For more than a year we’ve been reading about the terrible economic realities of the state of Michigan. We’re pretty sure that Calvin College isn’t directly connected to the auto industry or manufacturing in general, but is Calvin doing all right financially in spite of the regional economy and in spite of the Great Recession we’re all living through?
— Looking out for the welfare of Zion,
Dear Looking out,
The first and obvious response is that you should send money, lots of it, to the development folks at the college. It wouldn’t be right to say that the college is in dire straits financially, because it isn’t; nor would it be right to say that the college is doing just fine, and hint that the college doesn’t need your continued support, because it does. But the short answer—send lots of money—doesn’t really address the question you’ve asked. Send lots of money anyway.
Over the last decade people in Grand Rapids have sometimes sensed the acrid odor of Schadenfreude in the air—we suspect that people around the U.S. and Canada feel some sort of perverse pleasure because of the economic suffering that Michigan has been experiencing. Calvin grads, of course, wouldn’t be tempted to feel this way, if only out of loyalty to their alma mater. But doubtless there are enemies of Calvin College who are not sufficiently concerned about the welfare of the city and state to which the college has committed itself. To those folks I can only suggest that there are better enemies to have than Calvin College.
As for the regional economy, the politicians all through the upper Midwest keep telling everyone who will listen that the region is about to turn the corner, economically. I’ve heard this so often that it must be true. Economic forecasting is not my long suit, but it isn’t anyone’s long suit, apparently—unless we start to believe in entropy as long-range forecasting. But allow me to move to a provisional set of answers.
First, in this as in so many other situations, Calvin College is not likely to be the passive victim of large, impersonal forces beyond its control. It is determined, if determined is not too strong a word, to live beyond the constraints of the local, regional or even national economic weather. As I mentioned nearly 20 years ago, when there was some small hysteria about Calvin’s wallowing in a demographic trough, “Calvin can never be in a demographic trough the same way that hogs are in a hog wallow, a-gruntin’ and a-rootin’ and a-groaning. Doubtless we will do a little exploring in that trough, to get to know its contours, its comforts and its fit. But you can depend on it that Calvin College will not for long be ruled by any such trough.” The same goes for Calvin’s participation in what some folks are referring to as this economic downturn.
Second, we need to be a little more careful about names and labels. Michigan is trying to describe places such as Grand Rapids as Cool Cities -- but commenting on that would require another column. Although some claim that we at Calvin are part of the Knowledge Industry, Third Wave or otherwise, it would be more accurate to describe what we do here as kingdom-building, work for which there is not at this moment any need to worry about the laws of supply and demand; it is faithfulness and obedience that matter, and we continue to think of this task as entailing something like full employment.
Third, people at Calvin have been looking into a variety of proposals for making a difference in the local and national economy. One of them has been very interesting, although there is not yet any plan to implement it. It has to do with job creation by simply creating new positions—a clever way to deal with unemployment and outsourcing is to invent new jobs that no one has yet thought of sending elsewhere. Here are some of the positions under consideration, some of them perhaps somewhat academic in character:
Other proposals have come from various departments—a proposal to save endangered letters and punctuation marks from depletion and extinction by careful stewardship of all written work produced or consumed by the college; the implementation of ergonomic initiatives that would transform our relationship to the grid by the assiduous transfer of all exercise energy expended in the Spoelhof Complex to local power utilities; the exploration of the wisdom of reducing, reusing, repairing, recycling or doing without; a series of linked studies on how to avoid becoming a self-consuming artifact; the expansion of our off-campus offerings by teaching all college courses only in robust economic locales; the cornering of the compassion market; the opening of the Metaphorical Playground and Cliché Preserve to the general public, with serious admission fees for the literal-minded and non-playful among us; the declaration of a Year of Jubilee and Jubilation; college development of Web 4.0 and of the next dozen or so Next Really Big Things; initiatives to gain the world.
It’s easy to see how our present economic situation can nudge us forcefully down paths we would never otherwise want to travel, but it will take some wisdom to be able to distinguish between making the most of every opportunity and predatory opportunism. So send lots of cash. But work and pray for wisdom, too.
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