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Calvin University board stands by its decision that former president had to go

by California Digital News

(RNS) — The trustees of Calvin University released a statement Thursday (March 28), defending their decision to part ways with the school’s former president, who they said admitted sending “flirtatious” and “inappropriate” messages to a woman who was not his wife and therefore he was no longer fit to lead the Christian school based in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

“Based on these admitted communications, the Board determined that Dr. Boer’s conduct was concerning and inappropriate and that he could not continue to serve as President of the University,” the board of trustees told The Calvin Chimes, the school’s student newspaper. 

Former Calvin President Wiebe Boer resigned in February after the messages — sent to a member of the Calvin community who was not faculty or a student — were reported to the school’s Title IX office. The board told Chimes that no formal Title IX investigation was conducted into the matter but instead, the trustees spoke to Boer, who admitted sending some of the communications, which they say he admitted were wrong. 

The resignation of Boer, a popular leader who had been on the job less than a year and a half, came as a shock. Boer had just announced an ambitious plan to grow the school’s enrollment and had been seen as someone who supported LGBTQ students on campus as well as faculty who dissented from denominational teaching about sexuality. Calvin is part of the Christian Reformed Church, which made its beliefs on sexuality part of the denomination’s confession of faith last year. 

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

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

John Hawthorne, a retired sociologist and longtime Christian college professor who now studies Christian colleges, said Boer, a former corporate executive and son of missionaries, was an ideal leader for Calvin, which like many Christian colleges, faces financial, enrollment and cultural challenges. 

His departure was a huge disappointment, said Hawthorne, author of “The Fearless Christian University,” a forthcoming book about the future of Christian colleges. 

He said Christian college presidents have faced heightened scrutiny in the wake of the #MeToo movement and the high-profile scandals involving Jerry Falwell Jr., the former president of Liberty University, one of the nation’s largest Christian schools. 

Hawthorne , who has no information about the specifics of Boer’s situation, said Boer’s alleged actions likely were seen as a betrayal by someone the board had trusted.

“It’s a mess,” he said. 

Boer’s departure has led to questions from Calvin faculty, students and supporters. A group of Calvin alumni have reportedly asked the board of trustees for a third-party investigation into the board’s handling of the allegations against Boer, according to the Chimes. 

The student paper reported that Boer was willing to have his allegedly inappropriate messages made public — but also that Boer claims to have deleted those messages.

Campus of Calvin University in Grand Rapids, Michigan. (Video screen grab)

Campus of Calvin University in Grand Rapids, Michigan. (Video screen grab)

Boer reportedly hired an attorney after resigning. He told the Chimes that the board of trustees has shared few details of the allegations against him but told him a complaint had been filed.

“In fact, Calvin has provided almost nothing else about these allegations and the sum total of my conversations was a single 15-minute video meeting with the board where I acknowledged exchanging messages, which the University itself confirmed were not sexual nor involved any physical contact, with a non-student, non-faculty individual,” he told the Chimes. “I continue to call for a transparent investigation for the benefit of the entire Calvin community.”

In their statement, the trustees said Boer denied some of the allegations against him and that they did not find Boer had committed sexual harassment “as defined by Title IX.” Instead, they relied on an employment agreement between the board and Boer in his role as president. 

That agreement allowed them to decided whether Boer’s alleged actions made him unfit as president. 

“Of specific concern were the volume, frequency and tone of Dr. Boer’s communication with a woman who was not his wife,” the trustees said in their statement. “These concerns were amplified by the power dynamic, considering Dr. Boer’s position as President of the University and the woman’s role in the community.”

A spokesman for the University provided a copy of the board’s statement to RNS but did not respond to a request for details about the content of the employment agreement or for comment about Boer’s departure. 

Chimes editor-in-chief Savannah Shustack said students at Calvin were disappointed at Boer’s resignation, feeling that he had let them down. Over the past month, with little information available about the allegations, most students have moved on, she said. 

Shustack said professors were split after the news broke, with some backing Boer and others wanting more information. The school was on break for Easter when the board issued its most recent statement, so it’s unclear how the faculty will respond. 

Unlike other schools where a president has resigned after controversy, things appeared to be going well with Boer before his sudden departure, which is a loss for the school. 

“I don’t know that anyone benefits from him leaving,” she said. 

Shustack said students appear to have responded well to interim President Gregory Elzinga, whose message has been that Calvin is bigger than any one person. 

The situation involving Boer echoes the case of Matt Chandler, a Texas megachurch pastor who was placed on leave in 2022 for sending what the church called inappropriate Instagram messages to a woman. Few details were shared about the messages, except that they were not romantic or sexual in nature — but the number of messages and the tone of those messages were deemed inappropriate.

The lack of details about Chandler’s messages — which his church deemed an HR matter — led to speculation and confusion. Chandler returned to the pulpit in December of 2022 after a three-month leave, telling members of the Village Church, the Dallas-area megachurch where he was the long-term pastor, that he was sorry to have disappointed them. 

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