Q&A with Provost Robin Rylaarsdam

Provost Robin Rylaarsdam, Ph.D., brings more than 20 years of higher education leadership experience to Bethel. She’s helping advance a well-rounded experience that helps students develop through strong academics, relationships and personal care, a vibrant community, and a place where students can pursue their passions and live their lives with purpose.

By Jason Schoonover ’09, content specialist

April 06, 2022 | Noon

Provost Robin Rylaarsdam

Provost Robin Rylaarsdam

Robin Rylaarsdam, Ph.D., began her role as Bethel provost in March 2021. She brings a proven track record of academic development, student success, and meaningful faith-learning integration. She came to Bethel with more than 20 years of experience as a professor and administrator, along with a passion for blending her faith and her background in the sciences. Get to know her better in this Q&A.

Tell us a little about your background.

I grew up in rural Iowa and graduated from Northwestern College in Iowa with a degree in biology. I then earned a Ph.D. in molecular biology and genetics at Northwestern University in Chicago. Early in my career, I worked in basic-science pharmacology and rational drug design. I’m a big nerd. I later transitioned to a professor and administrator role, working at a handful of Christian colleges before accepting a position as dean of the College of Arts & Sciences at Saint Xavier University in Chicago, Illinois. My husband, Doug, and I had lived in Chicago since 1992 with a one-year “vacation” working at Azusa Pacific in California. We have one son, Todd, 17, who will be going to college in the fall.
Provost Robin Rylaarsdam

Provost Robin Rylaarsdam

You were drawn to Bethel in part because of your transformative experience attending a Christian liberal arts school. How did your own experience shape you and your faith? How does that drive your work today at Bethel?

My time at Northwestern College gave me the permission and space to ask questions that don’t come with easy answers—particularly for me questions around faith and science, but also questions about what I was called to do with my life and how to live as a faithful Christian.

No matter what program a student chooses at Bethel, from an associate of arts to the Doctor of Ministry, I know that they will pair an outstanding academic experience, one that stretches and challenges them in many ways, with new encounters with Jesus through the people who work here and through their classmates. The hard questions are different questions for different students, but we walk with each of them in honest exploration of God’s call on us and our responsibility to be effective in answering the call.

You’ve been at Bethel for a little over a year. What have you learned about Bethel in that time?

I’m still struck by the deep and impactful prayer life of this place, both of individuals and us as a community. It’s been wonderful to learn about the broad range of excellent programs we offer, and to hear the specifics of faculty scholarship, from subatomic particles to biblical scholarship to studio art—and more. I have also learned that broomball is a serious sport.

What work are you most proud of from your first year?

It’s kind of countercultural here to talk about something I’m proud of doing! How about this: we ended last year by cheering for the COVID team, and we gathered as a whole community to start the academic year with worship and a message from President Ross Allen. I’m glad that we’re adding to the rich traditions here with some communal gatherings that reflect and celebrate the work we are all called to.

You grew up in a Christian home and went on to study and teach in the sciences. For you, why was it so important to integrate your faith into your learning? Why is it so important for Bethel to integrate faith into the sciences and all our areas of study?

I grew up at a time when the denomination I belonged to was having major arguments over the role of women in the church as well as cosmology, geological time, etc. The denominational college was taking a lot of heat for educating rather than providing the one right answer. And the Christian responses to both the role of women and the way to read God’s common revelation in the natural world really depended on principles of how to interpret scripture. In a time of open, heated, and frankly sometimes ugly arguments within the churches, I wanted to find a way to explore these issues in a quieter, more respectful way. I somehow felt that God’s truth could be learned, and that respectful listening would get us farther than heated debates and clever arguments. So I took a more contemplative approach myself—lots of reading, more one-on-one conversations with professors. Some of this sounds so familiar to the world and the churches we live in today. All truth is God’s truth, and at the same time discovering and discerning the truth is not always easy—we do best by living in the irenic tradition that has been Bethel’s past and keeping communion with our sisters and brothers in Christ, even if we are holding to different positions on a topic. What we know we share—the grace of Jesus extended to all of us when we were yet sinners—is far greater than the different endpoints reached as each of us finite humans wrestles with hard questions.

Robin Rylaarsdam is the next provost of Bethel University.

In her free time, Rylaarsdam enjoys playing piano, cheering on the Chicago Cubs, and spending time outdoors with her husband, Doug, son, Todd, and Siberian husky, Colby.

To you, what stands about the academic experience for students at Bethel?

I have the Wizard of Oz on my mind this week—my sister just sent me a picture of her daughters who are part of their high school production. So Bethel’s academic experience gives you everything that quartet was searching for: a brain (really strong academics), but also heart (relationships and caring), courage (to find your passions and live your life with purpose), and a home (community, and we certainly also hope an eternal home with Jesus). There are places that provide one or some of these, but we try very hard to make it all of them. All four of these come within the classroom and academic experiences. We are blessed to collaborate and cooperate with so many other parts of campus for this holistic work, but in the relationships in class with fellow students and faculty and in relationships with academic support, all of these parts develop.

Higher education has been in the news a lot—from the pandemic to changing demographics. What is unique and valuable about a Bethel education?

I think we often don’t tell folks what great outcomes our students have after they leave Bethel. Here’s a great example. Georgetown U's Center on Education and the Workforce released data last month on the earnings impact of 4,500 postsecondary institutions—from schools as diverse as Harvard and the Staunton School of Cosmetology. Randy Bergen, Ph.D., associate provost for our graduate and adult programs, explored how Bethel aligned with selected Council for Christian Colleges & Universities (CCCU) schools at 10, 15, 20, and 40 years after graduation. Bethel ranked first in this group at 10 and 15 years in terms of turning the tuition into earnings potential, and in the top three for 20 and 40 years. This places us with (or ahead!) of schools like Seattle Pacific, Westmont, and Wheaton for the monetary value of an undergraduate degree.

But it really seems inadequate to just put a dollar amount on a Bethel education, whether undergraduate or graduate. The priceless part comes from the relationships formed and the lifelong lessons of faith, hope, and love that happen in this journey.

What advice would you have for students and parents considering Bethel? What do they need to know about a Bethel education?

You are a valued person, gifted in a unique way to serve this world, your community, your family. We will walk with you in exploring those gifts, developing them, and honoring your calling in helping you launch into the next adventure of your life. We see you, and we will serve you.

At Bethel University, we're called to more.

We believe God is calling us to accomplish incredible things. In our Christ-centered community, we prepare whole leaders who own their faith, step into the world with boldness and confidence, and act with integrity as they answer God’s call to do and be more. With top-ranked academics, engaged faculty, and experiential learning opportunities, we’ll equip you to make a kingdom impact—for God’s glory and your neighbors’ good. 

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