I am among the most fortunate of college presidents. Having face-to-face access to my four immediate predecessors, whose collective service dates back to 1960, is a remarkable gift. They include Arend “Don” Lubbers (1960-1970), Ken Weller (1970-1990), Bill Wiebenga (1990-1997) and David Roe (1998-2010). Adding my seven years of service thus far, we have provided leadership to the college for 57 years, fully one-third of Central’s entire history.
A college presidency is a privileged inheritance. As beneficiary, I now work for my successors. Each of us in this chain of leadership has faced opportunities and challenges unique to the times, but we also have encountered circumstances that affirmed our common purpose through the years.
I was reminded of this when in March we commemorated the visit of Martin Luther King, Jr. to Central College in 1967. In preparation for that event I read through the archived materials surrounding the visit. I also spent some time on the phone with Don Lubbers to hear his reflections on the significance of the occasion.
Included in the archives were a series of letters Don received from individuals expressing concerns about Dr. King’s visit. They included representatives of churches, alumni and concerned citizens. As I reflected on the content of these letters in their historic setting, I was impressed by the responses Don sent to each one.
In one letter he wrote …
As a college we stand in the Reformed Church tradition. As an educational institution we feel obligated to bring people with differing viewpoints to the campus. We do not feel we are doing our job if we keep students from hearing conflicting opinions. We would not be preparing them for the real world. (Feb. 16, 1967)
In a more pointed response he wrote …
Your letter obviously shows that you do not understand what a college really is. You ask us what we are trying to do to the youth: we are trying to educate them to live in a real world. As we do this we want to have them live and learn in a Christian environment so that they may develop in Christian truth and wisdom. At the same time, we do not wish to protect them from ideas that may not always coincide with our philosophy. … It is our hope to bring people of many opinions and views to the campus so our students may know what is going on. (March 21, 1967)
My predecessors have taught me that our task as educators is to add light, not heat. Differences of opinion and philosophy abound in a college, just as they do in a democracy. My job is to ensure the legacy of open inquiry flourishes and in turn to pass that on to my successors.