majority.

All of this, as a variety of national college rankings attest, at an institution that prides itself on the quality of its education and the contributions of its educators. Calvin is rapidly becoming a significant center of scholarship, particularly in the sciences and humanities; of the more than 900 private four-year schools surveyed by Franklin and Marshall College in 1990, only fourteen boasted more alumni doctorates than Calvin during the previous decade. This is not a place where religious identity brings embarrassment or frustration for advocates of academic excellence; nor does serious scholarship represent a threat to defenders of religious integrity. Whatever problems the college may face, church-relatedness does not rank high among them.

What anchors Calvin's identity--and this is my main point--is a dynamic combination of institutional ties and ideological commitment. The Form of Subscription delineates not only a set of dogmatic boundaries but also, and more broadly, a particular way of thinking and seeing; its function is not to foreclose inquiry but to situate it in a coherent confessional and intellectual tradition. Briefly stated, Calvin's project grows out of a classic Reformed emphasis on the sovereignty of God and the resulting conviction that all aspects of reality, including both the subjects of academic inquiry and the inquiry itself, are charged with religious significance. The life of the mind, like every vocation, is a call to grateful obedience and responsible stewardship. Higher education entails, at the core, attempting to work out implications of a Christian world view in all the dimensions of teaching and learning, question-forming and debate, that constitute the raison d'etre of the academic enterprise.

Calvin's history over the past half century and more is in large part the story of an increasingly self-conscious and self-confident articulation of this perspectivalist agenda, commonly if somewhat imprecisely described as the integration of faith and learning. It is an agenda that has found considerable resonance among other religiously based institutions, and it has increasingly been held up as a challenge to the larger academy, not least through the work of such once and future Calvin faculty as philosopher Nicholas Wolterstorff, now of Yale, and historian George Marsden, now of Notre Dame via Duke.

What needs to be emphasized is the extent to which this project both assumes and reinforces sturdy ties between college and church. The college's commitment to critical inquiry provides an antidote to institutional myopia and dogmatic rigidity. At the same time, its status as an agency of the church provides an antidote to the temptations of the ivory tower, the artificial disjunction of learning and life. Calvin officially reaffirmed this status in an expanded statement of mission approved as recently as 1992. To part company, the document argues, would "risk stripping the college of a vital tradition and the church of an agency of mission." As carriers of a common tradition, church and college share the obligation to foster a community of discourse capable of sustaining effective teaching, creative scholarship, and thoughtful engagement with contemporary society.

At its best, this tradition of partnership provides a source of intellectual purchase, an alternative to the "social solecism and moral loneliness" that Leroy Rouner describes in a recent Chronicle of Higher Education article as one of the terrors of the postmodern academy. The Form of Subscription binds faculty, if challenged, to submit their thinking to the counsel of the community. It does not, however, constrain freedom of inquiry. As a sometimes controversial colleague affirmed in a recent faculty e-mail forum, college authorities--and by extension those of the church--have consistently defended individuals' rights to challenge accepted positions "as long as the faculty members could demonstrate how what they were advocating arose out of their Reformed Christian commitment." This social contract is one reason why George Marsden, comparing his experiences teaching at Calvin and at Cal-Berkeley, could claim to have found a more vital academic freedom in the confessional community, where it was possible to pursue conflicting ideas from a common base of assumptions and commitments, than in the mecca of free speech, where debate seldom progressed beyond insoluble differences over first principles.

For much of Calvin's history, it must be said, what sustained the enterprise was less a positive agenda for higher education than a compulsion to preserve tribal exclusivity. Calvin was "our school" for "our people," most of them newly arrived Dutch immigrants determined not to let their embrace of the American economic dream extend to American cultural and religious mores. Hence the sad case of B. K. Kuiper, attender of movies. Students and faculty from other backgrounds encountered frequent and sometimes heavy-handed pressures to adopt the separatist ways of the dominant subculture, a regime of expectations that once inspired George Marsden, an Anglo who joined the faculty in the late 1960s, to quip: "I am not one of us." Even now, certain of these expectations--for example, support of separate, parent-run Christian day schools--remain more or less non-negotiable. Despite sincere efforts to counter ethnocentrism, the ritual of signing the Form can still evoke unease, if not a crisis of conscience, on the part of some faculty.

Meanwhile, of course, the cultural assimilation that earlier generations fought to keep at bay has swept full force across most of the CRC. For children of immigrants who have grown prosperous, embraced the ethos of the marketplace, even bought up the odd professional sports franchise, the old community cohesion and sense of separatist purpose have eroded dramatically. Why pay to send one's child to the denominational college if she can get a scholarship to Stanford, or if he can go to Hometown State U at a fraction of the cost? The college, for its part, has attempted with considerable success to attract students from a broader range of confessional traditions. Over the past two decades a variety of factors have therefore been conspiring to transform the tribalist Calvin of old into a more intentional community, deliberately committed to a diversity of Reformed expressions and to a more visible role in the larger academy. Scarcely half of incoming students and faculty are now members of the CRC--a matter of concern for some and celebration for many. Intentionality has its own costs, of course. While the college remains committed to a principle of "responsible freedom" and has never required formal pledges of the sort familiar on some evangelical campuses, it nevertheless finds itself increasingly driven to define and codify expectations that were once informal and implicit, maintained through force of community rather than the logic of published norms and procedures. The sometimes anxious debates provoked by recent efforts to draft comprehensive standards for faculty scholarship and faculty conduct, about which David Hoekema could speak at length, are a case in point.

Growing pains notwithstanding, I see little reason to believe that Calvin will soon abandon its distinctive blend of denominational affiliation and academic purpose; the anchor of institutional identity may drag slightly at times, but it still holds. The tribal loyalties on which the college could long rely have arguably begun to take new root in the college's burgeoning and increasingly non-Dutch alumni constituency. Significantly, alumni "legacies" constitute nearly 40% of the current first-year student body; last year, for the first time, annual giving outstripped denominational support as the largest source of non-tuition revenue. Members of the Board of Trustees, who once saw themselves primarily as gatekeepers of the church's interests, are becoming increasingly active advocates of the college's mission. A detailed process of faculty review, extending from initial hiring through tenure and beyond, ensures that core values remain understood and embraced by those most responsible for the day-to-day enactment of institutional purpose. Perhaps the best index of Calvin's future direction is its success over the past decade in attracting faculty and students from a widening array of ethnic and cultural traditions--new partners in faith and learning prepared to affirm the ideology and advance the project that a separatist immigrant subculture helped launch. Provided that this cross-fertilization continues, the ritual of signing the Form can become an act of renewal as well as reminiscence, for church and college alike.