>Derek Halvorson: In Christ All Things New

>Nearly a year ago, I (Glenda Mathes) interviewed for Christian Renewal three men newly appointed as presidents at Christian colleges: Dr. J. Derek Halvorson (Providence Christian College in Ontario, CA), Dr. Hubert R. Krygsman (Redeemer University College in Ancaster, ON), and Dr. Philip Graham Ryken (Wheaton College in Wheaton, IL).

I posted my interview with Dr. Ryken last Thursday (17 February 2011) and hope to post the interview with Dr. Krygman later this week. Today’s post features Dr. Halvorson, the dynamic president of Providence Christian College.

Since this interview took place, Providence has moved from its original location in Ontario, CA, to Pasadena. The final informational paragraph has been edited to reflect current information.

Providence Christian College was founded in 2002 and Dr. Halvorson began serving as its second president after Jim Den Ouden’s retirement in 2009. Prior to his appointment to the presidency, Dr. Halvorson served as the Regional Director of Development for Covenant College in Lookout Mountain, GA.

GM: Dr. Halvorson, I believe you have been President of Providence Christian College since July of 2009, is that correct?

DH: Correct. I took office on July 1, 2009, and was formally inaugurated on September 19, 2009.

GM: Although most institutions of higher learning seem to want a multi-function president, they appear to vary in their desired focus. How would you describe your presidency? Are you more of an administrative instructor or more of a development director? What primary categories of work are included in your job description?

DH: You’re right in observing that most institutions want a multi-function president. In fact, I think that most would say that they have to have that sort of president. And, that’s fairly typical of executive positions in other industries as well. Gone are the days (at most institutions) when the president could simply be a faculty member who also got to hand out diplomas at commencement.

I’m not primarily an administrative instructor, although I have guest-lectured in several classes this year and will teach a course next year. I’m determined to keep teaching as a part of my job, despite the many other good things I can and should do, for three reasons: 1) it’s a great way to be involved in students’ lives; 2) it’s a great way to stay “in the trenches” with the faculty; and 3) it speaks to our college’s commitment to undergraduate teaching as our first functional priority. (The secret fourth reason is that I just love the classroom, the learning that goes on there, and the learning that spills over into after-class conversations.)

Development is a big part of my job, no doubt, especially at Providence’s young age. Our board expects me to spend 50% of my time in fundraising and external relations activities (and those two often overlap). I also spend a good bit of time setting/articulating vision and establishing strategy for the institution. In addition, I am ultimately responsible for every aspect of the college’s operations, so I’m regularly involved in conversations and decisions on budget/finance, public relations/marketing, admissions/recruiting, student life, academic affairs, facilities/operations, etc. Thankfully, I’ve got a great group of senior administrators who handle much of the day-to-day load on those issues. I also spend a good bit of my time working with our board. It’s probably worth mentioning, too, that I’m expected to provide spiritual leadership for our entire campus community, which is a pretty awesome responsibility.

GM: I know that Providence recently benefited from a large gift. Can you describe how this gift came to the college and what role, if any, you played in the process?

DH: My primary role in relationship to the big gift we recently received was chief thanks-giver. Because of the confidentiality of the gift I can’t say a whole lot, but I can tell you that I had limited involvement in the process of that gift coming to Providence. Some very generous folks became aware of Providence and its mission to deliver first-rate Reformed liberal arts education on the West Coast, and I think they saw this as a unique and strategic opportunity to support the growth of the kingdom.

GM: What other noteworthy events have taken place during this academic year and what role have you played in those?

DH: One of the delights of being in my first year as president is that I can brag about all of the good things that are happening, since I had almost nothing to do with most of them!

I don’t know if it counts as an event, but we had our largest freshman class ever matriculate in the fall. And in addition to being the largest they were also the strongest, academically speaking. Their average high school GPA was above 3.9 on a 4.0 scale. For us to be growing both in numbers and in the academic strength of our student body in a down economy bodes well for the future of the college and is a very tangible reminder of God’s faithfulness.

In the fall we hired our first full-time film and communications professor. Troy Lamberth has extensive experience in the film industry here in southern California and is enthusiastic about equipping young Christians to bring a biblical perspective to bear on that world. That was a strategic hire for us, as we are seeking to build an institution that takes advantage of the peculiar resources afforded it by its proximity to a global city like Los Angeles.

We also rolled out a new visual identity in the fall. That’s certainly not the most profound event that’s taken place in my time here, but it was probably one of the more noticeable to the broader community. I was fortunate to be able to participate in the development of that “brand” even before I came on board officially, and it was fun to take up the challenge of communicating some of the distinctives of an academic institution and its heritage via a visual identity. (You’ll notice that Dutch orange and Presbyterian blue take a prominent place now in all of our materials.)

We’ve had some wonderful guest speakers on campus, our faculty continue to contribute to scholarly conferences and publications, our students continue to participate in a wide array of off-campus educational and service experiences.

GM: What are the challenges as well as the joys of your position?

DH: Challenges:
– There’s an awful lot to be done, or that could be done, so much of it exciting, and so little time. Like most folks in this sort of position, I have to guard against letting the job consume all of life. I work hard to set aside time for personal devotions, prayer, my family (I’m married and have two young children), and church activities. It’s not easy.
– The economy. We’re a young institution, and so we’re particularly susceptible to downturns in the economy. Missing out on one student or one big gift has much larger implications for us than it does for our older, more established sister institutions. Of course, by the same stroke, adding just a few more students or getting one big gift can have real positive impact for an institution at our stage of development.
– Awareness. In an information-saturated age, it’s difficult to raise awareness of a new college. One of my primary responsibilities is to get the word out, and it’s tough to do with so much noise out there. [Incidentally, this is one of the reasons I’m grateful for your invitation to answer some questions about my job.]

Joys:
In short, the people of Providence:
– Our students. They are wonderful—thoughtful, bright, deeply committed young Christians.
– Our faculty. Gifted, engaging, dedicated to discipling their students intellectually and spiritually.
– Our staff. Selfless, creative, and tireless in their support of our core educational mission.
– Our board. Visionary, prayerful, wise; they are a delight to work with.
– Our supporters. Faithful, generous, and encouraging in their support of the college.

GM: What are the hopes or goals you have for your continued work at Providence Christian College?

DH: There’s a lot that I could say here. At the highest level, my prayer is that Providence would be known for its faithfulness to biblical truth, for its commitment to the riches of the Reformed tradition, for outstanding liberal arts education, and for graduates who are thoughtful and passionate about working out the implications of the Christian faith for every aspect of their lives and for every dimension of society.

GM: How can you see that God’s providence in your life has prepared you for this position?

DH: This could be a long answer, too. I’ll try to be brief. I am the product of Christian education from kindergarten through college. In particular, my experience at Covenant College (which I chose over more “prestigious” institutions—Duke, the University of North Carolina, and the US Naval Academy) had a profound impact on who I am and how I think about and act in the world. I long for other young Christians to experience that same sort of education. And, I’ve become convinced that if we wish to have a leavening effect in our culture, Reformed higher education is one of the best ways to accomplish that. God has used my educational experiences to convince me of the value of Reformed liberal arts education, both for the students who receive it and for the churches and communities that will benefit from the lives of its graduates.

God has also taken me down an unusual career path to prepare me for my current role. I spent time immediately post-college working in the financial markets in Charlotte and Chicago. When I left the markets to pursue graduate education in medieval history, it was difficult to see how God would use that time, though now I am grateful for the exposure it gave me to business and finance. My training in medieval and early modern European history, while valuable in its own right (and also very interesting), gave me opportunity to explore the history of higher education in the West. The insights gained through that exploration have already proved useful as we work to build a college that takes advantage of the real strengths of western educational models while avoiding some of the pitfalls of the modern university. When I returned to my alma mater, Covenant College, after graduate school, my first job involved a mix of management responsibilities and roles in marketing and public relations. It was fascinating work, and stretching in many ways, but I couldn’t figure out at the time how God was going to use those experiences to make me a better history professor. In my last position at Covenant College, I did major gift fundraising. Again, it was difficult to see how that was going to help me be a better history professor. But my roles in management, marketing, PR, and fundraising are all proving invaluable in my present position. So, I can state with a lot of confidence that God was, by the work of His providence, providing me with the very kinds of experiences and responsibilities that one needs to be a college president. I certainly wouldn’t have recognized that at the time, but it seems obvious in retrospect.


Providence Christian College is a multi-denominational Christian liberal arts college located about 15 miles northeast of Los Angeles. It has more than 60 students from several states and three foreign countries. Its motto is: In Christo Omnia Nova (in Christ all things new).

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