2011 President's Forum

Presented by Dr. James M. Harder

Sept. 13, 2011 

Thank you for your presence this morning at the 2011 President's Forum. This is my annual opportunity to speak at the first regular Forum of the academic year to share with you some of the latest achievements and plans underway for Bluffton University, and to offer some personal perspectives on our joint enterprise as an active community of learners in the year ahead.
 
This is always an exciting time of year on a college campus. There is new energy and potential everywhere. Faculty have returned from summer renewal activities, and in some cases from sabbatical leaves. Those opportunities have taken them to interesting places, and provided time for more extensive reading and research activities that yield new insights for their teaching. Staff have used the summer to prepare and fine-tune the support services and co-curricular programming that they offer students throughout the year.
 
And students I know how precious the summer can be to regain equilibrium and recharge the batteries for another year of college and for many, to work at jobs that help make your education possible. Yet it's abundantly evident that when move-in day arrives in late August, there's no place you d rather be than with your friends and colleagues back on Bluffton's campus.
 
This fall we have welcomed into the Bluffton University community an enthusiastic incoming class of 282 new traditional first year and transfer students. Already you are making your mark here in many good ways, and I hope you are feeling at home.  Your presence, along with returning students, students enrolled in our adult and graduate programs, and students enrolled in our dual enrollment programs has helped increase Bluffton's total enrollment this fall to 1,229 students. And I am pleased to announce that this morning, U.S. News and World Report has once again included Bluffton among its listing of top tier colleges and universities in the Midwest, in recognition of our educational qualities and outcomes.
 

Recognizing Bluffton's achievements during the past year
breaking ground for the HFEC

 
As Bluffton's president, one of my responsibilities at this occasion is to share with you a collection of some of the university's achievements during the past year. Bluffton University is a vibrant community of learning, constantly striving to further its unique educational mission. My examples comprise an impressive list, and it's really your list the achievements of Bluffton's students, faculty, staff and friends.
 
I begin with perhaps the most visible achievement it's hard not to miss the large hole in the ground visible out of the north windows of the Commons in Marbeck Center at mealtime. The new Health and Fitness Education Center is a wonderful example of how we at Bluffton build on the past to benefit the future. Following six years of active campaign fundraising, and an even longer period of planning and design work, we gathered together on the morning of July 12 for a groundbreaking celebration. On that beautiful early morning, a few stakes in the ground, a recently-erected construction fence, and several large pieces of equipment from Don Snyder Excavating provided the only hints of the scale of the building to come. At the groundbreaking ceremony we recognized the many groups whose efforts have been involved in this undertaking our board of trustees and the Extending Our Reach Campaign committee, the architects, general contractor, bankers, the Village of Bluffton and many Bluffton staff members who have played key roles during the planning, design and financing stages of this project.
 
The HFEC will become the largest building on our campus. Bluffton has had significant moments like this before in our 112 year history. With each major building constructed, important elements of institutional transformation have been realized and this project will be no exception. In each case, the ultimate beneficiaries of investments in campus facilities are Bluffton students.
 
This long-planned and long-awaited Health and Fitness Education Center will be a 60,000 square foot complex. It will ease a critical shortage of space in our existing athletic facilities Founders Hall and Burcky Gym, which have served us well and which we will continue to fully use. The new building will also house space for the academic department of health, fitness and sport science and additional faculty and coaching staff offices. (Perhaps this would be a good moment to highlight the personal milestones reached by three of our coaches last year who each picked up their 100th win at Bluffton University: Steve Yarnell in volleyball, Heather Bruder in softball, and James Grandey in baseball. Congratulations to them!)
 
We are very grateful for the $14 million that has been raised or pledged to fund 100 percent of the design, construction and equipping costs of the new HFEC. It is part of the larger successful Extending Our Reach comprehensive campaign that has raised more than $30 million for Bluffton University. Bluffton's very generous alumni and friends, including our own faculty and staff members, have contributed so much of their own money in making this building possible because of a shared belief in the qualities of a Bluffton education.
 
During the coming weeks, you will see the building's substantial concrete footers be completed. Soon thereafter lower level cement and concrete block walls will begin to rise and the outlines of the building itself will become visible. Later in the fall, steel columns and beams will be erected. Sometime in late winter or early spring, work will begin on the building's exterior brick shell. One of the questions I most frequently get asked is when the HFEC will be opened for use. Our best estimate is that the construction process will take as much as 16 months from start to finish, putting the opening sometime during the middle of the fall semester next year, in 2012. Since construction will be continuing throughout the winter, the severity of any weather-related construction delays will have some impact on the exact date of opening.
 

Educating students for service to individuals and communities

 
Now to other achievements. In the area of academic programs, I received word in late April that the board of the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education known as NCATE has officially acted to extend the accreditation of Bluffton's education department for the maximum seven years. This accreditation decision indicates that Bluffton's teacher preparation programs meet rigorous national standards set forth by the professional education community. The NCATE examiners commended Bluffton's program for exceptional performance in five evaluation categories a very rare achievement during an evaluation. Congratulations to the faculty, staff and students of our teacher education program!
 
At Bluffton, we believe strongly in the purpose of educating students for service to individuals and communities. I d like to highlight three academic programs that focus on that goal. One of Bluffton's highly-regarded programs is social work education. During this past year, the department began an evening program designed to meet the needs of working adults. The one-night-a-week classes had good enrollments in the first year, with continued growth in the program this fall. Bluffton social work graduates make a significant impact in the field, with more than 400 working in Ohio and around the country.
 
After more than a year of planning and preparation, this fall Bluffton has enrolled the first students in our newest academic program a major in public health. This is an exciting and cutting edge program in a growth field and Bluffton is at the forefront of offering this program to undergraduates in Ohio. This interdisciplinary public health program is designed to prepare students for vocations of service, equipping them to understand and address health challenges in communities locally and around the world. It has three concentrations: pre-epidemiology, public health advocacy and public health education. The program is being directed by Dr. Ross Kauffman, who joined the Bluffton faculty this fall.
 
Finally, on the horizon is the possibility of another health-related professional program. Faculty in Bluffton's existing food and nutrition major and its dietetics concentration have been working to create at Bluffton the opportunity for students to be certified as professional dieticians. Faculty members Dr. Deb Myers and Dr. Kay Soltesz have completed Bluffton's program proposal and design documents, and we are awaiting a site visit by the Commission on Dietetics Education later this fall.
 
In the area of academic program development, Bluffton faculty and academic affairs staff have been working to offer many of our undergraduate programs to interested students in three years, rather than the customary four. This intensive pace is not for everyone, but will be a new option for qualified students who are focused on a faster-track into graduate school and other post-college activities. Currently 13 of Bluffton's majors can be completed in three years by a qualified incoming student, and more are being reviewed.
 
In today's rapidly changing economic, political and institutional environments, it is absolutely essential that we devote sufficient attention planning to for our future. Last year, the intensive efforts of more than 50 administrative staff, faculty members and students, together with the board of trustees, completed Bluffton's next five year strategic plan. This plan will help us create an institutional roadmap for the 2011-15 period. The President's Cabinet has selected five of the plan's goals for special attention during this academic year. Faculty and staff efforts will focus on enhancing the student learning environment, strengthening our connections with recent alumni, developing our athletic program strategy, updating our student employment processes and engaging in longer-term information technology planning for the campus.
 

Connecting our practices with Bluffton's values

 
If you get the impression from my comments that there is a lot going on here, you are correct. Our school is blessed with students, faculty, staff and other supporters who strive to create an institution where our practices reflect our stated mission and where our words match our practices. I am also very pleased with three recent initiatives that connect our practices with Bluffton's values. First is Bluffton's student discipline process. As Vice President and Dean of Students Dr. Eric Fulcomer is fond of saying, sometimes students make poor choices and need to visit with him about the consequences of those choices sometimes leading to disciplinary action. This year we will include the option of using restorative justice principles as one possible approach to deal with violations of our campus standards. A restorative justice approach within our campus judicial system at Bluffton is fitting. A number of our academic programs incorporate study of restorative justice righting a wrong by working to restore relationships between offenders and those their actions have impacted, rather than focusing primarily on punishment. I applaud members of our faculty and our student life staff and others for challenging us to examine how restorative justice can be put into practice at Bluffton.
 
A second area that has received attention is Bluffton's long-standing tradition of the Honor System, which has been a signature Bluffton practice and a hallmark of student life on campus for nearly a century since 1918. While the Honor System has broader implications, you probably know it best for the pledge that you write on tests and sign:  I am unaware of any aid having been given or received during this examination.  Members of last year's Student Senate affirmed the high purposes of Bluffton's Honor System which places responsibility of honesty and integrity on each member of the community. Yet based on their own experiences, they proposed to the faculty some modifications in the way the honor system is implemented. Some of the group's suggestions have been incorporated into a document which will be considered by the full faculty this fall. I join members of the faculty in commending our student leaders for seeking to strengthen this Bluffton tradition of personal honesty and integrity.
 
A third proposal that I have received is for the creation of a permanent outdoor prayer labyrinth somewhere on campus. The prayer labyrinth would be for use by interested campus community members and others as an aid to spiritual reflection and spiritual growth. A group of faculty, staff and students has been working on this effort. In their proposal they write, walking a prayer labyrinth is both a physical practice and a spiritual discipline. Prayer labyrinths provide a place for needed reflection and emotional healing, especially in times of distress and inner turmoil.  I am pleased to report this morning that we want to move ahead with this initiative once firm plans and funds are in place. We will utilize the energy and creativity of interested faculty, staff and students in the religion, art, peace and conflict studies and campus ministries areas to develop and help construct a specific design for a Bluffton prayer labyrinth, most likely located on the grass somewhere on the east side of the Little Riley Creek. With a relatively simple and low maintenance design of the labyrinth, we anticipate that necessary funding can be obtained from a variety of sources.
 

Strengthening environmental stewardship commitments

 
Finally this morning I want to describe two environmental stewardship efforts that will inform the way we use resources at Bluffton. Last year's Student Senate president Joel Wildermuth appointed a Sustainability Committee. The committee studied the American College & University Presidents Climate Commitment and produced a version of this aspirational plan adapted to our Bluffton campus. Last April, as the school year was concluding, I received a visit by members of the Sustainability Committee during which they presented me with their completed Bluffton University Sustainability Commitment document. In that meeting they said they hoped that Bluffton could adopt an environmental commitment that would bring benefits both now and in the future, that would help our community of students, faculty, staff and administration put our values and thoughts about the environment into action. The document preamble states, having a core value of respect, we need to be aware of our respect for the environment as well as other human beings and living creatures  Having community as a value, we feel that we need to care for our local and global community that includes being conscious of our environmental impact as an institution.  They wrote that As a Christian institution of the Mennonite tradition we feel called to care for the Earth. We remember that The Earth is the Lord's and all that is in it (Psalm 24:1).
 
It is a comprehensive document, seeking to identify practical steps that we can take (and in some cases already are doing) to reduce, reuse and recycle material items. The sustainability commitment speaks to understanding the importance of reducing our energy consumption. It speaks to understanding the importance of reducing water usage, and of using recycled products. It asks Bluffton to work at making the long-term transition to cleaner energy, including ensuring that all new campus construction is at least U.S. Green Building Council's LEED Silver standard or higher. It reflects on the opportunities and obligations we have as an educational community to prepare and challenge our students to be responsible global citizens, and to conduct research about environmental issues and new ways in which we can contribute to the conservation of the natural world.
 
The Student Senate Sustainability Committee has urged me to join them in signing the Bluffton University Sustainability Commitment. Today, I am announcing that I will do so, moving our existing campus commitment to environmental action to an even higher level. I want to thank our student leaders for their excellent work and for their challenge to become involved in environmental stewardship.
 
As they request, I will soon be inviting faculty and staff members to serve on a continuation committee charged with leading this sustainability effort. The committee's work will include completing inventories of various environmental impacts on campus in areas such as energy and water consumption, recycling, paper use, etc., so that we can measure our progress and identify areas in which to improve. It will make action plans and periodically submit progress reports from the Bluffton campus to an existing network of environmentally aware and concerned colleges and universities at the national level.
 
As we embrace this effort, we are aware that Bluffton has already taken significant environmentally helpful steps. Let me mention two of them. The Health and Fitness Education Center that is currently under construction is expected to achieve LEED Silver, and perhaps LEED Gold status upon completion consistent with the goals of our new sustainability commitment. Care is being taken to contain and minimize environmental disruption during construction. A significant proportion of the building's construction materials is being sourced locally and regionally minimizing need for longer distance transportation. Whenever possible, construction materials contain recycled content. Large, well-insulated windows will bring abundant natural daylight into the majority of the building, reducing the need for daytime lighting. Heating and cooling systems will be well zoned and highly energy efficient. Plumbing systems and fixtures are designed to conserve water. Parking lots and landscaping are designed to reduce solar heat absorption and reduce rainfall runoff. And a water retention pond will capture runoff from the roof and parking lots during heavy rains, releasing it slowly in subsequent days into the Little Riley Creek so as not to contribute to downstream flooding.
 
We completed a second environmentally friendly change over the summer at Bluffton probably one that most of you have already used (I hope!)  We replaced all of our residence hall washing machines with 31 new LG high efficiency commercial washers. Each machine will use 22 fewer gallons of water per load compared to our previous traditional top load models. I have been told that Bluffton's residential students do at least 33,000 loads of laundry per year, which translates into a savings of 726,000 gallons of water compared to last year. How much water is that? Well it actually works out into a nice visual aid example right here in Founders Hall. I am standing on our current NCAA competition basketball court, which Director of Athletics Phill Talavinia tells me is 90 feet long by 50 feet wide. 726,000 gallons of water, if it would be poured on top of this basketball court floor, would fill up the court to a depth of almost 21 feet 7 inches, which is just 5 inches below the ceiling rafters. That's a lot of water that won t need to be withdrawn from the Blanchard River in Ottawa, before it is treated and pumped almost 20 miles to Bluffton. It also represents 726,000 gallons of sewer water that won t need to be cleaned up before being discharged downstream into Riley Creek. And since about 35 percent of the water that will be saved would have been hot water, that's significantly less energy we will draw from the utilities that supply this region. As a community we are responding to the challenges described in the Sustainability Commitment. And I thank the student leaders who have worked diligently on this effort.
 
During the past year a volunteer Bluffton University Nature Preserve Committee has been meeting. Under the leadership of Willis Sommer, who retired a year ago from his position as Bluffton's vice president for fiscal affairs, the committee has been working to make physical improvements and to renew Bluffton's vision for the nature preserve. It is a wonderfully beautiful part of our campus largely the inspiration and personal gift of land from Bluffton's fifth president, Dr. Robert S. Kreider, who served first on the faculty and as academic dean before leading Bluffton as president from 1965-1972.
 
During the past year, members of the Nature Preserve Committee have been working to remove diseased ash trees, improve some of the trails, and restore trail access on one side of the eight acre lake in the center of the preserve. The committee has studied and brought proposals for needed improvements and repairs to the college cabin, the barn, and the swinging bridge. The committee also helped gather ideas and recommendations for future use of the Nature Preserve, attempting to balance the twin goals of natural preservation with greater use and access by members of our campus community. I want to take this opportunity to thank members of the Nature Preserve Committee for their work, and willingness to continue to serve the university in this way. I also want to thank the members of Bluffton's football team, who one Saturday last March, lent strong arms and backs to greatly assist with trail cleanup efforts.
 

Promoting public health through Bluffton's 2011-12 civic engagement theme

 
This morning I've been making multiple references of how the new Health and Fitness Education Center, curriculum developments, and environmental action, among other things, relate to my final topic of the morning some thoughts about Bluffton's 2011-12 year-long civic engagement theme. Bluffton's civic engagement theme tradition, now in its fifth year of shaping the first year seminar and special events throughout the year, has already become deeply rooted in our campus culture. It also supports a much older Bluffton institutional mission of preparing students of all backgrounds for life as well as vocation, for responsible citizenship, for service to all peoples and ultimately for the purposes of God's universal kingdom.
 
This year's theme is Public Health: Promoting Wellness for Self and Community.  It is a very timely topic, one with implications at the personal, local, regional, national and international levels. To be sure, our Opening Convocation speaker, Deogratias Niyizonkiza from Burundi shared some particularly powerful impressions on public health conditions in his home country in Africa, along with his remarkable efforts to address them. Those of us who heard him here two weeks ago were truly blessed and inspired.
 
Promoting wellness for ourselves and for our community and for our world is a most worthwhile goal, and indeed should be a very high calling for all of us. I was struck by Deo's candid observation that in many cases in rural Burundi, the primary impediment to healing and wellness is finding the resources to obtain an adequate diet. While for some Americans indeed for too many Americans poverty limits adequate food intake, for many others our lifestyle choices get in the way of greater wellness.
 
An illuminating article by Joshua Shenk appeared a couple of years ago in The Atlantic magazine[1] It reported on a remarkable study at Harvard University that has been running for more than 70 years. That effort has tracked wellness and psychological happiness of a large group of Harvard male students who were sophomores in 1937. On a regular basis since then, the study's subjects have submitted to regular medical exams, taken psychological tests, returned questionnaires and sat for interviews. By now many have died, although some subjects now in their 90s remain part of the study.
 
The research has revealed much, I think, about some basic foundations for wellness and happiness in the United States that perhaps parallel Deo's simple observation about the basic impediment to wellness in Burundi. Over time, the Harvard researchers have concluded that seven factors predict healthy aging in America, both physically and psychologically. These include one's personal strategies for adapting to trouble, education, stable marriage, not smoking, not abusing alcohol, exercising, and maintaining a healthy weight. To a large extent, it appears the recipe for personal wellness is not complicated, but to many people it is elusive.  Perhaps I should explain the first factor adapting to trouble a bit more. It's not about how much trouble life happens to bring our way that seems to matter, but how we respond to that trouble. As the author writes, How we respond to a mother's death or a broken shoelace can spell our redemption or our ruin.  The healthiest adaptations include altruism, humor, looking ahead and planning for future discomfort or finding outlets for feelings, like putting aggression into sport. Less helpful, the study finds, is dealing with trouble by intellectualization, suppressing feelings, or repressing information by pretending it doesn t exist. Warm connections with relatives and friends are necessary good sibling relationships seem especially powerful.
 
As a university founded on the importance of the religious experience, we already attest to the role of spirituality and personal faith commitments in health and happiness. This is validated in the latest release of findings from a large survey of 35,000 adults in the United States. The Pew Forum's U.S. Religious Landscape Survey shows that people who attend worship services at least once a week report higher levels of satisfaction with their personal lives compared with those who attend religious services less often. Those who are affiliated with a religious tradition are also somewhat more satisfied with their lives than those who are not.
 
The social sciences also have much to say about wellness, particularly as defined in broader terms. Sociologists, economists, political scientists and others study ways in which the forces that shape our experiences our economic policies and systems, and our political and social institutions impact our health and sense of well-being. It is becoming clear that, as in much of the world, inequality between the haves and have nots in America is becoming a bigger and bigger problem.
 
We live in a world that is being rapidly transformed by the twin forces of information technology and liberalized world trade. As Chrystia Freeland, the global editor at large for the Reuters News Agency observed earlier this year,[2] productivity gains from those forces are huge, and massive amounts of new wealth are being created. But within nations, including the United States, the fruits of this global transformation have been shared unevenly.  In fact, she writes, the vast majority of U.S. workers, however devoted and skilled at their jobs, have missed out on the windfalls of this winner-take-most economy.  The result is a jaw-dropping surge in U.S. income inequality.  During the boom years before the economy fell apart, 65 percent of all income growth in the United States went to the top one percent of the population. Recent evidence indicates that the trend is resuming once again.
 
Yet it has become almost fashionable in some quarters to dismiss any attempt at serious discussion of income inequality. It is my belief that our educational mission requires attention to the issue of rising inequality. Evidence of the serious negative impact of growing inequality is visible everywhere we turn both in our own country and globally. Bill Gates, founder of Microsoft Corporation, and still among the richest men in the world, recognized this same truth in his remarkable 2007 commencement speech at Harvard University.  (H)umanity's greatest advances are not in its discoveries, he said, but in how those discoveries are applied to reduce inequity. Whether through democracy, strong public education, quality health care or broad economic opportunity reducing inequity is the highest human achievement.  
 
I urge this Bluffton community of learners to think critically and to think broadly, to think personally and to think globally, about this year's civic engagement theme of Public Health: Promoting Wellness for Self and Community.  We live in a great country, but we still have a lot of work to do. We are blessed with many things in our local communities and on this campus, but there are still many things that together we can do better.
 
This past Sunday, on the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 tragedy that struck America, it occurred to me that many of the students in this room have grown up and come of age almost entirely in the post 9/11 era. The only America you really know is the America that has been on a high-stress journey for the past decade of reacting to a single, unimaginable and horrible terror attack that claimed 2,983 innocent lives on Sept. 11, 2001.
 
Sadly, it has not been a decade of good public health broadly defined in America. That one act and our political choices of how to respond to it have changed the way we live, arguably much more than necessary. We have become a society that is much more fearful and less trusting of others, particularly of people who aren t just like us. We have become obsessed by security concerns and we spend far too many of our scarce public resources looking for potential terrorists everywhere, in spite of the knowledge that highway deaths or workplace accidents, for example, have a much, much greater chance of touching innocent members our families. Spending so very much on security concerns is now taking a toll on other things we need for health and wellness, including education and access to other basic social services and public goods such as parks and public recreational opportunities. A recent estimate of the total cost of our nation's wars against terror in Iraq and Afghanistan, to date and including future costs of caring for so many wounded veterans, is approaching $4 trillion dollars a big reason why we are about to endure painful cutbacks in other important government responsibilities and public services.
 
As a thoughtful series of articles on the meaning of the Sept. 11 attacks in the Chronicle of Higher Education noted recently, our nation has been conditioned to fear in unhealthy ways. Sheldon Solomon, a professor of psychology at Skidmore College wrote that Sept. 11, 2001, was, literally and figuratively, a deadly day that skewed our conception of death and life. For almost a decade, we have vacillated between vengeful agitation, preoccupied with killing our enemies (real and imagined) to restore faith in our culture. [3] Alex Gourevitch, a research associate in politics at Brown University, writes of the great seduction of fear which many have given in to: "It allows us to do nothing. It is easier to find new threats than new possibilities. [4] It misplaces our energies in trying to defeat terrorism, he argues, rather than to look at the other causes of our social, economic and political anxieties that are currently the real factors sapping the health of America.
 
I hope that these kinds of questions, too, become part of our campus discourse during the coming year as we study our civic obligations related to promoting wellness for self and community. I firmly believe that Bluffton has a particular role to play and a particularly important perspective to bring on these topics whether at the interpersonal or at broader levels. By virtue of Bluffton's mission and our historic peace church values, we are called to be radical in the same ways that Christ was radical, putting our best energies into building real public health through faithful living based on life-giving and community-nurturing activities activities built on values of trust, hope, and love of others even of the stranger.
 
Thank you for your attention this morning. Bluffton is truly a special place a community of learners where exceptional things happen on a daily basis. I m excited by what lies ahead during the coming year the school year 2011-12.


[1] Joshua Wolf Shenk, What Makes Us Happy?  The Atlantic, June 2009 (Vol. 303, No. 5), pp. 36-53.
[2] Chrystia Freeland, The Rise of the New Global Elite.  The Atlantic, January/February 2011 (Vol. 307, No. 1), pp. 44-55.
[3] Sheldon Solomon, Death.  The Chronicle of Higher Education, August 12, 2011, p. B4.
[4] Alex Gourevitch, Fear.  The Chronicle of Higher Education, August 12, 2011, p. B6.