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Higher Education Blues

By March 1, 2013 2 Comments

Theresa Latini stole my thunder yesterday with her wise post, “How to Live Well and Faithfully in the Midst of Institutional Upheaval.” I’m glad she did, for her allusions to constricting markets, falling budgets, the downsizing of staff, the departure of some colleagues and the sweat of fear among those who remain give an apt picture of how things are in the “education industry” today. Her description was immediately pertinent at my own institution, for yesterday a long-awaited report was released in summary form by way of explaining how it is that Calvin College finds itself with $115 million of property debt and another $30 million overhang of, if you will, pre-payment penalties should we wish to get out from underneath some of the burden.

Theresa’s response to all of this is a model of sound pastoral care: abide, breathe, and communicate. My own reaction, as reports on bits and pieces of Calvin’s predicament have been released on campus over the past few months, usually ends up rattling between sorrow and anger bordering on rage. Yesterday’s release brought it all back; you can read it at Names are not included per campus policy, but exercise a bit of intelligent inference and you’ll get the picture. Particularly precious tidbits include the facts that—though not the reasons why—the debts in question were hidden, their interest payments not entered into the budget, the fund where they were lodged not audited, the committee in charge of investments not properly supervised by the college’s Trustees, etc. And etc., as the old comedian used to say. But since I’ve vented about this before in this space (see my post of last October 26:, I’ll try something else today.

When historians see a mess, they look for precedents, parallels, or analogies from the past. As it happens, I’ve been reading a remarkable collection of letters and reports pertaining to the early days of a sister institution: Envisioning Hope College, edited by Elton Bruins and Karen Schakel of Hope’s affiliated Van Raalte Institute. The bulk of the volume consists of letters from Hope’s—and Holland, Michigan’s—founder, the Rev. Albertus C. Van Raalte, to Philip Phelps, Jr., the east-coast Reformed Church man brought in to run a fledgling academy that grew into the college and its related Western Theological Seminary.

All these institutions have a solid record and sterling reputation today, making all the more glaring the financial struggles from which they emerged. We see the pious churchman Van Raalte—in other letters all absorbed in the conversion of sinners—bouncing from church to church in New York and New Jersey in a quest to raise $3000, battling stingy donors, negative press, and looming competition from other schools, mission societies, and every other good cause. Back home, he’s wrapped up in bank deals, land deals, medical practice, aspersions against his theology, a sickly wife, a slew of kids, and yearnings to escape to South Africa, where he can be a missionary and just tend to souls. Right–no complications there! Two sons having fought in the Civil War army, Van Raalte comes up with a scheme to start up a Dutch colony in conquered Virginia, the one he had originated in West Michigan apparently not having provided enough fun. He quickly learns that things going South has an unhappy metaphorical meaning.

But the post-Civil War North was a place for big thinking and bold schemes. Philip Phelps concocts a plan to expand the barely adequate Hope College into Hope Haven University. Does not the newly instituted theological branch constitute a graduate school? Is there not demand for a Female department? Does not a new donation of land offer possibilities for a cash-cow orchard that will simultaneously form the basis of a Scientific School? Phelps was present at the creation of a higher education boom in America, with land-grant colleges and tycoon-atonement projects popping up across the land, from Michigan Agricultural College (now Michigan State University) to Vanderbilt, Stanford, and Carnegie Tech. Phelps had a noble vision of totally integrated Christian education, from grammar school through grad school, sustaining an integral Christian culture. The same vision was dawning upon Abraham Kuyper in the Netherlands at much the same time.

Sometimes vision is cankered by bad financing, sometimes crippled by meager financing, sometimes thrives on modest financing achieved through sweat and sorrow. These things are not preordained by human reckoning. We simply have to strive on doing our best, acting always with honesty and integrity. In the tough times remembering Theresa’s council: to abide, to breathe, and to communicate. To which I will only add: to remember, and to try to remember aright.

James Bratt

James Bratt is professor of history emeritus at Calvin College, specializing in American religious history and especially the connections between religion and politics. Starting in Fall 2016 he took a break from blogging on The Twelve to teach in China and on the Semester at Sea, which venues afforded him some welcome distance from the USA’s descent into its current mortal illness. But now he’s back in the States, looking for hope. His most recent book (which he edited and completed for the late John Woolverton) is  “A Christian and a Democrat”: Religion in the Life and Leadership of Franklin Delano Roosevelt.


  • Theresa Latini says:

    Thank you, Jim. I only wish my institution would publish statements that described in detail how we got into the dire financial straits we find ourselves in. (I recognize that one has to read between the lines of the statements put out by Calvin College, too.) Mostly, I'd like to see Lutherans and Calvinists actually live up to their theology and confess their institutional sin. But not likely.

  • rimmer de vries says:

    theresa's last comment is key. somehow there seems to be a maffia like set of ethics in the CRC where gross violations are simply shoved under the rug and hidden from the public. CC is dealing with a true scandal and unless dealt with also on a personal level it will tarnish the reputation of the college and of course the denomination.

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