NOTE: for those outside the Dutch community of W. Michigan — this post picks up a more inside game. Thanks for understanding.
Any discussion of life in West Michigan inevitably turns to the impact of the Dutch and that little college of theirs out on the Beltline. Calvin has been a home to progressive and liberal types (see the protest surrounding the appearance of Bush at commencement), and a generator of generations of engaged men and women, some in politics, some in the not-for-profit sectors.
And frankly, most of us in town have a somewhat ambivalent reaction to this engagement. A gathering of community activists can seem like a Calvin alumni association — as the recent informational/fundraising gathering of the local Matthew 25 group at David LaGrand’s made clear. On the Right, more than a few Republican campaigns have been like a gathering of Calvin alums as well (Ehlers being only the most prominent).
This role of cultural leadership, and its general presumption of competence is well known. But can this record, this presumption of civic neutrality remain, if the leadership takes an active, partisan role? Is Calvin at risk of moving farther Right?
The question came to sharp focus reading recent financial statements for the Amash campaign (candidate for SH-72). Among the $500 donors was Calvin’s president, Galen Byker. But it was only $500, right? A check of Fundraiser, reveals that the Bykers have contributed over $18,000 to national Republican campaigns — more than 10 percent of all gifts from that zip code. (UPDATE: a more thorough search from Campaign Money, reveals that the Bykers have given over $59,000 according to FEC filings.) It’s hard to see the donation as social, or an attempt to get close to other big money donors like the DeVos family. (In some defense, Byker comes by his Republican creds honestly; his father, Gary Byker, served as a state senator from Hudsonville for 10 years, 1968-1978).
So we return to the question: Is this public visibility as a Republican supporter a good thing for the College?From a community standpoint, a high profile Republican hardly seems the one to encourage community engagement with the college. Moreover, such a high profile would seem to corrupt the spirit of civic engagement that has enriched West Michigan for a generation. The secret of Calvin’s civic culture has been its embrace of principle that in turn allowed different expressions, some in the Democratic party, many in the Republican party. A leader clearly identified with one side pses the danger of marginalizing, or diminishing this diversity. The dismissal of Denise Isom earlier this year certainly brought that fear to the fore.
There are also other signs that the Dutch community itself is in a process of disengagement (and disintegration) — see Hail Mary. Byker’s largesse then reflects a move of the college to a national rather than a regional profile. There are all sorts of interesting dimensions to that, not least being whether a college with a national profile and a more conservative student body will remain as committed to working with the community. The danger — no, the fear is that Byker’s contributions reveal that the Windmill is leaving town, right at the point when it could be making some of its most valuable contributions.