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The Calvin January Series, systems of oppression, funders and underwriters

January 3, 2019

Today, begins the annual Calvin January Series. This series of lectures and celebration of the arts has come to be known throughout the country because of its annual lineup.

The list of speakers for the 2019 series also includes some big names, such as president of the American Enterprise Institute, Author Brooks and New York Times Columnist Nicholas Kristof. Both Kristof and Brooks are political conservatives, but there are a few liberal voices speaking about racism, climate justice and the Larry Nassar sexual assault scandal.

The list of speakers this year is fairly standard for Calvin’s January Series, where there are a few conservative speakers and a few liberal speakers, with the majority of voices coming from a christian perspective. That Calvin has numerous christian speakers each year in the series is understandable, as they are a christian college.

What you don’t find very often in this lecture series (archived here), are people who are highly critical of US foreign policy or people who are part of social movements that challenge systems of power. Sure, Calvin has had people like Matthew Desmond, who wrote a great book on housing and gentrification in the US entitled, Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City. Calvin has also included people like Eric Michael Dyson, who has written powerful books on race and politics in the US, and the even brought to the lecture series one of the founders of the Southern Poverty Law Center, Morris Dees.

However, there have never been people like Noam Chomsky or Howard Zinn, Angela Davis or bell hooks, and no trans speakers or speakers on White Supremacy as the dominant racial policy in the US. Calvin has never brought people from countries that are suffering directly from US foreign policy or people who are part of global justice movements, especially ones who challenge US imperialism and global capitalism.

Now, I don’t expect that Calvin College would have speakers who would address the above themes, especially those who are against systems of oppression and take an anti-capitalist stance. I get that these speakers are not invited and are not likely to be invited, even though there are plenty of people in the area who would come to see them.

Having speakers who provide a radical critique of white supremacy, colonialism or capitalism would fall outside of Calvin College’s liberal/conservative framework. Calvin is ok with liberal speakers and conservative speakers, since speakers from these two political categories will never challenge colonialism, capitalism and white supremacy. In fact, the lineup of speakers they have often defend these systems of oppression.

Part of the reason for the liberal/conservative lineup of speakers at the Calvin January Series is due to the companies, non-profits and foundations that underwrite the speakers. This has always been the case and is reflected in this year’s underwriters, including Howard Miller, GMB Architects & Engineers and Miller Johnson. 

However, there is another reason why the Calvin January Series fits nicely into the Conservative/Liberal framework and doesn’t challenge systems of oppression. The primary funder of the christian college has been the DeVos family, which are not only opposed to challenging systems of oppression, they are the beneficiaries of those same systems, like colonialism, white supremacy and capitalism.

Based on the 990s from the various DeVos family foundations between 2014 – 2016, the DeVos family has contributed $8,835,000. In just three years they contributed just under 9 million, so it is safe to say that in the past 20 years, the DeVos family has contributed over $50 million. Donors of that caliber don’t give that kind of money without strings attached. Often, the strings attached that wealthy donors determine center around having lots of input into the politics and policies of any college or university.

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