The ‘Asterisk’ Legacy of Dr. Justin Cooper
40 years of advancing Christian higher education in Canada.
“My world just opened up. In fact, it exploded.” Justin Cooper was a preacher’s son who arrived as an 18-year-old at Trinity Christian College in 1968. Through professor Calvin Seerveld in particular, he saw in a fresh way that “this is my Father’s world” – and thus perceived he ought to love that world. “They showed me,” said Cooper in an interview with me in August 2020, “that Christ’s kingdom is as big as the universe and society, and gave me some tools to engage those who think otherwise.”
Cooper saw that the Lord connects and cares for all reality, and thus he is also Author of what Evan Runner called the “encyclopedia of the disciplines.” Cooper dove into the arena of philosophy, spurred on by this more expansive faith perspective, and eventually migrated to part-time studies at the Institute for Christian Studies in Toronto. By 1974 he ventured across the street to the University of Toronto for his Masters and Ph.D., which he completed in 1985 in international relations.
In those same years Cooper married his Canadian sweetheart, Jessie Ellens, had two sons, worked part-time, and was recruited for an ambitious new association in 1976 that would set his vocation for life. The association was called the Ontario Christian College Association (OCCA), a group of immigrants from The Netherlands who had seen how vibrant Christian universities create cultural leaders dedicated to God’s shalom. Cooper was asked to join.
It’s been 40 years since that small, gutsy group successfully won a charter for Christian universities in Ontario, and Cooper himself has just retired from 10 years of service as the Executive Director of Christian Higher Education Canada (CHEC). It’s a fascinating story that has changed the opportunities open to students in Ontario and across North America.
Opening Up Ontario
The reader needs to understand just how alien this group of immigrants seemed to the cultural elite in Ontario at that time. Government officials knew institutions like Bible colleges and seminaries existed for their sectarian communities, but, for them, a university was a public and secular institution. So the Ministry of Colleges and Universities’ officials that met with representatives of this pioneering association assumed they were some backwater sect. But they were impressed enough to accept the name “Redeemer Reformed Christian College” (confessional terminology which encompasses at least 9 denominations!) and the mandate included the phrase “studies in philosophical and theological foundations, which may include studies in the arts, humanities, natural and social sciences, pure and applied.” In December 1980 the charter was granted, and although the foundations for a Christian university were written in a subordinate clause, they were there!
Key to this whole endeavour was persuasive communication. Cooper knew the Dooyeweerdian foundation for education, but his experience at the U. of T. schooled him in speaking a language that Ontario’s cultural elite could understand.
“This happened often in my career,” says Cooper. “People start to realize that something is going on that they don’t understand. Then they want to listen and find out. And that’s what I did countless times – try to reframe the language so they could understand.”
A Christian University: Called and Equipped
So, charter in hand, the OCCA team dived into the project of opening a Christian university with the name “College” and with permission to grant specially marked “Bachelor of Christian Studies” (B.C.S.) and “Bachelor of Christian Education” (B.C.Ed.) degrees. From there, progress accelerated quickly. They rented an old public school on Beach Boulevard in Hamilton, and for their first year in fall 1982, hoping for 50 students, they had 100 young people enroll.
Cooper was made academic dean of OCCA and led in hiring the first Redeemer faculty in 1981. Although political science wasn’t originally going to be part of the first curriculum, the first Redeemer board made Cooper the final Ph.D. hire in an initial faculty of eight men, covering 10 core disciplines. Later, in 1986, the same year they moved to a new campus in Ancaster, Cooper was made Academic VP, and then in 1994, President of the college.
Education with an Asterisk*
One of Cooper’s first goals as President was to remove an asterisk. This refers to the marking on the membership list of the skeptical and at times hostile Association of Universities and Colleges in Canada (AUCC), where all “faith-based” member universities were given an asterisk, singling them out as academies that required their faculties sign a faith statement. That all institutions have faith commitments – religious or secular in orientation – was not something secular academics understood about themselves or their institutions. “The honour of Christ will not stand for this,” Cooper would remind himself. This two-tiered system was unjust.
Those first years were a crucible for Cooper, whose inauguration as President was founded on the divine promise “Whom I call, I will equip.” Enrollment dipped, there was a personnel crisis, and to top it all off, a financial misstatement and soon a payroll shortfall. But soon the tide began to turn; the Conservative provincial government at the time formed a committee, which came to the conclusion that under carefully specified conditions it could be possible to have a non-funded private university – Muslim, Jewish, Sikh or just elite and private in its orientation.
And so, after much hard work, in 1998, the charter was amended to allow schools like Redeemer to grant B.A. and B.Sc. degrees like other universities. In 2000, Redeemer was permitted to add the word “university” to its name, and in 2003, the Ontario College of Teachers endorsed Redeemer as a candidate for the right to grant the B.Ed. degree. The vision for a truly Christian university was finally being realized, and already, the asterisk on the AUCC membership list had faded away. Then, finally, just this spring of 2020, the government granted ministerial consent for Redeemer to re-name itself “Redeemer University.” Forty years, and the project is complete.
Cooper has been called “an apostle for Christian higher education,” but he is more than that. “I am an institution builder,” says Cooper, reflecting on his calling. “I had a sense of strategy – politically and institutionally – to realize that unless there is legal space, legal foundations, you don’t have a lasting basis for your mission.”
Cooper would go on to serve on numerous boards in the world of higher education, first on a North American-wide scale then a global scale – he now serves with Global Scholars Canada and John Stott’s Langham Partnership. His imagination has opened up to the Majority World (also called the Developing World), and the new heart of World Christianity. He turned 70 this year but he continues to support institutions, including local community associations, which recognized him by inducting him into Hamilton’s Gallery of Distinction in 2009.
One might say the asterisk was a central theme through Cooper’s career. It’s a symbol, literally meaning (from the Latin) “little star,” that points to Cooper’s own Morning Star, Jesus Christ. Building on the pattern started by Rev. DeBolster, Cooper knew the importance of starting faculty interviews with the question: “What is your personal relationship to Jesus Christ and how do you strengthen it?”
Incidentally, Justin and Jessie Cooper will be moving this fall to their retirement home, and their new street name is Csilla, which in Hungarian means “little star.” There is some poetry here, and may “all nature sing, and round them ring” the praise of our Creator, who eternally upholds “the encyclopedia of the disciplines.”