Trustee statement generates faculty reaction
Board will review at February session

2009 Board of Trustees
2009-2010 Board of Trustees

A memo sent to all Calvin employees in late August by the college’s board of trustees resulted in a series of letters, meetings and forums that will stretch into next year.

In May 2009 the Calvin board of trustees approved a statement that said board expectations for the college were that advocacy by faculty and staff, both in and out of the classroom, for homosexual practice and same-sex marriage is unacceptable. It also said that there are cases in which academic integrity will require acquainting students with alternate views. However, the position of the church should be clearly and sympathetically presented.

The statement and the cover letter asked an already established group, the Homosexuality and Community Life Task Force, to help delineate “advocacy”—what is and what is not acceptable. The board sent its statement on Aug. 21 to faculty and staff, along with a memo explaining why it had adopted the statement.

Some Calvin faculty members reacted to the August memo because they believe the statement represents a significant departure from the college’s long-established committee and faculty governance structure (the May 2009 statement did not go through any faculty-involved process or representative body such as the faculty senate). Some also asserted that the statement would have a significant impact on academic freedom and add a new requirement to the faculty handbook. Finally, others questioned whether the issue of homosexuality has confessional status in the Christian Reformed Church (CRC).

The board explained it was addressing a CRC congregation’s critical response to the work of a Calvin professor in the area of homosexuality, and the congregation requested board action. Thus the board decided it should issue the 2009 statement, which it assumed would be seen as a clarification of an earlier board statement regarding the topic and an affirmation of a long-standing CRC position on homosexuality.

In late September the faculty senate passed a resolution asking the board to withdraw the memo, saying that the board statement of May 2009 would represent a change in policy, one that had not gone through any of the college’s normal governance channels.

“The process was an issue for faculty,” said Karin Maag, history professor and vice chair of the faculty senate. “In addition the stricture on advocacy was not defined—no one could really expand on what the board meant by advocacy—and faculty were worried, rightfully so, that they could not discuss this issue in any sort of meaningful way in the classroom without being censured.”

At its October 2009 meetings, the board of trustees established a new committee, to be comprised of five Calvin board members, to conduct extensive consultations and conversations with Calvin faculty and report to the board at its February 2010 meeting as it seeks to fulfill its board-directed, three-fold mandate.

“The committee has been asked to do three things,” said board chair Bastian Knoppers: “First, to revisit the board’s May 2009 statement on homosexuality in light of its (upcoming) consultations and the September 2009 faculty senate resolution; second, to suggest ways that the college, including faculty, administrators and the board, can effectively study and articulate the relationship between academic freedom and Calvin’s identity as a Reformed, confessional Christian college; and third, to study and make recommendations about when and how the question of the confessional status of the CRC position on homosexual practice should be submitted to Synod.”

The board spent many hours at its October meetings listening to faculty—some of whom expressed concerns about the process connected to the board’s May statement—considering the senate resolution and debating and discussing next steps. At the conclusion of the meetings Knoppers wrote a letter to senate that also was sent to all faculty members, outlining the appointment of the special committee and expressing the board’s regret for the concern that was generated.

While not withdrawing the May 2009 statement Knoppers did say in the letter that the board “decided that further consultations and discussions are necessary before it makes major decisions on the matters involved with its May 2009 statement and the faculty senate resolution.”

He also wrote that: “While the past two months of discussions have been intense, at times uncomfortably so, these discussions have been grounded in good thinking, frank speaking and spirited meetings. The trustees and faculty members involved realize that the issues identified are now more sharply focused. Perhaps the conversations started by the board’s May 2009 statement are overdue. While awkwardly begun, the discussions, debates, panels, meetings and writings will, we believe, make the college a better place. Our hope is that we can work together in a collegial and mutually accountable way, moving forward more slowly, with more conversations, drawing on the deep commitment to our common mission that we share.”
Maag also is hopeful. She co-moderated a panel discussion that the board had with Calvin professors Jim VandenBosch, Simona Goi, Ruth Groenhout, David Koetje and Doug Koopman and said it was a good opportunity for both board members and faculty to hear from each other and to understand other points of view.

“I was deeply impressed by our colleagues’ statements,” Maag said. “They were clear, cogent and highlighted a range of reasons why the memo has caused real problems and should be rescinded. The trustees I met seemed keen to understand our viewpoints and asked good questions. I don’t blame them for wanting to take more time and not make another snap decision. In that sense, I honor the board’s desire for conversation and am prepared to participate fully in that.”