President's Forum 2009

The Journeys We Share

Dr. James M. Harder
Sept. 15, 2009

Introduction
I appreciate the opportunity to talk to the Bluffton University community this morning in my annual President's Forum. This is only the third week of class of the 2009-10 academic year. Yet already much has transpired both inside and outside of the classroom. I would venture to guess that by now you feel settled in and ready for the routines of college life. I hope that your college journey includes an opportunity to discover new ideas, to consolidate familiar ones, to experience the embrace of your new community and to develop the skills and understandings that you will need when you graduate from Bluffton.
 
Spanning the Riley Creek, in the Bluffton University Nature Preserve on the northwest edge of campus, there is a swinging bridge.  The bridge is about 40 steps across and when the water below is at a normal level, the boards hang about 10 feet above the middle of the creek.  One really can t take the trip across the creek on the bridge casually because the bridge has just enough bounce and swing to cause the user to pay attention to each step along the way.  Regular visitors to the swinging bridge notice variation in the level and color of the water in Riley Creek, and enjoy the changing colors of the vegetation at various times of the day and as the seasons turn.  It's a very pleasant place to visit.
 
Fred Amstutz oversaw construction of the bridge about 40 years ago. And with a few repairs over the years, the bridge is as strong today as in its early years. Fred was a friend and long time member of our Bluffton community, who died two weeks ago.  
 
Fred's life journey involved a long relationship to Bluffton.  He worked for the school for 32 years, and ably and enthusiastically represented Bluffton through his work as director of Marbeck Center, in admissions, alumni affairs, church relations, and development. In 2000, the year he retired, Mr. Amstutz received Bluffton's Distinguished Service Award.  Two weeks ago at his funeral, friends and family celebrated the life that Fred led. Themes that wove through the shared stories were Fred's willingness to accept new invitations to serve, even when those invitations caused some temporary uncertainty, and Fred's skill at building relationships.   At his funeral, Don Schweingruber, our former vice president and dean of student life said, Fred was comfortable talking with anyone, at anytime, anywhere.
 
The life journey of Fred Amstutz, characterized by his commitment to his faith, family and friends, connects well with my exploration this morning of three different journeys that all of us share. 
 
The first is our individual life's journey and how it connects us with others along the way. The second is our journey together as the community of learners that comprises Bluffton University. And finally is our discovery guided by this year's civic engagement theme the journey of immigration. The migration of the world's people from one place to another is also our story our journey at some point in the past. But let's begin with our journey as individuals. 
 
The individual life's journey
At Bluffton we recognize the significance of the individual life's journey as it connects us with others along the way. We take life as both a gift and a responsibility to be good stewards of the years God grants us.
 
Each year at homecoming we celebrate the lives of four alumni and faculty/staff who have had life experiences that we want to celebrate. When I am out and about, I have the opportunity to visit with Bluffton alumni and regularly return to campus energized by learning about the significant contributions made in life by Bluffton's13,000 living alumni. Let me share with you a few of the life journeys that we will celebrate in October.
 
Herman Neff, class of 1949, will receive Bluffton's Lifetime Service Award. Following a successful business career as president of the Hostess Division and president of General Foods in Canada, in retirement he volunteered his business skills to Self-Help Crafts (later Ten Thousand Villages) Canada.  Self-Help/Ten Thousand Villages is a fair trade organization, and purchases handicraft products from artisans in the world's poorest countries and sells them to the North American market.  Herman Neff's significant work with that organization helped countless people around the world gain income and improve their own living conditions. The international fair trade products sold in the Ten Thousand Villages store on Main Street here in Bluffton are a tangible outcome of Mr. Neff's personal journey to serve others.
 
Dr. LaVerne Schirch, class of 1958, a retired professor of biochemistry, will receive Bluffton's Professional Achievement Award. His research as a professor at Bluffton and then the Medical College at Virginia Commonwealth University has focused on the function of vitamins B6 and folic acid and how they relate to health. He has been a leader in expanding medical knowledge in this area.
 
Tobias Buckell, class of 2000, will receive this year's Outstanding Young Alumnus Award for his achievements as a science-fiction writer. Already the author of a New York Times bestseller and recipient of several writing awards, his books use the science-fiction genre to explore significant cross-cultural, technological and ecological themes. All of Toby's novels are in the Bluffton library should you want to check one out.
 
And finally, the 2009 Faculty/Staff Service Award will go to Dr. Mary Ann Sullivan, professor emerita of English. During her 32 years in Bluffton's classrooms, she enriched her lectures with photographs of art and architecture she collected while traveling around the world, and today her large Digital Imaging Project available on Bluffton's Web site is a resource used by people around the world.
 
These accounts of individual life journeys provide wonderful examples of how Bluffton's alumni, faculty, staff and students contribute, each in their own ways, toward the welfare of the world. I remember an early part of my own life journey as an economics teacher in a boys secondary school in Garissa, Kenya, in East Africa. That experience helped shape my decision to attend graduate school and to study development economics with Denis Goulet, a renowned development ethicist.  My time as a volunteer teacher in Africa was an experience that contributed much to expanding my view of the world. I encourage you all to consider your own life journeys and to reflect on making decisions that will add meaning to your journey both for yourself, and for others.
 
Our journey together
The second journey I want to reflect on is our journey together as the community of students, alumni, faculty, staff and supporters that comprises Bluffton University. 
 
Everyone in this room today is part of this journey, part of the unique collection of individuals that is Bluffton University at this moment in time. Bluffton's journey has already been a long and rich one. I have no doubt that the 2009-10 academic year our 110th year will add a strong additional chapter to that legacy.
 
This fall, Bluffton has once again been recognized by the annual U.S. News and World Report rankings as among the top baccalaureate colleges and universities in the mid-west region of country. This year we ranked in the top 20 percent of schools in our region, reflecting the demonstrated quality and reputation of Bluffton's overall educational program.
 
Yet as we all know, Bluffton's ultimate success in meeting our mission must be judged by much more than just numbers and rankings. As we enter this new academic year, Bluffton faculty and staff continue their ongoing efforts to further strengthen and develop our students experience and to better prepare our students to address important needs in society. The theme of this year's faculty and staff retreat held just prior to the start of fall semester was Enhancing Bluffton's Culture of Learning, in support of that goal.
 
Here are just several examples of more specific faculty initiatives designed to enhance the educational experience of Bluffton students:
    • We think about academic programs that address the needs we see in the world around us. There is an urgent need for more science and mathematics teachers in our public schools.  And Bluffton has the resources, the expertise and the desire to contribute toward meeting this need.  Over the last number of months, conversations have taken place about how to increase the number of science education students at Bluffton. And the ongoing program development initiatives in mediation training and restorative justice are other examples of how Bluffton seeks to fulfill its commitment to address urgent societal needs.   
    • This fall the first Bluffton students have enrolled at the Washington Community Scholars Center, a new semester-long option for Bluffton students in our nation's capitol. The program provides an ideal setting for the study of social problems, faith issues and urban experiences.
    • Faculty continue to explore innovative vehicles for learning. This fall, Dr. Jeff Boehm from the music department, will be offering Bluffton's first on-line course using an open-source software package called Moodle.  This pilot course will be available to Bluffton adult degree completion program students to meet a fine arts requirement.
    • Enrollment in our new marketing and broadcasting and journalism majors is strong.  Broadcasting and journalism students will be involved in the broadcasting of more of our sports events this year, and marketing majors will benefit from Bluffton's reputation within the business community of northwest Ohio.  

Accreditation
Last spring our school hosted representatives from The Higher Learning Commission of the North Central Association of Colleges and Schools the group that accredits Bluffton University. This visit was a critical step in our journey for maintaining our accreditation that spanned the last two years of our intensive self-study and site visit process. I am very pleased to announce that just yesterday, some very good news about Bluffton was officially posted to the World Wide Web. The Higher Learning Commission took the final step of public notification that Bluffton has received the maximum ten-years of continuing institutional accreditation. This is a big achievement for Bluffton and represents a substantial and focused effort by many people. Congratulations to all of us, and thank you to all who have had a hand in this success! No follow-up reports or visits are required until our next scheduled comprehensive NCA evaluation in 2018-19. I like the sound of that!
 
For students, this means that your Bluffton credits and degrees will continue to be accepted and respected by other universities and as you apply to graduate schools this will be important for you. And when you receive your undergraduate diploma, your status as a graduate of Bluffton University will be recognized by future employers and other organizations with which you become involved.
 
At an organizational level, it means that Bluffton has participated in a careful and extensive review and evaluation process of our programs and operations with experienced educators and administrators from peer institutions. They found that that we are fulfilling our stated mission with integrity and that we are looking ahead and preparing for the future. They found that Bluffton shows sound evidence of student learning and effective teaching. They found that Bluffton creates an environment that fosters and supports inquiry, creativity, practice and social responsibility. And they found that Bluffton engages and serves its internal and external constituencies and community neighbors in ways that both value.
 
Last spring, at the exit interview with the site visit evaluation team, we received special affirmation for the ways in which Bluffton has worked together since March 2, 2007, to respond to the tragedy of the baseball team's bus accident. The evaluators acknowledged the profound and lasting impact that this experience has had upon our community, but also the ways in which we came together and responded. They urged us, as we have opportunity in the future, to extend Bluffton's outreach tradition by sharing with others what we have learned about responding to tragedy. The final report of the evaluation team suggests and I quote: that the university be alert to such situations as they may occur elsewhere, and offer its advice, consultations and services where they may be needed and welcomed.
 
One way that this is already being done is in the pages of a just-released college textbook on Disaster Recovery. Its author is Dr. Brenda Phillips, Bluffton class of 1980 and a professor in the fire and emergency management program at Oklahoma State University. She was also our commencement speaker in May 2008. She requested permission to include a short Bluffton case-study in her textbook on the importance of memorials in her words how they may promote healing by bringing people together, assuring those who survived that their loved ones will not be forgotten, and creating locations and times where collective remembering and gathering can take place. [1]
 
The textbook includes a brief description of Bluffton's experience with the tragedy. It describes the process that led to the creation of our Circle of Remembrance memorial with its centerpiece Touching Home bronze sculpture adjacent to Bluffton University Memorial Field, and includes photographs of both.
 
Dr. Phillips asked that this book be placed in the Bluffton library, which I will do. But I want to take this opportunity to read to you the author's handwritten words on the title page of the book. They say:  To students at Bluffton University May you and your families be safe from harm, always.  Signed, Brenda D. Phillips, Class of 1980.
 
At Bluffton, we want to continue to develop and support programs that are relevant to society's needs and that support our mission. During the coming year, we will engage in developing a framework for our next long-term planning cycle. This is also part of our journey together as a community of learners.

Global immigration
In the time I have left, I want to consider with you a third kind journey the journey of global immigration that in some way involves each of us. This year's civic engagement theme is Beyond Borders: The Role of Immigration in a Global Community.  The theme is illustrated by Enrique's Journey, the book that Bluffton first year and senior students, as well as many faculty and staff, have been reading.
 
Two weeks ago at the Opening Convocation, we were privileged to hear from Sonia Nazario, a Pulitzer-prize winning journalist and author of Enrique's Journey [2]. For those of you who haven t read it, the book tells the true story of a young boy from Tegucigalpa, Honduras, who sets out to find his mother in the United States. His mother had left him several years earlier in a desperate effort to earn money in the United States so that she could send enough home to provide food, shelter and basic educational opportunity for her children. This book and the presentation by Nazario encourage us to consider and to respond to the challenges faced by thousands of Central American children like Enrique.
 
In her conclusion, Sonia Nazario asked that we that we learn enough about important and urgent issues such as immigration to appreciate their complexity. She said that by their nature, they are difficult issues to resolve because they have many different economic and human dimensions to them. She said we need to be willing and able to deal with their shades of grey in seeking solutions that are both effective and humane in the long run.
 
One of those shades of grey issues for most of us in this room is the reality that at one time or another, our own ancestors were immigrants to the United States, often coming here out of their own sense of desperation. They and we as their descendants benefitted tremendously from the opportunity they found in America. For some of our fore bearers, that journey might have occurred ten or more generations ago. For others of us, it is our personal journey of coming to the United States that we think of when we consider our civic engagement theme.
 
This summer, my wife Karen and I travelled to the country of Paraguay, in the middle of South America, to attend an every-six-year gathering of global Anabaptists known as Mennonite World Conference. Representatives from around the world attended 5,800 people from 60 nations. It was a wonderful opportunity to meet people, hear what is happening in other country churches, and to worship together.
 
I read the first half of Enrique's Journey on much of the 11 hour flight to the conference, and finished it on the way home. So while in Paraguay, surrounded by fellow travelers who had come literally from six continents all over the world, my mind often returned to our civic engagement theme of Beyond Borders.
 
I recognized that the conference I was attending probably couldn t have been held right now in the United States. Why?  Because many attending from poor countries would not have qualified for U.S. entry visas even as tourists. Our country's policies would have concluded that even these global Christians coming to a church conference represented too high a risk.  It would have been assumed that they would try to remain in the United States and therefore many would have been refused entry visas. Even though it's easier than ever to get around in terms of transportation, for many people in the world borders are becoming harder than ever to cross.
 
Karen and I came face-to-face with the reality of global immigration in a somewhat personal way while we were in Paraguay. My paternal ancestors came to the United States in 1874 as part of a migration of German-speaking Mennonite communities from what today is the country of Ukraine in Eastern Europe. They migrated for reasons related both to maintaining religious freedom and because of the changing economic conditions they faced. Karen's ancestors, on both her father's and mother's side, also came from the same region of the Ukraine, but migrated two generations later, in 1923 and to Canada, instead of the United States.
 
In Paraguay, we visited a remote farming and ranching area of the country known as the Chaco. This is also a part of the world that received some Mennonite German-speaking immigrants from the Ukraine. But because they were among the last to try to leave the Ukraine waiting until the 1930s and 1940s as Stalin tightened his reign of terror in that part of the world they found the opportunities to go to the United States and Canada had by then closed. The emigrants sought a place where they could have religious freedom and where they would be freed from the requirement to take up arms in defense of the country.  One place in the world that was still eager at that time to accept immigrants was Paraguay, so they made the long voyage by ship, riverboat and by wagon to that remote country and quite literally began carving an existence as farmers out of the dense brush land.
 
So for Karen and me, our ancestors went beyond borders to start life anew in Canada, the United States, and Paraguay. These photographs from a memorial depicting immigrant lists to one village in the Chaco region of Paraguay even had Harder (my family name) and Klassen (her family name) next to each other on the same immigrant list. Given their origins in Europe, these were almost certainly distant relatives we didn t know we had in a very distant land. It created some interesting thoughts and emotions as I imagined the difficult journeys they had made.
 
Since many in the audience this morning consider Ohio to be home, I thought it would be appropriate given our civic engagement theme on global immigration to also reconstruct a bit of the state of Ohio's immigration history. Perhaps you already know some of it. (I should note here that I asked our reference librarians for a bit of help in finding sources something that you can do too, next time that you have a paper to write!) Consider that only about 10 generations ago, in 1790, Ohio was virtually barren of English-speaking residents. [3] This northwestern part of Ohio, including its great Black Swamp region, was sparsely-populated even by Native American Indians, although there were scattered settlements along the southwestern shores of Lake Erie the Wyandot, Miami, Shawnee and other groups. [4] Then, the flood of mostly-white immigration to Ohio began English speakers from the East Coast of the United States, but also immigrants from elsewhere speaking many other languages. By 1800 Ohio had a population of 45,000 and only 50 years later, in 1850, Ohio had become the third largest state by population in the Union, with nearly 2 million inhabitants. Among those numbers were many thousands of Germans, Irish, French, Welsh, Canadians, Scottish and Swiss. And many African Americans had by then already moved north seeking opportunity and freedom from life in the Southern states. [5]
 
By 1900 Cleveland had become Ohio's most ethnic city. In that year's federal census, 75 percent of Cleveland's residents were of immigrant descent, mostly from central, eastern and southern Europe. More than 40 languages could be commonly heard on the streets of Cleveland. Its steel mills and clothing firms employed large numbers of Italians, Hungarians, Poles, Czech Bohemians, Polish and Russian Jews, Slovenes, Greeks, Austrians and others. [6] Today's census data show immigrants and descendants from at least 145 countries of the world living in Ohio. [7]
 
 
Closer to home, here in Allen, Putnam and Hancock counties, the first settlements and local governments were not established until the 1820s. This part of Ohio, with its thick natural forests and swamp lands, was the last part of the state to be settled. 
 
Settlement in Bluffton began in 1833, the same year that the first Swiss-Mennonite immigrant family arrived in the region and staked out a farm just a few miles away. From that immigrant movement, just 66 years later in 1899, Central Mennonite College was founded, which in 1913 was became Bluffton College and is today's Bluffton University. So from our civic engagement theme perspective this year, we will do well to note that the heritage of this institution is itself rooted in an immigrant movement. 
 
My curiosity about Bluffton University's history caused me to read a bit about the migration story of that first Mennonite family that settled near Bluffton in 1833 which historians have determined was the family of Michael Neuenschwander. Bluffton's former college librarian and historian, Dr. Delbert Gratz, studied and became one of the foremost authorities on early Anabaptists in Switzerland and their migrations to various parts of the world, including Bluffton. 
 
Dr. Gratz book, Bernese Anabaptists, is among the many resources on this topic found in our historical library. Mennonites had lived in Switzerland for nearly 300 years since the group's origins during Europe's Protestant Reformation in the early 1500s. So why, then, on May 15, 1823, did Michael Neuenschwander decide to leave his village of Faverois, Switzerland, saying goodbye to many friends and relatives? Why did he pack up his family and start out on the long, risky journey to America?
 
It's true that the Mennonites religious beliefs sometimes brought them into opposition with government authorities over issues such as refusal to participate in military activities for reasons of biblical understanding and conscience. Yet in 1823, it was apparently the slowly deteriorating economic condition and prospects of life among poor farmers and villagers in Switzerland that compelled Neuenschwander to action. The infamous summer that didn t happen in 1816 was perhaps the last straw that set later events in motion. That year, bizarre cold weather hit much of the world. In Switzerland, it caused snow and freezing conditions during every month of the year, ruining the crops, and resulting in the worst famine in the history of Switzerland.[8] The following winter was brutally cold, and it took years for full recovery to occur.
 
Neuenschwander had heard of better conditions in America. His diary [9] records the 21 day trip overland with his pregnant wife and three children from their home in Switzerland, across France, and to the port city of LeHavre. There, during the seven days they waited for their ship to depart, their son Michael was born. The next day they set sail for the United States. After a voyage of 43 days, their ship arrived safely in New London, Connecticut. The following day they sailed again on a four day trip to Amboy, New Jersey. Then it was off cross-country, by foot and by wagon, from town to town. All four children were sick. When they reached Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, nearly two months later, their little son Peter died, and they buried him there. On October 4 of that year 142 days after leaving their home in Switzerland the Neuenschwander family reached Wayne County, Ohio, and joined other Mennonites who had already settled there. 
 
But after only nine years, he looked for better land further west in what today is today our Allen County, Ohio. On May 6, 1833, Michael Neuenschwander and his eldest son John bought two quarters of land near Bluffton, and later that same summer moved the family to their new homestead. There they lived in a hut of branches and leaves until they could clear the forest and organize enough help from distant neighbors to construct a log cabin. [10] Over time, more Swiss Mennonites arrived in the Bluffton and Pandora areas, with a first church building constructed in 1840. 
 
Less than three generations later, this immigrant group was a driving force behind the laying of the cornerstone for College Hall on this campus in 1899.

Conclusion
This morning I've referred to multiple journeys: Enrique's struggle to reach the United States on the tops of trains crossing Mexico; Karen's and my own ancestors migrations from the villages of the Ukraine to widely dispersed locations in the United States, Canada and Paraguay; settlers from all ethnicities and from all parts of the world to the Great State of Ohio; and the small group of Mennonites that came from Switzerland to Allan and Putnum counties in Ohio and helped found Bluffton University. Each story has its own motivations, and its own great moments of drama. Each group crossed many borders in search of opportunity and freedom of one type or another.
 
I've also referred to the other journeys we share as individuals navigating our way through life, and as members of Bluffton University's journey as a community of learners.
 
While I recognize that there is a range of student experience here this morning in Founders Hall, at the moment most of you are traditional 18-22 year old residential students. Your life journey has already brought you to Bluffton and has taken you away from home for an extended period of time perhaps for the first time. Your journey has put you in contact with classmates and teammates who you didn t know, from both near and far away. You have new friends whose worldview and experiences might be different from yours and likewise, they are enriched by what you bring to the relationship. In a similar way, your Bluffton journey probably will put you into contact with ideas and academic subjects that are very new for you as it should be to make your learning worthwhile. I expect that most of you have already met some Bluffton faculty members who have redefined the word teacher for you. How can anyone be so enthused and passionate and so well informed about a subject or an idea? Your journey as a Bluffton student will at some point take you on a cross-cultural experience that stretches your horizons even further. And then your Bluffton experience will end and your life journey will take you on to new things in new locations, and with new sets of challenges and opportunities.
 
Yet I am confident that by then you will be ready for the next steps in your life journey.  Bluffton will have given you what you need to move forward into a career, further education, a service assignment, or whatever you might choose. Yet equally important, I believe, you will leave Bluffton equipped with insights of particular importance to the 21st century world in which you will live and help lead. Insights about promoting peace and reconciliation in our increasingly diverse communities, our places of work, and across borders. Insights about caring for each other and for our shared natural environment.  Faith commitments that stand the test of time and root our deepest values. Because of these experiences at Bluffton, you will be in a strong position in your journeys ahead to help make the world a better place for all. It is our hope and trust that you will be motivated to do so.


[1] Brenda D. Phillips, Disaster Recovery, Boca Raton, FL: CRC Press, 2009, p. 322.
[2] Sonia Nazario, Enrique's Journey, New York: Random House, 2007. 
[3] Andrew R. L. Cayton, Ohio: The History of a People, Columbus: The Ohio State University Press, 2002, p. 15. 
[4] Cayton,p. 1. 
[5] Cayton, p. 15. 
[6] George W. Knepper, Ohio and Its People, Kent, OH: The Kent State University Press, 2003, p. 303. 
[7] David Garoogian (ed.), Profiles of Ohio, Millerton, NY: Grey House Publishing, 2006, pp. 423-66. 
[8] Delbert Gratz, Bernese Anabaptists, Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1953, p. 110. 
[9] Gratz, p. 139. 
[10] P.B. Amstutz, Historical Events of the Mennonite Settlement in Allen and Putnam Counties, Ohio, Bluffton, OH, 1925, pp. 39-40.