Thank you, Bob, for that very kind introduction. As Bob said, we have known each other for more than 15 years. I cannot imagine a better friend or mentor … so it’s hard to capture how grateful I am that he is here today.
I have to admit … I am feeling overcome with emotion right now…
This whole thing feels like part graduation ceremony, part wedding and part funeral! I just hope I come across as the groom or at least the graduate and not the … well, you get the idea.
This room is full of people I love, respect and admire … people who supported me along my journey to and from Hope – and now back again.
My high school social studies teacher, Marshall Rutz, and my former advisor at Hope, Jack Holmes, are here. Both invested countless hours in me – inside and outside the classroom.
Some great leaders of Hope are also here – Dr. James Bultman our 11th president and Dr. Dennis Voskuil our 13th. I have known and admired Dr. Bultman for many years. And while I only met Dr. Voskuil two years ago, he quickly made my personal “hall of fame”.
Dr. John Knapp, our 12th president, is traveling overseas and couldn’t join us today. But I owe him a huge debt of gratitude for asking me to join Hope’s Board of Trustees a few years ago – giving me the opportunity to serve this school we all love.
It is also an incredible honor that, at 99 years old, our 9th president, Dr. Gordon Van Wylen is here this afternoon. Dr. Van Wylen, your legacy lives on in very real ways here at Hope, and it will be a privilege for me to help carry forward the work that you began here nearly five decades ago.
To the search committee, chaired by Suzanne Shier, and to the board of trustees, chaired by Karl Droppers – thank you for the trust you have placed in me. I will work to justify that trust every day.
And thanks especially to all of you in the broader Hope community. When I was named Hope’s 14th president, I wasn’t sure how the announcement would be received. I was 39 … working in New York … with limited academic experience. But in true Hope tradition, you embraced me and welcomed me back. I feel deeply grateful and highly privileged to serve this institution alongside you.
And if anyone is still concerned about a 39-year-old president, I have one important announcement: two weeks ago I turned 40!
I also want to recognize my family, starting with my siblings Sam, Alice and Tim. Thank you for being here. My in-laws join us from Colorado, which means so much to me.
Of course, my three children – Oliver, Lucy and Sophie – and my amazing wife, Sarah. Thank you for your willingness to embark on this crazy adventure together.
Finally, I want to mention my parents. My dad passed away six years ago; my mom three years ago.
Unbeknownst to me, my preparation for this job began decades ago with them. They exuded a passion for learning in the pursuit of wisdom and truth – a passion I carry as I return to Hope.
My dad was a PhD chemist, who worked at a pharmaceutical company in Portage his entire career. My mom started her career as a middle school science teacher and later taught adult education and high school equivalency.
My dad, who never raised his voice – at least in my presence – taught me the importance of kindness and staying calm in all circumstances. My mom taught me how to channel my ambition, always telling me … “If you see something you don’t like in this world, go out and do what you can to make it better.” That’s a message of hope I’ve always tried to embody.
I miss them and wish they were here. They would have loved this. Partly because, after 17 years on the East Coast, I am finally home.
Transformed by Hope
You see … for me … this is home.
Twenty-one years ago, my parents dropped me at Scott Hall for freshman year. I remember my mom … sitting in our blue minivan … tears streaming down her face as they drove off … heartbroken that I was leaving the nest – even though the nest was only an hour’s drive away.
In this very room, I first caught a glimpse of a girl who stopped my heart and made me so nervous it took me three years to work up the courage to ask her out. That incredible girl has been my wife for nearly 17 years.
In the halls that surround us, I met professors who stretched my mind … taught me to think … gave me a passion for learning … and most importantly cared about who I was and who I would become.
And though I had been a Christian my whole life, on this campus, God became a someone, not a something.
I met my wife here. I met people who changed my life here. And I met God here.
The simple truth is, my life was transformed by Hope. Yes, by Hope College. But even more so, by the “living hope” this institution pointed me to.
This was no accident. The idea of sparking this transformation in young people was the original intent of the visionaries who started this institution more than 153 years ago.
A courageous group of immigrants from the Netherlands, led by Albertus Van Raalte, settled here. They had a zeal for God and a belief that Western Michigan – then standing on America’s frontier – was the best place to spread God’s hope to the world.
They believed the culture and values of the frontier would shape the culture and values of this country. So they settled here, intending to help shape America.
But their dream was even bigger than that.
They believed this strategic spot, hard by the waters of Lake Michigan, offered a transportation network to reach the world.
All of this was inspired by their fundamental belief that advancing God’s kingdom in this life demanded more than zeal and passion – it required education. So they started a small school with a big ambition – to transform the world through hope.
Philip Phelps was our first president – a 39-year-old from New York who was 40 at the time of his inauguration. Hmm … sounds familiar!
Early on, there was some tension over the school’s mission. Some believed Hope’s purpose should be limited to training future missionaries and ministers. Others wanted Hope to be a broader liberal arts institution like traditional eastern schools.
Phelps had a different plan: He wanted to do BOTH – offer world-class academics AND a vibrant faith environment. This was a new idea at the time. Yet Phelps believed this dual mission was the key to fulfilling Hope’s founding vision to transform the world.
A few decades after Hope was founded, work started on this chapel. When it was finished, it held 1,500 people – at a time when Hope’s student population was less than 400!
Like I said … our founders had big ambitions!
The rose window in the back of this room – designed by President Dimnent – showcases the seals of Harvard, Yale, Princeton, the University of Michigan, Rutgers and Leiden University in the Netherlands.
These schools were seen as aspirational academic peers of Hope College.
So, someone better warn Leiden University that we’re coming! Because we are coming.
This is a season of homecoming for me – and I can’t help but feel it is also a season of homecoming for Hope College. A time to rededicate ourselves to that early vision.
Somewhere along the line, we have lost a little of the grand ambition that inspired our founders. After all, we weren’t founded to transform Ottawa County or compete with a school in Grand Rapids. We were founded to compete at the highest levels academically and transform the world with God’s hope.
“A New Thing”
Today, I see Hope College with new hope.
I know that recent years have not been easy. You’ve lived it and don’t need me to tell you.
At times our campus has felt divided – in a way that mirrors the division in our country.
We also feel pressure from the external challenges facing higher education and liberal arts colleges in particular.
I see all of that – and yet I also see God preparing our institution to do something new.
I’m inspired by that passage just read from Isaiah 43:
See, I am doing a new thing!
Now it springs up; do you not perceive it?
I am making a way in the wilderness
and streams in the wasteland
This points to an interesting paradox with God. He describes himself as a God who never changes – He is the same yesterday, today and forever. And yet, He is also a God who does new things.
The Bible begins in Genesis 1 with God creating the earth. For a God who has always existed, that was a new thing. Creation was a new thing. Humans were a new thing.
And then, remarkably, in Genesis 6 – just a few pages into the Bible – God says, let’s do something new again! And he destroys the world with a flood and starts over.
A few thousand years later, Jesus comes and brings another new thing – a new message, a new covenant.
At the end of time, the Bible says Jesus will come back, and when he does, he will make ALL things new.
God is one who never changes … and yet also a God who does new things.
I don’t know about you, but I feel God moving here now … doing a new thing at Hope College.
To be clear, I’m NOT the new thing. It’s not about me.
I would even submit that it’s not about our institution. It’s about God using us to impact the world – drawing us back to the vision that filled our founders with such fervor – the idea that the world could be transformed by Hope.
I believe if our founders could see where Hope stands today, they would be overcome with envy.
Today, we are a school that belongs on the world stage.
- We are ranked by US News as 23rd in the nation for undergraduate research, tied with Cornell and Swarthmore.
- We were the first private liberal arts college – and remain one of the few - to have accredited programs in all four areas of fine arts: music, art, dance and theater.
- We have championship level athletics in 22 sports, and we are consistently recognized by the NCAA for having student-athletes who excel academically.
- We have pivoted beautifully from a denominational school to a fully ecumenical Christian school. At a time when churches and denominations around the world are dividing, Hope is a place that brings all Christians together … a place where Greek Orthodox, Catholics and all protestant traditions can come together and say, ‘We may disagree on some things but we share a handful of big convictions that unite us.’
I can’t think of a better position from which to transform the world.
As we look to the future, we are fortunate to inherit the hard work, vision, and determination of brave leaders who got us here. Names like Phelps, Dimnent, Van Wylen, and Bultman.
We honor them best and remain true to their ambition by seizing the new opportunities before us.
I see three major areas where Hope College can chart a course of leadership our founders envisioned. The three areas are: the future of learning; the future of work; and the future business model of higher education.
In my early weeks as president, I have spent a lot of time listening – hearing from faculty, staff, students, alumni, donors, parents, community members. These sessions will continue, but early conversations have already informed my thoughts in all three areas.
The future of learning –
First, how can Hope shape the future of learning?
Let’s start with the fact that despite the sweeping changes to society brought about by the Information Age, the format and delivery of a college education has changed little since the Industrial Revolution.
Consider the landscape: Technology is transforming the way many people learn. Thanks to online learning, a student in Madagascar can be taught by the world’s top scholars without leaving home. With such powerful tools at their fingertips, today’s students see college as a springboard to lifetime learning, not the completion of their education.
Hope will always be a residential liberal arts college. That will never change. But perhaps there are areas where we can consider doing “a new thing”.
Our focus on the future of learning starts with a vigorous defense of the value of the liberal arts. There is strong research supporting us.
In a recent study, Harvard economist David Deming found strong growth in jobs that require both social skills and STEM skills – whereas STEM-only occupations are declining as a share of our labor force.
While the pendulum of higher education seems to be shifting toward vocational training, we at Hope believe college is about more than grooming young people for work.
Of course, Hope does a great job preparing students for fulfilling careers. But a liberal arts degree also instills a passion for learning … the chance to experience the unexpected … the opportunity to make sense of one’s place in the world.
There isn’t a better preparation for a job – or for life. This is where Hope – with our unique mission – can excel.
The future of work –
In fact – through the work of the Boerigter Center for Calling and Career – Hope can become a bridge between the study of liberal arts and the rapidly changing workplace that is defining the future of work.
“Rapidly changing” barely does justice to current dynamics.
Over the next five years, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, up to one-third of our workforce will transfer not just to a new job, but to a new occupation. A 2016 study by two Oxford economists estimates that nearly half of U.S. jobs are at risk of being automated within two decades.
Automation is impacting not only factory workers, but highly educated professionals. I’ve seen this first-hand. The New York Stock Exchange, where I worked for six years, once housed thousands of stock traders on the trading floor. Now, as a result of electronic trading, there are only a few hundred.
While some look at our “new economy” and see only the need for more technical training, I believe the skills produced by a Hope College liberal arts degree will become even MORE relevant.
In my view, the rise of automation means the most successful leaders of the future will be those who are especially human. As more jobs are automated, employers will more highly value people who bring curiosity, creativity, wit and warmth to the workplace … people who can work across cultures, make a human connection, and live by a strong moral compass.
Who better to meet this rising need than Hope College?
The future business model of higher education –
Finally, I see Hope College as uniquely positioned to impact the future business model of higher education.
The whole world is asking why college has gotten so expensive. What if Hope could take the lead in solving that puzzle?
Doing so requires asking some existential questions … like why does a college exist in the first place?
Some institutions – if they are honest with themselves – would have to admit they
exist solely to support professional researchers. Their idea is simple: wouldn’t
it be nice if all the thinkers in society were able to come together and just think
all day, rather than having to, say, work at a bank with only a few precious hours
to think in the evening.
That’s one model. And it’s a brilliant idea. All of society benefits from it.
But the question is, how do you pay for it?
So, institutions invite students to spend a few years rubbing shoulders with great thinkers – for a fee.
It’s been this way from the very beginning – since Aristotle supported himself by tutoring students on the side.
That’s how the whole project keeps moving forward. But what happens when the tuition students – and parents – are willing and able to pay doesn’t cover expenses? Then it’s not so simple.
Hope College has a different model.
Hope exists for professors AND students. Hope convenes bright minds who not only want to think and pursue truth, knowledge and beauty, but who love teaching and care about their students.
That’s not to say we don’t love research. We do and we’re good at it. Professors here do world-changing research – but through our collaborative model, that research includes students as the first priority, not as an after-thought.
For us, what it comes down to, is this… if our academic model is different, shouldn’t our business model also be different?
Our academic model centers on bringing together the best scholars with the most vibrant, talented, diverse group of students we can assemble.
And don’t forget, dating back to the founding of our institution, we’re about more than just excellent academics.
At a fundamental level, what we provide here is a transformational experience. A world-class, liberal arts education is part of that. It also includes faith formation, as well as enabling students to discover their calling - their life purpose - and the chance to wrestle with the biggest, most important questions of all – like Is there a God? and Why am I here?
Those pieces together are what transformed my life. And the ability to pay for this transformative experience should not be a barrier.
That’s why Hope will be committing an additional $1 million toward new scholarships for the next academic year. This marks the biggest-ever increase in our scholarship offering.
A God-Sized Ambition for a God-Centered School
But longer term, we need to do much more to close the gap. The most direct way to accomplish this is through fundraising. And that’s an area where I am excited to get to work – using all the passion, commitment and energy Hope College instilled in me.
Let me warn you.. my ultimate goal for us is big.
My objective is to raise enough scholarship money in our endowment so that one-day Hope College would not need to charge students tuition at all.
My dream is a Hope College that can fully fund tuition for all of our students.
This is a big ambition. So large that it probably sounds crazy and unachievable.
Yet, to paraphrase President Kennedy when he charged our nation with the seemingly crazy and unachievable mission of going to the moon, we choose this ambition. We choose this, not because it is easy; we choose this because it is hard.
We accept this challenge because we believe so deeply in the transformative experience that Hope College offers. The opportunity to be transformed by Hope should not be dependent on a family’s net worth or what zip code a student grows up in.
Being transformed by Hope should not come with a price tag.
To me this is personal… My own life was forever transformed by this institution. I grew up in a modest middle-class family. I wouldn’t have been able to afford Hope College without scholarship support. And even with scholarships, I still graduated with significant student loan debt. Keep in mind, this was two decades ago, when the price of tuition was less than half what it is today.
We are taking a hard look at ways we can rethink our cost structure. But organizations do not shrink on the way to greatness. Our path toward greatness involves growing, growing our scholarship support.
So I am asking us to channel the pioneer spirit that inspired our immigrant founders, who believed this institution could change the world… I’m asking us to re-ignite that passion and be a place that chooses to be a leader, a place that chooses to climb the highest mountain, a place that chooses to take on one of the most significant challenges facing society today: access and affordability of higher education.
Ultimately we accept this challenge, not just because we believe in what Hope College can do. We accept this challenge because we have faith in a big God.
If Hope is a God-centered school, we ought to have God-sized ambitions for ourselves. And we do.
The areas I have highlighted today – the future of learning, the future of work, the future business model of higher education – may sound daunting. But while other institutions perceive them as a threat, we can see them as opportunities.
Challenges from the outside are inherently disruptive. That’s why they are scary to those who are already at the top, but exciting to those who are poised to climb higher.
When Israel’s leading generals saw Goliath, they saw their worst nightmare. But when David saw Goliath, he saw his biggest chance. The same thing that struck the Israelite army with fear is what filled David with hope.
And so it should be with us. Remember, our name is HOPE. Who better to take on seemingly hopeless challenges than us? Especially when, as with David, our hope comes from the only reliable source.
The world places its hope in circumstance … things like personal health, family, success, high position in society.
Those are nice things. But as you know, and as our students will discover, life is full of hardship. What is hardship but a stripping of those things? And when you lose the circumstances in which you place your hope, you risk becoming cynical, disillusioned, hopeless.
The Apostle Peter says that we have, in Christ, a “living hope”… a hope that doesn’t die … a hope that doesn’t depend on circumstances.
That’s why David could look directly into the eyes of the most daunting challenge his nation faced and say “today, the Lord will deliver you into my hands.”
How did he summon the will to say that – or the faith to believe it?
Faced with an insurmountable task, David had supernatural hope. Realizing the battle was not his but God’s, he said “this very day… the whole world will see that there is an extraordinary God.”
THAT is the power of hope – a living hope that comes from only one place.
It is the hope we aspire to instill at Hope College.
It is the hope that inspired our founding.
It is the hope that defines our purpose.
And it is the hope that carries us forward today.
So, with God’s words guiding us – “see I am doing a new thing” – we look to the future with confidence in Hope’s mission … its people … and its ability to transform the world.
1 Deming, David, “The Growing Importance of Social Skills in the Labor Market,” The Quarterly Journal of Economics, November 2017
2 Frey, Carl and Michael Osborne, “The future of employment: How susceptible are jobs to computerization?” Oxford Martin Programme on Technology and Employment, Sept 2016