On March 16, 2012, Dr. J. Derek Halvorson was selected as the sixth president of Covenant College. Halvorson’s tenure will begin July 1.
Halvorson is currently the president of Providence Christian College in Pasadena, Calif. He graduated cum laude from Covenant in 1993 with a Bachelor of Arts in history; he earned his master’s degree from the University of Arizona and a doctorate from Loyola University Chicago, both in history. Halvorson and his wife, Wendy, are the parents of a son and a daughter.
ByFaith editor Richard Doster spoke to Halvorson about his preparation for this new role and his expectations for the college.
As you look over your life and career, how have you been prepared for this job at this time?
My time as a Covenant student gave me an appreciation for the value of a Christian liberal arts education. That, since, has been a driving force for me. My brief career in the financial markets gave me some understanding of how business works; it also gave me a facility with numbers. I was always pretty good at math, but I had never really applied it until then. Suddenly I found myself managing P&L and budgets. I then went to graduate school and got further academic experience. That included time at the University of Arizona, a tier-one research university. There were 40,000 undergrads there, and I saw what a research university is like. I also spent time at Loyola, a medium-sized, urban, Catholic research university. Those experiences not only gave me formal, professional training, they gave me a deeper appreciation for what I had experienced at Covenant.
While I was in graduate school I stumbled across an article by Alexander Astin, one of the dons of American higher educational research and theory. Astin argues that the residential liberal arts college is the most effective model for changing students — not just for disseminating data or teaching skills, but for changing the way people think and live. As a secular researcher, he makes the case that a relatively small, tight-knit residential community — where the conversations that start in classrooms spill over into dining halls and faculty offices and dorm rooms, and where the people you live with are also the people you study with and eat with — is a powerful, formative context. That’s what I experienced as a student at Covenant College.
Before I chose Covenant I remember visiting the University of North Carolina. I went to a class, to a huge sociology lecture where the students peered down at a professor no one knew, where the professor didn’t know the students, and where the students didn’t know one another. It was a lecture hall full of individuals who’d come to have some information thrown at them. Later that night the guys I was staying with had me pumping the keg at a student mixer.
The next day I was at Duke. This time I went to a literary theory class. The guy up front was very intelligent, but the students seemed disengaged. Later, it was back to the dorm for drinking games.
Next, I visited Navy. While I was there the guys I stayed with didn’t crack a book, but they did sneak off campus to watch hockey and drink beer. I began to sense the prevailing themes of American higher education.
Then I came to this little Presbyterian college. The guys in the dorm were having a discussion — it was a debate, really — about the degree to which the Apostle Paul’s understanding of human nature had been influenced by Platonic thought. I thought, man, they’re not having these conversations at North Carolina and Duke. I’m 17 years old, and I don’t know much about college, but I do know that college is supposed to be about the life of the mind, and these guys are serious about it.
While I was finishing my doctoral dissertation at Loyola University Chicago, I came back to Covenant and started doing marketing and communications. It wasn’t what I really wanted to do, but it was paying the bills, and I could get some time off to write. It occurred to me then that I’d probably be a better faculty member if I understood what the marketing people do. After that I stumbled into major gift fundraising. Again, this wasn’t what I planned to do. In fact, I had resisted fundraising for a long time, even though I’d been encouraged to consider it. Eventually, I grew comfortable with the way Covenant thought about raising money. I certainly believed in the mission of the college; so I thought, well, if I can help out while I wait on that academic job, I’ll do it. I ended up enjoying the work because it gave me an opportunity to talk about Covenant
It was during that stretch that two people, Joel Belz and Frank Brock, both told me they thought I could be a college president some day. I was in Asheville on a fundraising trip, and I stayed at the Belzes’. Joel sat me down at his breakfast table, and he said, “Derek, I think you’ll be the president of Covenant College someday. I want you to have that in the back of your mind as a possibility.” He went on, explaining that he thought God had gifted me in certain ways and given me certain experiences that would make me a good fit for that sort of role.
That was flattering, but if you’re an academic you’re supposed to teach for 15 or 20 years and then become a department chair and then a dean and then a provost, and then you become a president. That’s how it works, or at least that’s how it used to work.
Frank Brock also grabbed me at one point and said, “Derek, I think you’d make a great college president someday. You’ve got some experience in business. You’ve done some marketing and major gift fundraising. You get Covenant.” My career path had seemed circuitous to me, but from Brock’s vantage point, God had been preparing me for “this sort of role.”
So a couple of older, wiser men provided perspective. They were instrumental in showing me how God had prepared me in a different way than I expected.
Part of that was hard because I really wanted to be in the classroom.
Will you teach here?
I hope so. I taught for a couple of years at Loyola when I was finishing my Ph.D. They hired me as a lecturer, and I loved interacting with students. Covenant’s got a great history department; so they don’t really need me — although they don’t have anybody who specializes in medieval and early modern Europe. So I might be able to pitch in.
I’d like to teach some of the core curriculum, too. It’s that core that makes Covenant distinctive. There’s a heavy dose of biblical studies and theology in there, but there’s also the liberal arts and great ideas. There’s reading some of the great texts of Western and Eastern civilization — texts that raised some of the big philosophical questions. We know, of course, that the answers to these questions are found in Scripture. So I’d love to dive into the core; it’s what makes Covenant unique.
And it’s great to have face-to-face contact with the students like that; it’s great to be in the trenches with the faculty — to have some empathy with what they’re going through. I also think it speaks volumes to external constituencies when the president is contributing to the academic mission of the institution.
If your hopes and dreams come true, what will Covenant be like 10 years from now? How will be it different? What kind of reputation will it have?
In many ways, I hope it doesn’t change much at all. I’m deeply desirous that Covenant not stray from its mission or its theological commitments or its commitment to Scripture.
It’s interesting. As we went through the interview process it became clear, based on all the evaluations the search firm did, that I’m not a “steady state” sort of a guy. And yet, I want that piece of Covenant to remain rock-solid.
In terms of hopes and dreams, I would love for Covenant to continue being recognized for its academic rigor, but I also hope that Covenant will be recognized as a place that teaches students to think differently about the world. I wasn’t around at the time, but back in the 1960s when Joel Belz was running PR for the college, they ran a series of ads where all the text was upside-down. The ads said, “We’re looking for students who look at the world from a different perspective.” It’s nice when Covenant gets acknowledged as being one of the top Christian colleges in the country — that was in Touchstone magazine last spring — but I hope it will always be the case that Covenant is recognized for producing students who are a little bit different.
I’m sure you saw the press release that announced our intention to merge with Providence [Christian College in Pasadena, Calif.]. I think there’s tremendous potential there for Covenant. One of the blessings of Covenant’s location on the mountain is that it limits growth. That’s good for pedagogical and missional reasons; when you get huge you have a hard time sustaining this intimate, Christian learning environment. But you’re then faced with the problem: if we think this is good for the church, if it’s good for more students to get this sort of education, then how do we scale up? I think we have to grow in another location. It’s like church planting: You get too big in one location — you find that you’re losing that healthy dynamic — and you find another location. It just happens so much slower with higher education.
We’re in such a healthy place right now. Frank and Niel [Frank Brock, former president of Covenant College and the Covenant College Foundation, and Niel Nielson, outgoing president of Covenant College] have done such a fantastic job of strengthening the college that we can now explore ways to expand our impact. So I look at the possibility of Covenant absorbing that operation. I think about the wonderful things happening in PCA and like-minded churches on the West Coast, and I think there’s tremendous potential for Covenant to support that work.
Why do you think we need Christian colleges? What does Covenant do for students that, say, the University of Georgia doesn’t?
There’s a purely educational piece; students learn more in smaller learning environments where there’s a relationship between them and their professors. In addition to that, students at Covenant get a biblical and theological education that you’re just not going to get at the state university or a private secular university. That’s powerful because you’re getting that education in a setting where you know your professors, where your professors know you, and where they function as mentors and models for what an engaged Christian life should look like.
Students here have a range of faculty in front of them who can speak to a whole array of disciplines from a distinctly Christian perspective. This is one of the challenges that campus ministries face. I have a good friend who’s a campus minister; he was an art history major as an undergraduate and then got his seminary degree. He can easily talk about theology. He can speak about how theology shapes the way he thinks about art, but as soon as he gets a question about biology or chemistry or business or economics he’s out of his depth. He’s one guy — he just can’t do all that. When students come to Covenant they’ve got 65 or 70 Ph.D.s. who all subscribe to the Westminster Standards, who are credentialed experts in their field, and who are required by the institution to think about how their faith informs the way they approach their discipline. The faculty at Covenant is a rich resource for students who want to learn to think about the world from a biblical perspective
Another bonus is the moral and spiritual formation that takes place in a residential, Christian academic community. That’s not part of the job description at a research university. There’s a great book by Harvard Graduate School of Education professor Julie Reuben called The Making of the Modern University. Reuben traces the rise of the research university model of education. Prior to that movement, it had been the responsibility of college faculty to ensure the moral and spiritual development of their students. The research university model comes along — first the German research universities, then Johns Hopkins, then Harvard and Columbia morph — and suddenly it’s not the faculty’s job to think about moral and spiritual formation. Their job is to produce knowledge, to add to the edifice of human information.
When you look at a biblical model of education, you see that education is about the life of the mind, but it’s about more than that. It’s about renewing the mind so that your whole life is changed. That happens when you live in a community of people who are all working together to shape their minds and their hearts and their habits in a particular direction.
This is one of those areas where it’s too easy for Christians to say, “Well, that’s what higher education in the world is, so we’ll just assume that’s how it’s supposed to work.” We need to step back and ask: Is education just the dissemination of information and teaching some skills? People ask me sometimes if online education threatens Christian colleges. I think online education threatens big state universities. I think that because they don’t even claim to form the person. They’ll just dump a bunch of information into you — as if you’re a disembodied mind sitting in the classroom — hoping you’ll retain enough of it to get a job so they’ll look good in the next year’s U.S. News & World Report. I don’t think a biblical model of education allows us to think that way.
Among Christian colleges, what would be unique about Covenant?
A Christian college with confessional commitments allows faculty and students to move beyond some baseline questions and to delve deeper — there are certain questions that we’re not having to fight about within the faculty, within the student body. We accept these confessional statements to be accurate representations of biblical truth; we don’t have to debate about these things. That frees us up to focus on other, deeper questions. That presents some real advantages.
How do you see the relationship of Covenant to the PCA? What does the college bring to the denomination? And what does the denomination bring to the college?
I would love to see that relationship become stronger. It’s humbling to interact with some of my Dutch brethren on the West Coast. They often wonder why the CRC [Christian Reformed Church] has Calvin [College] — which has 4,000 undergrads — as well as three other affiliated colleges where a certain portion of the board is elected by regional classes [similar to presbyteries]: Dordt College, Trinity Christian College, Redeemer University College in Ancaster, Ontario. Some of my Dutch brethren wonder how it is that the CRC has four colleges with 4,000 students, 1,400 students, 1,300 students, and 900 students, while the PCA’s got one: a single campus with 1,000 students.
That tells me that Covenant has to do a much better job of presenting itself to the PCA. We have to do a better job of helping folks understand the benefits of a Reformed Christian college.
My brother, the one who teaches at what we call in our family the “other” Presbyterian college [Princeton], is a Covenant alum. He had a student who wanted him to supervise his junior thesis. The student wanted to write on the philosophy of religion and had concluded that my brother was a Christian, so it made sense. My brother asked about his background, about the theological and denominational tradition he was coming out of. The student explained that he was Presbyterian, that he was part of a small denomination, one my brother probably hadn’t heard of, the PCA.
“That’s outstanding,” my brother told him. “I went to Covenant College.”
The student, obviously puzzled, looked at him and asked, “What’s Covenant College?”
So yes, as much as we’ve tried in the past, Covenant still needs to do a much better job of presenting itself to the denomination.