Opinion: Faculty governance key to Calvin’s future

File photo.
File photo.

What are we here for?  This is the question that we are asking at Calvin College this year — as we engage in strategic planning, search for a new provost and reconsider our mission and core curriculum.

It might also be helpful, then, to remember just what sort of institution this is.

To crib from Herman Dooyeweerd, a philosopher in the Reformed tradition: every institution has a multiplicity of “aspects” that mirrors the complexity of God’s world.

For example, a bank is a complex institution that has to deal with multiple aspects of human, creaturely life.

While obviously money is its focus, it also deals with many other aspects: the physical features of the bank’s buildings; the social dynamics of the organization; indeed, insofar as every bank also has bathrooms, you could say it also pays attention to the biological aspect of our existence.

But Dooyeweerd would also point out that every institution, while it includes all of these aspects, also has a leading aspect that defines its reason for existing.

The leading function of a bank, obviously, is the economic aspect. A bank that focused on building more and more bathrooms would be a very misguided bank. It would have forgotten its leading function.

So what about a Christian college?  I hope it won’t seem pedantic to remind ourselves that the leading function of such an institution is academic, encapsulated in our core work of teaching, learning, research and discovery.

This is also why Calvin College has had a legacy of faculty governance: because the faculty who have been credentialed to teach are charged with the oversight of curriculum, and day-in, day-out are on the front lines of instruction and assessment as well as the generation of new knowledge.

We partner with an array of staff who are equally committed to that mission and who contribute to the holistic education that is the hallmark of Calvin College. But we are accredited by a higher learning commission.

Precisely because of that, I’m puzzled by a recent trend: the dilution and diminishment of faculty representation on the committees tasked with answering those fundamental questions.

Consider, for examples, our search for a new provost.  “Provost” is sort of an old-fashioned word for the academic vice president of a college — “second in command” to the president.

How odd is it, then, that one-third of the provost search committee includes staff who are not part of the teaching faculty?

Don’t get me wrong: these are all gifted professionals who are committed to Calvin and demonstrate excellence in their divisions of the college.

But if this is an academic institution, and we’re looking for an academic vice president who will lead the faculty, shouldn’t the search committee be overwhelmingly — if not entirely — comprised of, well, academics?

Or consider a second example. Apparently at the request of the president, a small team has been tasked with rearticulating the college’s mission and identity statement.

Nothing could be more central to our work here: this touches on who we are and why we exist. The result is the “vision frame” document that has been recently circulated to the faculty, staff and board of trustees.

But when we look at the ad hoc “evaluation team” that provided input, there’s an odd disparity: administrators and staff have almost 40 percent more representation than faculty.

We can be grateful for able, mission-minded staff and administrators who serve this institution creatively, faithfully and gladly.

But we also do well to remember what we’re here for: to teach, to learn and to research. This is precisely why, historically, Calvin College has substantively entrusted its governance to the faculty.

We would be a very different institution if that were to change.

About the Author

James K.A. Smith

James K.A. Smith is a professor of philosophy at Calvin College. He also holds the Gary and Henrietta Byker Chair in Applied Reformed Theology & Worldview. He is the editor of Comment magazine and a senior fellow for The Colossian Forum.

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