While attending a conference at Calvin College in the mid-1990s, Michael Le Roy paid a visit to downtown Grand Rapids — and was less than impressed.
“I remember in the ’90s going downtown and thinking, ‘I never want to live here,’” said Le Roy, recalling a time before the commercial and business area experienced a metamorphosis, thanks to more than $200 million in new cultural, recreational and sports facilities, as well as about $1 billion in health care construction.
Le Roy is an absolutist when it comes to his faith, but there are other areas in his life where he’s learned to never say never. That includes what he counts as his current residence: Grand Rapids.
Earlier this year, the Christian Reformed Church of North America Synod voted to ratify Le Roy as Calvin College’s 10th president, ending a search process that began in May 2011 when the college’s president, Gaylen Byker, announced his intention to retire following the 2011-12 academic year.
Le Roy began his tenure at Calvin July 2 and will be inaugurated Oct. 20 during the college’s homecoming and family weekend.
Since his trip to Calvin in the 1990s, Le Roy said he’s developed a new appreciation for the way downtown Grand Rapids has transformed itself.
“I was stunned to see the way the community has developed at the tail-end of the recession,” he said. “People are talking about new experiences, not plant closings.”
Some are also talking about a presidency that almost didn’t transpire. Calvin is not the only local college that courted Le Roy to become its next president. The other was Calvin’s famous basketball rival, Hope College.
Why Le Roy chose the Knights over the Flying Dutchmen is due to an administrative style that is a hand-in-glove match between the presidential search committee and the candidate, who both seek to value and understand students.
Le Roy said he appreciates and supports the truism that what happens at Calvin College doesn’t primarily transpire in the president’s office but in the classrooms and hallways where life-changing issues are hashed out.
MICHAEL LE ROY
“It led up to who I was and my values,” Le Roy said of his decision to become Calvin’s president. “It was a good match. I think, of my sense of what Hope and Calvin needed, Calvin seemed the best fit for who I am. … Calvin has seemed to be the best place to use my gifts and sensibilities.”
Faith and academics have honed Le Roy’s sensibilities. Prior to Calvin, Le Roy was provost and executive vice president at Whitworth University, a private liberal arts Christian college in Spokane, Wash., which happens to be the same college from which he graduated in 1989 with majors in international and peace studies.
Le Roy earned his Ph.D. in political science at Vanderbilt University in 1994 and then taught at Wheaton College in suburban Chicago before returning to Spokane and his alma mater in 2002. He is credited with leading the collaborative effort to open Whitworth’s first international education center in Costa Rica.
Where he is now — leading the Christian Reformed Church-affiliated Calvin College of 3,900-plus students — is a thread Le Roy said he can trace throughout his life.
“I think for me, my faith in Christ has been an experience well explained,” he said. “I think God relentlessly pursued me, and faith has given me an understanding that God is sovereign.”
Embracing that sovereignty was a determining factor when Le Roy wondered whether he should remain enrolled in graduate school. He’s glad he stayed committed to earning his Ph.D., since his subsequent work as a faculty member provided him with opportunities to travel to countries in Central America, South Africa and Sweden.
“Those experiences have a profound impact on my way of thinking,” said Le Roy. “And I see we have a very big challenge in our country in helping people prepare for the very competitive global economy.
“I’m concerned in this country of a lack of engagement in science, technology and mathematics. I would like to see more of these studies challenge students by navigating them in another culture.”
That’s the thing Le Roy has learned about challenge: Don’t shirk from it even if it seems a bit daunting at first.
“I think it’s circumstances put before you that shape and push your faith further than you can go,” he said. “I find those moments to be invigorating and exciting, even if it’s a little daunting.
“A challenge can put you in a posture of humility and openness to learn. I don’t see it as a challenge if it’s something that comes your way and you say, ‘I know what to do here.’”
As to West Michigan’s culture, he sees it as a collaborative incubator for raising families and harboring a pro-business climate. “I think it’s a very spirited, positive, can-do culture that’s good for businesses and family life,” he said.
The cost to attend Calvin currently is $26,480 for tuition and $9,110 for room and board, for a first-year total of $35,950. With 90 percent of Calvin’s students receiving financial aid amid a state system of declining subsidies, Le Roy acknowledges those who consider attending Calvin have an “important aspect of consideration.”
He considers it worth the cost. “With a private, higher education, as long as they didn’t change majors late in the game, they have a higher chance of finishing their major,” said Le Roy. “Our retention success and completion rates quantify our financial cost.”
Le Roy counts several people as prime influencers in his life, but after thinking about it a little more, he credits Whitworth University’s president (now emeritus) Bill Robinson for hiring him as provost. “He’s a phenomenal leader and thinker,” said Le Roy. “I learned a lot of significant lessons of leadership from him.”
Some of those lessons are culled from the Bible, such as how Jesus led a team of divergent people, told them the truth with grace and, in particular, how he dwelled among the people, not above or below them. “For me that means not sitting behind a big desk or a table,” said Le Roy.
His first summer job was anything but a desk job. He was 15, working for a contractor who hired him to jackhammer concrete and haul it away. He was one of five hired to do the same backbreaking job. By Friday, the only one left was Le Roy, who stayed on for the remainder of the summer.
His boss happened to have a master’s in English and was as comfortable playing recordings of Geoffrey Chaucer’s “Canterbury Tales” as he was cranking the strains of Dire Straits.
“He was the first person who treated me like a peer, who taught me how to use tools and took me seriously,” said Le Roy.
As Calvin’s new president, Le Roy is taking the next steps in his life seriously, as well.
“What I want to be is obedient to what Christ is calling me to do,” he said. “In many ways, I’m more aware of that when I’m not obedient. At the end of my life, I’d like people to say, ‘He tried to follow Christ, he cared for his family and he cared for his community.’
“It’s not about position. It’s not about privilege. As soon as it is, it’s probably time for me to stop.”