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Calvin’s Center for Social Research Now Independent

Calvin’s Center for Social Research Now Independent
DataWise Consulting cofounders Laura Luices (back row, far right) and Neil Carlson (back row, third from right) with the rest of the team from what was then the Center for Social Research, Aug. 24, 2021.

As of May 1, the Center for Social Research, a 50-year-old offshoot of Calvin University’s sociology department that has served the school, the Christian Reformed Church, and many other organizations with data-based research support, became a separate legal entity—DataWise Consulting LLC. Calvin University, in Grand Rapids, Mich., announced the departure of the Center in February, saying the move would position the center “to serve a broader range of clients and grow in ways it couldn’t as part of the institution.” Reporting by Chimes, Calvin’s student publication, has indicated that one of the things the center couldn't do as part of the institution was continue employing a staff member who is in a same-sex marriage. 

Calvin’s provost, Noah Toly told The Banner, “Decisions like these often happen in a complex context of both immediate, even emergent, issues, longer-term pressures, and future opportunities. The mutual decision to spinout CSR (the Center for Social Research) was consistent with previously identified pressures and future opportunities for the center to thrive as an independent entity.”

The Center’s director, Neil Carlson, who is now cofounder and principal consultant of DataWise along with Laura Luchies, agrees that seeing the center have “an external footprint” was a long-term goal, and it’s a kind of culmination of growing financial independence the center has been living into for the past several years, though the immediate timing has been challenging. 

“We are committed to an inclusive, affirming approach to our teamwork and our clients. That commitment has contributed to our fairly swift departure from Calvin. We did not engage in any intentional effort to challenge Calvin policy by breaking it,” Carlson said. “We are excited for our future as a team, but we grieve the loss of our membership in the Calvin community and its educational mission.” 

Carlson said he is grateful for “a high degree of collaboration” from Calvin as DataWise leaves with their technology, clientele, personnel, and even some furniture, to establish what he described as “a consulting firm with a professorial vibe.” At first the firm intends to be itinerant—using coworking spaces and virtual connection. Carlson said he and Luchies will retain academic interests in their professions, he with a membership in the American Political Science Association and she a member of the Society for Personality and Social Psychology. The firm will continue to use Calvin’s Institutional Review Board as its board of review, at least for the next year, and Carlson is hopeful that the “pipeline of student talent as research assistants” can be reestablished. “One of our earliest goals is to reconstitute our talent pipeline as best we can from Calvin and from other higher educational institutions and adding workforce development and returning citizens pipelines to staff our research teams.”

Toly said the center “was an integral part of the university for a very long time, and we hope that its mission, organization, and community will flourish in new ways as it enjoys some strategic business advantages of independence from the institution, including access to capital, possible colocation with partner organizations, agility, and the workforce diversity they believe necessary for their entrepreneurial community engagement and partnerships."

He also said the school looks forward to “ongoing partnership with the new, independent organization.” So Calvin University likely still will benefit from DataWise’s research, as will the CRCNA, according to executive director Colin Watson Sr. 

“We do not anticipate any material change in the relationship between the CSR, in its new mode, and the denomination,” Watson said. “This is because the CSR has always served as a vendor to the denomination in the execution of ministry-related projects. However, as we do with all vendor relationships, we will periodically review our needs and consider which vendor best meets those needs for the future.” 

The center has executed the denomination’s annual survey of churches and carried out research for various ministries such as producing reports for the Healthy Church survey, worship habits of churches, and the Banner reader survey. 

Carlson said, “For the moment we will continue to serve, certainly, the clients we have now,” noting he’s grateful for patience during the somewhat disruptive time of the transition. He recognizes that outside of the academy costs will rise for the work DataWise does, particularly for software. “There's going to be significant pressure on us to move towards serving for-profit, big enterprises,” he said. Though he wouldn’t resist that, he intends “to try to resist that becoming all we do, or coming at the expense of our existing clientele.”

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