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Interview with Bob Kuhn, J.D. (Part One)


Author(s): Scott Douglas Jacobsen

Publication (Outlet/Website): In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal

Publication Date (yyyy/mm/dd): 2018/06/22


Bob Kuhn, J.D. is the President of Trinity Western University (TWU). He discusses: family background and influence on development; sect or tradition of Christianity in the household; the comfortable and uncomfortable parts of the conceptual superstructure of early life; position held in the student body; tasks and responsibilities as the president of TWU; the changes to TWU over time; concerns in the academic environment; and moving closer or farther away from academic ideals.

Keywords: Bob Kuhn, CEO, Christian, president, religion, Trinity Western University.

Interview with Bob Kuhn, J.D.: President, Trinity Western University (Part One)[1],[2],[3]

1. Scott Douglas Jacobsen: What was family background? How did this influence subsequent development in early life, childhood through adolescence?

Bob Kuhn: I grew up on an apple orchard in a farming area outside of Vernon, British Columbia. Typical farm kid, I worked on the farm. I worked on the neighbouring farms. Everything from picking apples to spraying.

I worked at all kinds of things, including haying. I grew up in a family that did not have a lot of money. We had a very simple, but, it was a kind of idyllic upbringing. Normal family, or what was then normal [Laughing], mother and father and four kids, I was the oldest.

My father’s family was a very large German family with 14 children. I had a lot of uncles. Some had a significant influence on my development as a young person. Initially, we lived on my grandparents’ farm, and my grandmother would take care of me during the day.

I remember her being a fairly typical German housewife. She worked hard, and was not particularly appreciated. She did not go to school. I wrote a poem about this: “My grandmother loved me.” Even though she never said, it was evident.

I grew up in a way that was wholesome. We would go to church every Sunday and work hard every weekday. Nobody drank to excess, nobody smoked, it was pretty clean living. I was the oldest of the grandchildren.  I was one of the oldest of the cousins, so I got better treatment in some respects. My grandfather would take me along with him into the apple orchard. He would save a spot for me amongst the apples.

He would save a spot for me to sit on his lap and drive. It was a very positive upbringing. No significant negative effects, and really, indirectly protected from some of the harsher realities of life. I had the typical childhood adventures.

But nothing extraordinary in a lot of ways. So, that really led me to a place of needing to investigate on my own, which was, fortunately for me I think, taking place at this institution (Trinity Western) in 1971-1972. It was very formative for me.

I was a bit of a hypocrite in terms of my faith at the time. I went to church, I had the head knowledge, but it was really a heart or a matter of the heart. It became a matter of the heart here with other students who had an impact on my thinking about faith questions I was asking at the time.

I look back at those first 20 years of life in Vernon or outside of Vernon as being not perfect, but idyllic, I cannot explain it much better. I was challenged, not so much by teachers but by my uncles. A couple of them were reasonably well-educated. Some of them were only a few years older than me.

One of my uncles taught me how to speak when I was three-years-old.  He was only a few years older than I was.

It was very different then; it was a great upbringing. My father is now dead. But my mother is still alive. We had a strong family. We had a good sense of community-mindedness. My father was a volunteer fireman and involved in leadership.

My mother was involved around the home. It was sort of an Ozzy and Harriet – I would not have known who that was – experience. I stretched and broke boundaries a bit. But I wouldn’t call what I did blatant rebellion.

2. Jacobsen: When it comes to the German-stoic upbringing out on an apple orchard in Vernon with a somewhat educated family challenging you, educating you with vocabulary and so on, I want to talk about the sect of Christianity, which was not mentioned.

What was the tradition of Christianity in the household or in the community?

Kuhn: We grew up in a Baptist church. I was first taken to church in an apple box. It was a simple and small church. So, it was a part of our every week life. My grandparents were German Baptist. We slowly faded away from German.

I grew up in the church going to Sunday school, learning all the Bible stories, sitting through church services somewhat begrudgingly, and then things evolved over time. At that point, I really had to test for myself the reality of the Gospel and say, “Does this work? Does this test out?”

For me, it made a lot of sense, even in the relatively naïve context in which I lived in until I left home. It was not a preachy environment. There was not a great show of faith on your sleeve. We were expected to live according to Christian values, to be giving and forgiving, not harshly judgmental.

It was probably more of a head knowledge. In some ways, I think churches back then inoculated some people against what they were teaching because it became acculturated. But it was not what you would say is heartfelt.

My faith was a more intellectual endeavour or pursuit, or framework, as a child. That is what it felt like. It was really only after leaving home that I came to a place of sometimes not entirely comfortable conclusion, but, at least, a framework or a worldview that I felt comfortable with. There was a lot of space in this worldview.

This is the division of Evangelical Christianity that I grew up in. I have really continued in that path without abandoning what I think about things, especially in this college or university environment where I faced a lot of hard questions, questions that define the why of living.

3. Jacobsen: From the conceptual framework or superstructure, what was comfortable or uncomfortable? I ask because you mentioned some comfortable aspects.

Kuhn: I think uncomfortable, to start with, which emanates from not knowing it all. I think there is a discomfort that comes from lack of control. The degree we can know it, control it, can understand it, can define it, can pin it on the wall, can draw it on a piece of paper. That is controllable, definable, understandable.

There is so much more than that. What I find almost laughable is that people purport to think they have got a corner on all that is and they speak as if they know that from some sort of factual basis.

Jacobsen: [Laughing].

Kuhn: If anyone looks at the stars at night, this is a pretty remarkable existence, “I wonder why this is. How did this come to be?” The standard existential questions, I find the discomfort comes from not knowing the standard questions.

At the same time, it is a very good place to be, because once you have all the answers to all the questions then you have superimposed yourself onto all of reality. You have defined a reality that is very ego-centric.

I think it is a shame when people do that. The need to have inquiry is important. Knowing the process as best you can on the way to asking, “Why?”

4. Jacobsen: In the 1970s, you held an important position in the student body. What was that position?

Kuhn: It was quite by accident.

Jacobsen: [Laughing].

Kuhn: I wasn’t disliked. I wasn’t bullied for the most part. I just didn’t have the panache or whatever. So, I came to Trinity. Trinity was a small environment back then, plus a few or minus a few hundred. So, you don’t hide in that smaller group very well.

I decided – I do not remember why – to take a run at being student body Vice President. It was only a 2-year school then. You did that run at the end of your first year. Nobody ran against me. So, I was acclaimed the Vice President.

Jacobsen: [Laughing].

Kuhn: 3 or 4 weeks after the academic year started, the dean of students came up to me and said that I would be taking over the president’s role because the president was not keeping their grades up. So, they were removed from the post and  I all of a sudden became the unelected, acclaimed president.

Jacobsen: [Laughing].

Kuhn: It is ironic because it parallels the story of starting here. I would have never guessed in a million years, that I would sit in the role of president of Trinity Western University. That would be laughable to me.

So, it reflects on the fact that I didn’t really intend to become the president. I was actually on the search committee for the replacement of my predecessor. We were out in the hall after the first meeting of the search committee.

We were talking about the need for a president, somebody to hold down the fort while we look for the new president. Someone said, “Why don’t you do it?” I said, “Are you kidding? They would never want a lawyer who has no experience in an academic environment, who has no experience in leading a fairly significant group of people.” I think we have 700 employees and several thousand students.

I just laughed. He said, “No, no, I am serious. You are thinking about slowing down in your practice. Maybe, this is something that you could do. It would only be a little while.” My wife and I prayed about it over the weekend.

I had received a call from one of the directors who said, “I would like to take your name on Monday to see, if you would be willing to do this.” My wife agreed, which was ironic because she is not an adventuresome person.

Jacobsen: [Laughing].

Kuhn: We felt this is a place we had really benefited from as young people. Giving a few months back, sitting in the chair until the real president shows up didn’t seem like a big ask, I thought I would be helping out, more of a figurehead than not.

So, here I am 6 years later, I am still here. It is ironic. I would never have guessed. Frankly, I have really enjoyed the role. I have enjoyed the students. It is because of them that I stay, I think. It is a long story. But I have told the student enough about this.

I tell them, “I played on the soccer team, but the soccer team only had 11 players. I had to play goalie because that was the only place left to play” [Laughing].

Jacobsen: [Laughing].

Kuhn: I was pretty mediocre.

5. Jacobsen: With an organization as large as a postsecondary institution, there are not that many institutions in the country, especially compared to the United States. There are something like 100 public and private combined universities in Canada.

Something like 2,600 universities in the United States, public-private combined. So, such an organization as Trinity Western University, a Christian university unique in its relative size and representation in the country.

That leads to questions about tasks and responsibilities because it is an important position that, as you noted, you more or less fell into. So, what are the tasks and responsibilities that come along with being the president of an academic institution?

Kuhn: I have come to describe it this way. I have had the same question from different perspectives, “What is it like? What do you do as a president?” I say, “It is a lot like being the mayor of a small town. You have endless responsibilities.” They are new every day. A large part is relational, not everybody sees it that way, I am not an authoritarian figure. You probably know around campus. If you ask, everyone calls me, “Bob.” I am not known as “President Kuhn,” “Mr. Kuhn,” or “Dr. Kuhn.”

I do not feel entitled to it, I am not a hierarchical person. I enjoy the relationships, the ability to journey together and be part of somebody else’s journey in life. To me, that is what it is like.

So, building an executive team, one that does the real work. It is trying to provide leadership skills to build that team and develop trust, and making sure that – as much as I can –  I support the whole community in whatever way that I can.

That is all the way from this Sunday, where I will go to the Can-Am hockey game. I will cheer on the students and hand out the cup at the end of the evening. Two weeks ago, I had an anything goes night.  We had a panel. Students pumped question at me. You can imagine the questions students would ask, which is anything under the Sun. It is an extremely varied situation. If you look at the job description, you think, “Nobody can do it.”

It is true. that you are ultimately responsible for everything. You can shout and holler, but you don’t get people any more motivated. It is almost impossible to define what the president of the university does.

Our university is unique in some ways compared to other universities. But in other ways, it is similar to other universities. You have the benefit of still being relational with students. That is my favourite part of the day. I probably do that more than most.

I enjoy it. It is really rewarding. It gives a clear picture of whether we’re doing the right things the right way. Maybe, I can be a positive influence in these transitional years of life. That is it in a nutshell.

6. Jacobsen: You jumped in an earlier response from Vice President to accidental President – the acclaimed president – work in the 70s as an undergraduate for the student body to the current work as the president of Trinity Western University.

When I reflect on that jump, I reflect on that leap in life experience because a decade is a long time. Especially as I get older, if a year is used well, it is a significant amount of time.

With that difference in time in different leadership positions at different points of the university, and different scales in terms of the responsibility and who are you responsible to and have to speak to at the end of the day, what do you notice in this transition of the university over several decades and in responsibility too?

Kuhn: I suspect there is more gravamen to the position such as it is: strategic decision-making priorities. When people ask, “What can I pray for you for?” I almost always say, “Determination of priorities.” Back then, it was simpler. Now, it is much more complex.

Back then, the consequences of messing up were minimal to none. Now, you make the wrong decision and you can end up in some very hot water, very quickly. In many ways, I feel like I am 18.

One of the parts that I really love is learning all the time. The constant demand to learn and be open to learning and to not be closed off to the means of experiencing, listening to other people.

I think that a lot of that was germinated out of my really early years. One of the values that I was taught was everybody is on a single plane. Everybody puts their pants on one leg at a time.

Everybody is, as a fundamental rule, a lot alike. There is no real need to be fearful of somebody elevated in status. There is no real need to look down on people supposedly down in status. That was training for a university setting.

There are hierarchies in a university setting. But if you break them down, they are real people underneath all the show. The university is almost unrecognizable to what it was before. There are a couple pictures on the wall. One recent aerial, one from the year 1970.

The difference is mammoth. The level of sophistication is huge. Back in 70/71/72, we had close relationships with the professors because we had to; you did not have a choice. Everybody knew everybody else. We would tell the story of someone coming to pick their babysitter.

They ask, “Do you know where Suzie Jones is?” You think, “Well, it is 4:00 o’clock. She is just getting out of psychology. She was wearing this today.” That is a small community.

Jacobsen: [Laughing] That is funny.

Kuhn: It is still relatively small, but it is about 10 times as big as then.

7. Jacobsen: When you look at the academic environment now, with transitions to more of the general perspective across the country of the academic environment or academia, what do you note as some of the positive trends? What do you notice as some concerns that are arising in the university system or the academic environment?

Kuhn: I struggle with the positive trend in the academic environment. It should, but nothing jumps to mind. I think that it is even difficult to say even what are the trends that one would track and say, “We are becoming more [fill in the blank],” that is positive.

I have trouble with the question. Honestly, I find it difficult. In many respects, we are deteriorating. I can see some natural forces: economics. Society has become, relatively speaking, fat and sassy, but we can’t afford to be fat and sassy anymore.

Jacobsen: [Laughing].

Kuhn: In that process, we become lazier in thinking, less civil, more emotional, more individual rights rather than community oriented. It is easier – as a relative outsider of academia – to see trends that I would find negative.

We are having a more diverse academic environment. That is a positive trend, depending on how you define diverse. We have a greater array of choices in environment. So, you are not so limited. I am not sure if that is always an advantage.

Some evidence seems to indicate the more choice we have then the more stress we are, so the less opportunity to choose in order to actualize those choices. Some people would say the 60s were a pretty tumultuous time.

But I think they do not hold a candle to the potential negative, think about how many people are in the university who suffer from depression. I may be blind and out of touch, but I do not think it was that weird in the 60s

Even though people might drop acid and drop out of the school. It is interesting to think of those who are in the upper levels of management and leadership and what values they cling to today.

Jacobsen: [Laughing] They are working at the bank.

Kuhn: I am perhaps a little bit skeptical of people who say that these are the advances. I am not sure that we have done ourselves much of a service there.

8. Jacobsen: What about the espoused values of the academic system? In some ideal world, people look for open inquiry, discussion, civil discourse, debate, and conversation around important topics in historical contexts, but also related to modern issues of concern to most of the population in a pluralistic, multiethnic, constitutional democracy such as Canada.

Have we moved closer to that ideal or farther from that ideal?

Kuhn: I am not sure. A few years ago, I would say that we are moving closer. Now, I think we are moving farther away. I think we are redefining pluralism. Society is redefining pluralism. What does pluralism mean? I find this a huge generalization.

As a society we tend to redefine what it wants to change. So, rather than the change in a choice manner, the change is in using the language a different way, so that we slip into the way of thinking. I am not sure that, in terms of values, some of the values, e.g. the value of family, are hard to define now.

You do not have the same nuclear family or traditional family. I am not suggesting that is a bad thing, but it is much more difficult to define. Are there merits to two-parent families? It is difficult to say that without getting yourself into a hoop full of trouble.

I find that in the academic environment. There is almost a bias or a predisposition to advocating for, as opposed to determining the science behind something. We are engaged in a fairly broad-based cultural experiment on many things.

The whole gender confusion if you will. I do not know what would be the best term because those terms are all interwoven. How will that all turn out? One of the things that we are losing ground on is the case of individual rights over communities.

Communities become tribes and tribes become tribal. There is very little communication between the tribes. It strikes me that those things are quite harmful to society in the end. I am not suggesting that it is an imbalance of community ruling over individual rights.

Because, at some level, individual rights are only protected by the community and the community is only as strong as the individuals in it. I think we are long past that. It shows in some obvious ways. The leaders that are prepared to take all of the junk that comes with leadership these days.

We talk about incivility. I would never want to run for public office because they would destroy me. I would take it too personally. Then we elevate some people who, perhaps, are our least favourite choice to positions of power because it is all that is left.

I think that is the way the people felt in the United States. What are we left with? What choice do we have? I think in some ways we are in the same kind of dilemma. That is not an accusation. Not all politicians are of questionable commitments.

Appendix I: Footnotes

[1President, Trinity Western University.

[2] Individual Publication Date: June 22, 2018 at; Full Issue Publication Date: September 1, 2018 at

[3] J.D. (1979), University of British Columbia (J.D. 1979); B.A. (1976), University of British Columbia; A.A. (1972), Trinity Western College.


In-Sight Publishing by Scott Douglas Jacobsen is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License. Based on a work at


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