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Calvin College launches campaign to save the Student Activities Office

Student Activities Office, a beloved fixture of Calvin College and the West Michigan music scene, requires funding to remain intact. Calvin College administrators and students are seeking ways to keep the program going.
Ben Harper performs at Calvin College, 2000

Ben Harper performs at Calvin College, 2000 /Scott.wheeler for English Wikipedia CC BY 2.0

Calvin College administrators launched a fundraising campaign to save the Student Activities Office (SAO), a campus organization that offers concerts and cultural programming. The administration, in partnership with members of the #SaveSAO movement, say that SAO is an integral part of Calvin College and the West Michigan community.


The campaign aims to raise $150,000 by June 1. Funding would support a full-time director over a four-year transitionary period.


“For the college to remain financially healthy, there will be budget reductions in the coming year,” said SAO student leader Lyric Floria. “We believe that amid this reality, SAO remains central to the Calvin that we love.”


For 25 years, SAO received national attention for its annual concert series. Major artists such as the National, fun., and MGMT played for enormous crowd alongside emerging acts, who broke out in intimate space of the Ladies Literary Club.


Concerts featured a popular question-and-answer session with the audience asking about spirituality and artistry. Heffner started each session with the question “what have you been reading lately?”


“We’re taking pop culture - a worldly thing - and we’re going to see what we can draw from that,” said #SaveSAO member Patrick Jonker. “We’re discerning what has spiritual value, what we can learn from an artist regardless of what faith background is.”


SAO hosted film screening, lectures, and a popular biennial conference called the Festival of Faith and Music, featuring performances and speeches exploring themes of faith. 


The Cultural Discerner program allows student leaders to host listening sessions and discussions about pop culture in dorm rooms. 


“During one session, someone played the song ‘Apeshit’ by the Carters, and we watched the video, which is maximal and loud and visually appealing,” said #SaveSAO member Molly Vanderwerp. “There was this moment of energy; we were dancing in that room. It reminded me why this work is important.”


In response to student frustration, President Michael LeRoy and Vice President for Student Life Sarah Visser recently hosted a town hall about SAO attended by over 250 students, faculty, and alumni in the Calvin College Chapel to discuss the issue.


SAO Employee Daniel Hickey kicked off the tense dialogue with a call for transparent decision-making. He expressed his frustration that Chimes, the official student newspaper of Calvin College, published an article about SAO cuts before the administration announced its decision.


“Frankly, you’re late," Hickey said "You got burned by the newspaper doing the newspaper’s job. We’re coming here as serious individuals, and we are going to demand serious answers.”


Visser, who was out of the country when Chimes released its article about SAO, stated that SAO would be reorganized, rather than ended entirely. She said that the Calvin administration sought public input on how to maintain the mission of SAO while pursuing cost-saving measures.


“A lot is still in process, and there are many possibilities,” Visser said. “I don’t have definitive answers for you on what next year will look like.”


SAO requires a $2.5 million endowment to maintain its current form, according to Visser. Due to declining enrollment and lost revenue, the Calvin administration felt that it needed to find alternative ways to fund SAO. 


Faculty members suggested crowdfunding to maintain the services of SAO until Calvin administrators developed a long-term restructuring plan. 

“I could imagine a very large number of small donors collectively coming forward,” said Professor Larry Molnar.


Numerous audience members called for the Calvin administration to select a new SAO director with a willingness to voice dissent. SAO Director Ken Heffner had a reputation for inviting controversial acts as the New Pornographers and Kendrick Lamar to play shows at Calvin. 


“Ken Heffner [is a] devil’s advocate,” said Professor Joseph Kuilema.


Members of the #SaveSAO movement maintain a lively discussion of SAO online. Over 3,000 Calvin-affiliated people participate in the Save SAO Facebook page


Calvin College administrators meet with students on a weekly basis to discuss SAO. Further announcements are expected by the end of the school year.


Members of the #SaveSAO movement view SAO as an integral to the Christian mission of Calvin College, and they remain concerned about the appeal of Calvin College if SAO significantly changes its programming.


“SAO is the best part of Calvin College,” said SAO employee John Williamson. “I love this school, but I’m worried we are losing our identity. The decision-makers don’t know what they have on their hands.”

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