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Feud with Ex-President Leads To Lawsuit, Alleged Threats of Violence at Calvin University

By Bob Smietana
feud president calvin university
Wiebe Boer, left, is the former president of Calvin University in Grand Rapids, Michigan. (Photos courtesy Calvin University)

When Calvin University hired Wiebe Boer as its new president in May 2022, the school signed the former business executive to a lucrative five-year deal.

Along with a $400,000 annual salary, Boer received a $100,000 signing bonus, with annual bonuses of up to $200,000 with the chance to earn additional long-term bonuses, paid college tuition for his children, a car and use of the presidential residence on campus.

The hope was that Boer, a Calvin alum and son of missionaries, could turn the prominent evangelical school around after years of budget cuts and enrollment decline while easing tensions with the denomination that owns the school.

For a while, it seemed things were working. Enrollment went up, and in January, Boer announced an ambitious plan for Calvin’s future. Less than two months later, however, everything fell apart.

In mid-February, Boer resigned after the school’s board received complaints that he’d sent “unwelcome and inappropriate” messages to the employee of a vendor who worked on campus. When confronted by the board, Boer agreed to step down — leaving the campus in turmoil, with anger and confusion over how things went so wrong so fast.

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calvin university
Campus of Calvin University in Grand Rapids, Michigan. (Video screengrab)

That anger has led to Boer being locked out of the school’s presidential residence, a lawsuit — and this past weekend — alleged threats of violence against one of the school’s senior leaders.

“I want to be very clear. This must stop,” said Calvin interim President Greg Elzinga in a video message sent to the campus community. “Regardless of how you feel about the board’s handling of Dr. Boer’s resignation, it is never acceptable to threaten or attack other members of this community or to joke about doing so in a misguided attempt at humor.”

Elzinga said that the threat against a leader had been reported to local law enforcement. The Kent County Sheriff’s Department said in an email that any public records request for an incident report would take several days.

On Friday, Boer and his wife, Joanna, filed suit against the school in federal court, alleging that Calvin violated his employment agreement and defamed the former president — and that the school failed to pay him $400,000 in severance or to prove that he’d engaged in significant misconduct.

“Calvin, specifically the Board of Trustees as led by Chair Los and Vice Chair Tuuk Kuras, has diligently continued and perpetuated a harmful narrative about Dr. Boer to the campus and local community, irrespective of truth or fairness,” his attorneys alleged in a complaint filed in the US District Court for the Western District of Michigan Southern Division.

Joanna Boer, who is a Caribbean-American woman of color, alleged that school officials “undermined her, belittled her, and unduly challenged her” because of her race and gender and sued for discrimination.

The school’s board of trustees denied the allegations of the lawsuit in a statement issued Sunday and has said in the past that Boer’s actions made him unfit for president.

“In summary, the Board emphatically rejects the accusations of breach of contract, defamation, and discrimination laid out in the Boers’ lawsuit, and we are confident that further misrepresentations will be corrected through litigation,” the board said in a statement.

Affiliated with the Christian Reformed Church, Calvin is known for its high-profile alums like former Secretary of Education Betsy Devos as well as influential professors like Kristin Kobes Du Mez, a historian and author of “Jesus and John Wayne.” The school has experienced tension in recent years over its rules on sexuality — as CRC’s teaching condemns any sexual conduct outside of heterosexual marriage as sinful — while the school admits LGBTQ students. A former Calvin professor who lost his job after officiating a same-sex marriage is currently involved in a legal battle with the school.  

wedding calvin transgender queer
Calvin University professor Joe Kuilema, right, officiates the wedding of Nicole Sweda and Annica Steen on Oct. 15, 2021. (Photo courtesy of Nicole Sweda)

The Boers’ lawsuit, which included a copy of the former president’s employment agreement, and the board response reveal more details about behind-the-scenes tensions during Boer’s brief tenure as Calvin’s leader as well as details of the messages that led to his downfall. Those documents also show that the negotiations over his resignation devolved into a bitter feud. 

Despite the five-year term of his employment agreement, under the terms of that agreement, Boer was considered an at-will employee and could leave the school or be fired at any time. However, unless the board ruled that Boer was guilty of “serious misconduct,” he would receive his $400,000 salary for a year after leaving.

In the complaint, Boer’s attorney stated that he exchanged texts with an employee of a college vendor for several weeks in January but denied he admitted the texts were inappropriate. They also claim he was given little time to defend himself and agreed to resign rather than be fired — if he could get severance and help shape the messaging around his resignation.

Neither happened, according to the complaint. Instead, negotiations broke down, and Boer and his family were locked out of the presidential home — even though his kids were still in school in the Grand Rapids area.

The complaint claims the president’s messages did not rise to the level of misconduct.

“Calvin cannot show a case of ‘serious misconduct’ as defined by the Contract against Dr. Boer,” Boer’s lawyers claim.

In their statement, the board alleges that Boer sent more than 100 messages in 10 days to the woman who complained the messages were inappropriate and claims that he admitted the messages were inappropriate.

“Disclosing the actual messages would reveal the complainant’s identity; however, they included texts where Dr. Boer admitted to initiating the exchange under false pretenses,” according to the board’s statement. “He made multiple comments about the woman’s physical appearance. Dr. Boer also said in these messages that he wanted to get to know her and repeatedly asked about her whereabouts and her plans to attend Calvin events so he could see her.”

Calvin’s board also claims it gave Boer ample time to defend himself, including setting up a meeting for him to do so, which they say he failed to attend. The board also denounced what it called “vicious personal attacks” against Calvin staff in the complaint filed by the Boers.

That complaint accuses the school’s provost and another senior leader of discrimination and complains the president’s secretary mistreated his wife — who was also an employee of the school. It also alleges that the Boers were criticized for trying to make the school more racially diverse and for doing more outreach in the community.  

The board denied those allegations.

“While the Board laments the existence of racism, sexism and other related problems that exist in the world, it is baseless to suggest that any tension arising from efforts of University administrators and staff to ultimately hold Mrs. Boer accountable for spending decisions was in any way related to personal, gender, or racial animus,” the board said in a statement.

Calvin’s board also said that it tried to reach an amicable settlement on the issue of severance but was unable to do so.

The complaint asks for lost wages and bonuses, compensatory damages for mental anguish and emotional distress as well as punitive damages.

Bob SmietanaBob Smietana is a national reporter for Religion News Service.



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5 Responses

  1. “Caribbean” is not a country or an ethnic group. There are dozens of countries and ethnic groups across the area.

  2. Calvin needs to close its unchristian doors. Why would anyone sent their kids to this place. The court papers tell a sad story….WWJD ?

  3. After reading The Boers’ filing, it certainly appears that “Calvin” should be firing this “Pruis” and “Christians,” admonishing a few others and reinstating The Boer’s in order to not only serve justice, but save what’s left of their college financially. (Why pay a salary to get a new president and pay 4-5+ years of salary to the Boers’ in a settlement, when you can fire one big dummy and his sideshow assistant, and just continue paying one salary to the Boers)?
    Unless there is something that can be clearly seen or obviously inferred to as “inappropriate” (which I wouldn’t think would be the case with his wife so vigorously defending him).

    1. I don’t know… I Read it also but making sure to keep in mind it is all intended to seek a judgment against Calvin. Of course it’s all going to look favorable to the Boers. You would not expect to see anything that would support their termination in that kind of document.

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