Late last month, Calvin University’s board of trustees announced that Wiebe Boer would become the 11th president in the history of the Grand Rapids-based private institution.
Boer will take over for Michael Le Roy, who announced in June of 2021 that the 2021-22 academic year would be his last before stepping down. Boer, a Calvin graduate who was born and raised in Nigeria to missionary parents, has a professional history in both the private sector and social advocacy organizations. He has worked in four countries and currently serves as the CEO of Shell-All On, a Shell plc-funded renewable energy investment company that operates in Lagos, Nigeria.
MiBiz connected with Boer to discuss his plans for the position, which include attracting international students to boost enrollment and launching a new business school.
What lured you out of the private sector and appealed to you about this position at Calvin University?
I wasn’t really planning to leave Nigeria and I always thought in the back of my mind that, in my mid-50s, I would consider a role like this. Then, when I saw Michael (Le Roy) was stepping down and there was going to be a search, I thought this is interesting but this is a bit earlier than I expected to do something like this. But then I also realized if I don’t do it now, when I am in my mid-50s, someone would actually be in the seat.
The other part was that American higher education is at an inflection point. And so when I looked into what was going on both with Calvin specifically but then sort of the general private education sector, I realized there was an opportunity for someone like me with a non-traditional background to come in and maybe bring some new ideas and maybe disrupt the business model a little bit and bring it to the new generation and the future. I think that’s what appealed to me.
When you talk about disruptions, what sort of ideas do you have in mind to achieve that?
I probably shouldn’t necessarily share my ideas yet. I think it’s more of what are the issues we’re facing that we’ll have to come to terms with? First of all, higher education is one of the only knowledge intermediation sectors that has not been disrupted. Enrollment numbers are going down generally, but for the most part, the traditional four-year, on-campus model is still what 95 percent of college-age students are doing. So just knowing what’s evolved in the last 10 to 20 years with technology, you know a disruption is coming. Maybe we don’t yet know what it is, but we know it’s coming. So, I think that’s the first thing that a disruption is coming and how do we get ready for that?
Dwindling enrollment has been a concern for many higher education institutions. In Calvin’s case, how do you combat that?
You need to start looking at the other pools of students that we can draw on. Obviously international. I’ve spent much of my career in Africa — I was born and raised in Nigeria and have deep connections here. One thing we’ll look at is, in addition to the American market, what are the international markets that we can draw on students that are attracted to American higher education? American higher education, I would argue, is still by far the best in the world. There are just so many options and it’s so competitive — there are so many universities and so it is something that is still in high demand around the world. We often think of Canada as not being international but when I was at Calvin 25 years ago, 10 percent of the student body was from Canada. Now it’s 1 percent. What happened there? Is there a way we can kind of reconnect with Canada and get more Canadian students? Are there pockets of students outside of the Midwest that will be attracted to coming to a city like Grand Rapids and a school like Calvin?
Did the COVID-19 pandemic highlight the effectiveness — and maybe the ineffectiveness — of certain tools and formats for learning?
From my side as an investor, it was the same thing. We thought you have to do all your meetings in person, go to all the conferences and you got to close the deal in person, but then you realize for two years you couldn’t do that, and it worked. It’s not ideal, but it works and we’re getting used to it. I think the same for higher education. All these platforms we’re using, they were there before but we were just all very hesitant and we had this idea that we had to physically be there all the time. And I think a lot of that changed.
Talent development has never been more crucial than now. How can Calvin address this need for skilled workers?
I can just say that Calvin is a traditional liberal arts university, which means if you’re an engineer, you study history. If you’re a historian, you study math. At the same time, from what I’ve seen over the last five to 10 years, there is the understanding that those professional training programs are increasingly needed because of skills shortages. Calvin is building a new business school and the business school is going to be teaching a combination of traditional MBA and business programs and also some more focused professional programs to maybe not get a full degree but to get some kind of certificate or license that qualifies you to do some of these skills we’re talking about.