Calvin University inaugurates new president amid growing LGBTQ tensions

Wiebe Boer, the university’s 12th president, is the son of Christian Reformed Church missionaries and spent 30 years living in Nigeria.

Wiebe Boer, former president of Calvin University in Grand Rapids, Michigan. (Photo courtesy of Calvin University)

(RNS) — As the son of lifelong missionaries, Calvin University’s new president, whose inauguration is Wednesday (Oct. 26), continues a proud Christian Reformed Church tradition of Dutch Calvinism.

Wiebe Boer, who arrived on the Grand Rapids, Michigan, campus, the last week in June, is the university’s 12th president, succeeding Michael Le Roy, who stepped down after a 10-year term.

A Calvin graduate himself, Boer has lived 30 of his 48 years in Nigeria, where his parents — both born in the Netherlands — served as missionaries.

He will lead the 146-year-old liberal arts university at a difficult point. Over the past decade, the university’s faculty roster and undergraduate admissions have fallen sharply. Its total enrollment of 3,256 students is down from 4,008 in 2012. Last year it eliminated five majors and seven minors, including Chinese, Dutch and German.

In addition, evangelical colleges across the country have seen a widening rift on social and political issues; Calvin is no exception.

The university, which is solely owned by the Christian Reformed Church, is walking a tightrope on sexual orientation.

This summer the Christian Reformed Church in North America voted at its annual synod to codify its opposition to homosexual sex by elevating it to the status of confession, or declaration of faith. That put its faculty, who must sign a statement of faith saying their beliefs align with the church’s historic creeds and confessions, into a difficult spot.

Some faculty have since asked for a “gravamen,” which entitles them to formally declare they struggle with a confessional claim. It’s not yet clear whether the university will approve those individual disagreements with the church’s confession. 

Calvin occupies a more center-left position among evangelical colleges. While it forbids premarital sex and defines marriage as between a man and a woman, it allows a support group for LGBTQ students on campus. In the 2020-21 academic year, the school allowed a bisexual student to be elected as student body president.

Still, earlier this year it severed ties to a campus-based research center after one of its employees married a same-sex partner. 

RELATED: Christian Reformed Church codifies homosexual sex as sin in its declaration of faith


Calvin University in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Photo by Andy Calvert, courtesy of Calvin University

Calvin University in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Photo by Andy Calvert, courtesy of Calvin University

Boer said Calvin will continue to be hospitable to its LGBTQ students.

“I don’t want to be the president of an institution that isn’t welcoming to everybody,” Boer said.

Boer, who has a Ph.D. in history from Yale University, and most recently worked as head of Shell of Nigeria’s renewable energy division, does not have a background in academic administration.

But he said he was intrigued by the position after reading an email to alumni.

“They were looking for someone who understands the Reformed tradition but has a global outlook and is entrepreneurial and innovative,” Boer said. “I thought, this kind of sounds like me.”

Boer said he wants to build on the university’s newest initiatives — a new business school with both undergraduate and graduate degree programs, as well as a new school of health. He is also proud to move the institution toward environmental sustainability. It just signed a contract with a company that will convert the campus’s daytime energy use to solar.

He said he wants to build on the school’s diversity — 17% of its students consider themselves ethnic minorities and another 12% are international students.

Boer, a huge soccer fan, wrote his Ph.D. dissertation on the history of football in Nigeria. And his Twitter feed is filled with tweets supporting Calvin’s various NCAA Division III athletic programs and athletes.

“He’s a breath of fresh air,” said Kristin Kobes Du Mez, a professor of history at Calvin University and one of its star faculty members. “He has a deep appreciation of the best of what Calvin has been and could be — its academic mission, its global presence, its Dutch Reformed tradition. His attitude is, we do incredible things here, let’s go do it.”

RELATED: Fallout over LGBTQ spouses at Calvin University captures broader evangelical divide

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