From where Gerry Van Kooten is sitting, in a utilitarian basement office in DeVries Hall, he can keep an eye on his many projects: a local water watch program, a projected geology interim class in Montana, an effort to improve local science education, and a museum-quality collection of fossils in the office next door.
From where Corwin Smidt sits — in his spacious DeVos Center office, lined with campaign memorabilia — he can see a change on the political horizon. He is eyeing the idea that deeply religious people of many faiths might be changing the political process.
From Paul Freston’s seat in a small Spoelhof Center office, stacked with books and research, he is directing the research of scholars from Korea, China, Nigeria, the Philippines — and soon, he hopes, South Africa and Ghana — into the history and sociology of Protestant missions in the third world. It is research that will become a book.
And from Quentin Schultze’s seat, in a state-of-the-art office chair that leans way back, he is planning a whole array of future seminars, conferences, internships, workshops and consultancies related to Christianity and communications.
Wherever these scholars are located, each of them has, in a sense, the same distinguished seat. Van Kooten, Smidt, Freston and Schultze are the holders of Calvin’s four endowed academic chairs. From where they sit, they direct institutes, author books, trail blaze new areas of study, host conferences and seminars, promote student research and significantly extend Calvin’s reach — both academic and spiritual — around the world.
“Endowed professorships are basically new to Calvin,” said Calvin director of development Jan Druyvesteyn, who describes the chairs as “an affirmation of the intellectual life” of an institution. Each of the college’s existing endowed chairs — familiarly known as the Spoelhof, Henry, Byker and DeKruyter chairs — was endowed within the last 11 years, two of them in the last year.
Yet the history of academic chairs at Calvin actually goes back to April 1952, when, as part of her post-World War II tour of the United States, Queen Juliana of the Netherlands made a courtesy call to the college’s Franklin campus. “Part of the ceremony of welcoming her was that the Board of Trustees instituted the Queen Juliana Chair of the Language and Culture of the Netherlands,” said Herman De Vries, an associate professor of Germanic languages and the current holder of the chair. “It was to honor her and her visit and to honor the connection that this college has always had with the Netherlands,” he explained.
While Queen Juliana’s honored chair has never been endowed, it does lend prestige to the college, De Vries said: “It puts us on the map with [the very few] other universities who teach Dutch language and culture in the U.S.” Walter Lagerway was the first holder of the Queen Juliana Chair. (“He had a large international presence in the field of Netherlandic studies,” said De Vries.) Martinus Bakker held the chair from 1994 to 1997; he was succeeded by De Vries in 1999.
Calvin’s first endowed academic chair was created in 1994, when Detroit real estate entrepreneurs Stanley ’52 and Harriet van Reken donated $1 million to establish the William Spoelhof Teacher/Scholar-in-Residence Chair, in honor of Calvin’s venerable former president. From its inception, the Spoelhof Chair has been used to add exceptional scholarly talents to the Calvin faculty, attracting in turn C. Stephen Evans, Janel Curry, Helen Sterk, Daniel Bays, Jim Ault and Gerald Van Kooten.
“They are looking for somebody who will be a good teacher, have a strong record of scholarship, and have a strong commitment to the mission of the college,” Curry, now the college’s dean for research and scholarship, said of the ideal Spoelhof candidate. “It’s not just a scholar off doing their own work, but it will bring a kind of synergism with their colleagues.”
“We’re not keen on Lone Ranger scholarship here,” Calvin provost Joel Carpenter elaborated. “We’re more keen on people finding a line of inquiry that includes others in the department and better helps us teach our undergraduates.”
Not only do Spoelhof Chair-holders enrich their departments, but they often also expand them or help to pioneer new programs at Calvin. During Curry’s term (1996-1997), she helped found the Calvin Environmental Assessment Program, which studies Calvin’s physical and cultural environment. Sterk (1997-1999) brought speakers on women’s studies to the Calvin campus and helped to pioneer the gender studies minor. And Bays’ assumption of the Spoelhof Chair sparked dramatic growth in the field of Asian studies at Calvin. Renowned for his scholarship on the history of Christianity in China, Bays helped to author the $800,000 Freeman Foundation grant that enabled the department to offer first a viable minor, then a major. “I can’t sing his praises highly enough,” said Bays’ colleague Larry Herzberg.
Like his predecessors, Van Kooten ex’71 is developing several projects simultaneously — some with a potential to reach beyond Calvin. One is the community water watch program, which will commence with monitoring the water quality and quantity of Plaster Creek. Another is an initiative to improve — with Calvin’s programs, equipment and knowledge — high school science programs for Grand Rapids area schools. “If we can do this in Grand Rapids, we can do it anywhere in Michigan, and if you can do it anywhere in Michigan, you can do it anywhere in the U.S.,” he said. Van Kooten is also joining Calvin colleagues from the economics, history, engineering and geology departments for a discussion group on the future of world energy. And then there are the Ammonites — not the biblical folk, but a collection of large, Cretaceous-period, fossilized nautilus shells that Van Kooten harvested in Alaska. He is employing a student to identify the Ammonites by species.
“We all wear a large number of hats in this department, and he wears about five or six,” said geology department chair Ralph Stearley. Prior to coming to Calvin in 2002, Van Kooten worked for ARCO Oil Co. and was one of the people who assessed the aftermath of the Exxon Valdez oil spill. “We were very happy to get someone with his professional expertise,” Stearley said.
Calvin gained its second endowed chair in 1997, when friends and family of the late Paul Henry — a one-time Calvin political science professor and a U.S. representative — donated money to fund a chair in his honor. This academic chair evolved into a chair and an institute, with the holder of the former running the latter. After a nationwide search for a published scholar with expertise in religion and politics, Calvin found the ideal candidate for the Paul B. Henry Chair in Christianity and Politics on its own campus.
A Calvin professor since 1977, Corwin Smidt had been researching the intersection of religion and politics, writing books and participating in national surveys for 15 years. As the holder of the Henry Chair, Smidt continued that task, adding to it the creative and administrative burden of founding an institute.
The Paul B. Henry Institute for the Study of Christianity and Politics regularly hosts nationally and internationally prominent speakers. “We have something almost every other week,” Smidt said. “Some [speakers] are more philosophical, theological. Some are more data driven.” The institute also offers summer graduate student seminars (and, until recently, a semester program in Washington, now run by Calvin’s political science department) and hosts the annual Henry Lecture, which over the years has welcomed political luminaries such as Paul Simon, Mark Hatfield and Dan Coates.
None of this activity has diminished Smidt’s scholarly enterprise. His most recent book, Pulpit and Politics: Clergy in American Politics at the Advent of the Millennium, surveys the political leanings of a whole range of faith traditions. His fellow chair-holders are likewise remarkable for their written output.
“They would be doing it anyway,” commented Carpenter on Smidt’s and other chairs’ range of accomplishments, “and we want to make sure less of it comes out of their hides.” One benefit for academic chair-holders is that they teach fewer courses than their colleagues do.
For Freston, the holder of the one-year-old Gary and Henrietta Byker Chair in Christian Perspectives on Political, Social, and Economic Thought, the reduced teaching load is a respite — “the chance to do more research that was harder to do before” and to attend international conferences. The chair was endowed by friends and family of former Michigan state senator Gary Byker and his wife (the parents of Calvin’s current president) to encourage interrelated study of politics, society and the economy.
Freston — who lived for 20 years in Brazil, teaching for the last 10 at the Federal University of San Carlos — is one of the world’s leading experts on evangelical Christianity in Latin America and the “global south,” or third world, and is the author of Evangelicals and Politics in Africa, Asia and Latin America (Cambridge, 2001). His life experiences in a culture far from his native England allow Freston to challenge the American concept of Christian worldview, to say things like, “Our worldview depends on the size of the world that is effectively in our view.” And his interdisciplinary expertise makes Freston a good fit for the chair, said Carpenter: “Calvin can now be represented by its experts in places where these important issues are discussed.”
Because Quentin Schultze has long played the role of a public expert in his field of communication arts and sciences, he was the logical choice to fill the Arthur H. DeKruyter Chair in Faith and Communication. In 1965, DeKruyter ’47 founded Christ Church of Oak Brook (Ill.), one of the nation’s first community churches. Schultze, a native of Chicago who has taught at Calvin since 1982, is a recognizable Christian voice in the mainstream media and the author of Habits of the High-Tech Heart: Living Virtuously in the Information Age and High-Tech Worship? Using Presentation Technologies Wisely.
“Since Pentecost, the Spirit has enabled Christians to communicate across cultural barriers,” Schultze said at his September inauguration. He, like Smidt before him, will be the director of an institute, the soon-to-be established Gainey Institute for the Study of Faith and Communication, which will be endowed by Harvey and Annie Gainey, owners of Gainey Corporation, a trucking company. The institute will enable Schultze to continue new projects such as last summer’s Calvin Workshops in Communication; he is also planning to offer more student internships in communication arts and sciences, to consult with Christians at numerous conferences and universities, to contribute to Christian publications and to, perhaps, hold a conference or two.
If endowed chairs expand Calvin’s voice in the big conversation, the reverse is also true, said Calvin president Gaylen Byker: “Each of these chair-holders brings a lot to campus. They allow us to learn from a greater variety of people.
“As a result,” he continued, “they will be better teachers, and they will engage students in their research.”
Carpenter echoed that idea, saying that academics of a certain maturity have the “intellectual urge to reproduce.” Calvin’s endowed chairs will offer students expanded opportunities to do research normally available only at the graduate level.
And more chairs are in the works. At this writing, Calvin is close to finalizing the establishment of endowed chairs in organic chemistry, Dutch language and culture, and business ethics. “It’s been very gratifying to see the enthusiasm and support for this aspect of the future of the college,” Byker said.
And, eyeing the opportunities from the newest-created chair, Schultze said, “It changes your whole attitude when you realize you’re starting something that’s going to carry on.”
— Myrna Anderson is Calvin’s staff writer.
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