A statement issued by the Calvin College board of trustees, addressing how faculty and staff may write and speak about homosexuality, touched off a significant response from college faculty and staff in August.
The board chair said the statement was simply a clarification, not a change in policy or process. But some staff and faculty feel the trustees’ actions changed policy and circumvented normal process.
Calvin College, a liberal arts school located in Grand Rapids, Mich., is owned by the Christian Reformed Church.
The statement declared in part, “Advocacy by faculty and staff, both in and out of the classroom, for homosexual practice and same-sex marriage is unacceptable.”
The statement was intended to affirm the college’s commitment to the Christian Reformed Church’s position on homosexuality, that homosexual orientation is not a sin, but homosexual practice is.
The board’s statement continues, “This is a difficult task, but we want to be clear as to the college position on this issue—a position perhaps not conservative enough to suit many on the right, or satisfactory for many on the left.”
The statement concludes, “If there were ever to be a change to the college’s position on the issue, it would have to come from synod.” Synod is the annual leadership meeting of the Christian Reformed Church.
The statement comes as a response to a letter to the Calvin board from the council of Crossroads Fellowship CRC in West Des Moines, Iowa, which asked the board to publicly state the college’s position on homosexuality.
The council wrote the letter after reading in The Banner about a play, Seven Passages: The Stories of Gay Christians, which was developed and directed by Stephanie Sandberg, associate professor of communications arts and sciences at the college (See Banner, December 2007 http://www.thebanner.org/magazine/article.cfm?article_id=1304.).
“As the Calvin board, we deal with the staff, faculty, and students, but also the CRC as a denomination and churches; we are accountable to them,” said Bastian Knoppers, chair of the board. “In this case in particular, it was a church that had raised this issue. We were in good part responding to that request.”
The board emphatically insists that the statement was meant only as a clarification of the college’s existing position.
“The board was working to clarify and confirm that the position of the board and the college was in tandem with the position of the CRC,” Knoppers said. “Where we stand is consistent with the CRC as a denomination.
“We didn’t intend for there to be any change in process, procedures, or anything else at all. The faculty’s perception that this is a change in both procedure and process is unintended. That was not our intention at all.”
However, some faculty and staff did not perceive the statement as simple clarification.
The college already had a task force—the Working Group on Homosexuality and Community Life—that had been working on clarifying the college’s position and how that position impacts day-to-day life in the college community. The board’s statement was issued without the knowledge of task force members and before the task force’s work had been completed.
As a result, many faculty and staff felt the statement was a unilateral declaration that established new policies at the college.
In particular, the statements that “advocacy […] is unacceptable” and “our approach to this challenging issue […] requires that this position guide student, faculty, and staff conduct, direct college practices and policies and govern teaching, mentoring, writing, and speaking by the faculty and staff of the college” seemed to draw the strongest reaction.
“The board of trustees’ action does not work with the way we usually do things at Calvin,” said Karin Maag, who serves as vice chair of the Calvin faculty senate and was acting as a spokesperson for the faculty regarding this issue. “They should be in consultation with the faculty and staff.
“The issue is understanding how an academic community works, and it is one in which difficult topics are talked about, and wholesale bans are not helpful and don’t work in an academic context.”
The issue quickly became a source of discussion and debate. The statement was made public on a Facebook page, and a Facebook group calling itself “Calvin Students, Alum, Faculty and Staff Questioning ‘The Memo’” has attracted more than 500 members and more than 100 postings. Similarly, an article about the statement published in the Grand Rapids Press generated more than 175 responses on the Press’s website.
“Traditionally, Calvin professors have had the right to question or disagree with the church’s stance on all sorts of issues, from divorce to abortion to the just-war theory to homosexuality,” communications professor Carl Plantinga wrote on the Facebook group’s discussion board. “The fact that Calvin is a college of the Christian Reformed Church does not mean that all faculty must follow lockstep with each of its positions, just as any church member is free to disagree with them.
“So when the board of trustees arbitrarily decides that we cannot advocate for homosexual marriage, this not only alters the way we think about free speech at Calvin, but establishes a dangerous precedent whereby any college president can stack the board of trustees with like-minded individuals, then decree that certain issues can be discussed only in a certain way.”
Knoppers admits there are issues to be worked out. “Some of these issues get very difficult,” he acknowledged. “There’s some gray as to what is advocacy and what is not advocacy. We are absolutely committed to continuing these discussions.”
In response to the outcry, the board has scheduled a meeting with administrators, faculty, and staff from the college to attempt to clarify its position.
“It is our full intent to sit down with [them] to say, ‘All right, how did you read this?’ and ‘This is what we meant,’” Knoppers said.
Knoppers added. “We’ll get through it and be stronger because of it. Hopefully this prepares us better for the next time—name the issue—where we say, ‘Is this appropriate, or not appropriate?’”