The end of the 2014-2015 school year is also the end of President Ryken’s fifth academic year in leadership at Wheaton College. The Record spoke with Ryken to learn about the ups and downs of presidency and about how he has seen God at work on campus from the vantage of the presidential office.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Was there anything that you wanted to change as a student that you notice now and you’ve been able to change, or you want to change?
My graduating class, its class gift for Wheaton College was a scholarship for ethnic minority students. That definitely came out of a desire that our class had, I think pretty generally, that our education was dramatically impoverished by the homogeneity of our campus community. Wheaton is just far ahead of where the college was when I was a student in that regard, so I think that would definitely be one area. We found a lot of limitations to the campus facilities that needed to be addressed. There was functionally very little place to get physical exercise on our campus when I was a student because we only had one gymnasium. There was no campus-wide weight room, no indoor track, any of those kinds of things, and the facilities in Lower Beamer are just far beyond what we had for student organizations.
As a leader, are there any specific habits or rituals that you have that help you stay on task and lead the college effectively?
I guess the two things I would mention are I work very hard every day. There’s a lot to be done and I work very hard at it. But, I do seek to take a complete Sabbath from college work on Sundays, so I find that to be helpful. Also, I’m very deliberate and intentional about building in family activities and things our family is doing into my schedule. My assistants are forever putting in Little League games into my calendar, which is not to say that I can be at all the events I want to be at, but it is part of how I build my schedule and I think is an important thing. I think I find our cabinet practice of having a summer retreat together very, very important to our work at the college, relationally, but also for planning ‘What are our goals for the coming year?’ and working on those together.
Is there a part of the year that is your favorite, as president? Or something about the time of the year that you enjoy?
I love all four seasons, and I love the rhythm of the year that has changes in it. I absolutely love our time up at HoneyRock in August with student leaders and then with Passage. I love orientation. I love the fall, the changes in the weather and the uptick in campus activity. You know, maybe overall, the winter I don’t love as much, but I love the Christmas festival. I love basketball season. Spring can be, and this year is, a beautiful time on campus and we get some of those amazing days. I just really love the whole (year). I do love the day after commencement because that’s a grueling week, and then the day after commencement, typically, is the President’s golf outing, so that’s like a day when you know everything is over, you don’t have any work to do, you can just play golf.
What are some unexpected challenges that have arisen in leading Wheaton?
Not a lot. I think, even the unexpected events, whether it’s the contraceptive mandate or whether it’s the football skit or even highly-publicized faculty member and student arrests that have happened in the last five years, an event like that is always going to be an unexpected event, and totally unpredictable. But, the kinds of events that they are just reflect areas of brokenness in our culture, and so they’re not surprising in that you’re surprised that you’re having to deal with an issue in this area. In that sense, I’m not sure there have been a lot of things that have been unexpected, even some of the tragedies that we’ve had in student lives, students who have died while I’ve been president here. Of course, that’s always a complete shock, but in another sense, in accepting a job like this, that’s part of the job because those are things that happen.
Do these events weigh on you?
They don’t tend to, although there’s certain kinds of events that do. The college’s lawsuit is not something that has weighed on me; I’m grieved by student’s deaths, but I’m, particularly with the pastoral background I have, I think I know how to step into a situation and minister to grieving parents and things like that. I think, honestly, the biggest burden I have is not so much this event or that issue, but just the total demands of leading a college. It’s sort of everything altogether more so than this burden or that burden.
How have you seen God’s presence in your work days on campus?
First of all, I certainly find it just to be helpful to be worshipping regularly in chapel, and that’s a privilege most people don’t have in their adult work experience, to have that kind of regularity of opportunities to worship and hear God’s Word. A second thing I would say is that I just see lots and lots of answers to prayer, all the time. So whether it’s a person that we’re seeking to hire for a particular position — a major recent example would be the hiring of Tim Blackmon as a chaplain. The other thing is just seeing God answer our prayers for financial provision in all kinds of ways. I see that very, very regularly. Another way is some of the students that I get to know well, I’ve had a chance to see their progress in every area of life. So even seeing the guys that were in my passage group in the fall of 2011, meeting with them at the end of October of 2011, it was already evident, just areas of maturity, of spiritual progress, and then to kind of have a celebration and reunion with them this year, in the middle of the year, and just kind of seeing where they’re heading in life, and see the progress that they’ve made spiritually and vocationally and what they’ve had a chance to experience, you really see God at work in their lives. The other thing is, I’m also a parent of students, and so I see that in the lives of my own children, so that’s something significant, as well.
Related article: Ryken’s leadership: Five year review