Dear Michael Le Roy,
It’s no secret in Christian Reformed circles that Calvin College is facing an unanticipated debt of approximately $115 million, which as of 2017 will cost around nine percent of the college’s annual operating budget to service. It’s also general knowledge that in order to address this challenge the Board of Trustees recently approved a five year plan to guide the college’s spending priorities.
Having taken some time to read the public-facing planning document, as well as a bunch of the journalistic reporting that surrounded it, I’d like to offer four suggestions as you chart a course for the turbulent years to come.
1) Be transparent. The public-facing document available on Calvin’s website seems pretty sensible on the whole, but it’s long on strategy and short on tactics. According to The Banner’s reporting on the subject, behind this strategy-oriented vision statement is a more detail-specific “priorities and planning document” that is “not being released to the public.”
Opacity and failures of accountability are what led to this problem in the first place, so please don’t make the same mistake as your predecessor here. While I understand that certain information is sensitive, you need to disclose on some level the tactical and operational particulars of the plan. I am not alone in this sentiment, as the existence of a Facebook group calling itself the “Ad Hoc Committee for yet More Transparency at Calvin College” would suggest.
2) Don’t exploit contingent faculty. Anyone paying attention to the conversation surrounding higher education in North America knows that university administrators have attempted to cut costs in recent years by significantly increasing their reliance on contingent faculty (also known as part-timers or adjunct professors). As a group, contingent faculty have no job security, no benefits, scarce access to resources and professional support and are massively underpaid.
Calvin’s new strategic plan calls for reductions in the number of tenured and tenure-track faculty, but only allows for a slight student-side increase in the college’s student-to-faculty ratio. Since decreasing enrollment is obviously not part of the plan, it seems inevitable that Calvin will rely more and more on contingent faculty to teach courses. Calvin’s student newspaper, Chimes (the thought of which calls to mind some very good memories from my own student days), reports an anticipated increase from 17 percent of Calvin classes being taught by contingent faculty to 20 percent.
Admittedly, these numbers put Calvin well below most North American universities, but I would contend that even 17 percent is too high. Simply put, it is exploitative, inequitable and fundamentally un-Christian to participate in a system of two-tiered labour that allows individuals with the same credentials and professional responsibilities to be compensated and supported at significantly different levels.
3) Don’t cut the arts. Section I.4.b of the strategic plan specifies that “the college will develop and implement plans for maintaining vitality in the arts, languages and other areas in which specific programs have been reduced or reorganized.” This kind of language makes me very nervous.
The strategic plan pays a lot of lip service to the importance of a liberal arts education, especially in light of the recent cultural emphasis on highly specialized and vocational learning. This is commendable. But you need to put your money where your mouth is on this. Please, please, please do not in any way permit the arts and humanities to bear the brunt of the cuts or become diminished in Calvin’s constellation of course offerings.
This is not the place for a full-blown defense of the arts, but it needs to be stated that they are immensely and intrinsically valuable. As two-time Festival of Faith and Writing keynote speaker Marilynne Robinson suggests in her essay “Austerity as Ideology,” our society suffers from a “dearth of humane imagination for the integrity and mystery of other lives.” The arts and humanities are uniquely poised to equip us with precisely this, and so we must study humanities for humanity’s sake.
4) Don’t use Interim to focus on core courses. Although I couldn’t find any mention of this in the strategic plan, one impending change reported by The Banner involves “moving some core courses to Interim.” This is a rather innocuous suggestion, and, admittedly, there are already some core offerings during Calvin’s unique three-week January term (or at least there were when I was a student at Calvin 12 years ago). Whatever “moving some core courses to Interim might mean,” it would be a mistake to transform that term into a quick way to clear off core at the expense of the highly focussed topical offerings that fascinated me as an undergrad.
I spent my four Interims, in this order, studying Nazi Germany, the Vietnam War, playing badminton for course credit and travelling around England reading major authors in the places they actually lived and wrote. During my three on-campus Interims I also gorged myself on the January Series lectures, a world class smorgasbord of Christian scholarship and ideas. Interim at Calvin was a dizzying intellectual feast, and diminishing this would be a major loss for the next generation of students.
There’s much more to be said about all of this, President Le Roy, and I’m sure you’ve heard these sorts of recommendations from a million different angles. I don’t envy your task, but will join with many others who care deeply about Calvin to pray for your sanity and success.