The budget-cutting move by the Grand Rapids college has upset some students, will lead to reorganization of some programs and likely reduce future concerts on campus by national touring acts.
APRIL 3 EDITOR’S NOTE: Ohio’s Over the Rhine — Linford Detweiler and Karin Bergquist — has played Calvin College more often than any other group, first booked by Student Activities Director Ken Heffner back in 1993 and often lovingly referred to as Calvin’s “house band.” Upon learning of the SAO phaseout, Detweiler provided Local Spins with an eloquent response, expressing sadness over the decision, describing Heffner as “a true visionary” and recalling the duo’s “always special” appearances on campus. Scroll down to read his full response below.
Support our coverage of
West Michigan's music scene
Calvin College will phase out its Student Activities Office directed by Ken Heffner, long responsible for overseeing a concert series that’s brought stars such as Emmylou Harris, Sufjan Stevens, OK Go, Over the Rhine, Explosions in the Sky, The National, Patty Griffin and many more to the Grand Rapids campus.
The budget-cutting move by the college will take effect at the end of the current school year and will likely reduce the number of concerts hosted at Calvin in the future.
The decision was greeted with disappointment, sadness and frustration by current and former students who view Heffner and his office as sparking thoughtful interaction with pop culture as part of a mission to “love God and love his world at the same time.”
The beloved annual concert series has long presented national touring stars in intimate environments, often showcasing emerging acts on the cusp of breaking out. The college also has frequently hosted discussions with these artists to examine the role of their work and ties to spirituality.
Popular events such as SAO’s Festival of Faith and Music – a biennial event which featured performances, speeches and discussions “celebrating insightful music that explores, in some significant way, issues of faith” – already have been discontinued.
Some movies and concerts will continue under a new auspices, according to a statement from Calvin’s administration.
“Students should expect to continue to benefit from opportunities for films and concerts on campus. We should also continue to expect that Calvin will not simply invite artists for the sake of amusement, but rather because artists and films have something important to say. The ways that we do this, the frequency of our programming, and the opportunities for partnerships in the community, may look different,” noted the statement provided to Local Spins by Matthew Kucinski, assistant director of media relations.
BUDGET BALANCING THAT CUTS SOMETHING ‘UNIQUELY CALVIN’
Heffner declined comment on the situation, but the administration’s statement acknowledged that when “enrollments decline and health care and other costs (such as technology, insurance and library resources) soar, and when new opportunities present themselves and need funding, we must find ways to balance budgets.”
Some students told Local Spins that the move to cut SAO, however, is particularly devastating because it’s had a major impact over the past 25 years.
“It’s an understatement to say Ken Heffner did a wise job addressing how God’s sovereignty and the Christian life might interact with pop culture unafraid, and he turned it into tangible programming for 25-plus years,” said Cotter Koopman, a 2018 Calvin graduate who was involved with SAO.
“I thought it was cool, I wanted everyone else to think it was cool, but way beyond that, SAO’s work was a direct implementation of the philosophies that make Calvin uniquely Calvin. From a student’s vantage point, it becomes obvious that deleting SAO is gutting Calvin of one of the few things left that truly makes the college enticing and radical in the field of Christian colleges.”
Former student Kendra Petersen-Kamp, now a photographer for Local Spins, said she “made friends, gained mentors and built a career through the (SAO) program.”
“In the last couple years, the institution of Calvin had minimal investment in keeping one of its key programs alive,” she added. “It didn’t invest in a replacement for Ken, and in canceling the program entirely, loses a key part of what makes its theology and programming stand out from other Christian and secular colleges.
“The SAO and cultural discernment program were the purest form of Calvin’s liberal arts mentality, reaching across majors and disciples, expanding into the public. It showed that Calvin cared about what was outside of the academic and theological bubble. Calvin can no longer claim that.”
Another former student, James Li (a musician who performed under the moniker Liance while at Calvin), said he was “heartbroken” by Calvin’s decision, noting SAO was the main attraction that drew him to the college. He also argued that other colleges have used the office as a blueprint for their own programs.
“I’m frankly ashamed of my alma mater for believing that they could cut the Student Activities Board and Ken Heffner’s position without fundamentally altering the college for the worse. I strongly believe that cutting the SAO would be a self-inflicted wound they would never recover from, and goes directly against Calvin’s stated mission of engaging the world as agents of renewal,” said Li, who now resides in London. “The SAO has given me magical experiences that have since become an integral part of my being.”
‘REORGANIZATIONS ARE NEVER EASY’ AND OPPORTUNITIES FOR ‘A NEW MODEL’
The administration responded by noting that “reorganizations of departments and programs are never easy, and usually come with questions, concerns, and fears. In regard to SAO, which has been part of the Campus Involvement and Leadership office (CIL) for several years, the reorganization of work and responsibilities for this office is painful. However, to characterize this reorganization as a move away from Christian engagement with culture is an inaccurate representation of these changes.”
It added that some of the work of SAO “will continue, even though it may look different going forward” and involves “thinking about different ways to do our work, reorganizing departments and divisions, and sometimes saying goodbye to good people.”
A story in Chimes, Calvin College’s official student newspaper, stated that SAO was being cut “in light of Calvin’s decreasing enrollment,” quoting Heffner as saying that the office “as we know it will no longer be in existence” with some responsibilities absorbed by the Campus Involvement and Leadership Office.
Heffner is considered by many to be a shining light on the music scene, not only for his thought-provoking concert bookings over the years but for developing activities “that promote Christian perspectives on popular culture” and curating concerts, lectures and films “that allow Calvin students to interact with the best and brightest artists in a wide array of genres,” as Calvin’s own website points out.
Upcoming Calvin concerts this spring include Haley Heynderickx in the Covenant Fine Arts Recital Hall at 8 p.m. Wednesday (April 3) and Lucius with Pure Bathing Culture in the Covenant Fine Arts Center Auditorium on May 3. Details and tickets available online at calvin.edu.
Noted Koopman: “Pop culture: music, movies, podcasts, the Internet and adjacent art are the dominant fixtures of young people’s lives and experiences. It’s impossible to claim faith is holistic and not address that fixture. There’s a nuanced and endless interaction as culture continually shifts while God’s sovereignty remains timeless.
“Calvin can do comparable stuff again, maybe in a new form, maybe with someone new. It has to, actually. I just wish SAO was still and was always something Calvin money-movers recognized as actualizing Calvin’s philosophy, and left space for.”
The administration, meanwhile, suggested that “with many local partners and opportunities, we hope to consider new ways that students, faculty, and staff can be discerning engagers of the rich arts scene around them, on and off campus. There is an opportunity for a new model to emerge.”
Founded in 1876, Calvin College is an institution of the Christian Reformed Church.
Check out past Local Spins coverage of Calvin College concerts and events:
Calvin Festival of Faith & Music challenges conventions of spirituality and art with David Bazan, Julien Baker, Jamila Woods, Vox Vidorra
Sufjan Stevens’ oddly liberating songs of death create inspiring, powerful performance
Ingrid Michaelson lights up Calvin College crowd with festive, indie-pop spectacle
The National dial it up a notch for 4,000 at Calvin College
OK Go: Non-stop inventiveness, catchy tunes spark wildly entertaining Grand Rapids show
The Lone Bellow pack indie-folk punch in Grand Rapids
Over the Rhine impresses at Calvin College Chapel
The response of Linford Detweiler of Over The Rhine to the SAO program cuts:
We were deeply saddened to read this. Ken Heffner was a true visionary, and his life’s work helped set Calvin College apart from hundreds of other Christian liberal arts colleges. Many of us in the arts world believed Calvin was special, and was contributing something significant to our national conversation regarding the importance of art and culture to the health of any community.
It feels sometimes like American Christians have fallen prey to the worst instincts of corporate America, like there is some kind of undiagnosed spreadsheet disease, where the bottom line gets to have the final say in every important decision. Very little of what Jesus taught and stood for makes sense on a spreadsheet. In fact, Christ basically said, Tear up the spreadsheet, there is a different kingdom coming to earth, and true wealth is tallied differently. Seek first what truly matters, and trust me for the rest.
Maybe it’s the difference between value and profit. What was it worth to Calvin to have dozens of nationally recognized musicians and recording artists traveling around the U.S.A. talking about what a great little oasis Calvin was culturally? My brother and his wife moved to Grand Rapids and bought their first house together there. And I remember them mentioning one of the
factors was Calvin, and the fact that it was culturally adventurous and actually doing some exciting programming. What is that worth?
Whether or not the college is capable of recognizing it, this decision will impoverish the Calvin community, and the Grand Rapids community at large.
We first got a call from Ken Heffner in 1993, and played Calvin for the first time that year. We were a young band and had just gotten signed to a major label record deal. We had all grown up in the church, and were very much figuring out how a spiritual practice and our art and writing fit together. Ken invited us wholeheartedly into that conversation, and somehow encouraged us that our life’s work as songwriters and performers mattered.
Calvin became a regular stop for us, and it was always special. We often had 700, 800 even 1,000 people show up for our concerts. Some drove down from Canada for the shows. Folks drove in from Indiana and Illinois. They were events. Again, what is that worth to Calvin College that the campus was actually a cultural destination? Ken also invited us to participate in the Festival of Faith and Music that he started in hopes of deepening the conversation around art and our ability to think well regarding deeply held beliefs. Is beauty important?
We tour nationally and internationally, and I can’t tell you how many times someone will come up to us after a concert with a group of friends and mention that they first saw us at Calvin. So there is a huge community, a diaspora that cares deeply about formative moments that occurred at Calvin, because of Ken’s life’s work and vision.
I’m sure in the scope of a college budget, we are talking about a relatively small line item. Hopefully, a group of people on the board or faculty will open their eyes and rethink this decision. America needs art, music and a means of sharing our stories now more than ever. – Linford Detweiler
Copyright 2019, Spins on Music LLC