Leading Hope with Hope

With the nation and world facing some of the largest challenges of the past several decades, it would be easy to hunker down and despair.

One of the most important things to know about President Matthew A. Scogin ’02, who has just completed his first year leading Hope and is eagerly anticipating his second, is that he doesn’t think that way.

The starting point for that optimism will be familiar to those who know the origin of the college’s name, Hebrews 6:19-20, which the Rev. Albertus C. Van Raalte paraphrased when founding the Pioneer School from which Hope grew: “We have this as a sure and steadfast anchor of the soul, a hope that enters into the inner shrine behind the curtain, where Jesus has gone as a forerunner on our behalf…” The words are echoed by the college’s motto, Spera in Deo (“Hope in God”) from Psalm 42:5.

Those aren’t the only places that the Bible speaks of hope, and that, actually, is the point.

“Most of the time when we use the word ‘hope,’ we’re basically using it as kind of a weak desire, a wish, like, ‘I hope the weather is good tomorrow,’” Scogin explained. “But that’s not the way that the Bible uses the word. The way the Bible uses the word is based on a confident expectation that something good is going to happen. We know that the future is going to be better than the present; the Bible promises it.

“So let’s let that mindset shape everything we do as an institution,” he said. “As an institution, we can aspire to be a college that embeds hope in people, our students, and prepares them to run into the dark, hopeless corners of the world and spread hope there.”

That’s easy to say and do when times are good, but more difficult to practice when they aren’t. How does a college community live it during an event like, say, the global COVID-19 pandemic and its economic fallout?

Scogin quickly credits the hundreds of faculty and staff who have done the hard work of navigating the college through the crisis. They’re the ones, he stresses, who pivoted the college’s 900-plus courses to remote instruction across the 10-day spring break; recruited what as of this writing is anticipated to be the largest incoming class of the past five years; have prepared to start the fall semester two weeks early to help mitigate the risk of spreading the virus — and much more. At the same time, his sense of perspective — leavening the anxiety of the situation with level-headed optimism — has done much to set the tone.

“We will get through this. For the college, this is not a question of survival,” he said. “We are financially healthy enough to get through this.”

“Knowing that we will exist beyond today’s challenges, we can make confident decisions now that will position us as an institution to be stronger on the other side,” Scogin said.

“We decided up front that we were going to make every decision with students first and foremost in mind,” he said. “So as we made the transition from in-person instruction to remote instruction, one of the first things we did was refund our students a pro-rated portion of their room and board. We knew that a lot of families in our community were struggling financially, and that was one thing we could do right away to take care of our students.”

“We’ve also decided to invest in our workplace culture,” he said. “One way we’ve done that is by not furloughing or laying off anyone. Yes, in the short term we might have saved some money if we had, but those savings would have come at a substantial cost to our culture. In contrast, I’ve received many notes from employees and their families who are grateful that the college has stood by them, and the college’s commitment to being a place that cares about its people will matter more in the long run.”

That commitment to caring about the people of Hope has also led to focus across the past school year, and especially this summer, on campus culture as a whole. Even as the world has been coping with the COVID-19 pandemic, the killing of George Floyd and other Black Americans by police officers in recent months have galvanized millions in calling for long-overdue racial justice while at the same time highlighting deep divides in the United States. Hope has hosted a variety of online town halls across the summer for alumni, students, and faculty and staff to reflect on the national issue and their own experiences at Hope, and Scogin has emphasized his own commitment to fostering a diverse and inclusive college community.

“Racism is not a political issue; racism is a Gospel issue. Racism is an affront on the core biblical truth that all people are made in God’s image,” he said. “When we say at Hope College, as we do in our aspirational faith statement, that Hope seeks to be a place that affirms the dignity of all persons as bearers of God’s image, we mean it.”

“And I want Hope to be known for that,” he said. “Hope is known and will be known for a lot of great things, but at the top of the list I want Hope College to be known for being a truly loving, belonging, inclusive, diverse community.”

Hope has many long-running initiatives focused on diversity, but this past fall Scogin established a task force to examine campus culture and how it might be improved to support that goal.

“We’re talking a lot about belonging,” he said. “The Bible says you belong to God, period. I think that if you belong to God, you ought to belong at Hope College. The question is, how can we create a culture where everybody who comes here feels like they belong here?”

“We’re also emphasizing understanding, and that means that we do more listening than talking,” he said. “The world that we live in today is not set up very well for listening. We’re trying to do something totally countercultural, which is to wake up every day excited to learn from and about each other.”

“Finally, we are highlighting grace,” he said. “We need to have a culture where we show grace to each other, because we want to have courageous and difficult conversations. But these kinds of conversations are tricky. They’re emotional and require grace throughout.”

And he promises that there is more to come. To help people monitor the progress and to invite suggestions, Hope has also recently established a website [hope.edu/inclusive] to chronicle what the college is doing and plans to do, and to solicit input.

Even as he has been leading Hope through the needs of the present, Scogin hasn’t forgotten the major themes that he announced during his inaugural address in September: focusing on the business model of higher education, the future of learning and the future of work. Attention to all three is ongoing, and the adjustments to instruction that the college made because of the COVID-19 pandemic have been particularly informative.

“We’ve gone through an incredibly valuable case study over the last few months,” he said. “We’ve learned a lot about remote learning.”

Hope has been offering remote courses for some 15 years, but the wholesale shift in March provided an en masse opportunity to experience the benefits and challenges of the venue and refine the process. [Please see the related story.] And while Hope is preparing to offer a mix of in-person, remote and hybrid courses this fall, the process reinforced the college’s commitment to the on-campus experience.

“We believe the learning environment is richer when students are here, when they’re living and learning together. Our goal is to provide that for our students,” Scogin said. “We also believe — and sadly we saw evidence of this in the spring — that the in-person learning experience is simply more equitable. Some students have learning environments away from Hope that are very conducive to learning, and others have environments in which it’s very challenging to learn.”

And not least of all, the economic impact of COVID-19 — the hardship experienced by millions as they’ve lost their jobs or are enduring other financial uncertainty — has reinforced Scogin’s commitment to making a Hope education accessible to all students by fully funding tuition, which he had presented in general terms in his inaugural address. His hope, which he outlined in May during a town-hall event for alumni, is to establish a “pay it forward” approach in which students do not pay anything other than their room and board until after they’ve earned their degree.

“We would ask students to commit to voluntarily paying some small percentage of their income once they graduate,” he explained. “What they’re actually doing is paying it forward. They’re not paying for their own tuition because their own tuition was fully funded when they got here. They’re making it possible for future students to enjoy the same college experience they benefited from.”

“That does a number of transformational things,” he said. “One is that it would align incentives: we as an institution would be totally invested in helping our students get jobs, because that’s how we would get paid. Another is that it would allow our students to rush out into the world and chase impact rather than income, because no graduate would ever have the burden of debt,” he said.

“It would also change the nature of the relationship we have with students,” he said. “Today the relationship many students have with their college or university is a transactional one. Students pay for an education, they get it, and they move on. Our pay-it-forward model would create a cycle of generosity, in which our alumni become partners in providing to future students the same benefit that previous graduates provided to them.”

Scogin’s vision involves setting the expectation of future giving to incoming students but would avoid written contracts, in order to reinforce the emphasis on generosity rather than transaction. It’s also not, he noted, a short-term goal, since before it can begin it will require a major increase in the college’s endowment, whose support will run in tandem with the graduates’ subsequent gifts.

“This will require a major increase in our endowment — from roughly $230 million to over $1 billion,” he said. “So, we need to do some fundraising, and to get to the point where we can launch this is probably a 10-year endeavor.”

At just age 40, Hope’s 14th president has the youth to see the project through. All-in-all, though, it’s been an eventful freshman year in ways that might reasonably be considered daunting. Knowing what he knows now, would he still leave New York City, and a career in government service and finance, to helm his alma mater?

Without question.

“I have loved every minute on this job,” he said. “Even with everything that’s happened this year, very few parts of it feel like work. When all is said and done, we will look back on this time period and see that it was an enormous opportunity. The last few months have provided the chance to reinvent our business model, learn about new modalities of learning, invest in our culture, and make Hope a more racially diverse and just institution.”

“Hope is a really special place to Sarah and me,” Scogin said. “The chance to come back and serve an institution that served us so well as students is just a remarkable privilege.”