Mr. President, Board Chair, honoured guests, faculty, staff, students and all who have come today: I am privileged to address you on this occasion, which marks both the Inauguration of Dr. David Zietsma and the celebration of Redeemer’s 40th anniversary. Dr. Zietsma, thank you for inviting me to reflect on God’s faithfulness during these past 40 years. May this be a Psalm 78 moment, a faith-building experience in which one generation inspires another to continue on the sure foundation of Christ and his Word.
Establishing a Reformed Christian presence in Ontario university education in the mid-1970s was a bold but improbable project. Yet, in God’s faithfulness this vision has been realized through a 40-year journey of faith and perseverance. It was 1976 when, motivated by their faith and vision for Christian education, a small Dutch immigrant community, having already established schools at the elementary, secondary and graduate level, set out to begin a Christian university. By this time, all Ontario universities were secular and publicly funded, even those that had long been religiously based, and the government intended to formalize this secular academic policy in law, along with provision for religiously based institutions that could offer programs and degrees as Bible colleges and seminaries.
Thus the request to establish a private university offering the full range of disciplines based on a Christian perspective was flatly denied. For two years Redeemer’s founders were in a quandary over whether and how to proceed. What a surprise when the Lord provided a way forward. Through a board member’s Cabinet contact and God’s favour, government officials were amenable to a granting a Charter to offer a liberal arts and sciences program, provided it was permeated with a Biblical perspective and led to a bachelor’s degree with a religious designation. While only a partial realization of the vision for Redeemer, this Charter provided a sufficient legal basis on which a to launch a Christian university program, even if some might see it as a Bible college.
Redeemer opened its doors in 1982 with great joy and thanksgiving, propelled by events that showed God’s provision. Eight qualified and committed faculty gave up secure jobs to come, along with an overflow of pioneer students who signed up even before there were any facilities in place! As a vibrant campus community developed, Redeemer’s educational vision was realized in a four-year degree program, providing students with a strong spiritual foundation and rigorous academic training, infused with a Biblical worldview, that prepared them for a life of service.
The Lord’s leading was also evident in the surprising ways initial facilities were secured in a short time. A school was renovated, a liberal arts library acquired and of a group of 8 nearby townhouses rented. This style of housing ended up fostering such living groups of relational, academic and spiritual growth, that it became a distinctive residence pattern still in place today. Again in 1984, with God’s blessing, 78 acres were assembled in Ancaster for a permanent campus, which was generously funded by Redeemer’s committed constituency. This pattern of growth and blessing was repeated in the years after 2000 with more residences and additional academic facilities and again in 2020 with the completion of the Charis Live and Learn Centre.
Eight qualified and committed faculty gave up secure jobs to come, along with an overflow of pioneer students who signed up even before there were any facilities in place!
By 1985, with a first graduating class on the horizon and government officials unwilling to allow Redeemer to offer university degrees, the focus became how to strengthen its academic reputation to enable student transfer credit, graduate school admission and employment. Though it was challenging, the Lord blessed Rev DeBolster’s leadership in applying for membership in the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada, now Universities Canada. At a key review session, God used the faculty in dramatic fashion to completely turn around a skeptical visiting team. The team’s resulting endorsement of Redeemer’s courses as the equivalent of those leading to a B.A. or B.Sc. led to initial and in 1987, with its new campus, full membership. This status enabled access for Redeemer’s graduates to graduate schools and employment, and its faculty to research funding.
Although these blessings led to further enrolment and program growth, with an influx of students from an increasingly wide range of denominational backgrounds, by the early 90s this momentum gradually slowed, complicated by a failed trust fund for student aid. Requests to three successive governments for a Charter amendment to grant BA and BSc degrees went unheeded, and Redeemer’s identity as a university remained unclear. While it was hard to see this as God’s providential leading, I would say to you today that Redeemer’s spiritual strength and academic excellence developed, in part, because of such skepticism and opposition.
Amid all this, the Lord’s hand brought expanded academic recognition in an amazing way that I was privileged to be part of. A positive government study on private universities led a new government to look favourably on Redeemer’s long sought-after Charter amendment. This suddenly gained momentum as an unexpected, high-placed contact of an Evangelical pastor arranged a successful meeting with the Minister of Colleges and Universities. And finally, the Council of Ontario Universities raised no objections, since a poll of its member presidents revealed they were very impressed by the academic performance of Redeemer graduates in their graduate programs. After 20 years of faithful work and prayer, skepticism and secular bias fell away! With the positive recommendation of a provincial assessment team, Redeemer’s Charter was amended by the Ontario Legislature in 1998 to include BA and BSc degrees. What a time of praise and thanksgiving!
Additional amendments followed in 2000 to add “University” to Redeemer’s name, and again in 2003, to approve the granting of the B.Ed degree, after its accreditation by the Ontario College of Teachers, making Redeemer the first faith-based institution to offer this degree. Together, these amendments to the original Charter validated and gave fuller expression to Redeemer’s mission of teaching, scholarship and service, and also ended the longstanding policy that universities in Ontario had to be secular.
Our Lord deserves all praise and thanksgiving for his faithfulness in bringing Redeemer to this threshold.
As in 1982, great joy blossomed into a time of blessing through the growth of enrolment, programs, faculty and facilities. But this began to change by 2012, as a demographic shift leading to a decline in enrolment at many universities also impacted Redeemer. Introducing a renewed core curriculum and more experiential learning under Dr. Krygsman’s oversight were important initiatives. Then in 2019 came a double blessing, opening the way forward during Dr. Graham’s watch. A generous donation to provide a substantial tuition reduction that began to spur enrolment growth was followed by the openness of a new government to Redeemer’s request for full university status, both in name and in range of degrees granted, including the potential for graduate degrees! In 2020, Ministerial consent for these provisions, embedded in another Charter amendment in June 2021, finally gave Redeemer University legal recognition similar to other Ontario universities, thus realizing the founders’ vision and providing a strong basis for Redeemer’s next phase of development and academic witness.
Our Lord deserves all praise and thanksgiving for his faithfulness in bringing Redeemer to this threshold. As we celebrate its 40th anniversary in this time of growth and momentum, may Redeemer’s campus and supporting communities, led by your new president, continue to be faithful stewards of Redeemer’s vision and mission, to the glory and honour of Christ.