A financially sustainable Calvin

Forward by faith we go, together

by Michael Van Denend '78
Winter 2012

This fall, our new president announced that Calvin was in challenging financial territory, and the campus community needed to get to work on a comprehensive plan to ensure the sustainability of the college for the future.

While the initial news of this situation was surprising to faculty, staff and some alumni, in retrospect this shouldn’t have been a huge revelation. These are daunting days for all of higher education, and there are no reasons for Calvin to be immune to the many dynamics at play for North American college and universities.

A report earlier this year authored by Bain and Company (surely by now everyone knows that corporate name) titled “The Financially Sustainable University” reviewed higher education institutions and noted a “liquidity crisis”—schools have “more liabilities, higher debt service and increasing expenses without the revenue or the cash reserves to back them up.”

After discussing the many reasons for this situation and noting that it is a rapidly increasing problem facing all of higher education, Bain rated schools that it deemed at risk of being financially unsustainable without corrective action. Calvin is on its list—as are schools such as Georgetown, Notre Dame, Baylor, Texas Christian, Pepperdine and Southern Methodist. Other Christian colleges more closely associated with Calvin are also on similar lists.

That’s sobering—and there is a lot of debate among academics and economists about the equations and timeframes Bain used for drawing its conclusions. But the general trends and warnings that the company makes are important to recognize and consider. Calvin is doing just that—proactively, before it has to act out of crisis. (And let me repeat that: There is no crisis, just an awareness of the warning signs in the years ahead.)

I am impressed that President Le Roy, not yet here long enough to get his office chair warm, has taken these warnings to heart and has worked in partnership with the board of trustees and college leadership to develop a transparent and aggressive plan to map a financial strategy that will be up for board approval in May 2014. The plan is participatory and open; there will be opportunity for all voices to be heard and options to be put on the table for consideration.

There are also questions about how the college should set long-term investment strategy, improve financial reporting mechanisms and set up dashboards to assist administrators and trustees in seeing a clear financial picture. President Le Roy has brought in outside expertise and a team of talented alumni to work with the college to make certain all of the above is done well.

The president says he is energized by this process and remains as excited as ever to be Calvin’s 10th leader. “If there was an issue of whether or not we were delivering top-notch Christian education in the classroom—that would be discouraging,” he told the Calvin staff. “But that’s not the issue. We can solve this financial challenge.”

President Le Roy has been very clear about his desire to see Calvin be sustainable, affordable and strategically focused. What Calvin will need is for alumni, parents and friends to join with the campus community in structuring a Calvin that will be here for many generations to come. We need prayer, advice, financial support and ambassadors who encourage more young people to choose Calvin as the place to get training for a life of Christian service. I am confident that we have the dedication and loyalty to this special place for all of that to happen.

Forward by faith we go, together.