Dr. Carl E. Zylstra was Dordt's third president. Like his predecessors, Zylstra was a pastor in the Christian Reformed Church. But he was its first non-founder president, a fact that shaped how he approached his presidency. In his inaugural address, he thanked his predecessors for setting the vision and renewing the vision, and he went on to challenge the campus community to live the vision.
Zylstra, like Haan and Hulst, was drawn into the college community while a local pastor. As a pastor in Orange City, Iowa, just 12 miles from Dordt, he had faculty, staff, and students as parishioners, and he served on Dordt's board of trustees. When Dr. John B. Hulst decided to retire, Zylstra was asked to apply and gladly agreed. He was appointed president in 1996.
Zylstra's goal was to keep Dordt's vision for education sustainable, putting in place the structures that would allow it to thrive and deepen. During Zylstra's tenure as president, Dordt College matured-in facilities, faculty, administrative structure, and student body. The curricular program grew, both in its Core Program and its options. Programs in areas such as nursing, criminal justice, youth ministry, graphic design, construction management, and actuarial science were introduced. Football was added, as was the honors program, the Kuyper Honors Program (formerly known as the Kuyper Scholars Program). The Campus Center and new residence halls were built. Many new faculty members were hired as early faculty reached retirement age.
Zylstra continued to emphasize that a Dordt education was a comprehensive one, preparing students for holistic service and involving every aspect of their lives, both in class and out. Zylstra liked to describe this focus as 24/7 education.
During his presidency, Zylstra assumed leadership roles in a variety of educational and political organizations that advocate for and work to expand opportunities for Christian higher education, in the process extending Dordt's influence and reputation. Following retirement, he serves as the executive director of the Association of Reformed Colleges and Universities (ARCU).