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New Calvin provost has grand dreams for his alma mater

It's been two decades since a young history professor named Joel Carpenter spent a year teaching at Calvin College, his alma mater. But that one year -- and four years as a student at Calvin -- made an impact that has lingered with him ever since.

"Ever since I taught here I had always hoped I'd have the opportunity to come back here and serve," said Carpenter, who on July 1 started working at Calvin as the new provost (the second-highest post at Calvin), beginning a one-month transitional process with Gordon Van Harn before taking the reins for good.

"When I was here as a faculty member," said Carpenter, "I was impressed and excited. Calvin is a relatively small institution, but there are people here with vision, people who really want to make a difference."

If that one year gave Carpenter an intimate insider's view of Calvin, his career following that stint in the history department gave him a wider angle on the school's impact.

After serving as a visiting instructor in history at Calvin in 1976-77, Carpenter then spent a year at Johns Hopkins as a research fellow for an NEH project before five years as an assistant professor at Trinity College and six years as an associate professor and director of the Institute for the Study of American Evangelicals at Wheaton College. Since 1989, he has been director of the grantmaking program in Religion at The Pew Charitable Trusts in Philadelphia. The program annually supports religious scholarship, urban and Hispanic ministry, and global Christianity.

Those experiences cemented in his mind the things he had learned about Calvin as a student and a teacher.

"Calvin," he said, "has had a really positive influence on Christian thought and Christian witness in America. It's a strategic place."

Carpenter would like to see Calvin become even more strategic.

"It's quite common to think of Christian thought as theological thought," he said. "Calvin is pushing a different agenda and I want to see that continue. I think that for all of its grassroots vigor and vitality in America the Christian church has abdicated responsibility for the life of the mind. Thankfully, that's not been the case at Calvin. But, perhaps, we can do more to influence others and to help them catch our vision in which being an ardent Christian doesn't mean you put your head aside."

Calvin's keen sense of Christian scholarship -- the integration of faith and learning -- makes the school, Carpenter said, a natural center for national and international ventures that combine the highest academic pursuits with the Christian faith.

"A real point of growth for Calvin," he said, "is to become a national and international convening center and staging area for creative projects and collaborative efforts."

Carpenter points to a program of faculty summer research seminars which took place on campus this summer as an example of the types of things Calvin needs to do regularly. The seminars, which will focus each summer on different disciplines, bring together distinguished national scholars who mentor and partner with what Carpenter calls "early career scholars," teachers who are recent Ph.D. graduates or untenured at their particular institution.

These seminars allow people who are working in similar areas to come together on the Calvin campus and share ideas, learn from each other, network, discuss collaborative projects and have, Carpenter says, "a rare opportunity to be mentored by a senior person."

The summer research seminars are actually hosted by Calvin as a result of a Pew grant that Carpenter helped spearhead. "When I was at Pew," he says, "we searched around for a place to host these seminars. We had a number of good applicants, but Calvin made the best case for it."

The idea of early career scholars being mentored by more experienced colleagues is something that Carpenter believes is critical at Calvin as well -- and critical in the faculty/student relationship.

"Unless there is really good mentoring and modeling going on," Carpenter says, "the junior people won't find ways to follow through. In doctoral programs help on teaching per se is hard enough to find, much less a Christian orientation to the task. That's why new faculty need to see and work with people who've been walking down that road for a while. One critical challenge for Calvin will be to continue to make sure that this is a real community where that sort of mentoring takes place."

Carpenter says that departments on campus will be critical to the school's success into the 21st century. "If you've got disfunctional departments," he says, "you've got a real problem. The department is critical to unity. Calvin, to its credit, has done a number of things to encourage unity."

Those measures include assigning mentors within departments to work with new hires, particularly at the entry level, sponsoring a January seminar for new faculty on Christian scholarship and the Reformed tradition and faculty seminars.
Carpenter would like to see some of those models expanded; he also would like to see some filter down to the faculty/student relationships.

"Some aspect of two cultures on campus is inevitable," he says. "Faculty have families; they go home at night. But I hope to confer with my colleagues in Student Life about interaction outside the classroom. One year when I was in the dorms they had Sunday night seminars. A professor would come to the dorm and interact with students in the lobby. Perhaps we could encourage similar ventures to start up again."

Collaborative interaction between students and faculty also strikes Carpenter as important. "It (students and faculty working together) is a great way to learn the craft," he says. "Being involved as a research assistant on a project is a great way to learn. The natural sciences and social sciences probably lend themselves more to that sort of collaboration, but there is potential for similar sorts of learning in other disciplines as well, including more seminar type of teaching, for example, where instead of the typical survey course a professor and students dig deeply into one specific area of the discipline and really get a feel for the level of discourse the discipline does. These would be especially important opportunities within a student's major."

Carpenter would like to help increase Calvin's profile nationally. "The take out there is that Calvin has extraordinary resources, extraordinary people, extraordinary levels of achievement, but that it's kind of hidden its light under a bushel. I think Calvin needs to let its light shine a bit more broadly."

Phil de Haan is Director of Media Relations at Calvin College.

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