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What do we owe?

By Dr. Carl E. Zylstra

Why would Dordt College want to be involved with national educational policy?Ē That question came up recently after I was elected to the Board of Directors of the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities (NAICU). NAICU is a public policy-focused association of more than 900 independent colleges and universities that range from Harvard University to small Bible colleges. It represents eighty percent of the students who are attending not-for-profit, independent higher educational institutions in the United States.

Dr. Carl E. Zylstra

Dr. Carl E. Zylstra

Why would that effort be worth the time and involvement of someone from Dordt College? Two reasons. First, we want to be vigilant about protecting our right to offer biblically shaped, Christ-centered higher education, free from unwarranted government intrusion and regulation. And second, Dordt College students each year receive almost $1 million in direct federal grants and a total of more than $3 million in federally assisted loans. Combine that with the more than $1 million in state assistance that our students receive and it becomes clear that a large percentage of our annual budget comes from government fundingóand that doesnít even count the tax incentives given for donations that support our efforts.

Government support is not new for Dordt College. One reason Dordt College was able to become established so quickly in the 1950s was because the federal government at that time made significant amounts of money available for academic buildings and provided low-interest loans for housing facilities. Even today there are places on campus where small plaques indicate that the facility was provided through the assistance of gifts from the American people.

Organizations like NAICU help maximize, where possible, the amount of government assistance to students and minimize, as far as possible, the amount of government regulation over college and university life.

At first glance those two goals donít seem to fit together. After all, if we are willing to accept the money, shouldnít we also be obligated to accept the control that comes with it? Isnít it natural to assume that if we are assisted by government funds, that we owe something in return?

The answer is, yes, we do owe the public community a lot, but we owe our society those debts whether theyíve funded us or not. As Reformed Christians we believe that social structures are part of Godís creation and that we are obliged to serve within those structures, recognizing their authority and contributing to their formation and reformation by our witness to Godís way. Our college prepares citizen participants and leaders for our societyónot a parallel or alternative society as some Christians suggest. Reformed Christians have always held firm: no matter how distorted society may become, our goal is to witness to Christís redeeming work in our society and culture. We donít duck out. We serve.

We would owe that to society in any case, even if the college and its students didnít receive a penny in support from the government.

What we donít owe and certainly canít give up is our right to teach according to Reformed principles, to organize our college according to Christian values, or to employ biblical standards to choose the faculty and students who make up our college. No amount of financial aid that a government could offer would be worth giving up those principles on which we were founded and on which we serve. Should the government ever demand compliance in areas that would require us to give up our foundational beliefs, then, in my opinion, it would be far better to close than to capitulate.

We should never be embarrassed about what we owe to the society of which we are a partóboth the United States and beyond. Our global society over which Christ is Lord needs the kinds of graduates that come from Dordt College. In order to fulfill its deepest longings, this world needs to be populated increasingly with men and women of biblical insight who are motivated to serve in whatever square inch of Godís world he places them.

Thatís what our society needs, and thatís what we owe. Personally, Iíll keep trying to make the case that our government owes us the freedom to carry out our mission energetically and without constraintóand that our students are entitled to the same benefits and support as every other student the government chooses to assist in preparing to serve our society and our world.