Spark begins a six-part series of conversations with the leadership of Calvin College, bringing readers up to date with campus issues and examining future directions. President Gaylen Byker is a 1973 graduate of Calvin, a Vietnam veteran and recipient of a law degree (University of Michigan) and doctoral degree in international relations (University of Pennsylvania). Prior to accepting the appointment as President, he worked in the fields of international banking and energy.
Q: You’re approaching the nine-year mark as President of Calvin College. What is your assessment of how the college has changed over this period of time?
A: When I first came to Calvin, I spent a year trying to get a clear understanding of what was going on at the college in all areas. I visited all 45 departments, asked questions and read a lot of documents. I concluded that the college was doing a good job of accomplishing its mission, but that Calvin’s mission had not been re-articulated for the 21st century.
I jokingly said, “We have a great institution; we have everything figured out for the 1980s, but it’s 1995!”
Since I’ve been here, we have developed a new strategic plan; we have updated and revised the campus master plan; we have crafted a new core curriculum; our computing, presentation, communication and related technologies have grown enormously. We continually review many aspects of the operation of the college — most recently, the plan for cross-cultural engagement and diversity in addressing issues of race and ethnicity on campus. The college’s faculty and student body have become more diverse, and its programs have taken on an increasingly global character.
So we’ve worked at translating the core mission of the college into what it needs to be and how it needs to function in an era of rapid change. The pace of change at Calvin has certainly sped up significantly in the last nine years.
I would also say that Calvin has done a very good job of increasing the academic caliber of the institution while at the same time increasing and improving the spiritual development and Christian vocational awareness of students and faculty members. That is an unusual course of development. Calvin has been improving both the academic character of the college and its spiritual dimension at the same time in ways that are integrated and mutually reinforcing. Most schools have chosen to do one or the other of these. We’ve tried very hard to do both. I think that if I had to pick the area in which the college has changed the most in the last nine years, it would be that it examined its mission — not to change it; we’re in complete agreement on the Mission Statement — and improved how it plays out in academic programs, in the development of students’ spiritual lives, in faculty scholarship and in community engagement.
Q: Many alumni who visit the campus during the academic year, after being away for a long time, remark about the spirituality on campus. Can you describe what’s happening here?
A: Spirituality really involves all aspects of the college. The student life activities and chapel programs are much more active and vibrant. I think that students are looking for spiritual nurture. They’re more willing to share their faith, and they’re more anxious to get involved in worship and in a whole variety of Bible studies and mentoring relationships. We have new programs — like the Lilly Vocation Project, worship apprenticeships and internships in churches and missions. It has been multi-faceted development at Calvin that has made spirituality more evident.
These activities all reinforce what Calvin has long been known for: the integration of faith and learning in the classroom. They make it much more vibrant than it used to be, too. Calvin is a school at which the development of the heart and mind go together. We take our hearts to class and our minds to chapel.
Having a required course for first-year students called Developing a Christian Mind, with a book that was written specifically for this course by our former dean of the chapel, is another obvious change. Our opening convocation worship service and the second semester convocation are very well attended. It says much that Calvin has 4,000 people voluntarily and enthusiastically show up at such a service.
Q: You’ve been quoted as saying that faculty members are the heart of the college. How is Calvin backing that up in the care and keeping of its professors?
A: Since I’ve been president, we’ve hired more than a third of the faculty who are now here. It’s been a very exciting and satisfying process to look for both young and experienced faculty members who share the vision of an academically excellent, distinctively Christian college. Our Kuiper Seminar [a month-long, full-time introduction to Reformed thought and the integration of faith and learning for new faculty members] is a model for Christian colleges all over the world now. We have colleges in places as far away as Korea and West Africa looking at what we’re doing and following our lead. This seminar sets the faculty on a trajectory for developing as both teachers and scholars, with the integration of faith and learning right at the core.
What’s been really satisfying is to see that almost every year we have two or three very successful established scholars coming from other universities or colleges who say, “I really want to come to Calvin. If you’ve got an opening, let me know.” In fact, there are several faculty members who attended our Seminars in Christian Scholarship, saw what was going on at Calvin and said, “I really want to be part of this.” So unlike many schools that have a tough time finding people who fit their faith tradition, we’ve had, in many disciplines, a large number of people coming to us and saying, “This Reformed tradition is really the model that we see having the greatest impact on Christian higher education, and we want to be part of it.” We’ve been building on that, particularly with departmental mentoring, and with the whole reappointment process geared to focus on these issues.
So the faculty really is at the heart of what we’re trying to do. Our faculty members teach a large number of courses, compared with teachers at other top Christian colleges and state universities, and, in addition, they excel at the amount of scholarship they do in terms of the number of books and articles they write, the number of conferences at which they present and the number of churches and schools at which they speak. Calvin faculty pushes the limits of how much engagement academics can have with students and the life of the mind from a Christian perspective.
Q: Is there competition for getting and keeping faculty members? Does it keep getting tougher?
A: Competition for good faculty is becoming a bigger issue. One of the things about Calvin’s thrifty way of doing things is that we’ve always operated to keep tuition and the budget as low as possible. Thus, we’ve not kept faculty salaries anywhere near what schools with whom we compete are paying. If you compare Calvin with the other schools in the MIAA or other excellent Christian colleges or state institutions such as the University of Michigan, our faculty teach more courses while receiving pay that is as much as 35 percent below theirs. So recruitment is only one part of it. We also need to have the kind of pay and benefits that make it attractive to stay. That being said, Calvin has done a pretty good job in the past. We need to maintain that longevity and commitment, because the people who’ve been here 15, 20 or 30 years are the ones who really understand the mission of the college and do a great job of conveying that to students.
Q: Colleges in general are being criticized about tuition increases, but there are tuition pressures — and certainly at Calvin there are some unique ones. What are some of the major cost pressures, and how is Calvin managing them?
A: I believe that the faculty salary issue is the biggest single cost pressure. Faculty salaries and benefits make up the largest single item in the budget. And if we’re going to maintain the quality of the college on that front, we need to catch up with or at least move some of the way toward what faculty members make at comparable institutions. And health care costs continue to escalate.
We’ve also done some work on what I call “finishing the campus.” Finishing it and then operating and maintaining an enlarged facility add pressure to the budget — look what’s happened to natural gas prices for heating and cooling. There are also needs for extensive renovations and repairs for facilities that are now 40 years old. The difficulty is that by keeping tuition low — at marginal operating cost — no reserves have been built up to pay for these projects. In addition, Calvin has a very small endowment per student, compared with other institutions of its caliber.
Calvin has also traditionally been very lean in staffing, but there are some areas where there are increased government requirements for health and safety, and in other areas like information technology and lab set-up and assistance in the sciences, where we’ve absolutely had to hire more people. These are some of the most pressing issues in terms of cost of education at Calvin. And that being said, our tuition is still considerably below any comparable institution you can find.
Q: You’ve made the comment many times that Calvin has become a more international institution. This seems to be a major theme on campus these days.
A: It is a major theme. In almost all areas of life, whether in media or politics or the military or culture or business, globalization and international contacts and activities are rising. And Calvin is leading the way in this area. There are a variety of indicators to show that this is the case.
One is that we send approximately half of our students to programs in other countries during their stay at Calvin, which is extremely high for a college of our type. We have eight of our own semester programs in countries such as Ghana, China, Honduras, Spain and England, and our faculty and students have terrific experiences there. Plus, we have more than 30 interims abroad every January, and we’re now starting to offer some in May. These programs constitute a major part of the educational internationalization at Calvin.
A second way is in what students study. Calvin offers eight foreign languages, and almost all students take a foreign language and have a real opportunity to understand what people from another country believe, how they live and how they communicate. We also have many courses, internships and service projects that deal with other cultures, political systems and bodies of literature, so that there’s a much greater cross-cultural engagement — now a requirement of the core curriculum.
And there are two other areas in which the broadening of the college is probably even more visible — areas that have a huge impact. One is the large number of international students coming to campus from 54 countries, and the other is the number of foreign faculty members on staff. We have approximately 40 faculty members who are natives of other countries — 15 other countries — and that is a very significant and positive trend. It has been really fascinating to embrace people from other Reformed denominations — Korean Presbyterians, Ghanaian Presbyterians, and Reformed scholars from places like England and Australia, South Africa and Egypt, and Indonesia. We also have very very interesting faculty exchange programs and visiting scholars who have enriched what is going on at Calvin and who have given our students a tremendous opportunity to see what God’s world is like in all of its diversity.
Q: Calvin’s historical connection to the Christian Reformed Church (CRC) has been mutually beneficial. Today, the number of CRC students makes up about 50 percent of the student body. How would you characterize Calvin’s relationship with the church?
A: I believe that the relationship between Calvin and the Christian Reformed Church is as good as or better than it’s ever been. We have a tremendous number of interactions and partnerships with various agencies of the church — worship materials have been developed for churches by Calvin’s Institute of Christian Worship; we’re working with World Missions in China and in Africa, and with the Christian Reformed World Relief Committee in Honduras. We have the Lilly Vocation Project developing young people for ministry. They are working with congregations in West Michigan and, in fact, across North America. The list goes on and on of things that we do collaboratively with the denomination. And I personally meet, almost every month, with a group of CRC pastors from somewhere in North America; that’s an important way of maintaining contact and communication. I think that the relationship with the church is vital for Calvin in its commitment to maintain its mission. We say in our Expanded Statement of Mission that “the college needs the church, and the church needs the college,” and I think that has never been truer than it is now.
There is a challenge. The financial support from the CRC has hardly changed at all for the last 20 years. During that period the college has grown, and its budget has more than doubled. So today, denominational ministry shares are less than four percent of the budget. We value highly and are very grateful for the $2.8 million — which, by the way, is an average of $17.45 per CRC member — of annual funding because that money is used for scholarships to Christian Reformed students. But we are not seeing anything like the proportion of CRC funding that we did in the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s.
Q: How does a college communicate its faithfulness to Scripture and faithfulness to the church when hot-button issues get raised, and the college, as an academic institution studying all areas of creation, seems caught in the middle?
A: Well, if you look at the kind of scholarship, presentations and classroom lectures that Calvin faculty members are giving, you see a very serious attempt to be faithful to the Reformed tradition and its interpretation of Scripture. Faculty members do this at the same time they are exploring Christian responses to today’s tough issues. The issues may be new, but the Christian commitments and the way of approaching them are not. When I see what goes on in the classroom, when I get reports from large numbers of parents about what tremendous role models faculty members have been for students, and what kind of careers and what kind of testimonies these students have when they leave us, I remain very, very positive about how Calvin fulfills its mission, its claim of being distinctively Christian.
Ask any member of the Board of Trustees what they think after sitting in a classroom or hearing tenure interviews with our faculty; they will wholeheartedly agree with me. I think that Calvin is as self-consciously Reformed today as it has ever been. Take the Developing a Christian Mind idea: to have 40 faculty members teaching a course with that focus every January, inviting students to enter this Christian liberal arts project with the purpose of emerging with what we call a “Christian mind,” a Christian worldview. That is unique and significant. So when we address challenging issues in the curriculum or faculty scholarship, the very centerpiece of that effort is this Christian worldview component, which is often counter-cultural. That’s really exciting because this approach is thriving at the same time that the college’s academic reputation continues to improve.
Q: Much has been made about the college’s building effort east of the Beltline, connected by Calvin’s Crossing. What are some of the main elements of the campus master plan on the horizon in the coming years?
A: One relatively small project that’s being completed right now is the Ecosystem Preserve Interpretive Center. It’s going to be a nice addition to that part of the campus, both for the education of Calvin students and community education — particularly for local elementary and middle schools — in the use of the great resources of the preserve.
There are two other projects that are being contemplated. One is construction of a wellness center adjacent to the Fieldhouse and renovation of the Fieldhouse, which is now over 40 years old. A second major project on the horizon is a campus union. This will likely include a renovated and expanded version of the Commons, and will probably entail simultaneous enlargement and renovation of Knollcrest Dining Hall. The wellness center project will address the tremendous change over the last 40 years in the number of students who, while not student-athletes, want to use the facilities. Whether it’s for exercise, aerobics, weight lifting, swimming or intramural sports, there’s tremendous demand for additional recreational opportunities on campus. And it fits well with Calvin’s desire to train students for a holistic approach to life. This means they acquire good knowledge and habits about both academic subjects and lifestyle, including recreation and exercise and eating habits — everything that goes into a healthy lifestyle.
On the campus union front, we are really short of space for student organizations, and for students who live off-campus to gather and interact and fully participate in what happens on campus. We need a “campus living room,” if you will, a gathering place for faculty and students, particularly our 1,600 students who live off campus. There will be offices for student organizations, the counseling center and student support services; intimate performance venues; a new bookstore and alternative dining opportunities. We anticipate that Knollcrest Dining Hall will be available for dining perhaps 12 hours a day instead of being open for an hour and a half three times a day. The campus union would more likely have a food court and a cafeteria where you could get a hamburger or pizza or sub sandwich, and be open 18 hours a day. So it would be a real hub of activity for the campus.
Q: Even though you aren’t an admissions officer, you are, in a sense, the chief recruiter for Calvin. What do you tell prospective students and their families to encourage them to attend Calvin?
A: I use the experience of my daughter and many other students I’ve gotten to know while they were here. I try to convince prospective students and their parents that this is the place where they can get the best Christian liberal arts education. The combination of strong academic and faith-based education is not only theoretically possible, but it actually happens here in a very positive way. Popular mythology holds that if a college is Christian, it can’t be all that good academically, or if a college is great academically, it cannot be all that serious about faith and spiritual development. At Calvin, you can have it both. Our alumni demonstrate this over and over again. When I look at what our alumni do, I see that they demonstrate both of these things in a superior fashion. That, to me, is the real test. Are we training students only for the first jobs they’re going to get, or are we training them for 60 or 70 years of lives as Christians? I think we’re doing a very good job of the latter, and employers think so, too. The fact that we rank number one in the country among master’s-granting institutions for students who go on to get graduate and professional degrees demonstrates that the graduate and professional schools think so, as well. These kinds of indicators answer many of the questions that parents and students have about the kind of education they’re going to get at Calvin. The variety of things that go into making this a unique place — being large enough to have large departments with a full array of majors, but being small enough to be one single faculty committed to one Christian liberal arts mission — are the kinds of things that go into my attempt to persuade people to come to Calvin. The college is going to produce great lawyers, doctors, ministers and business people as it always has, but I think today’s Calvin students gain much broader and deeper perspectives as a result of participating in the Calvin experience. This college has a tremendous history and an exciting future.
Giving to Calvin
Majors & Minors
People at Calvin