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TENURE: A Long and Winding Road

by Joan Huyser-Honig, '80

Tenure is a word most of us use. But few can discuss its fine points. (Remember writing that Philosophy 101 essay on "A Thing Is..."?)

"Tenure is often misunderstood. Its significance is neither title nor pay. Nor does tenure ensure employment for those who are not performing adequately," said Gordon Van Harn, senior vice president and provost.

Still, there must be some reason why 57 percent of Calvin's 244 faculty members have worked so hard to earn tenure. The process is still fresh in the memories of the six men and women who earned tenure at Calvin College in 1996.


"Tenure reflects an expression of confidence and trust in a faculty member, a confidence that promises a long-term commitment to a faculty member--assuming continuing competence and commitment to the mission of the college. That in turn provides a basis for faculty to make a commitment to the college," Van Harn said.

Before promoting someone from temporary reappointments to tenured status (continuing appointment), Calvin College evaluates their teaching, scholarship and service to the college and broader community. Each element is considered by the candidate's department, the Professional Status Committee and the Board of Trustees.

"Teaching has always been the primary emphasis at Calvin. The intellectual tradition on which Calvin rests is its jewel. Many of my friends at secular universities must lay low till they receive the protection of tenure. But Calvin supports academic freedom from Day One. Calvin wants teachers who raise questions of how your faith bears on your discipline," said Luis Lugo, a political science prof who has served on Professional Status Committee.

Tenure candidates submit self-evaluations and essays about how their Christian faith shapes their teaching and scholarship. They amass huge files: evaluations and letters of support from past and current students; reports from tenured colleagues who've watched them teach; copies of recent publications.

"Calvin has struck the right balance between teaching and research. It felt good to know my colleagues had confidence in me," said John R. Ferdinands, who gave a math department seminar on algebraic topology, his research specialty. (Topology is an abstract form of geometry.)

Tenure candidates prove that their research flows beyond their classroom or department. You can find Pop Culture Wars: Religion and the Role of Entertainment in American Life (InterVarsity Press, 1996) in bookstores. Its author is Bill Romanowski, a communications arts and sciences prof, who has co-authored or written chapters of five other books and published dozens of reviews and articles on film, culture and communication.

Romanowski averages one or two speaking engagements per month. In summer 1996 he spoke in England at Green Belt, one of the world's premier Christian music festivals, and at the Christian Artists Symposium in the Netherlands. "I had to submit my speech early so it could be translated into several languages, because artists attended from all over Europe," he said.


Tenure candidates serve Calvin and the broader community in ways that enrich their teaching. Michelle Loyd-Paige is developing a year-long seminar on diversity for the MOSAIC community, a new living opportunity for Calvin students in which one residence hall floor for men and one for women will provide a multicultural experience by combining students from many races and cultural backgrounds.

That experience yields real-life examples for her sociology semester course "Diversity and Inequality in North American Society" and for her interim course, "Everyday Racism."

Luis Lugo spent last year on leave in Washington, D.C. as associate director of Center for Public Justice, a non-partisan, Christian public policy research institution that draws heavily on the Reformed Kuyperian tradition.

"At CPJ I studied how to legally incorporate religiously-based organizations into the welfare system. In my classroom, I don't speak abstractly about welfare reform. I've met welfare recipients and leaders of Christian charities. I've seen how a holistic Christian outlook has an impact on public policy. Calvin's challenge is to move beyond ethnic isolation to mainstream dialogue," Lugo said.

Anna Greidanus Probes thinks constantly about what it means to be a Christian artist. She's redesigned print materials for a local criminal justice ministry, mentored Calvin's guilds of fine arts and visual arts, worked on international peace projects in the former Soviet Union, and spent ten years on the board of Christian in Visual Arts, an international organization.

"Art is not just self-expression. Allow your art to serve many communities," Greidanus Probes urges students. When one of her students wanted to use art to help homeless people, she suggested Degage, a drop-in center in downtown Grand Rapids. "Every week he goes to Degage, draws portraits of the people he meets and gives them the pictures. I'd like him to do a show at Calvin so well-to-do people can confront these images and realize a Calvin kid cares enough to get involved," she said.


Documenting competence in teaching, scholarship and service takes several months. Besides earning approval from their department, Professional Status Committee and the Board, tenure candidates must sign the Form of Subscription, join a Christian Reformed (or ecclesiastically related) church, and enroll their children in Christian schools. During the long process, most candidates waver between cautious optimism and mild anxiety.

"It seemed like an eternity, because I requested a double exemption. I am an ordained elder in the Church of the Living God, and my children attend public schools in Muskegon Heights, where my husband is the pupil accounting office for the district," Loyd-Paige said.

Greidanus Probes' three years on Professional Status Committee reminded her of people who didn't get tenure. "I knew the seriousness with which the administration takes the process. It's not just a rubber stamp," she said.

Provost Van Harn agreed. "A person is most likely to be turned down for continuing appointment during the two reappointment processes before tenure consideration. Once faculty members are considered for tenure, few are rejected. Ninety percent receive tenure. Those who don't may receive no reappointment, one-year probation or continuing nontenure appointments. Any reconsideration for tenure would have to be at the initiative of the Academic Dean," he said.

The final step before tenure is a half-hour interview with the Board of Trustees. "I'm always impressed by candidates' depth of knowledge and how much they enjoy what they teach. They are compelling thinkers who head national and international committees in their subject areas," said Sheri Haan, vice-chair.

"Board members sometimes have concerns about the way questions were answered, and they ask the provost for more information. But in my three years interviewing candidates, I've never felt heavy angst in the room. Candidates go through so much that before they're brought before the board, we have reason to believe they're ready for tenure," Haan said.

"My interview with the Board of Trustees was very thoroughly enjoyable," said Lugo. "I wish we'd had more time. A lead interviewer asked pertinent questions about how I fit into my department, how the political science department can help the Christian community sort out political issues, how my work at Calvin and CPJ enrich each other. Then other board members asked questions. No one was trying to trip me up. It was just an opportunity to share."

Being observed in a classroom is preliminary to the final interview.

"I explained to my students that I was going through the tenure review process and that some stranger might be in the classroom taking notes. Telling my students about the process helped me relax and feel their support," said Greidanus Probes.

Grace Achterhof was chosen to observe her class.

"She came all dressed up in professional business attire. But she came to my ceramics class on a day when we all had on face masks so I could demonstrate proper air brush use. I had to ask her to wear a mask too," she said. "She was very gracious about it.

"I felt that same gracious concern at my board interview. It was obvious that board members had read my statement (a required statement on how Christian faith shapes teaching and scholarship) and taken it seriously. They have huge agendas, but it's clear they do their homework."


Candidates say tenure benefits both themselves and the college. "If I hadn't gotten tenure, I'd be back in the job market. I'll still have the same teaching and writing goals, still keep trying to build Calvin's program, as I always have. But tenure does enhance the commitment between you and the institution," Romanowski said.

Ferdinands said being part of Calvin's permanent faculty encourages him to give stronger input into hiring and curriculum issues. It also frees him to experiment with new classroom techniques.

History professor Doug Howard is an Air Force officer's son who attended public schools and grew up in another denomination. "I've now lived in Grand Rapids longer--eight years--than I've ever lived anywhere. Tenure gives me a feeling of permanence that is reassuring, yet unknown and therefore frightening. It made me rethink my role at Calvin and the place of Calvin and the CRC in my family's life," he said.

Besides teaching Western Civilization and the histories of India and the modern Near East, Howard directs the Calvin Semester in Hungary, reads Turkish and edits a professional journal on Turkish studies. "By virtue of my experiences and personal interests, I represent the college's goal to embrace other cultures," he said.

Loyd-Paige feels the same way. "My future is held in the hands of God, and tenure or no tenure, God will provide for my every need--with abundance! My tenured position with Calvin will afford Calvin some credibility as an institution that really tries to be a multicultural campus and welcomes diversity with action as well as words," she said.

Haan said Calvin has recognized that Reformed thinkers come from more than one gender, denomination or ethnic group. "Increasing diversity among the staff goes more slowly than some of us may like," she said. "That's probably because we don't seek diversity at the expense of commitment to the teaching profession, Christ and the Reformed tradition."

Joan Huyser-Honig is a freelance writer in Grand Rapids.

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Last revised by Nathan Vandenbroek on 1/9/97.