Calvin University and its Center for Social Research are getting a divorce.
Why? Gay marriage.
Specifically, because a Center for Social Research employee married her now-wife, and rather than fire her for being in violation of the staff handbook, the evangelical college decided to spin the Center — which Inside Higher Ed characterizes as “a hub for social science surveys and analysis — into a separate entity.
The decision came after college officials met with Nicole Sweda, the CSR employee.
“They opened in prayer, and then they basically asked me two questions: if I had married Annica in the fall of 2021, to which I said ‘Yes,’ and had we been living together since May of 2020, to which I also said ‘Yes,’” Sweda said. “Then they told me that I was in violation of the staff handbook, so I could no longer be employed by Calvin. I asked if I was fired, and they said, ‘Well, we’re not really sure yet.’”
Calvin, a private college in Grand Rapids, Mich., considers non-heterosexual sexual relationships to be sexual misconduct, a common belief among evangelical institutions. While a growing number of students support LGBTQ+ relationships, board members’ attitudes have not changed as quickly, experts say. As a result, it will likely be decades before many evangelical colleges overhaul their policies on non-heterosexual relationships.
The Calvin officials didn’t fire Sweda on the spot. Instead, they decided to part ways with the Center for Social Research, effectively allowing Sweda to keep her job without violating university policies, she said.
The budget-neutral split between the two institutions is set to be completed by the end of April. Even though the college and the CSR will be legally separate, the two institutions will still work together. The Center’s announcement about the split says that, “The move positions CSR to serve a broader range of clients and grow in ways it couldn’t as part of the institution.”
“For a very long time, CSR has been one of the university’s most entrepreneurial and creative organizations. It has been a hub of intellectual ferment, community partnership, and professional development for students and employees,” said Noah Toly, provost of Calvin University. “At the same time, it has developed in directions that require greater entrepreneurial freedom, access to capital, and agility, and this move will open up new horizons for the center. So, while Calvin and CSR have been good for each other, we’re also supportive of positioning the center to flourish in new ways.”
“We have loved our community at Calvin, and it will be bittersweet to leave,” said Neil Carlson, CSR’s director. “Our work has been steadily producing new research engagements and technology development opportunities that would require overly complex support from the university in order for us to take them on.”
Among short-term tasks facing CSR are continuing regular research operations while developing a new brand and creating legal and financial infrastructure. “Fortunately, we have been operating as a de facto consulting firm since 2004, so we have a lot of resources that we can simply move over,” Carlson says. “Though the transition will be challenging, we’ll provide better service to all as a new organization. I’m grateful to my teammates for planning to stay together and to Calvin leadership for their support.”
Campus responses to the proposed change ultimately led to Sweda’s resignation. Inside Higher Ed continues:
News of the institutions’ split was abrupt, which made students and faculty members suspicious about the motivations behind the decision, said Harm Venhuizen, editor in chief of Calvin Chimes, the university’s student newspaper. Venhuizen and other student journalists conducted an investigation that led them to Sweda. Their subsequent reporting on the chain of events that led to Calvin’s split with the CSR prompted Sweda to resign so she could speak out.
Calvin claims to have no issue with LGBTQ+ students and employees—as long as they don’t pursue non-heterosexual relationships. The university website states that the institution treats LGBTQ+ students “with respect, justice, grace and understanding in the Spirit of Christ.” The university is home to a sexuality and gender awareness group and counseling services for LGBTQ+ students.
But those affirmations ring hollow for queer students and employees, Sweda said.
“They really do try to recruit queer students to come there under the guise of being an accepting place for you, and I don’t think that’s true,” she said. “I want it to be a more accepting place, but I don’t think that that’s going to happen. I really hope out of this situation that Calvin is more honest and more up-front about these things.”
The staff handbook states that “Though it is the university’s policy to assure equal opportunity in its hiring, personnel practices and admissions without regard to marital status or sexual orientation, sexual relations outside of marriage are proscribed.” The university, like the Christian Reformed Church it is affiliated with, defines marriage as “a covenantal union between a man and a woman.”
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