In a wealth of roles, both within Calvin College and beyond its campus, Gordon Van Harn has shown his genius for drawing the big picture. The former Calvin professor, dean and provost is especially adept at describing the sizeable landscape of faith-based learning. And the colleagues who have served with Van Harn in classrooms and in board rooms recall the grace, thoughtfulness and integrity with which he exemplified a faithful learner in his extraordinary career.
Raised in Jenison, Mich., Van Harn graduated from Calvin College in 1957 with majors in chemistry and biology. Upon earning his Ph.D. in physiology from the University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign in 1961, he joined Calvin’s biology department, teaching human anatomy and animal physiology and doing biological research.
“I still remember his lectures. They elucidated the material and encouraged self-learning on the part of his students. They were not pedantic,” recalled former student and current professor of physiology Robert Wondergem.
His former professor was equally encouraging outside the classroom, Wondergem added, devoting his evenings and weekends to helping students on research projects and welcoming them into his home. “I can honestly say that my own career in biomedical research would not have happened if Professor Van Harn had not taken time to single me out with encouragement and direction at a time in my life when I had significant doubts about my choice of study.”
Dr. Van Harn also excelled in his own choice of study, animal physiology, earning the biology department’s first NIH grant in 1963 for his work on gastrointestinal smooth muscles in frogs.
Two years into his teaching career, Van Harn was appointed to the college’s curriculum study committee. He — along with college president William Spoelhof and iconic professors Nicholas Wolterstorff, Gordon Spykman, George Harper, Charles Miller and John Vanden Berg — drafted a report on which Calvin’s distinctive 4-1-4 curriculum was based.
“I was a kid. I was a youngster…. They knew a lot more than I did,” Van Harn remembered. “It was almost a seminar in Christian higher education. It was a very formative time for me,” he recalled.
In 1982, Calvin created the post of academic dean of natural sciences and contextual disciplines and tapped Van Harn to fill it. In 1985, Van Harn stepped into the role of provost as part of then-president Anthony Diekema’s administration.
“I always used to tell Gord that the provost’s job was the toughest and the most important job in the college or university,” Diekema said. “He never quite acknowledged that, but it is. It’s the toughest job because the primary responsibility is to keep the faculty doing their job and keep the academic programs going.” Of Van Harn’s tenure as provost, Diekema said simply: “He was superb. He had the respect of the faculty and was never deliberately confrontational but very deliberate at looking at an issue.”
It was during his time as provost that Van Harn was able to bring together all the lessons he learned as a youngster on the curriculum committee, as an educator and researcher, and as a shaper of academic policy in An Expanded Statement of the Mission of Calvin College. “People were giving their own statement of what our mission was, and I thought it needed to be done collectively,” he said of that endeavor. Professor of history James Bratt, who helped draft the statement, explained why it is so strongly identified with Van Harn: “… the mission statement’s prescribed virtues for Calvin as a community describe Gord Van Harn as a person. He has been purposeful, just, compassionate and disciplined. He has given sacrificially to the kingdom.”
Those qualities are recognized well outside the parameters of Calvin’s campus. Following his retirement from administration, Van Harn helped plan the DeVries Hall of Science. In 1996, he brought his sense of purpose, compassion and discipline to the Grand Rapids Public School Board. “Gordon was just an outstanding board member,” said Brian Craig, president of the board during Van Harn’s term. “He used his faith-based background, his ethics, to weigh very carefully everything he did…. And sometimes we were on the opposite side on issues, and then I was worried because I knew how well he thought things through.”
Today, Van Harn serves as the director of the Van Andel Education Institute, which studies best practices for education. He enjoys family life with wife, Mary Kool Van Harn ’57; his children, Pamela, Mark, and Barbara; and their families. And he takes a little time to articulate his own comprehensive mission: “To be faithful to my God and Creator in all that I do.”
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