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DataWise researchers. DataWise researchers. COURTESY PHOTO

Researchers’ abrupt split from Calvin University drives new business opportunities

BY Wednesday, June 15, 2022 09:31am

A social science research organization that abruptly split from Calvin University in recent months hopes to seize new opportunities to raise capital and work with more organizations that may have been hesitant to partner with a religious academic institution.

Neil Carlson and Laura Luchies formally organized DataWise Consulting LLC in late March this year in the wake of the researchers’ sudden departure from Calvin, where they had led the school’s Center for Social Research.

Calvin officials and the researchers have described the situation as a planned, mutual separation that would allow for additional sources of funding outside of academia. However, the split was accelerated after the university learned a Center for Social Research staffer was in a same-sex relationship. Calvin is a private college associated with the Christian Reformed Church.

The separation being driven in part by the staffer’s same-sex relationship was first reported by the university’s student-run paper, the Calvin Chimes, in March.

“It was very sudden for us,” Carlson said in an interview late last month. “It became clear to me that the leading solution on the administration’s mind was to spin us out. It took me about 15 seconds to realize that it wasn’t just the path of least resistance, it was the only path. If we had tried to hang on and stay, we’d have been resisting university policy enforcement, and that was never our intent.”

Carlson added that “almost everyone” from the Center for Social Research (CSR) stayed on to work at DataWise.

University policy

The abrupt departure involved DataWise Research Associate Nicole Sweda, who married her partner, Annica, last fall. University officials reportedly approached Sweda early this year after learning about Sweda’s marriage. 

Calvin University Spokesperson Matt Kucinski described the separation as a “mutual decision” that was “consistent with previously identified pressures and future opportunities for the center to thrive as an independent entity.”

“While CSR was an integral part of the university for a very long time, we trust that the CSR mission, organization, and community will flourish in new ways as it enjoys some strategic business advantages of independence from the institution, including access to capital, possible colocation with partner organizations, agility, and the workforce diversity they believe necessary for their entrepreneurial community engagement and partnerships,” Kucinski said in an email to MiBiz.

Kucinski also noted that Calvin’s same-sex relationship policy — under the Christian Reformed Church’s “understanding of a biblical sexual ethic” — differentiates between sexual orentiation and sexual behavior.

“The university’s position is consistent with the (Christian Reformed Church’s) position that God intends for sexuality to be expressed within the context of marriage, defined as a covenantal union between a man and a woman. Therefore, the university has policies prohibiting sexual relationships outside of this context,” Kucinski said.

Amid the incident, Calvin became the subject of an Inside Higher Education story in late April involving Joseph Kuilema, a Calvin assistant professor who officiated Sweda’s wedding. Kuilema reportedly was denied tenure in 2018 because of his advocacy on LGBTQ issues. The university in April decided not to reappoint Kuilema to his position.

“As a matter of policy, Calvin does not comment on specific personnel-related matters,” Kucinski said. “However, what I can share is that the normal process for reappointment involves a review of a faculty member by their departmental colleagues and chair, their dean, and the Professional Status Committee. Reappointment depends upon demonstrable strength in Reformed Christian commitment, teaching, scholarship, and service and faculty, like all employees, are expected to respect the university’s positions and to follow its policies and processes.”

Luchies said CSR officials were aware that Calvin faculty were prohibited from being in a same-sex relationship after signing the university’s “forms of subscription.”

“However, staff members do not sign such a thing, and we weren’t aware of the policy, although it turns out it was there,” Luchies said. “We hadn’t thoroughly read and processed everything in the employee handbook.”

New opportunities

Carlson and Luchies said one benefit from spinning out of Calvin is the company’s ability to access new capital financing, as well as work with local organizations that may have been hesitant to partner with a research organization affiliated with a private, Christian university. 

Luchies described DataWise’s work as “turning data into wise decisions,” which often involves compiling databases for clients, designing surveys and data visualization. Its clients include nonprofit public-private partnership KConnect, the Salvation Army’s Kroc Center in Grand Rapids, and the Kent County Essential Needs Task Force. DataWise also is finishing up some contractual work with Calvin. 

“We are using a vast toolkit of software to answer the questions people have in an informed manner,” Luchies said. “Having access to capital to develop software and get it to (where we could) sell it or partner with someone to license it hasn’t been possible until now.”

Long before the split began, Carlson and Luchies had a “growing appetite to diversify our portfolio” and recruit more for-profit clients.

“Our intent had not been to leave Calvin, but rather to bolster Calvin’s agility and give us some access to capital,” Carlson said. “Inside higher education, there are no bridge loans for cash flow, and no venture capital. If you can’t find a grant or donor, there’s no mechanism to finance investment for growth.”

“Leaving academia and the Calvin community that we had a lot of affection and affinity for has been a difficult shock,” Carlson added. “From another perspective, financially, we’re just changing banks.”

Carlson “absolutely” sees new business opportunities ahead after DataWise’s formation and the departure from Calvin.

“We have opportunities to serve new clients, to create new tools that clients will buy or subscribe to, and to address populations and research questions that wouldn’t have been comfortable to address inside the Calvin envelope,” he said.

More broadly, Carlson and Luchies foresee a continued loss of talent from academic and religious circles in the context of their split from Calvin.

“The generally politicized nature of everything now means that religious institutions and academic institutions, and especially religious academic institutions, are going to be squirting out highly talented people looking for jobs in the midst of this labor shortage,” Carlson said. “Businesses should probably be keeping an eye on higher education and churches as potential recruitment targets.”

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