Calvin 2019: Strengthen, Support, Secure

A conversation with the writers of the college’s new strategic plan


Summer 2014

In fall 2013, the college spent time affirming and refining its vision, mission and values. The strategic plan started to take form during this phase and feedback was gathered on initial drafts of the plan. In late January, the BOT approved the college’s proposed five-year strategic plan, which includes six themes centered on strengthening the mission of the college. Calvin communications and marketing director Tim Ellens recently sat down with the writers of the plan—Matt Walhout, dean for research and scholarship; Cheryl Brandsen, dean for the social sciences and contextual disciplines and provost-elect; Will Katerberg, professor of history; and David Wunder, professor of engineering, to discuss the process and purpose of the plan.

Why does Calvin need a strategic plan?

Cheryl: We need something to guide what we’re going to be doing for the next five years in a very intentional way. And, in part, as Michael [Le Roy] says to get ready for the next 20 years.

Will: I think that we have a tendency to focus on what is right in front of us. What we’re teaching today, the project we’re writing about, administrative work that we’re doing, whatever task is in front of us. It’s easy when you’re doing that to not have a sense of how the whole big picture around you is changing. So, I see a strategic plan as looking around at what’s changing in higher education and then looking at where the college is as opposed to just doing the thing that’s right in front of you.

How is this plan different from previous plans?

David: I think, although I haven’t been part of earlier processes, that this has probably been more of an intentionally broad process across the community.

Matt: That was the intent. The intent was for it to be much more broadly inclusive of everyone’s input. I think in the past the urgency of having a plan wasn’t clear so that people didn’t necessarily care as much. Now, I think people saw that this is a strategic moment at Calvin, a really important one. There was more of a sense of buy-in by the community.

Cheryl: I think the other thing that’s different about this one is that it’s intended to be something you carry around with you. Divisions are going to be held accountable for what’s in there. I don’t recall with previous plans a lot of referring back to see what the plan had to say.

David: To add to that, the intent of the plan was to have very measurable outcomes and goals. As the plan was crafted and finalized there was a lot of questioning along the way: What under this heading or goal will be measurable? So, I think, it’s different in that way, too.

How did this team of four writers come together?

Matt: At some point in the process after all of the campus input had been taken in, Cheryl and I were asked to figure out a way to piece it all together in a well-organized way.

David: I just want to make sure that it’s understood that Matt and Cheryl, at least early on, did the lion’s share of heavy lifting. They really took a messy compilation and turned it inside out and made it into something coherent, strategic, compelling, and then we were invited to help shepherd the process over the finish line.

Cheryl: I would like to add that the piece that Matt provided is tying these disparate sections to our current Expanded Statement of Mission. To me, that was the hook we needed to move forward. It was the conceptual piece that finally helped us think about this and what we already valued as an institution.

How did campuswide collaboration benefit the final plan?

Will: For me, one of the phrases that explains this is one that Matt has used a lot: “shuttle diplomacy.” It involved a lot of communicating with people about a specific objective and where it could fit in the plan or why it would be hard to fit in the plan. Then, also talking with people who wanted to see something in the plan and explaining where it is and this is why we’ve defined or articulated it this way. It involved a lot of negotiation in order to understand what the pieces should be and how they fit together.

Matt: And also clarifying it. I would say that all of the SWOT (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats) and brainstorming sessions that we had across campus prior to last fall produced a lot of information and ideas. It was a matter of sorting through that and then trying to get it right.

How do you see this plan shaping Calvin in the future?

David: I think this plan really sets the stage for the next planning effort. We learned a lot about how to plan by doing this plan. So, in terms of where we’re headed, I think the hard work, the collaboration, the shuttle diplomacy, the conversations will all pay dividends in the next planning process.

Cheryl: I think another piece of this is that this plan carves out a space where we can have conversations about some other things that relate to Calvin’s identity in the future: questions about master’s programs or other kinds of initiatives. We have some time to talk about some of these things now and to use part of the next five years to do some thinking.

Matt: I think, too, on the educational side, that the first point of the plan, Mission in Education, helps establish a framework to help us serve students better. It’s going to help us cinch up loose ends in our system and make sure that we’re not overprogramming them in certain areas; making sure we’re focusing on teaching quality; making sure we’re looking at so-called high-impact educational practices, which include internships and research assistantships and service learning, those kinds of things. So, if we have a framework that helps us understand how we’re going to approach all those things simultaneously without becoming overloaded, or without emphasizing one at the expense of another, that’s a good thing for students. In addition, I think a renewed commitment and recognition of the Mission in Scholarship is going to be attractive to new faculty, so we should be able to recruit strong faculty who can include students in these educational practices.

Will: I would add that in this plan we’ve decided to look carefully in the next three to five years at what kind of new programs the college might develop. And part of that means is looking at what kind of student body do we have? What kind of student body do we want to have? And how would these programs change that? Where are our students going to come from the next five, 10 to 15 years? Where are our opportunities to attract students different from what has been our bread and butter, which is residential undergraduate students? And having things like the framework in place and having a sense of how they work together will set us up for when and if we make some of those bigger changes in terms of programs.

Does this plan take into account trends that are occurring in higher education?

Will: It’s setting us up to react and adapt thoughtfully to trends.

Matt: We’re not reacting and moving hither and thither just to keep up with the institution next door, but it’s a question of how we will adapt. This plan gives us some guidance in how we will evaluate the opportunities and threats out there and adapt accordingly.

Will: And also looking where our opportunities are. There are lots of new things happening in higher education, and even in local colleges and universities we can see different institutions doing new things. The question for Calvin is what new things can we do well that won’t simply replicate what other colleges are already doing well, and what new things might we consider but then determine that don’t make sense within the framework of our larger mission.

David: For example, there’s a lot of conversation in the plan about partnerships, and that’s separate from education, at least on paper, but it’s fully complementary to the work we do with our students in the classroom and the labs. I think there’s a lot of room for Calvin to grow in this regard.

Matt: Our moorings always have to be in the Reformed Christian tradition that grounds us, but those external connections are extremely important because we learn from our partners, and they learn from us. The plan has to allow us the strength internally to make those external partnerships.

Will: Along with that, one of the defining elements of the college’s tradition is an education that has breadth across the disciplines, across the liberal arts, and depth in specific areas, both in academic and professional programs, and we want to maintain the vitality of that into the future so that our students are educated not only for jobs, but really more educated for vocations. And those vocations include jobs, but also include their participation in church communities, local communities, citizens of the nation and citizens of the world. That breadth and depth across disciplines along with a vital Christian, particularly Reformed, education, that’s where we hope both the challenges and opportunities are.

David: I wish I could take credit for this quote, but one of our faculty forefathers said something like, “Calvin is about not just preparing students for their first job but for a lifetime of service in the kingdom.” There’s a lot of wisdom there, and it’s echoed in what we’re focused on in this plan.

What impact did our financial situation have on the strategic plan?

Cheryl: It was a bit of a reality check. There were some things that we thought were blue-sky ideas, and we thought is that reasonable to expect in the next five years? The emphasis was on five years, and given our financial situation, that shaped some of the decisions about what could happen in five years.

Will: We’re in the process right now of getting back to being stable, and we’re making very good progress. The hope and expectation is that in five years we’ll be in a financial situation where we can be transformative. So, this strategic plan is meant to help us understand how to plan more effectively, to give us breathing room, not just to go from financial stability to hopefully av financial ability to be transformative, but to also think carefully about how will we be transformative.

Matt: I think, too, it just created a constraint which required that if you want to envision something you have to think of a way to develop the resources for it. And that actually is an occasion for some creative thinking. The resources may come in the form of developing new financial resources, but it may be new ways of working together. It may, in fact, involve both because now you’ll have a collaborative effort between academic departments and people in advancement to fund certain directions. Those kinds of collaborative things had been done in the past, but maybe you’ll see more of that because of the urgency

How do you see this plan challenging Calvin to further pursue diversity and inclusion?

Will: The strategic plan does not articulate or call for a grand new vision. It reminds us of the vision articulated in FEN and the Expanded Statement of Mission and calls us to better and more concertedly live up to the mission. And it puts in place measures that will call us to account.

Matt: Many of these goals are written into a single main theme of the plan, but they really have a place in everything we do. They're supposed to be built into all aspects of our mission—our teaching, our scholarship and our community efforts. This is not to say that diversity is our only concern, but it is certainly one of the things we need to learn more about and become better at. The plan should remind us of this fact.

David: During our work with the plan, we thought hard (with other folks on campus) about how to be strategic and honest with diversity and inclusion on campus. And I remember this theme being elevated as a priority early in the planning process during campus-wide meetings. It is one of the six themes because it is right and strategic. Part of Calvin’s future must include better resembling the Kingdom that we’re equipping our students to build.

How might the plan impact the curriculum or even the liberal arts requirements?

Cheryl: Part of what the plan will do is help us communicate more clearly what we expect of a Calvin graduate. So what four or five or six or seven things mark a Calvin graduate? Once we’ve pulled from our Expanded Statement of Mission and from our Core document and From Every Nation—it’s there; it’s not like we’re creating anything new—and articulated it, then we work towards having our core and our majors and minors and co-curriculum align with those things.

David: What I really appreciate in this plan is that it acknowledges what’s going on around curriculum even if it’s not in the academic division. So, co-curricular, extracurricular activities, partnerships—there’s an attempt to formalize that we’re about the same mission regardless of where we are on campus. And it really is about the kind of student that leaves this place at the end of his or her time here.

How can alumni, parents, friends of the college assist in the plan?

David: Invest, and that’s not just investment financially, but that’s investment with prayer and with engagement, knowing what’s happening on campus, being concerned constructively about what’s going on. It’s always good to get constructive reality checks from outside of the campus fence line. So, I’d say full, complete, honest, prayerful engagement is how I would invite alumni and friends support beyond financial support.

Matt: Alumni are an important part of the Calvin network, and if there are ways in which alumni are interested in helping Calvin fulfill its mission in education, scholarship or community, now is a good time for them to link in and maybe think creatively about how we can connect and help students develop opportunities for internships and network for careers and so on.

Will: My department is going through an external review in a year or two, and that process always involves surveying alumni about their experience at Calvin. I think this should be a general model for encouraging the college to ask alumni, “When you went on to graduate school or a professional program or jobs in different areas of business and other areas of work, like community organizations and churches, what were the things that surprised you that you took from your education? What were areas where you wish you had more of this or didn’t get this? Alumni can play a very strategic role in not just telling us how we did, but given the experiences they’ve had after they leave Calvin either in education or work or community life, what should Calvin look like in the future?

What is one thing that people need to know about the plan?

Cheryl: For me, it would be that we are still grounded in what we have always been here, and this is in the Reformed theological tradition. We’re still there, and we’re still deepening and growing in that.

Matt: I think Calvin’s fundamental commitments remain the same to a Reformed Christian view of faithful Christian living in the world, but that we are prepared now for this new era. I really want alumni to listen to the exciting things that we’re doing and not just get concerned about any crises that might come up. Recognize the voice of truth that they’ve always heard from Calvin and then tell others about it.

Will: I guess two things really. One, affirming what Matt and Cheryl said that the college remains determined, enthusiastic and deeply rooted in a Reformed tradition, in an education that has depth and breadth and is about vocation. But at the same time, if you think about the background of where students come from denominationally and ethnically, and the growing activity of the faculty and students in institutions and partnerships outside of the college and having influence in different areas of work and church life, the college is becoming much more engaged with the wider world, and passionately so, at the same time that it’s still deeply rooted in the religious tradition that founded the place. That’s a pretty astonishing accomplishment.

What do you love about working at Calvin?

Cheryl: I think that the work we’re doing is important work. We have a mission statement that I resonate with. And being able to work in a place where there’s congruence between what you’re going and what you value is wonderful.

Matt: This community understands deeply what its commitments are and has a broad agreement on what we’re after here. We understand what we’re trying to do. We don’t always see it so clearly in the specifics, but we understand who is supposed to be served and what is the ultimate message of redemption in the world. That carries you a long way through the times when they are difficult.

David: What I love about Calvin is that we are focused on the whole student and full gospel. So whether it’s in engineering or history or physics, our focus is preparing students for kingdom work over the long haul. And there’s nothing more satisfying, rewarding, invigorating and challenging than that.

What excites you about the future of Calvin?

David: What excites me is that Calvin has an opportunity to do things more optimally, to do things better—to work across campus, to work across divisions, to not just become more efficient but also become more effective at what it does. Whether it’s within the engineering department, history, in the provost’s office, physics, wherever, I see Calvin having tremendous opportunity to do things more wisely, more strategically, more effectively and to continue to be about building the kingdom, and that’s what’s exciting to me.

Will: What popped into my mind is that there is so much pressure to make education about the first job. What excites me is that Calvin has an opportunity to say education is not about that, it’s about the whole student and it’s about vocation. So we can be countercultural in the sense of maintaining an older, richer, deeper tradition and be revolutionary in opposing this trend towards education as about the first job. It excites me to be part of making that happen in one college and being a happy warrior promoting that larger message for higher education and, really, education in general in this country.