Opening Up the World of Higher Education: The Asterisk Legacy of Dr. Justin Cooper

A 40th Anniversary Celebration of Christian Liberal Arts Education at Redeemer University, in Canada and Beyond

Dr. Justin Cooper is the chair of our Global Scholars Canada board, and will be stepping down after 9 years of service next spring. This December marks the 40th anniversary of his work with an association which brought a charter to Ontario that granted legal space for a Christian university to emerge; and incidentally, this year 2020 Redeemer was given legal right to call itself a university. This narrative is derived from an interview with Dr. Cooper and is intended to honour Dr. Cooper’s pivotal role in helping make that dream a reality. His vision for Christian institution building and leadership development has blessed numerous academic networks and thousands of students across the globe.

A significantly shortened version of this biography appeared in Christian Courier here. This long version is for those interested in the details, where they say God more fully abides… 😀

“My world just opened up. In fact, it exploded.” These are the words of Dr. Justin Cooper, a preacher’s son who arrived as an 18-year-old at Trinity Christian College in 1968. He had a cultivated a heartfelt but developing faith in Jesus Christ, was inspired by the church and its faithful people, and had a sense that there were secularizing forces afoot that challenged this way of life. But at Trinity, and through professor Calvin Seerveld in particular, he saw in a fresh way that “this is my Father’s world”—and thus he ought to love that world, too. “They showed me,” says Cooper, “Christ’s kingdom is as big as the universe and society, and gave me some tools to engage those who think otherwise.”

Cooper saw that the Lord connects and cares for all reality, and thus he is also Author of what Evan Runner called the “encyclopedia of the disciplines.” Cooper dove into the arena of philosophy, spurred on by this more expansive faith perspective, and eventually landed in part-time studies at the Institute for Christian Studies in Toronto, mentored in the nexus of faith and political science by Bernard Zylstra. ICS was enthusiastically engaging the counter-culture of the day, and by 1974 Cooper was itching to establish his vocation and form of service. Dr. Zylstra blessed him to go across the street to the University of Toronto for his Masters and Ph.D., which he completed in 1985 in international relations.

Cooper did more than graduate work in those ten years. He married his Canadian sweetheart, Jessie Ellens, had two sons, worked part-time, and was recruited for an ambitious new association in 1976 that would set his vocation for life. The association was called the Ontario Christian College Association (OCCA), a group of immigrants from The Netherlands who had seen how vibrant Christian universities create cultural leaders dedicated to God’s shalom. Cooper was asked—even though an American immigrant—to be this association’s graduate student representative. The mandate was a startling one: to propose a government charter for the development of a private Christian university in Ontario (a precedent that would open the way for others).

Its been 40 years since that small gutsy group successfully won a charter for a Christian university in Ontario, and it is that anniversary that inspires this article today. Its been a long and challenging road, given government ignorance, resistance and at times hostility, and the additional hurdle of raising money without the assistance of the public purse. But there were also many allies along the way, moments of remarkable grace, and breakthroughs for which thousands of Canadians are now deeply grateful. Cooper has been fervent in servant leadership for this project, and his legacy shows how one’s imagination grows for God’s kingdom when one is humbly open to the Spirit’s leading into hitherto unknown territories. It’s a story of opening up, of an asterisk (*), and a passion for a thriving civil society.

Opening Up Ontario

The reader needs to understand just how alien this group of immigrants seemed to the cultural elite in Ontario at that time. Government officials knew institutions like Bible colleges and seminaries existed for their sectarian communities, but for them, a university was a public and secular institution, and a bachelors degree was free of any religious commitments. They seemed to forget that the origins of the university lay in the Christian passion for learning in the monastery, and seemed unaware that countries like the United States, Holland and dozens more are still dotted by long-standing Christian universities. A quick look at all the older universities in Canada reveals they all had Christian roots—something visible in their original mottos. For example: “Wisdom and knowledge shall the stability of thy times” (Isaiah 33:6) is the original motto of Queens University. (See more here).

This would be viewed as old history, the vestiges of Christendom, but not a viable part of Canada’s mosaic. You see, secularization theory was in its heyday—the notion that as societies urbanized, modernized, and became more materialistic, scientific and electronically dependent, they would naturally also become less religious. This was before the full postmodern turn, and professors still assumed that teaching and research could be objective and thus neutral, untainted by any subjective values, including religious beliefs. That would all change soon, as the charismatic movement would ignite, the many faces of transnational Islam would explode on the scene, and confidence in science and technology would erode in the face of climate change. Strangely, the commitment to multicultural policy of 1971 at the federal level, while officially including religion, imagined more the food, festivals and fashions of non-Christian faiths.

So the Ministry of Colleges and Universities’ officials that met with representatives of this pioneering association assumed this odd group were some sect looking to establish another denominationally-based Bible college. But they accepted as a final name “Redeemer Reformed Christian College” (confessional terminology which encompasses at least 9 denominations!) and the mandate included the phrase (which Cooper remembers hammering out on his old Smith-Corona typewriter the night before the meeting) “studies in philosophical and theological foundations, which may include studies in the arts, humanities, natural and social sciences, pure and applied.” In December 1980 the charter was granted, and although the foundations for a Christian university were written in a subordinate clause, they were there!

1980 with (l. to r.) Conservative MPP (unknown), Bert Bakker, Cabinet Minister Robert Welch, Rev. Henry DeBolster, Dick Kranendonk, Justin Cooper and another Conservative MPP (unknown).

Key to this whole endeavour was persuasive communication. Cooper knew Dooyeweerdian philosophy and Kuyperian worldview that gave a solid framework from which to understand the relation of the Bible to learning and the faith-filled pedagogy that inspires educational institutions from kindergarten to graduate school. But his experience at the University of Toronto schooled him in speaking a language that Ontario’s cultural elite could understand.

“This happened often in my career,” says Cooper. “People start to realize that something is going on that they don’t understand. Then they want to listen and find out. And that’s what I did countless times—try to reframe the language so they can understand.”

A Christian University: Called and Equipped

So charter in hand, the OCCA team dived into the project of opening a Christian university with the name “College” and with permission to grant “Bachelor of Christian Studies” (B.C.S) and “Bachelor of Christian Education” (B.C.Ed.) degrees. From there, progress accelerated quickly. They rented an old public school on Beach Boulevard in Hamilton, and for their first year in fall 1982, hoping for 50 students, they had 100 young people enroll. Within four years they went from a one-year program to a four-year program, an unprecedented growth rate. By 1990 the education program (focused on training Christian school teachers) was up and running with some help from Calvin College.

Cooper was the younger member of OCCA, but he proved himself to be an especially valuable member of the team. Rev. Henry DeBolster was the leader, and he brought gravitas to their business, but he believed in Cooper and mentored him through the years to come because Cooper took care of all the details, and understood the inner workings of the political process. A number of times in DeBolster’s memoir Stepping Forward in Faith (2001) he names Cooper as his “academic right hand.” “Leadership is built on being faithful in little things,” explains Cooper. “I’m wary of those ambitious to lead. An inner call needs confirmation by the body of Christ.”

The Body called. In 1985, Dr. Al Wolters wrote a recommendation for Cooper for the position of academic dean at Redeemer that gives insight into the character that had grown through the early years and would carry through decades to come. “Justin can be described as committed, intelligent, hard-working and conscientious… a man of great personal integrity, an administrator with a keen sense of procedural propriety, and someone who combines firmly held principles with what I would call a charisma for strategic compromise… [he has a] strength and depth of purpose in following our Lord Jesus Christ, both personally and academically.” He added that Cooper was particularly gifted in the call to provide principled “insight into the possibility of the reformation of scholarship.”

Cooper was made academic dean of OCCA and led in hiring the first Redeemer faculty in 1981. Although political science wasn’t originally going to be part of the first curriculum, the first Redeemer board made Cooper the final Ph.D. hire in an initial faculty of eight men, covering ten core disciplines, under the first President, Rev. Henry DeBolster. Later, in 1986, the same year they moved to a new campus in Ancaster, Cooper was made Academic VP, and then in 1994, President of the college.

But that’s getting ahead of the story. To secure their recognition, they still needed recognition from the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada (AUCC), the gatekeepers of what is recognized as a legitimate institution of higher education in this country. They sent a visiting committee to Redeemer in 1984 to assess the situation, and although they arrived “skeptical, or even hostile, assuming Redeemer to be a joke,” after interacting with faculty and students, they left surprised, impressed, and willing to welcome Redeemer as a provisional member to its fellowship. Most importantly, they gave their institutional blessing that opened doors for Redeemer graduates to be admitted directly into grad school: “the courses leading to the Bachelor of Christian Studies degree are the equivalent of courses leading to a B.A.” These words were both gift and currency, and proved to be a significant endorsement for Redeemer’s future.

Education with an Asterisk*

It was not, however, right to discriminate on the basis of the Christian perspective Redeemer brought to the bachelor’s degree. One of Cooper’s first goals as President was to remove an asterisk. This refers to the marking on the membership list of the AUCC, where all “faith-based” universities were given an asterisk, singling them out as academies that required their faculties sign a faith statement. That all institutions have faith commitments—religious or secular in orientation—was not something secular academics understood about themselves or their institutions. This kind of institutional sequestering had been causing Cooper’s hands to clench with zeal already in 1978 when inquiries with the provincial government began: “The honour of Christ will not stand for this,” he would remind himself. This two-tiered system was unjust.

Those first years were a crucible for Cooper, whose inauguration as President was founded on the divine promise “Whom I call, I will equip.” Enrolment dipped, there was a personnel crisis, and to top it all off, a financial misstatement and soon a payroll shortfall. Cooper was desperate for help, and assistance soon came in part from encouraging peers and a generous gift from a faithful donor. By God’s grace, it also came in the form of a Ph.D. dissertation from Dr. Doug Auld at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE). His research showed the efficacy of having private universities as a model, a way to expand the mosaic of educational institutions in Ontario. The Conservative provincial government at the time formed a committee, which came to the conclusion that under carefully specified conditions it could be possible to have a non-funded private university—Muslim, Jewish, Sikh, or just elite and private in its orientation.

And so, after much work to demonstrate that Redeemer had the educational excellence and financial stability to qualify as such a private university, in 1998, the charter was amended to allow schools like Redeemer to grant B.A. and B.Sc. degrees like other universities. In 2000, Redeemer was permitted to add the word “university” to its name, and in 2003, the Ontario College of Teachers endorsed Redeemer as a candidate for the right to grant the B.Ed. degree. The vision for a truly Christian university was finally being realized, and already, the asterisk on the AUCC membership list had faded away.

Cooper with Ontario Minister of Colleges & Universities David Johnson and Board Chair Ben Harsevoort (r), presenting the 1998 Charter amendment enabling Redeemer to grant university degrees (BA & BSc)
2000 Cooper with Minister Brad Clark for the name change to “Redeemer University College”
2003 with MPP Cam Jackson of Burlington for the BEd degree (with Education Dept Chair John Vriend (l) and VP Academic Jacob Ellens on right)

Cooper insists that entering a negotiating room with a strident—or even litigious attitude focused on self-interested rights and government obligations—is often strategically weak and ultimately counter-productive. “You have to be world savvy,” explained Cooper. “You don’t come with cap in hand, with an adversarial attitude or with idiosyncratic jargon.” Cooper learned from former Redeemer VP Bill VanStaalduinen (who spent decades working for the federal government) to take the posture of one who has come to help the government solve problems. In the process, show those in power that there is something workable here, something even advantageous to the government. It also happens to be just and right—not just for Christians, but for those of any faith tradition that see the value of higher education for their community—and hopefully, in service of the common good.

In the spring of 2020, the government granted ministerial consent for Redeemer to re-name itself “Redeemer University.” Forty years, and the project is complete.

Driven, And Willing to Turn

Such winsomeness was his preferred strategy, but Cooper was never passive, and not always gentle. “You know how when a dog on a leash darts after a squirrel and the dog owner goes horizontal?” he asked me. “Well, that was our posture in pursuit of Christian higher education in Ontario.” Over the years, Cooper’s persistence has won him many battles, even if it did not make everyone his friend. He has worked to reconcile with those he clashed with, and some of those gestures have led to genuine restoration. But this is certainly a short list.

At a chapel one morning President Cooper confessed to students his passion for the cause could lead to a drive to control the unfolding of God’s plans. He compared the spiritual life to being in a car and asked where Christ sat—whether like a spare tire for emergencies, a back seat driver, or a helpful navigator. Cooper admitted his default position was steering, gripping the wheel with clenched hands. But he had learned, over time, to let Christ be in the driver’s seat. He took to prayer kneeling, with open hands, as a symbol of his need to let go, and receive. When in the middle of the day he would notice his hands clenched, he would open them again, inviting Christ to steer.

“Justin had high standards, and he held both others and himself to them,” said Doreen Van de Ban, one of Cooper’s former administrative assistants from 2000-2004. “He was always fair, and never threw his weight around.” She recalls how he liked to start Monday mornings in prayer with his staff. “He really believed in God’s leading, and he was passionate for Christian higher education” Mrs. VandeBaan explained. “He connected well with the politicians, yet he had time for students and even some disgruntled parents. He had an open door policy.” She concluded her reflections, saying, “I really enjoyed working for him. He is one of the best employers I’ve had.”

Cooper did much more in his tenure as President before stepping down in 2010. He led the effort to bring enrolment up to over 950 students, and of particular consequence, helped faculty develop the confessional basis of the university, which culminated in the publication The Cross and Our Calling in 2002. He canvassed for the capital to expand the dorms, add classrooms and restructure the library, and build a soccer dome, this last of which had 80 percent of costs were covered by donors outside the faithful Redeemer constituency. “Expanding architecture is a ‘concrete expression’ of the institution’s momentum,” said Cooper with a smile. “Some even called me ‘Bricks and Mortar Cooper’—but I still think its one strategic way to get people excited for the mission.”

I am an institution builder,” says Cooper, reflecting on his calling. “I had a sense of strategy—politically and institutionally—to realize that unless there is legal space, legal foundations, you don’t have a lasting basis for your mission.” Faith-based universities are one example of what Peter Berger called “mediating institutions”—community associations that take the middle ground between isolated individuals and the giant bureaucratic institutions of the state and market. Cooper’s life was intentionally dedicated to helping create a social fabric that gave faith-full shape and meaning to modern life.

One writer for Cooper’s alumni magazine at Trinity College described Cooper as “an apostle for Christian higher education.” This is true, but in the broad expanse of his career, a better phrase may be “apostle for Christian faith in higher education”—to include his involvement in public university ministry. Most fully, he has been an apostle for mediating institutions that give people shelter and equip them for service, or what people now call civil society. Churches, not-for-profits, independent schools, community associations, and senior homes—the fabric of community life where everybody knows your name.

Opening Up to the Majority World

Cooper’s scope of institutional leadership stretched beyond Ontario. In Cooper’s final years as President, he was also working outside Redeemer to strengthen the vision for Christian higher education in North America. He was the part-time Executive Director of the Association of Reformed Colleges and Universities (ARCU), served on the board of the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities (CCCU), and Association for Biblical Higher Education (ABHE).

Of singular importance was his leadership on a roundtable sponsored by the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada in 1998. It was intended to give guidance to Christian colleges, especially those seeking to transition from being Bible colleges to becoming liberal arts universities. But it grew to be more representative of Christian institutions of higher education in Canada and in 2005 it coalesced to become CHEC, Christian Higher Education in Canada. A few months before leaving his post at Redeemer in 2010, Cooper became its Executive Director, and his attention turned to national issues.

As hinted above, Cooper’s vision for the Christian faith did not end at the walls of Christian universities. Two of his own degrees—and the graduate degrees of his two sons—were forged in public universities (he also received an honorary Doctorate from McMaster University). Over time, Cooper’s passion for Christian leadership development led him to see that in Canada, public universities—and their campus ministries in particular—most certainly cultivate the largest number of Christian leaders in Canada. So while Bible schools and Christian liberal arts universities are dedicated to developing a new generation of Christian leaders, they do so in concert with Christian professors and campus ministry leaders on public university campuses.

Cooper reflects on two other things he learned later in his career. The first was the need to apply classroom learnings—and turn faculty research—toward community service. Whether it’s called internships, experiential learning, an “incarnational” curriculum or applied liberal arts, it is what seminaries and Bible Colleges have been doing for centuries and what makes for a truly holistic Christian education. “It connects worldview with real-world relevance,” Cooper explains. This vision is something Cooper admits to being slow to embrace, but he is now certainly an advocate. “I had an ‘aha’ moment: integrating placements and coursework. It’s the motherload.”

Cooper as chair of the Global Scholars Canada board, November 2018.

Additionally, Cooper confesses to being discouraged about the decline of church attendance and Christian commitments in Canada. The statistics are certainly humbling, and can lead to despair in the preservation of civilization itself, if unchecked. The academic world, too, seems lost and fragmented in the West. But when Cooper joined the board of Global Scholars Canada, he suddenly woke up to the passion for Christ’s kingdom around the world, and especially in the Majority World Church. His exposure to the International Fellowship of Evangelical Students (IFES), his board membership with the Langham Trust, and a pivotal trip to Korea, further reinforced this awakening beyond the white, wealthy, and West. Cooper tells of a Global Scholars conference in Kansas where he was filled with fresh wonder. “People from a range of ethnicities and races, working in all disciplines, faithfully teaching and inviting students to Bible study and cookies in their homes. Such amazing stories!” Cooper’s trust and hope for God’s kingdom—and for Christians in higher education—was warmly revived and renewed.

This brought together four aspects of Christian higher education in one illustration: theology, worldview, pedagogy, and spiritual formation. It’s a quadrilateral Cooper learned from a colleague at John Brown University, but here it was in vivid colour. “This has given me a fresh new enthusiasm for what God is doing in the world,” exclaimed Cooper. “I got rid of my North American tunnel vision and realized that I’m a minority voice, and that as excited as I am I better be quiet and ask, what is God up to in these times? It’s time for the West to take a back seat and let others lead.” Cooper is a qualified academic and has been a champion of the Christian worldview. But he is also inspired by the transnational movements of the Spirit, and he has on-going connections within the charismatic network, including its signs and wonders. His involvement with Global Scholars Canada shows that Reformed, evangelical, and charismatic commitments can flourish together in a vision for Christian leadership in the academy and global, civil society.

Cooper looks hopefully forward, for leaders with a refreshed vision, to carry the best of this inheritance to a new generation in the post-Christian West and beyond. On a gloomy day, Cooper may fear the worst of cancel culture and the legal space for Christian institutions constricting again. But on his better days, he will quote Joel Carpenter, an expert in World Christianity, and smile hopefully about the future: “the next Abraham Kuyper will probably come from Africa, and she may not be male.”

Back in the sixties Cooper’s world opened up in a fresh way when he learned about Christian worldview—and how the whole world belongs to God. Back then, that meant every academic field and every cultural arena was ripe for Christian vocation, and specifically for Cooper, the discipline of the politics of international relations. Now, decades later, having crisscrossed the globe a little, the world has opened up once again for Cooper. This time, it means his imagination has expanded to see the vibrant life of God’s church across continents and traditions—a network of Spirit-led international relations that equips and sends aspiring Christian leaders to serve wherever God may call them.

A Heart Living Deeply into Christ

This year 2020 marks 40 years since OCCA was granted a charter for Christian higher education in Ontario. It also marks Cooper’s 70th birthday, and so it’s a good time to reflect, give thanks, and acknowledge God’s faithfulness over the decades. Cooper was only one player of many leaders—and thousands of supporters and students—who believed this was something that would enrich life, culture, and the church in Canada. He was a key player, however, and a steadfast leader, whose vision and drive was sufficiently single-minded and yet also ecumenical enough to inspire a variety of Christian leaders, persuade government officials and academic association stakeholders, and lead faculty members and students in faithful learning, teaching and researching.

Justin was never elitist in his relations. Said one former employee of Redeemer: “Justin often ate lunch in the cafeteria, joining with whoever was present (including maintenance and kitchen staff). I have never observed another university president who did that. As an American, I think he fit well in the Canadian context, getting more involved in civic life as time progressed.”

Cooper has tried to model for his students a life deeply engaged in the welfare of the city—and fostering the mosaic of civil society. For example, Cooper was inducted into Hamilton’s Gallery of Distinction in 2009, a way of recognizing his contribution to the region. He had served on the Chamber of Commerce, the Job’s Prosperity Coalition, the Hamilton team bidding for the 2010 Commonwealth Games, and the Hamilton Community Foundation. He spent his career promoting faith-based education, and his life has been a testimony of faith-based institutional leadership. You might say, he has been educating and leading with an asterisk—to build a civil society of prosperity and shalom for all.

One might say the asterisk was a central theme through Cooper’s career. Its a symbol, literally meaning (from the Latin) “little star,” that points to Cooper’s own Morning Star. In other words, the asterisk signals a commitment to the centrality of Christ—not just as a worldview, but as a vocational centre, a personal encounter and humble dependence marked by persistent prayer. Building on the pattern started by Rev. DeBolster, Cooper knew the importance of starting faculty interviews with the question: “What is your personal relationship to Jesus Christ and how do you strengthen it?” And the second question: “How do you reflect that faith in what you teach?” Cooper’s former faculty member Craig Bartholomew says in The Contours of the Kuyperian Tradition, the Biblical call is at its core to live deeply into Christ and his kingdom. Similarly, as ICS graduate James K. A. Smith’s books describe discipleship as “a liturgy for life” grounded in this anthropological starting point: a heart bent in devotion to God in Jesus Christ. Abraham Kuyper’s own words were simplest: Near Unto God.

Justin and Jessie Cooper will be moving this fall to their retirement home. Incidentally, their new street name is “Csilla” which in Hungarian means “little star.”

Cooper’s legacy is a pioneer’s trail of significant institution building that made way for Christian scholarship and the launching of thousands of leaders intent on God’s kingdom and the common good in Canada and now around the world. In Global Scholars Canada our mission is “enabling Christian scholars’ vocation to have a global reach”—something Cooper has demonstrated in his own way. It’s a vision of life lived before the face of God (coram deo), full of wonder for the beauty of creation, lament and accountability for its broken state, and a fervent hope that seeks the redemption and flourishing of all things, the reality that Christ holds together, the whole “encyclopedia of the disciplines.”

PS. A similar biography of Redeemer’s Dr. Al Wolters, the author of Creation Regained, will follow in a few weeks! Stay tuned.


3 thoughts on “Opening Up the World of Higher Education: The Asterisk Legacy of Dr. Justin Cooper

  1. Thank you, Peter, for this well-deserved tribute to Justin Cooper. Justin’s influence in both public and Christian higher education has been enormous – quiet, faithful, and profound.

    Like

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