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Review of Cal VanderWerf: Anchor of Hope by Larry Ter Molen

Hope Alumni Larry Ter Molen recently reviewed Cal VanderWerf: Anchor of Hope! From his review: 

"At last, a highly knowledgeable book on a critical historical period at Hope College has been written.  Furthermore. I do not know of any other person with the intelligence, insight and scientific knowledge who could have written such a profound book about Hope College and its eighth president, Cal VanderWerf. Douglas Neckers weaves a fascinating story, not only about VanderWerf and his leadership, but the critical and powerful role of the sciences, particularly chemistry, at a small liberal arts college in Michigan, Hope College, and the wider world.  

Now, I must state that I have had the pleasure of knowing Doug for many years, starting at the time we were both students at Hope, in the late 1950’s, as well as later when we overlapped briefly in the late1960’s while I was working at the College.  Furthermore, as a result of my own experience at Hope, I believe that I have knowledge and sensitivity to the issues that are presented by Doug.

Douglas Neckers is particularly suited to write this historic account of the VanderWerf years. Doug is an alumnus of Hope College, where he majored in chemistry. He  received his Ph. D in the field of organic chemistry from Kansas University, did post doctoral work at Harvard and was recruited by VanderWerf to teach in the Department of Chemistry at Hope.  Neckers was at Hope during the key years of the VanderWerf presidency, 1964 - 1971.  And, while at Hope, Doug played an active role within the academic administration, giving him a comprehensive perspective of the situation.  He completed his extraordinary career as the McMaster Distinguished Research Professor at Bowling Green State University.

In describing VanderWerf as the “Anchor of Hope” Neckers forcefully presents the rationale for stating that this eighth President was the greatest leader that Hope College had in the modern era.  While this is a bold statement, Neckers presents his case in a constructive manner that leaves little doubt that his belief is absolutely correct.  In fact, the book reminds me of a very well written chemistry doctoral thesis.  All the facts are presented in a manner that leaves little room for dissent.

The VanderWerf story at Hope begins with his becoming the President in July 1963 and continues through his resignation in June 1970.  However, a key factor in his becoming President was the result of his desire to “give back” to Hope, which had given him a college education, when, for personal reasons, he did not have any financial resources. His tenure was marked with significant successes that placed Hope among the top liberal arts colleges in the United States. And, yet, he had to cope with significant negative issues that eventually led to health problems that prompted his resignation.  However, in order to give a comprehensive perspective to this story, Neckers gives the reader extensive background information on Cal, including his years at the University of Kansas. At that institution he was considered one of the most esteemed chemistry professors and received national and international recognition for his work.  In addition, while at Kansas he became known for his positive and passionate approach to the issue of race relations.  Furthermore, he held consultancies at Smith, Kline and French, as well as Phillips Petroleum. 

 

The book is divided into very logical elements, beginning with Cal’s childhood and follows from that point to his return to Hope in 1963.  From that point onward, Neckers presents chapters that each cover significant periods of time and activity that took place during the VanderWerf presidency. For example, chapter titles include: “Cal VanderWerf’s Return to Hope”, “Creative Cal VanderWerf”, ”Campus Unrest”, and, “President VanderWerf’s Last Year, 1969-70”.   These chapters are all filled with pertinent facts that provide good explanatory information that assist greatly in understanding Cal’s presidency.        

Along with the overall VanderWerf saga, Neckers weaves a particularly compelling story about the development of the sciences, particularly chemistry, in the halls of academia in the United States, with special emphasis on some of the more noteworthy scientists with a Hope background, such as Gerrit Van Zyl and Gene Van Tamelen.  Neckers includes a significant amount of scientific information, including material related to his research over the years. I found this to be helpful in giving me a better understanding of the role of chemistry in the life of Cal as well as the author.   However, because I was not involved in that particular world, I will not even try to analyze or interpret this material except to note that it adds a valuable dimension to this intriguing  and important addition to the history of Hope College.

Neckers identifies the three signal factors that impacted VanderWerf’s ability to accomplish his key objectives. They were: money, control and philosophy.  Hope was established and controlled by the Reformed Church of America and was dependent on the Reformed Church for significant annual support.  However, as Neckers noted, the church did not have the financial resources needed to provide the College with the financial foundation that was required, much less the annual support that was required to operate the College. As a result, money was and continues to  be a critical problem.  However, the question of control of the College was the absolute focal point of the three major issues faced by VanderWerf.  In essence, as Neckers stated, the College wanted as much freedom as possible and the Church wanted as much control as possible. This yielded creative tension that caused Cal huge problems and continues to be a problem to this day. In regard to philosophy, the church was much more conservative than the faculty or students at the College, which made for a creative tension that was not particularly constructive.  This issue came to the fore during the Vietnam War marches and the civil rights protests.

Probably the one document that initially crystallized the basic problems at Hope was the North Central Accrediting Committee report of 1964.  The report noted, “Tomorrow’s Hope is, in part, present today. A distinguished alumnus, Calvin VanderWerf, has acutely addressed Hope’s situation: read the dire predictions; knows Hope is a quality institution, but knows most importantly that Hope cannot maintain that reputation if it stands still fighting a rear guard action.”

Therefore, to address this report and move the College forward in a constructive manner, VanderWerf  built on the concept of student-based research programs originally initiated by Dr. Gerrit Van Zyl a legendary chemistry professor at Hope.  VanderWerf really pushed forward the concept of using students in research as a teaching model. His groundbreaking approach was funded initially by a grant of $375,000, which was, at that time, the largest award that Hope had ever received. In addition, VanderWerf was particularly successful in recruiting superb young faculty, which was of critical importance in a college that had such a high percentage of faculty with, at most, masters degrees.  The upgrading of the faculty was a major step for the College and put it on the path to maintaining its superb reputation in the sciences and was critically important to the future of Hope.  However, some of the old guard faculty and staff did not warmly welcome this positive step, but rather saw this as a major threat to their continued control of the College.  

Neckers clearly states that during his years as President, VanderWerf had to cope with many trustees, faculty and staff who opposed his plans for the College.  And, he had the misfortune of being President at a time when there was significant student unrest particularly due to the Vietnam war, and racial issues.  As a result there was great student unrest that did not meet with a sensitive response from a conservative community as well as the Board of Trustees.  However, VanderWerf certainly understood the situation.

A key point of contention within the College was, through the years, the relationship to the Reformed Church of America.  As explained by Neckers, the Reformed Church was the controlling voice in the management of the College.  The Board of Trustees was clearly dominated by the RCA with the majority of the Board being members of that denomination.  This “battle” between the Board and the President was a continuing factor that eventually placed the President in a no-win situation and contributed to his declining health that finally forced him to resign.

In many respects, I found this fine book provoked serious questions in my mind concerning the future of the College.  This is due essentially to the difficult relationship with the Reformed Church in America. The church/college issue faced by VanderWerf recently came to the fore again with the Board of Trustees in May 2016 discussing the need for forcing the present President to resign.  After a strong negative response from the community and Hope alumni, this action did not come to pass and, as a result, the Chairman of the Board resigned.  But this ongoing tension between many of the conservative members of the Board and the President was and continues to be a significant issue and problem, particularly for a college that is trying to become a research – based institution of higher education. 

So, what can be noted about the presidency of Dr. Cal VanderWerf?  Here was a man who brought intellectual rigor to the office and provided superb leadership to the College.  He literally gave his all to his alma mater. Because of his actions, Hope College not only survived, but today  is prospering.  He made it happen!"

For more on Larry Ter Molen's distinguished career, please click here. 

For more on Cal VanderWerf: Anchor of Hope, please click here. 

To get your copy of Cal VanderWerf: Anchor of Hope, head to the Hope-Geneva Bookstore or Reader's World, or order here!