The abrupt separation of researchers from Calvin University creates new business opportunities

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

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

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

The split, caused in part by the employee’s same-sex relationship, was first reported by the university’s student-run newspaper Calvin carillonMarch.

“It came very suddenly for us,” Carlson said in an interview late last month. “I realized that the leading solution in the administration’s mind was to spin us off. It took me about 15 seconds to realize that this wasn’t just the path of least resistance, it was the only path. If we had tried to persevere and stay, we would have resisted enforcing university policies, and that was never our intention.”

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

university policy

Participating in the abrupt exit was Nicole Sweda, a research associate at DataWise, who married her partner Annica last fall. University officials reportedly reached out to Sweda earlier this year after learning of Sweda’s marriage.

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

“Although CSR has long been an integral part of the University, we are confident that the CSR mission, organization and community will thrive in new ways as it enjoys some strategic business benefits of being independent from the institution, including access to capital Colocation with partner organizations, agility and the diversity of the workforce they believe is necessary for their entrepreneurial community engagement and partnerships,” Kucinski said in an email to MiBiz.

Kucinski also noted that Calvin’s same-sex relationship policies—according to the Reformed Christian Church’s “understanding of a biblical sexual ethic”—distinguished between sexual orientation and sexual behavior.

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

In the midst of the incident, Calvin became the subject of a Within higher education Story in late April with Joseph Kuilema, a Calvin assistant professor who officiated Sweda’s marriage. Kuilema was reportedly denied term in 2018 for his advocacy on LGBTQ issues. The university decided in April not to reappoint Kuilema to his position.

“As a matter of principle, Calvin does not comment on specific personnel matters,” Kucinski said. “However, what I can share is that the normal process for reappointment involves a review of a faculty member by their department peers and their chair, their dean and the Professional Status Committee. Reappointment depends on the demonstrated strength of Reformed Christian commitment, teaching, scholarship and service, and faculty, like all staff, are expected to respect the positions of the university and follow its policies and processes.”

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

“However, employees don’t sign anything like that, and we weren’t aware of the policy even though it turned out to exist,” Luchies said. “We had not thoroughly read and processed everything in the employee handbook.”

New opportunities

Carlson and Luchies said one benefit of spinning off Calvin is the company’s ability to access new equity funding and work with local organizations that may have been reluctant to partner with a research organization affiliated with a private, Christian university.

Luchies described DataWise’s work as “transforming data into smart decisions,” which often involves assembling databases for clients, designing surveys, and data visualization. His clients include non-profit public-private partnerships KConnectThe Salvation Army’s Kroc Center in Grand Rapids and the Kent County Essential Needs Task Force. DataWise is also finalizing some contractual work with Calvin.

“We use a huge software toolkit to answer people’s questions in an informed way,” Luchies said. “It hasn’t been possible before to have access to capital to develop software and sell it (where we could sell it) or work with someone to license it.”

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

“Our intention wasn’t to leave Calvin, it was to increase Calvin’s agility and give us some access to capital,” Carlson said. “In higher education, there are no cash flow bridging loans and no venture capital. If you can’t find a grant or donor, there is no mechanism to fund growth investments.”

“Leaving academia and the Calvin community, for which we had a great deal of affection and affinity, was a severe shock,” Carlson added. “From another perspective, financially, we’re just changing banks.”

Carlson “absolutely” sees new business opportunities following the formation of DataWise and the departure of Calvin.

“We have the opportunity to serve new customers, develop new tools that customers buy or subscribe to, and address populations and research questions that would not have been conveniently answered within the Calvin envelope,” he said.

More broadly, related to their breakup with Calvin, Carlson and Luchies foresee an ongoing drain of talent in academic and religious circles.

“The broadly politicized nature of everything now means that religious institutions and academic institutions, and religious academic institutions in particular, will be spurting out highly talented people looking for jobs amidst this labor shortage,” Carlson said. “Companies should probably keep colleges and churches in mind as potential recruitment targets.”

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