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Q & A with President Zysltra

President Zylstra

President Zylstra

We’ve spent a year celebrating our past. How does this celebration connect to our planning for the future?

One of our Jubilee convocation speakers, Dr. Nicholas Wolterstorff, said that those who shared the founding vision of Dordt College for an integral approach to Christian education are not as lonely as they once were. I think he’s right, and we should be grateful for that. Especially among evangelical Christians, the Reformed concept that the Word of God speaks to all areas of life, including scholarship, as Christ is Lord of today and tomorrow, is increasingly confirmed and used as a working model.

Why should people support Dordt College?

One reason to support Dordt College is that we were among a small number of institutions who pioneered this vision. We have continued to hone our vision over the past fifty years and will for the next fifty years as well, Lord willing.

The second reason is that not everybody in higher education accepts this view. Even within the 105 colleges of the CCCU (Council of Christian Colleges and Universities), not everyone shapes the vision the way we do. Supporting Dordt College helps us give leadership among those who already have this vision and helps us spread that vision among those that don’t.

The third and most important reason is that I believe Dordt College does as good a job as anybody in helping current students capture that vision. We need to support students here today and the ones coming in the next years to help them capture this vision so that we can flood the world with people grounded in a Reformed worldview, motivated and prepared to advance Christ’s kingdom.

What are the big challenges for institutions like us to stay alive and vibrant?

Internally, one of the biggest challenges is thinking that we have arrived. As soon as you think you’ve arrived, you start to lose your foundation. We have to guard against self-congratulation, which leads to complacency.

Externally, the fact that most of higher education regards our vision as making totally foolish claims and being “out of touch” puts pressure on us. If other people think of us that way, we might start to think of ourselves that way too.

Finances are another challenge. There have been three sources of support for higher education in the post World War II era: the government, foundations, and philanthropy.

Through the GI bill and higher education act, the government funded many of our first students and buildings. Today, in addition to less federal funding, efforts are continually being introduced in Congress to restrict our freedom to hire in accordance with our religious beliefs. Our students get many federal loans and grants, but if such efforts are successful our students may lose the right to receive that assistance.

Then, just as we are maturing to the point where foundations might be more interested in looking at us, those foundations are starting to shift their focus. They are starting to fund elementary schools because of the crisis in elementary and secondary education in our country. Business foundations like the Gates Foundation put billions of dollars almost exclusively into K-12 level education.

I’m excited that the Christian community, particularly the Reformed community, still sees higher education as a way to advance a biblical worldview in the lives of their churches, a way to be successful in their businesses and professions, and a way to have an impact on society. It is from the Christian community and churches that our support will need to come if we are to move forward and keep tuition affordable.

In a sentence, what is our greatest strength?

Dordt College is a Christian learning community where students can spend two to four years, depending on associate or baccalaureate program, to live, think, study, and work with other Christians in the light of God’s world so they can spread out across the world and recognize that whatever they’re doing, their thoughts, actions, and occupation need to be governed by the Word of God and their tasks have to be carried on together with other Christians in Christian community. That kind of communal understanding of the sovereignty of Christ over every area of life, every square inch, 24/7, is something about which we are passionate.

Do we distinguish ourselves from others who are headed in the same direction?

I’m not really that much interested in distinguishing ourselves from others who share our vision. I think we need all the friends we can get. The fact that ninety percent plus of our students live on campus is unusual and adds to our strong sense of community. It helps develop a passion to live according to and out of our vision. And the fact that we are in a small town means that the college community becomes the focus of student life.

We are the only college that has both an agriculture and an engineering program, leading us to a biotechnology emphasis—something for which we are well suited by location, tradition, and our strength as a campus. We put a heavy emphasis on our education department, because that’s where we started, and it remains a real strength. We can help the whole Christian community by providing Christian teachers for our Christian schools and also for public schools.

How difficult is it to find faculty that share our vision for education?

It’s not as hard to find people who share the vision as it is to find faculty who have experience that has helped them develop that vision. There are people who are excited about coming to Dordt, but they may not have had the opportunity to develop their own thoughts concretely. That presents an opportunity for us, because those who are used to the tradition are sharpened by those who ask new, fresh questions. A lot of Christian scholars get excited about what we have at Dordt.

We have a perspective that isn’t just denominational. How do we become better known for what we have to offer?

The college has steadily attracted students from other denominations in the last decade, but there are things we need to do to become better known both regionally and nationally. The fact that we are now increasingly recognized by rankings such as U.S. News is a help because it is validation for people who never heard of us.

Becoming better known is a long, slow process. Almost every college grows in exactly one way and that is word of mouth. Advertising is important, but people won’t pick up their checkbook and invest the amount of money a college education costs on the basis of a postcard, ad, or even a website. They need to make a connection so they believe we are credible. The first contact may be through alums or others in their community. Reputation and understanding and credibility by someone who has had a positive experience are the way for a college to attract its students.

Having said that, one of the great opportunities we have now is websites. Today’s generation of high school students don’t think “place” as much as previous generations did. They look for a small Christian college with engineering or elementary education and find us. Eventually they will have to make the decision about whether they want to go to school here, but our initial contacts are easier. We can’t send our admissions counselors to every school, so the web is a great opportunity.

Our faculty have to increasingly do public things that people notice. Our students involved in co-curricular music, athletics, drama, and art can effectively capture the attention and imagination of high school students thinking about coming to college.

More and more people come for campus visits from various areas. Meeting our faculty is one of the keys to convincing them this is a credible place. I think we do have some opportunities that we didn’t have before.

What is your role as president in helping shape the college?

My role as a president is not so much to add new content to the vision of the college, because that’s been pretty clearly defined in our current strategic plan. I think my role, after being here for ten years, is to say that we’re going to do what we said we were going to do, in other words move forward and implement the strategic vision laid out in our strategic plan. Secondly, I have a real opportunity to talk with our friends and supporters about ways they can participate in this. We can’t do this unless we increase the level of commitment and amount of involvement, financially and in other ways, from our donors particularly, but also others who share that vision. The third thing I can do is spread the word among higher education leaders. After being here for ten years, I have more opportunities to sit down with public officials, policymakers, and others in higher education. I never miss a chance to tell them what we’re doing at Dordt College.

What gets you up in the morning and makes you lie awake at night?

The main thing that makes me lie awake at night is that we have more opportunities than we can take advantage of. That can be frustrating. What gets me going in the morning is seeing how many opportunities we can tackle for the day and in the days ahead. What keeps me up at night is getting to the end of the day and realizing that a lot of things could have gotten accomplished. That’s the problem with our mission statement. We believe, theoretically, that there is no area where we cannot have a role to play. But we can’t do it all, we have to pick and choose, and it’s kind of hard to deal with that.

What are your dreams for Dordt College?

The dream I have is that ten years from now, Dordt College will be even more recognized as a high-quality residential Christian college committed to having “the spirit and character of Christianity in our curriculum and on our campus,” that continuing generations of our students are being motivated to go out and serve the community of Christ.

Another hope is that we have a presence across the United States where people can participate in the educational benefits of Dordt College. That will take place electronically, with people coming to our campus; with people going out from campus; through partnerships with Christian high schools as post-secondary presences; and through other networks that still have to emerge but that won’t require people to be in Sioux Center to be impacted by a Dordt College education. That will be a big shift as we move forward. In some ways it is already starting, but it will mushroom in the next ten years. That’s the only way a small college can truly “flood the world” with biblically-formed servants of Christ’s kingdom. And that’s my dream.