Documents defining stance on academic freedom approved

Deliberations after trustee statement go well


Fall 2010

In May 2010, after months of meetings, readings and campus-wide conversations, the Calvin board of trustees passed two documents that college administrators said will be key guides for critical questions on academic freedom and Confessional commitment.

The documents—“Confessional Commitment and Academic Freedom at Calvin College” and “Procedures for Strengthening Confessional Commitment and Academic Freedom”—had earlier in the 2009–2010 school year received unanimous approval from the college’s faculty senate. They then went on to the full 31-member Calvin board, which also gave them unanimous approval.

For Calvin provost Claudia Beversluis and Calvin vice president for student life Shirley Hoogstra, co-chairs of the Homosexuality and Community Life (HCL) task force, the stamps of approval from first senate and then the Calvin board were a satisfying conclusion to what at times was an exhausting process.

“What we accomplished (in 2009–2010) was pretty significant,” said Beversluis. “After the May 2009 statement on homosexuality was sent to the faculty by the board, there were serious concerns among the faculty about the process by which the board came to write and pass the statement. The board heard those concerns loud and clear, and to its credit put together a committee whose mandate was to close the gap between the board and the faculty, especially when it comes to the relationship between who Calvin is as an academic institution grounded in and by the Confessions.”

That May 2009 statement had caused a stir among the faculty, said faculty members, not for its content (the statement reaffirmed the Calvin and CRC position on homosexuality and said the board’s expectations were that advocacy by faculty and staff, both in and out of the classroom, for homosexual practice and same-sex marriage is unacceptable) but rather for the process via which it was passed.

“Calvin,” said Karin Maag, chair of faculty senate, “has always been a college with a strong sense of faculty involvement and ownership. Yet on this issue the board issued a statement that really came, for most of us, out of the blue. There were significant concerns about how the board could so little involve the faculty in such a substantive discussion. As a faculty we want to have our voice heard.”

So in September 2009, faculty senate, by a 36-4 vote, passed a resolution asking the board to recognize that its statement of May 2009 would represent a change in policy, one that had not gone through any of the college’s normal governance channels, including the college faculty governance and committee structure system. It also asked the board to withdraw the May 2009 statement. That resolution got the board’s attention, said board chair Bastian Knoppers.

“The issuance of the May 2009 statement did not allow for communal input and processes that in hindsight would have been advisable,” he said. “After the faculty senate met, and after many board members had heard from Calvin professors, we were determined at our October 2009 meeting to commit to a new process, one that would involve conversation and consultation with the Calvin faculty.”

Maag said that the board’s decision to appoint a special committee was a good one and that the committee did its work well. 

The special committee spent much of the 2009–2010 school year working with the college’s already existing HCL task force and meeting with different groups on campus—including the academic deans and the provost, student leaders, Calvin vice presidents, faculty senate, directors of Calvin centers and institutes, former Calvin faculty and faculty at Calvin Theological Seminary.

The two documents are intentionally not about homosexuality, although the board charged the HCL task force with the job of completing a third document on homosexuality and Christianity this summer and fall in time for the board to spend a significant portion of its October 2010 meetings discussing all three documents.

HCL co-chair Shirley Hoogstra said the order of the documents was intentional. “We wanted, before we got to a specific document on homosexuality, to put onto paper what has been in operation more implicitly than explicitly at Calvin College for a long time,” she said. “In the process of its many conversations with faculty and others, the special committee realized that there have been assumptions at Calvin about the way we operate, and why we operate the way we do, that have often just been understood. But it’s been implicit. Nothing had been codified or committed to paper. That needed to change.”

The two documents that clarify how Calvin approaches significant issues such as academic freedom within a Christian college context are long: “Confessional Commitment and Academic Freedom at Calvin College” checks in at 35 pages, while “Procedures for Strengthening Confessional Commitment and Academic Freedom” is close behind at 29 pages. And at times the documents require a fairly sophisticated understanding of both Calvin’s theological tradition and that of the Reformed movement as a whole. But they also lay out, as Hoogstra said, in concrete fashion the foundational elements that have allowed Calvin to flourish for 134 years.

For Beversluis such an explicit elucidation is a positive outgrowth from a controversial beginning. 

“When the board passed its May 2009 memo on homosexuality,” she said, “it set into motion a series of events which ultimately led to the two documents it passed a year later. That’s a good thing. How the process began was not good and the board recognized that, expressing regret for the way it handled the May 2009 memo. But where we ended up a year later was something probably nobody anticipated, yet in the long run I think these documents, and the process we went through to get them written, will be a positive legacy for the college.”

Now, said Beversluis and Hoogstra, document three, specifically on the issue of homosexuality, will be written in a different context than it might have been a year ago.

Said Hoogstra: “Sometimes painful experiences galvanize organizations to give their very best to make it better. This process demonstrated to me that the people who work here—faculty and administrators and board members—really love this place and our mission, and that’s why such a huge effort was given these last months to this process. And ultimately I think what all of us were reminded once again that God is faithful and His care for our well being was evident in the smooth and collegial way we worked together on the documents."