Spark continues a six-part series of conversations with the leadership of Calvin College, bringing readers up to date with campus issues and examining future directions. Provost Joel Carpenter is a 1971 graduate of Calvin and holds a doctorate in history from the Johns Hopkins University. Prior to accepting the appointment as provost in 1996, he was the director of the religion program at the Pew Charitable Trusts in Philadelphia. He also was a professor at Calvin, Trinity Christian College and Wheaton College. Dr. Carpenter’s academic specialty is American religious history; his latest book is Revive Us Again: The Reawakening of American Fundamentalism (Oxford, 1997). A new book about Africa is forthcoming from Oxford.
Q: As Calvin’s chief academic officer, you are responsible for assembling a faculty that earns high marks for both teaching and scholarship. This seems like a daunting challenge. How is Calvin doing?
A: It is a real challenge. We have some things that work in our favor: First, we represent a tradition that values learning and highly regards the life of the mind — of exploring, discovering and asking questions. So it’s a tradition that has produced scholars, and it’s a tradition — a Christian tradition — that attracts other scholars. Some scholars question whether there is a home for them that is both academically challenging and seriously Christian, then they find out about Calvin and the Reformed Christian tradition, and they decide to come and put down their roots here.
Compared with some other Christian colleges, we have a better time of recruiting, though it varies a lot from field to field. Some of the professional fields in which we have professors means a 50 percent cut in pay for them. But when everything’s working right — teaching, scholarship, devotion to Jesus Christ — somehow the Lord brings the right people to us.
Evangelical sociologist Tony Campolo says that Calvin has the best faculty of any Christian college in America. I’m glad he said it because it would sound boastful if I said it, but it’s true.
It is easy to say Calvin has the best professors, but in order to get high marks for teaching and scholarship, that means the professors are working extremely hard. They’re putting in 50-plus hours a week. They are teaching a strong course load, about 22-23 semester hours a year on average, and they’re spending time researching. They are quite productive as scholars. In fact, they are about half again as productive as the national average for professors in Protestant four-year colleges.
Q: How does Calvin ensure that its faculty members are committed to the Reformed Christian mission of the college?
A: From the very first notices that are sent out for an open position to post-tenure interviews, we set before our faculty members the Reformed Christian commitments of the college and our reliance on them to embody those commitments and carry the college forward according to them.
When we advertise for a job, we announce that Calvin is a Reformed Christian institution. When we talk to job candidates, we try to give them a positive yet clear picture of the commitments needed to work here as a member of a Reformed Christian community of learning. Faculty members commit to the central creeds of the faith and to the three Reformed confessions held by the Christian Reformed Church. They commit to joining a Reformed church, and they commit to supporting Christian education — not only at the collegiate level, but also at the primary and secondary levels.
Faculty development increasingly offers opportunities to learn more about Reformed Christianity and its ways of approaching the life of learning and service. Every professor takes a seminar during their first or second year here called the Kuiper Seminar, the purpose of which is to engage them in reading and reflecting about Reformed Christianity and the college and about how this theological tradition influences their teaching.
But the faculty development process is not just for beginning people. It continues at each reappointment occasion, including tenure. Faculty members are asked to write at length about issues of faith and learning. We want to see a maturing understanding of Reformed Christian cultural theology and traditional philosophy. And we provide a variety of opportunities for them to learn more, but this costs money.
Q: Much is demanded of Calvin’s faculty; how is the college supportive in these demands?
A: On the teaching side we created a deanship, a dean for instruction, whose goal is to encourage strong teaching, to encourage professional development and even research on teaching. Through this deanship, in particular, Calvin has branched out into some very innovative areas, including academically based service-learning. Formerly, students did service-learning on an extracurricular basis, simply volunteering to go out and help a community agency. Now, service-learning is often within courses. We have faculty and students who are doing work on protecting the environment on our campus and in nearby neighborhoods. There are students who are learning chemistry by analyzing water and soil and air samples. We have students in science courses who are taking those results, discovering what natural science has found about water run-off, and presenting those findings to the East Grand Rapids City Commission and suggesting policy changes. We’ve got accounting students and their profs who are helping inner-city businesses develop good bookkeeping systems. We’ve got freshmen English students, who instead of having cooked-up essays to write, are writing up histories of retirees. And we found that students in those courses score higher than students in sections of the same course that don’t have a service-learning component. So we think it really helps student motivation.
On the research side, we encourage faculty members to develop plans, to seek outside funding. This past year we raised about $1 million in federal funding, not to mention private funding for research and scholarship. This office has a dean and a dedicated development officer to help faculty write those requests. One of the things I want to emphasize is that research and teaching are not opposed to each other. They really do come together. They can and they should, especially in a teaching-focused institution. So, for example, this summer in our science building we had scores of students working with professors on research projects. What this means is that we ask our lab science professors to pick projects that can accommodate student researchers. “Lone wolf” scholarship might, in some cases, be helpful for the profs, but it doesn’t help our students at all. And it’s terribly important, especially in the lab sciences, to have students who have learned science by doing science, doing it alongside their faculty peers.
We also offer internal grants that we fund. We have a full sabbatical program that has grown by at least 60 to 70 percent over the past six or seven years. It used to be that only about half of our faculty who were eligible for a sabbatical would take it. Now almost all of our eligible faculty do. All of this has added tremendously to the cost of faculty development, and in our capital campaign we will be seeking some endowed chairs that will, in effect, give built-in course releases to some of our more distinguished faculty. We’re seeking more funding for Calvin Research Fellowships, most of which we’re paying for out of the capital budget. If we can get those endowed, that would be a wonderful thing for the college. And we’re seeking funding for student research and summer research assistantships so that we can get more of our students into the lab in summers.
Q: Is Calvin keeping up with other institutions in faculty salary and compensation?
A: Over the past two years we have added some increments to the faculty salary in order to try to catch up. For us it’s a matter of parity and justice, and we have a bit to make up. Our compensation package — health insurance, retirement, dental and life insurance — those things are all really top-notch. I think Calvin has really made a commitment over the past 30 years or so to do the very best it could along those lines. But when we compare our pay scale to other church-based colleges in the Midwest, we do have a ways to go.
Q: It appears that Calvin is becoming more international in its student body, faculty and programs. Is this internationalization of Calvin purposeful, and what impact is this having on the educational experience of today’s students?
A: It is purposeful. It is something that we’ve built into our core curriculum, and it’s based on a couple of things. One is that our students come here with a much more cosmopolitan background. Many of them have been in e-mail chat rooms with people from halfway around the world. There’s a new integration going on in America, so when our students come here from high school, we have 30 different ethnic groups and languages represented in the student body. They demand an education that goes beyond North America. So part of it is student demand.
The other part of it is our own reading of the signs of the times, both larger patterns — political, economic, cultural — that we see, but also what we see in the Christian church. The faith that we profess is professed by many more people through the south and east than to the north. Christianity is going through a major shift in its place in the world. It is growing in Asia, Africa, Latin America.
Half of all the world’s Anglicans live in Africa. Forty percent of all the world’s known Catholics live in Latin America. It’s a tremendous shift in where Christianity is in the world, and increasingly a shift in how our theology is developed and who the world leaders of the church are.
We say we serve the church. We say we exist to educate young people to be Kingdom agents in the world. The world has shrunk, and the church has shifted its voice in the world.
So Calvin has had to change. In 1996, when I came to Calvin, we had five off-campus semester programs; now, there are ten. In the past 10 years we have more than doubled the number of international students from outside North America who come to Calvin.
We needed to change our core and curriculum in that regard, too. We still teach students about Western civilization, but we make sure that every student has the study of other cultures as well. That’s a core requirement now, both in formal course study and also in an experiential cross-cultural engagement requirement. A lot of American colleges and universities did away with foreign language requirements a long time ago. Calvin’s core curriculum stands firm on keeping the requirement that every student should have college-level competence in a foreign language.
For some time now, we’ve had some interdisciplinary majors that really feature other parts of the world. One of the older ones of those is Third World development studies. That’s been going for at least a decade. But a newer one is Asian studies, which we started about three years ago and now are upgrading to a major. We also have a minor that’s just been approved — African studies; another’s on the way — Latin American studies. What make these possible are the Calvin faculty, who started coming in with a greater variety of interests. We already had faculty members here who were studying aspects of Asian civilization. We already had faculty members who were Latin American specialists, and it looks like that kind of broader global interest is just snowballing. So it’s both Calvin wanting to push forward and offer a moral Christian approach to education, but it’s also Calvin driving the bubbling of interest that’s already there from the student body and faculty.
Q: Calvin is looked to by many Christian colleges as a place that actually does faith and learning, and the core curriculum takes integration one step further with the Developing a Christian Mind course for first-year students and the capstone course for students’ majors, but can you summarize the key elements of what makes this approach special and so appreciated in higher education?
A: I think what makes it special at Calvin College is Calvin’s desire to actually engage each of these academic fields with questions predicated by the Christian worldview. So to be engaged, say, in the field of sociology as a Christian scholar means that you ask questions about the structure of society, about the very theories that sociology as a discipline has developed in engaging critical inquiry inside the discipline from a Christian perspective. There is growing interest in either starting out or recovering a Christian approach to higher education. We see a lot of older church-related colleges saying that they want to revisit these issues in a way they haven’t for a few years, and people in other Christian traditions who are really saying, “Let's refine the ideas, the theological gifts that our tradition brings to higher education.” We see that among the Mennonites, Baptists, Lutherans and Roman Catholics. But, I think, among those groups the Calvinists are most insistent upon going inside those disciplines and interrogating them from a Christian point of view, and not simply assuming that in some sort of arrogant way those disciplines have it all wrong and that Calvin’s theology has it all right. But on the other hand, Calvinists are not saying we won’t touch them; we’ll just take them as straight as they come.
Q: That perspective comes with a little bit of a price because church-related colleges are often lightning rods for the social and theological issues of the day. If you’re going to engage each area, you’re going to ask questions and turn up things. If Calvin keeps doing that, won’t it always be in the cross hairs sometimes of very difficult and emotional issues? Does it risk scrutiny from the denomination, from alumni, from donors about what it’s doing?
A: It does, and, of course, Calvin invites this scrutiny. I introduce new faculty members to what it used to be like at a Christian college where the church played a very strong and ongoing and closely related role, and say, well, should we feel nervous about this? Well, maybe so. But, on the other hand, there are actually people who are holding us accountable. What good does it do you to be totally free to think and do anything that you want as an academic when outside of your own hallway nobody really cares? What this signals to us is that we have a supporting constituency that actually cares, and so we should take some comfort in that. Of course, it’s not comfortable to be in the cross hairs of people who have firm convictions about a certain set of issues, and those issues at the time are being hotly contested. That can be very hurtful. It can drain a lot of energy away from the kind of work that faculty are supposed to do. But I think it’s an inescapable tension for a college in general, and for a Christian college in particular.
So the real challenge is this: How do we sustain a lively, Reformed Christian community of learning at Calvin? And the way I see us doing it is by honing these grand old ideas and pondering them afresh and putting them to work.
I realize that in the 19th and 20th century, especially, that there were dozens, probably hundreds, of church-related colleges that became secular, and any Calvin College officer or community member or professor needs to understand and be sobered by that historical example and wonder if that is going to be the fate of this institution, too. Is there something inevitable about secularization in higher education? I don’t know the answer to that question, but I do know what I think is the best strategy, and that is to put those ideas to work, to try to discern God’s way, if you will, at the front lines, In other words, in NFL lore, there are two traditions about the way to have a championship team. One is the tradition of George Halas, the great coach of the Chicago Bears, who said that the best offense is a good defense. And the other tradition is Vince Lombardi’s: the best defense is a good offense. Well, when I first came to Calvin and gave my opening speech, I used both of those. I think if you obsess only on the defensive side, you may miss the moving of the spirit where God wants things to go. So I tend to lean to Lombardi’s side, believing that the best defense against secularization is offense. It’s God’s mission. So, I hope, in that sense, that Calvin remains a missionary institution.
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