Every five years, Calvin College initiates the reflective and inspirational process of developing a new strategic plan to guide the college in its service and growth. The process is starting again, and it comes with added significance this time.
First, of course, there’s a new president, Dr. Michael Le Roy. Coming to Calvin with a wealth of experience at three other institutions—Whitworth, Wheaton and Vanderbilt—and spending his first year at the college studying the institution from the inside-out, Le Roy approaches Calvin’s process with a fresh perspective.
In addition, the college community has been coming to grips with financial challenges that have not been typical in Calvin’s history.
Over the past several months, Le Roy reviewed Calvin’s financial position with the knowledge that many factors facing higher education institutions across the country are affecting Calvin. These concerns have become topics of national discussion in publications such as Bain and Company’s “The Financially Sustainable University” report.
Experts assert that all colleges must adapt to new challenges in order to remain sustainable and affordable in the future. Among these factors are tuition ceilings for families, intensely competitive admissions, double-digit increases in health care costs, salary requirements to retain faculty, infrastructure maintenance and required investment in technology. Numerous institutions in building campaigns have also acquired significant debt load over the last decades—and that list includes Calvin College.
In completing the development of the Knollcrest Campus, the college employed an investment and construction strategy for physical plant projects, particularly in major new construction, that left Calvin with uncharacteristic debt.
In essence, the college borrowed to build while investing project gifts, with the intent to raise additional revenue with investment returns higher than debt service. While a commonly used strategy, in this case it was largely unsuccessful. In addition, cost overruns on building projects broadened the gap between gifts and construction costs.
At the same time, additional properties near the college were purchased. The intent was that revenue from these purchases would generate profits beneficial to Calvin. That plan, too, has not realized the intended result. The result is a college budget saddled with a large annual debt service. While this is not uncommon among colleges of Calvin’s size, it has never previously been incorporated into the college’s operating budget as it will be in the upcoming fiscal year.
Last fall, the president appointed four people, including three Calvin alumni, to review the college’s financial situation. President Le Roy and the board of trustees have already begun acting on many of the recommendations of this task force, including new leadership and reorganization of the financial services office; restructuring of the college’s investment committee; increasing board oversight and improving financial technology systems.
“After a thorough assessment, it is clear that no single cause, person or decision can be blamed for these results,” said Le Roy. “We seek a full understanding of our shortcomings and work for institutional renewal in a spirit of truth and grace.”
Obviously, such a financial picture affects Calvin’s approach to strategic planning and demands immediate attention to prioritizing and trimming the current budget.
The board of trustees has initiated a planning and prioritization process to envision the future for Calvin College and help to focus resources on the priorities that will be identified by the college community in all-campus sessions already underway. A joint visioning session was conducted with both the board of trustees and the alumni association board, and a series of similar sessions will involve faculty, staff and students.
Calvin political science professor Doug Koopman left the classroom to take a new position as executive associate to the president for communication and planning. One of Koopman’s tasks has been the construction and organization of the information forums, facilitator seminars and planning sessions necessary over the coming months.
“We work from a firm foundation,” noted Le Roy, “Calvin College’s Reformed Christian mission is clear and compelling, our academic reputation is strong, enrollment is increasing and our ratio of assets to liabilities is positive. Working together in our mutual desire to preserve academic excellence and to serve our students well, we can meet these challenges with a united and joyful spirit.”
The prioritization process will fit neatly into the strategic planning that was already slated to occur in 2013, so that a new long-range plan will be approved by trustees in May 2014.
Le Roy said he is committed to making this a highly participative planning process and will include all stakeholders in the institution including students, faculty, staff, trustees, alumni, donors, community members and friends. The goal is to clearly articulate the college’s mission and refine its program offerings.
“We recognize that stronger board oversight may have detected these issues earlier,” said trustee chairman, Scott Spoelhof ’84. “But we’ve all learned much, and the trustees have their sleeves rolled up to work on a new plan for Calvin College. President Le Roy has brought with him infectious optimism and energy and the board is eager to match that positive perspective. We will, with God’s guidance and the assistance of all who care for this college, ensure a strong and vibrant Calvin.”