Challenge, Support, Include...
A tribute to Kathy Nevins
A month from tomorrow, I’ll begin my twentieth academic year as a professor at Bethel University. It’s a big milestone in my career, but I’ve got a ways to go to match the tenure of Dr. Kathy Nevins, professor emerita of psychology, for whom 2022-2023 will be the first year in over forty that she hasn’t been an active member of our faculty.
In fact, Kathy’s time at Bethel goes back even further than that. She came to campus in 1977 as a resident director and women’s basketball coach. That diversity of roles continued long after she joined the psychology department and completed her doctorate at the University of Minnesota. In her near-half-century at Bethel Kathy served as everything from dean of the faculty to chair of a general education task force to undergraduate student.1
Then there was her work as teacher of teachers… A week after our May 2022 commencement ceremonies, I had the honor to partner with Kathy in her last official role before retirement. With physicist Nathan Lindquist, we moderated a faculty workshop on faith-learning integration. It was the second time Nate and I had facilitated that event; I can’t count the number of times Kathy led it or other faculty development activities.
As is often the case with long-serving faculty at smaller universities, Kathy is vastly more famous within our community than in academe at large. Some university professors retire with a long list of publications; Kathy leaves behind a long list of people, students and colleagues alike, whom she taught, mentored, counseled, encouraged, and loved.2
In May a cross-section of that group gathered at Bethel to celebrate Kathy’s career. To close the festivities, psychology department chair Angela Sabates adapted a prayer from the 16th century mystic Teresa of Avila:
Lord, grant that I may always allow myself to be guided by You,
always follow Your plans,
and perfectly accomplish Your Holy Will.
Grant that in all things, great and small,
today and all the days of my life,
I may do whatever You require of me.
Help me respond to the slightest prompting of Your Grace,
so that I may be Your trustworthy instrument for Your honour.
May Your Will be done in time and in eternity by me,
in me, and through me. Amen.
I do pray all of that for Kathy’s future. But as I thought about her past, I found myself playing with the word grant.
Christians often debate the nature of God’s sovereignty, but most would agree with Teresa that all that happens happens because God has, in some sense, “granted” it.
But that doesn’t mean we should take it for granted.
You’d think a historian would know better: a scholar who is trained to look for the factors that cause change over time, in the conviction that our present is contingent on choices made in the past. But as speaker after speaker paid tribute to different aspects of Kathy’s work at Bethel, I started to realize just how much I took for granted about the Bethel that I know, she built, and we both love.
That we have so many women in leadership. The fact that my provost, associate provost, and department co-chairs are all women didn’t just happen — it took pioneers like Kathy to change the culture of an evangelical Baptist institution… often at personal cost I can only empathize with. It was moving to see so many women in the audience nod knowingly as speakers testified to the challenges Kathy’s generation faced as they made the first cracks in our glass ceiling.
That we have an honors program that embodies everything I said on Tuesday about the mission of the liberal arts. Here it’s important to underscore that Kathy’s own academic location is the behavioral sciences, not the humanities or (despite her gifts as an actor and musician) the arts. Her work leading and teaching in Honors exemplifies one of Bethel’s historic strengths: the commitment of scientists to cross disciplines and inquire not just after truth, but meaning, purpose, and justice.3 “We bring to the community of colleagues,” she told our student newspaper in 2019, “a desire and an openness to integration and finding interdisciplinary connections and wanting to teach from an interdisciplinary perspective.”
That our educational philosophy boils down to the phrase “challenge and support.” I’ve heard that pair of verbs my entire Bethel career, almost as often as I’ve heard Kathy allude to Spectrum, a faculty development program in the mid-1980s funded by a grant from the Bush Foundation. What I’d only dimly understood is that the one came from the other. The little speech that I make at the beginning of every first-year course, challenging my newest students to embrace the difficult questions we ask while promising to do whatever I can to support them along the way, is just one distant legacy of a program that irrevocably transformed how Bethel faculty think about teaching and learning.
But as Kathy reminded us in her contribution to the faculty devotional I edited this past Lent, Spectrum’s motto was actually a bit longer: Challenge, Support, Include, Engage, Grow.
Include stands out most clearly as I think about Kathy, who loves nothing so much as building classes, workshops, and the college itself into communities whose diverse members learn from each other.4 “To change and be changed is not possible in a vacuum,” she wrote in 1986, introducing an issue of our faculty journal that featured reflections by Spectrum participants. “We do so through encounters with others, and encounters with God,” through “the bonds that draw us one to another, and of the communion of the Spirit that surely comes as we give of ourselves, and open ourselves to receive from others.”
As Kathy starts her well-deserved retirement and I start the second half of my tenure at Bethel, I pray that I never take that kind of community for granted.
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As she scaled back her teaching load, Kathy started working on a theater degree, having acted in numerous Bethel productions over the years.
When I edited The Pietist Vision of Christian Higher Education several years ago, one of my goals was to let one of our master teachers summarize her approach to teaching in a format that could be disseminated beyond Bethel. Kathy’s chapter, “Calling for Pietist Community,” can be found on pp. 52-66.
Nate Lindquist is one of several alumni on our faculty who took Honors classes from Kathy during their time at Bethel. A world-class physicist currently administering yet another National Science Foundation grant, Nate co-leads what’s now the Pietas Honors program with historian AnneMarie Kooistra.
For her devotional entry, Kathy reflected on the familiar words of Hebrews 10:24-25: “Let us consider how we may spur one another toward love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another — and all the more as you see the Day approaching.”