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. Vice president for administration, finance and information services Henry DeVries is a 1975 Calvin graduate (biology major) and holds a masters degree in agronomy and a doctorate in floriculture and ornamental horticulture from Cornell University. He began his administrative work at Calvin in 1997, after teaching at Dordt College and working at the Cornell Cooperative Extension, where he was a faculty member and served as the director of the Extension Electronic Technology Group. His responsibilities at Calvin include leadership for information technology, the Hekman Library, the Heritage Hall Archives, and the Instructional Resources Center, as well as for all financial services, physical plant, human resources and auxiliary services.
Q: What is the current state of the campus, and what plans are there for campus additions?
A: We have the benefit of a relatively young campus here at Knollcrest. We talk about building 100-year buildings — buildings that last. Almost everything on this campus has been built within the last 10 to 40 years. And we had the benefit of a long-time single master-plan architect, Bill Fyfe, and now we have [campus architect] Frank Gorman. The college has paid very careful attention to how the place looks and feels architecturally. The Master Plan Committee is concerned with where structures stand within the space of the college, so we just don’t plop buildings down without any purpose or intent.
This 100-year building process gives us a structure that lasts a long time, but about every 35 years or so, you need to do major renovations. Many of the college’s buildings were built in the 1960s and 1970s and are showing signs of aging. Our campus, referred to as a “Sputnik Campus” because a lot of the initial money to build and develop these facilities was provided by government funds during the space race, is in need of some major renovations.
The challenge we have is that many of the buildings on campus were built without additional funds for maintenance. For the renovations, then, either we have to use the “budget dust” that is left at the end of the year, or they don’t get done.
The next things that are expected to happen on the campus are some major renovations to current facilities. We’re looking at several million dollars worth of upgrades for the Fine Arts Center. I think President Byker has calculated that over the 40-some years [of the FAC’s existence] there have been more than 10,000 events in that building, and the seating is still original. We need to work on light, heating, air conditioning, ventilation, sound, seating and floor tile, and then the offices and spaces to support the building. So once you get started, it turns out to be a significant endeavor.
... over the 40-some years [of the FAC’s existence] there have been more than 10,000 events in that building, and the seating is still original.
We also have plans to renovate the Fieldhouse, which at one time was the finest facility in the MIAA. This renovation and the addition of a Wellness Center will provide more opportunities for all of our students. Currently, our limited space and facilites restrict the amount of participation in fitness activities for students. Our goal is to enhance these opportunities by providing more and upgraded facilities.
As for the Commons, there is a strong desire on the part of the student life division to have a single facility that serves as home to the entire campus. Unlike many other institutions of our size, Calvin does not have a campus union or student center that serves everybody. Our goal is to renovate the Commons for this purpose. Additional work at Knollcrest Dining Hall is also necessary in terms of updating and refurbishing.
We finished a cycle through the residence halls, where windows, carpet, wiring, plumbing and all new furniture was done. We’ve been working our way through the academic buildings; that’s an expensive process because the codes have changed, so the amount of heating and air conditioning and ventilation that was adequate when the buildings were built now entails a significant investment because of what is currently required for indoor air quality, asbestos abatement, mold control and moisture management.
Q: What’s been your assessment of the growth of technology on campus? Does the upgrading process ever stop?
A: People say that strategic planning for information technology is an oxymoron because you never know what’s around the corner. That being said, we’ve been really fortunate at Calvin for a couple of reasons. The first year that I was here, President Byker secured the approval of the Board of Trustees to set aside an extra slice of tuition — about 1.9 percent — to fund technology because we couldn’t keep up. Because of that we’ve been able to develop a process by which we replace all the desktop computers that are used by faculty, staff and students every three years — so technology stays current.
In addition, we have been working on three other major campus projects. The first one was ResNet, which brought residential high-speed networking into every dorm room. We have what we call “one port per pillow,” which means every student can hook up a computer at their desk in the residence hall and have high-speed access to the Internet.
The second project that we went through was to put technology in the classrooms. If alums who were here five years ago came back now, they probably wouldn’t recognize the classrooms. Eighty-five percent of our classrooms are “smart classrooms,” with a computer, DVD player, VCR, sound system and overhead video projector so that faculty members can provide any number of media experiences to their students. I was sitting in on an engineering class this fall, and the students were giving their presentations in PowerPoint. The technology for presentation teaching is in all of our classrooms. Faculty are finding ways to use this technology and bring it into the classroom. When you think about students who are currently in college, these are kids who grew up on Sesame Street. They’re very accustomed to communicating with technology; it’s completely part of their lives. They learn that way, so we provide it in the classroom.
The next thing that we’re beginning to get involved with is providing wireless access on campus. Increasingly, when students or parents come for a tour, they ask, “Do you have wireless on campus?” We’ve been waiting a little bit for that technology to mature. Waiting some usually brings the price of technology down. Student Senate has also been asking for wireless for about a year now. There was a test project this fall, and throughout the spring we’re going to roll out wireless into Johnny’s (the Commons coffee shop), the library and the Forum of the DeVos Communication Center — three public spaces where people can come in and use their laptop computers. We’re not quite sure how we’re going to move forward in the classrooms yet because some faculty are not comfortable with students having uncontrolled access in the classroom. So we’re going to start with public spaces and residence halls and gradually move toward academic areas to see how it’s going to work.
Q: What is the college doing to be effective and efficient in its operations, and how does this affect tuition costs?
A: Calvin is typical of most kinds of public service agencies; we’re a nonprofit. The majority of our expenses are related to personnel, thus most of the money raised through a tuition increase translates into the actual costs of salaries and benefits for the faculty and staff. One of the things that makes us a very affordable place is the incredible productivity of the people who work here. Calvin has a history of finding very qualified people and putting them on our staff rather than having external contractors or outsourcing certain tasks — because people who have a strong allegiance to the institution generally work harder and do a better job for us. There’s a lot of loyalty to the institution.
Another remarkable feature is the ratio of staff to faculty at Calvin. We are unique in that our ratio is about 1.1 staff member for every faculty member, so if we have 300 faculty members, that’s about 330 staff members. The average liberal arts college, with a ratio of about 1.8 staff members for every faculty member, would have about 540 staff members. We’d have to hire another 200 people around here just to get up to the average! I don’t know where we’d put them; I don’t know how we’d pay them. Our employees are extremely efficient; they’re extremely productive. They’re very stewardly with their time and with the college’s resources.
The same thing is true for the faculty. Our faculty works more hours, writes more articles and teaches more classes than their peers in many institutions do. That being said, because such a large percentage of our budget is personnel based, our costs do have to go up every year, a little bit more than the cost of living, in order to be able to provide a fair salary to the people who work here.
It’s a real tough balance because I think if you were to look at the quality of a Calvin education, which is considered extremely high, and then look at our tuition compared with other schools, we probably have the capacity, in terms of our quality, to charge more tuition. That would, of course, translate into more programs for students and more financial aid. But it’s a puzzle because we always challenge ourselves to keep tuition down.
In a strange way, being this efficient might cause families to discount us because they assume that our tuition can’t possibly provide the education that we actually offer. So it’s hard to find a balance between what we could do and the programs we need to support.
Q: How does endowment relate to Calvin’s costs?
A: Endowment is a great opportunity. As I explained it to some students recently, an endowment is a gift that really keeps on giving because the money is set aside in an investment, but the interest from that money continues to be used for support. We’ve had tremendous success with alumni and friends of the college supporting endowed scholarships. That’s one way that endowment helps us — and helps specific students.
We also have an endowment that works for other things — research fellowships, chairs and institutes — and endowments for buildings. The real value of endowment is the fact that because these programs and facilities are functioning on funds that don’t come from tuition, they give us “budget relief.” The dollars that we would have used to support these programs and facilities can then go into other programs, financial aid and scholarships, and research support for faculty members.
"We want the money that students pay for tuition to be directly related to the quality of education they receive and not to physical plant improvements. That’s why endowment is so critical to us." — Henry DeVries
For our projects today, we build in endowments to ensure long-range sustainability. We’re also talking about raising money from alumni and friends of the college who understand this need and are interested in setting up money to endow the college’s ongoing operation and maintenance. For DeVries Hall [of Science], the engineering building, Bunker Interpretive Center and DeVos Communication Center, gifts were given to provide for the ongoing operational costs such as utilities, and custodial services and equipment replacement. So these buildings are a little more self-supporting.
We want to be able to continue to take care of the college without putting the burden on tuition. We want the money that students pay for tuition to be directly related to the quality of education they receive and not to physical plant improvements. That’s why endowment is so critical to us.
When I was a student here in the early 1970s, I probably should have paid a little more tuition that could have been set aside to take care of the facilities and buildings that I used. But the college historically has always charged just enough tuition to support the current programs but not enough to have money to set aside. In a sense, all alumni benefited from a lower tuition rate than what was truly necessary.
Q: How many employees are there at Calvin, and what are the most daunting challenges in human resources?
A: There are about 650; that would be considered a pretty decent sized company.
One of the challenges that we face is trying to find a more diverse employee base. We have been concerned for years about multicultural diversity and anti-racism. But our Calvin workforce does not yet reflect what [provost] Joel [Carpenter] calls “the larger broadness and color of the kingdom of God.” Part of that comes from the fact that people who come to work here are very loyal and stay for a very long time. That’s a wonderful thing because there’s a great amount of wisdom and history in the people who are here. Thus, we have very few openings to try to find people who can increase the diversity and meet the needs of our increasingly diverse student body.
We’re also nonprofit, and anybody who manages a nonprofit — whether it’s a church, Christian school or a service agency — understands that non-profits don’t have the same hiring/firing flexibility as for-profit enterprises do. They also don’t have the ruthless bottom-line mentality that corporations might have if sales go down. This last year, when the number of first-year students went down, we said, “We’re committed to keeping everybody employed, and we’ll tighten the belt in other ways.” Our commitment to our employees is really important.
One of the things we say to faculty and staff alike is that although the salary piece might not seem as attractive here as it might be in a corporate environment, the total compensation and the quality of the workplace are unmatched. I confidently tell new employees that Calvin is the greatest place you could ever hope to work. And sometimes they don’t quite believe me. But they’ll be here a few months, and I’ll say, “What do you think?” They agree; it’s a phenomenal place to work.
People here really understand the mission of Calvin College, and they believe in it. That’s another reason we have such longevity. People come here to work because they believe in the mission of this place as much as they come here for employment. That’s true at every level of the institution; I find it in directors and in computer Helpdesk people and in custodians and accountants and human resources staff.
Q: As the person who’s responsible for the budget, where do you see the college’s need most prominently expressed?
A: I guess the thing that appeals most to individuals when talking about Calvin College is its ongoing issue of affordability and quality. One way that alumni can continue to support us is by annually giving to the Calvin Fund. That is a source of current funding — and, in fact, it’s that current funding, along with the scholarship relief from endowment funds, that provide the daily operational dollars for the college.
I’m impressed that if we have to cut back the budget, our employees don’t grumble. We have had a couple of situations where we thought we had more money available, and we had to say, “Sorry, we had to do this or that and cut the budget back.” People don’t grouse; they just buck up and keep working hard and keep going forward. But the ability to have the resources available to let people expand their vision and their dream, to take the next step, to do just a little bit more, to try something new, would be nice.
Q: In comparison with other colleges that you’ve visited, what stands out about Calvin College?
A: This is a beautiful campus, and it’s incredibly well maintained, internally and externally — everything from what the grounds people do with the plantings, the lawn mowing and the tree trimming to the architecture. There’s something very peaceful about this place because the buildings fit together. This place is “Prairie School”; the structures feel like they belong in the landscape. And there’s the internal maintenance, the care, the cleanliness. There’s something about this sense of pride in people who work and believe in the mission and want to make this the very best place it can be, whether it’s keeping the carpets clean or keeping the snow shoveled and the lawn mowed, or ensuring the quality of the academic program.
My job, broadly speaking, is to be responsible for the facilities, the finances and the people. And everything comes together in the Calvin faculty and staff because they are taking care of this campus for the “stakeholders” who invest in Calvin — parents, students, alumni and everyone else. The people who work here believe in what Calvin does, and they want to make it the very best place it can be, and that shows.
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