Dordt College News

A vision lived

May 22, 2012

A look back with Dr. Carl E. Zylstra

It was the people who originally drew Dr. Carl Zylstra to the college.

In seminary I noticed that Dordt alumni were enthusiastic and passionate about their sense of Christian mission; they were diligent, committed, and had their heads on straight,” Zylstra says.

He noticed the same things as a pastor.

“Their vision and enthusiasm for serving as Christians whether they were lawyers or secretaries was evident. They made great church members.”

Former President Carl ZylstraAs a pastor in Orange City, Iowa, just 12 miles from Dordt College, he had faculty, staff, and students as parishioners, and he served on Dordt’s board of trustees. The college continued to impress him and when his children were ready, he was happy they chose Dordt.

“Our alumni from the 1950s on share an understanding of and commitment to Dordt’s covenant kingdom perspective, believing that they need to live in obedience to God’s Word,” he says.

As his contacts grew, he says, “I saw inside Dordt College and saw that this kind of place didn’t just happen. It grew out of a strong community focused on the need for life-engaging service in the name of Christ.” He gradually became more involved in that community and, when Dr. John B. Hulst decided to retire, he was asked to apply and gladly agreed.

“I’m a planner,” says Zylstra, “but I never planned or even aspired to be a college president.” Today he feels that he’s not only been given the privilege of helping build Christ’s kingdom but also of developing gifts he didn’t realize he had, in particular, helping communicate and connect with people internationally to build and strengthen Christian higher education.

Zylstra likens Dordt to a boot camp, training people for the bigger world.

“I’m always amazed. I meet Christians all around the world who know about Dordt College,” he says. As Dordt’s third president and its first non-founder president, he committed, in his inaugural address, to helping Dordt College “Live the Vision” and share that vision. He clearly saw himself as a transitional president, although he was not clear at outset what that would mean.

“You need to make your vision sustainable, putting in place the structures that will allow it to thrive and deepen,” he says. “I came to believe that what got us to where we are now won’t get us where we want to be in the future,” he adds.

During Zylstra’s tenure as president, Dordt College matured—in facilities, faculty, administrative structure, and student body. The curricular program grew, both in its Core and its options. Programs in areas such as nursing, criminal justice, youth ministry, graphic design, construction management, and actuarial science were introduced.  Football was added, as was the Kuyper Scholars Program. The Campus Center and new residence halls were built. Young faculty members were hired.

Zylstra is proud of Dordt’s comprehensive  education that involves every aspect of students’ lives, both in class and out, because of its conviction that education is for holistic service. He has often referred to this approach as 24/7 education.

“It’s a powerful vision that gave rise to this college on a mink farm,” he says. He’s been committed to maintaining and developing that vision.

Zylstra believed that one of his main responsibilities was to be the guardian of the values of the institution. He’s been told by a fellow college president that instead of moving away, Dordt seems to be moving closer to its faith base.

Zylstra also was an advocate for and helped make a place for Christian higher education by assuming leadership roles in a variety of educational and political organizations. In the process he’s helped give Dordt College “a place at the table.” He hopes he has helped draw others’ attention and respect to Dordt College, just as others from Dordt drew him in.

Zylstra will remain an encourager and counselor for those who are leading Christian institutions around the world. He’ll also serve as the executive director of ARIHE, the Association for Reformed Institutions of Higher Education, and coordinate ARIHE’s Global Summit.

As he leaves the presidency of Dordt College, Zylstra hopes future members of the Dordt community will say that as the college matured and grew and moved into sustainable adulthood, it not only kept its mission, but it became even more focused on that mission.


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