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McCarthy retires as VP

By Sally Jongsma

Dr. Rockne McCarthy marvels at the progress of Reformed Christian higher education since he began teaching in 1969. He came to Dordt College in 1979 when it was a little more than two decades old and working hard to become an institution that would help students understand how the breadth of Christ’s kingdom affects how they use what they learn.

Rockne McCarthy

Rockne McCarthy

McCarthy came to play a major role in that growth, say the two Dordt presidents with whom he served during his twenty-nine years at Dordt College.

“He helped us mature as an institution,” says current president Dr. Carl Zylstra.

“I so appreciated the Reformed perspective he brought to our efforts to establish a Christian voice in the area of politics,” says former president Dr. John B. Hulst. He first became acquainted with McCarthy when he was a history professor at Trinity Christian College. McCarthy came to Dordt as a fellow of the Studies Institute to do research and writing, following up on two published books to which he had contributed: “Society, State and School: A Case for Structural and Confessional Pluralism (Eerdmans, 1981) and “Disestablishment a Second Time: Genuine Pluralism for American Schools (Eerdmans, 1982). He worked with Hulst and James Skillen in the Dordt College Studies Institute to publish a book of readings and commentary titled “Political Order and the Plural Structure of Society.” That book is now in its third printing (Emory University Studies in Law and Religion).

“His strong Reformed Christian perspective connected with the practicalities of the political situation as we tried to make a case for the justice of funding multiple school systems,” Hulst says. That perspective was also put to work in his work as VPAA over the next two decades.

McCarthy spent several years as a fellow of the Dordt College Studies Institute (a Christian research institute on Dordt’s campus) and as a member of the history department before becoming the dean of the social sciences division in 1986. In 1989, upon the retirement of Dr. Douglas Ribbens, McCarthy was appointed academic dean and in 1990 was named vice president for academic affairs (VPAA). He retires this spring after eighteen years in that post.

Zylstra says McCarthy’s contributions are many, and they built on the strong academic foundation laid by Ribbens, Dordt’s first academic dean.

“McCarthy took over academic responsibility at a time when the college was coming of age,” says Zylstra. He encouraged academic rigor, increasing expectations for faculty qualifications and scholarship.

“McCarthy gave firm leadership in what it means to be a Reformed scholar,” Zylstra says. In the early years of his tenure as VPAA, he coordinated two-week summer workshops in which faculty members from one division each summer worked together to better understand how to teach and do scholarship from a Reformed worldview. Under his leadership, Dordt College became known among Christian colleges for its commitment to working out of a pervasively Reformed vision across the disciplines.

“He’s also been very student-learning focused,” Zylstra says, “always asking whether students were learning what we thought or wanted them to learn. He regularly encouraged student participation in faculty research and projects.”

Hulst notes McCarthy’s unwavering support of the faculty during the years he worked with him. He pushed doggedly for greater parity in salaries with faculty at similar institutions and for decreasing faculty loads to give them more time to do a better job of teaching and scholarly work.

“A big strength was the leadership he gave in setting a cohesive direction for the college to follow,” says Hulst, adding that with McCarthy at the academic helm, the percentage of the budget that was spent on the academic program was much greater than at most other institutions.

“Dordt’s biblical and historical tradition affords it a place to stand to view the world and to be of service in the world,” McCarthy says. McCarthy himself came to embrace that worldview in the early ’60s as a history student at Grinnell College. As a conservative Reformed Christian at an activist institution like Grinnell in the midst of the civil rights movement, he became interested in the role of the Christian community in social and political issues. In his background, politics had been mostly avoided. It was while writing a paper on the social concerns of evangelical Christians that he discovered that the Christian Reformed Church, a denomination he had never heard of, had taken a significant position on race relations. He wrote the president of Calvin College at the time, Dr. William Spoelhof, to ask how it was that the Christian Reformed Church took such a proactive stance on race when most denominations were avoiding the issue. The ensuing interactions with Reformed scholars alerted him to the fact that there was a tradition that took a Reformed worldview very seriously on a communal as well as an individual level. He has remained convinced that a broad Reformed perspective must stretch across the curriculum, fueling his commitment to a strong general education or core program for students at Dordt College.

“It’s central to where we have come from, where we are, and where we want to go,” he says, adding that it is easier to talk about Reformed perspective than it is to translate it into action—into concrete workable initiatives. Nevertheless, that has been his life’s work and interest. It’s also taught him one of the biggest lessons of his career: patience and a deep appreciation for the fact that bringing about the change needed to achieve institutional goals is one of the most challenging and most important tasks of an administrative leader.

For an institution like Dordt College that believes the whole world is before us for study and investigation, McCarthy believes the big challenge is determining how to continue to give new and different expression to our perspective, to address changing priorities, and to do that in a way that is relevant and fresh. “If we try to do too much we fail, but we also fail if we don’t do enough,” he says referring to the kinds of changes that institutions need to make to stay relevant and fresh.

“In our short history, we’ve been blessed with almost a golden era of moving ahead,” McCarthy says. He remains positive about the future, but he believes Christian higher education faces some significant challenges ahead. One of those is a secular world that isn’t just indifferent but is often hostile to the kind of education schools like Dordt College offer. He believes future public policy decisions could greatly affect hiring policies and funding.

“It points out all the more urgently the need for colleges like Dordt to train students who can make significant contributions to public policy-setting,” he says. That change can happen when institutions instill in their students the understanding that faith is as big as the world God created and that they are called to work for the good of his kingdom.

“The Lord has blessed Christian higher education in many significant ways,” McCarthy says. Students now have many more options to choose from at Christian colleges as they choose the calling they will follow. “We need to continue to explore options and new areas, pressing the envelope, moving beyond our comfort zones, being more reformational,” he says.