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Dordt College News

2013 Distinguished Alumni: Harry Fernhout

December 2, 2013

"Not everyone gets to have a job that feels like it was made for you and you for it." That's what Dr. Harry Fernhout ('70) told the King's University College community at last spring's retirement festivities honoring his years as president at King's.

Fernhout didn’t expect to spend his career as a university president. As a student at Dordt in the 1960s, he was in the pre-seminary program. His entire professional life, however, has been in Christian higher education.

“Coming to college, many of us identified ourselves as ‘pre-sems’ because church ministry was the only way we understood kingdom service,” says Fernhout today. “At Dordt, our understanding of calling was enriched and expanded.” He believes that the Christian worldview he absorbed at Dordt helped him and some of his fellow students interested in faithful kingdom service to sift through their gifts to discern whether God was calling them to church ministry or to ministering in another profession.

Following graduation, still intending to go to seminary, Fernhout decided to spend a year studying at the young Institute for Christian Studies (ICS) to “get a better grounding in Christian worldview and philosophy.”

“My sense of calling changed from church ministry to academic service,” he says. He spent five years at ICS completing the equivalent of a two-year master’s program.

“That didn’t bother us in those days,” he says. “It was the height of the counter-culture movement, and we didn’t feel pressured to finish a degree and get on with life.” That freedom meant that he and his growing family had to live very simply, but his study gave him a deep grounding in biblical studies and Christian philosophy, a grounding that laid a strong foundation for his graduate and professional work throughout the rest of his life.

From 1975 to 1979, Fernhout worked at the Curriculum Development Center in Toronto, creating biblical studies materials. He immersed himself in understanding and explaining the biblical story of God working in his world.

“Those years were a refining time,” he says. They helped him decide to enter a Ph.D. program in the philosophy of education.

“I found that the worldview and philosophical grounding I gained at Dordt and at ICS gave me a leg up on other students,” he says, looking back. “It gave me a toolkit with which to analyze and get to the root of significant issues in education.”

Values clarification and moral development were big topics in public education in the late 70s. Experts, including Fernhout’s adviser at the University of Toronto’s Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, were convinced that they could teach values and morality without reference to faith or religion.

“Coming from my corner of the world, there was no such thing as a religiously neutral approach,” says Fernhout with a chuckle. He set about trying to articulate his conviction that nothing was neutral in a way that would get a hearing from others. Although his adviser never agreed with him, he came to appreciate the depth of his argument and, during Fernhout’s second year in the program, put him on a panel with the leading expert in the area at the time, Lawrence Kohlberg.

In 1985, Ph.D. in hand, Fernhout joined the faculty at the ICS. In 1990, he became president, giving leadership to many of his former mentors. In 2005, he moved to King’s. There he oversaw the development of a strategic plan, clarified the mission and vision of the institution, and nurtured a positive relationship with senior leadership, faculty, staff, and students. He was a persuasive spokesman for independent academic institutions with government officials in Alberta, and he worked with a variety of community and educational organizations.

"Education for Shalom" was the overarching theme of Fernhout’s years at King’s. Shalom, the Hebrew word for peace, also means justice, fulfillment, and delight. An article honoring Fernhout in the spring 2013 issue of The King’s Connection magazine describes Fernhout’s understanding of shalom as, “a vision of every creature in community with every other, living in harmony and security toward the joy and well-being for all.” In the same article Dordt Alumna Ellen Vlieg-Paquette (’76), vice president of administration and finance at King’s, says, “He brought renewal and reconciliation to King’s faculty and staff. He is a true servant leader.”

Fernhout and his wife, Hilda, moved back to Ontario this summer, to be closer to their children who had been left behind when they moved to Edmonton. They now live within walking distance of their seven grandchildren. Fernhout gave himself a six-month “sabbatical” during which he is taking time to do something else he enjoys—work with his hands. He’s spent the past four months remodeling the house they purchased near Toronto.

But Christian higher education is still close to his heart, and he’ll find ways to share the experience and the wisdom that experience brings to those who are currently setting directions, implementing visions, and dealing with the challenges that face Christian academic institutions today.

In Canada, one of those challenges is that many Christians don’t see the need for a Christian alternative to public higher education.

“We need to grow in profile and numbers,” he says.

In both Canada and the United States, the pressure of secularization is strong. In most areas, Christian institutions have to work hard to be recognized as a meaningful partner in the educational enterprise. It will require leadership, collaboration, articulate advocacy for a pluralist model, and institutions that have a strongly articulated and practiced vision, he believes.

“Worldwide, though, especially in the southern hemisphere, Christian educational institutions are growing rapidly,” Fernhout says. “These brothers and sisters are facing the challenges that come with starting and implementing a vision, often in places where resources are scarce. They will benefit from others standing alongside them as they develop.”

That’s what gets Fernhout excited about, come December, getting back to work in Christian higher education, in a different capacity and at a different pace. While he has been approached by several people and organizations, he is just now beginning to weigh how to best balance using his gifts and serving others’ needs while still being “retired.”


Vision and faith

Harry Fernhout is not a person to loudly trumpet his ideas and experience, but when asked what he might share with the next generation of Christian leaders in higher education, he offered the following thoughts:

Focus on vision. “It’s really important to have a strong and articulate commitment that is shared by board, faculty, and staff. Doing so creates energy and engagement.” Fernhout urges educational leaders to ask themselves, often, “What makes it worthwhile to expend all of this energy and these resources on being a Christian institution?”

Focus on faith formation. “We’re in the business of transformational education in a deeply spiritual sense, shaping character, nurturing hearts as well as heads.” Excited about the global growth of Christian education, he believes that North Americans can learn much from brothers and sisters in the global south who are deeply spiritual and who long to give substance to their academic work. “Because they do not think in dualistic ways, they may have much to teach us,” he says.


SALLY JONGSMA

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