President's Forum 2013

I'm pleased to see all of you here this morning at the 2013 President's Forum. I always look forward to this event, which is the first regular Forum of the academic year. It is my opportunity this morning to speak of Bluffton, and to connect our past with our present and our future. It is also my opportunity to make connections—between what we do in and out of the classroom, this year's civic engagement theme, and our mission.

Classes for our traditional student programs have been underway now for a bit more than two weeks. If I think back to move-in weekend and the rush of orientation activities, it already seems like a long time ago to me! I hope they have been very full and enjoyable days, and that the rhythm of classes and your other commitments feel good to you. This strikes me as a year of high energy at Bluffton—as evidenced by what I see going on in the classrooms, studios, rehearsal halls, labs, club activity and church involvement fairs, Chapel and intercollegiate athletics.

Already this year I have enjoyed watching the Beavers in action in men's and women's soccer, a home cross country meet in the Bluffton Nature Preserve, the volleyball tournament we hosted—including the first ever volleyball match played by the Beavers in the new Sommer Center—and of course this past weekend's opening football game on the road near Columbus (where I believe I saw nearly as many Bluffton fans as those who were cheering for our opponent—what wonderful support for the team.) Our community of Bluffton University students, faculty and staff is a very rich and vibrant environment for discovery, learning and personal development in the fullest sense of those terms.

This fall we have welcomed into the Bluffton University community an enthusiastic incoming class of 284 new full-time traditional first year and transfer students. That number is nine more than last year's incoming group. We are also pleased that our total enrollment of full-time traditional undergraduate students has increased and that our number of residential students is up. Our adult program and graduate student numbers have declined somewhat this year, as has also occurred at many surrounding institutions.

We also welcome new faculty and staff. These include new faculty members in our food and nutrition, Spanish, social work, music and education programs, and six new staff members in a variety of areas.

Highlights and initiatives

It's customary at occasions such as this for a university president to offer descriptions of institutional highlights and initiatives—and I will honor that tradition briefly this morning at the outset of my remarks. What's new at Bluffton University, and in particular, what's new for students? Here's at least part of that list.

• We continue to learn and experience all the different ways we can use and benefit from the wonderful new Sommer Center for Health and Fitness Education, which only opened 10 months ago. As an example, I notice that yoga classes are being offered in the Reichenbach Room this fall.

• Now we are asking the question "What big and smaller projects are next for Bluffton University?" The Board of Trustees and administration is in the middle of a facilities master planning process that will conclude within the next few months. Thank you to all who have provided very helpful input into this ongoing process.

• During the past 12 months, the Bluffton University web site has received some significant enhancements—its fifth remake since Bluffton.edu made its debut in 1999. One major change you have probably already noticed is that our web site is now smart phone and tablet friendly.

• There was construction activity in several places on campus this summer. A new service counter and seating area are the most visible parts of a much-needed renovation of the Business Office. This renovation was made possible by a gift from the children of Carl M. Lehman, who served Bluffton for 29 years, from 1946-75, as business manager and as vice president for business affairs. Other projects included the summer renovation of the community room in the Hirschy Annex residence hall—I hope you don't miss the old wall carpet! And thanks to Student Senate funding from last spring, you are now enjoying two new sand volleyball courts, complete with nighttime lighting. Finally, newcomers and visitors to campus are benefitting from four new outdoor campus map displays installed at key places around campus. We thank the Class of 1963 whose 50th reunion gift last May Day funded this project.

• To support all of Bluffton's academic programs, Musselman Library recently introduced its WINDOWs web portal, a powerful new customized library website search tool which has the capability of returning the names of books, journal articles, e-books, films, music and more—all in the same search. It has already received praise from external experts for its non-complicated design and ease of use.

• Finally, during the coming year, Bluffton's faculty members have chosen to focus much of their out-of-class committee and meeting time in a shared project that is being called "retooling." This is an important undertaking that is designed to ensure that Bluffton remains at the forefront of student learning and student engagement in a higher education environment of ever-changing learning technologies and student preparation and needs.

Two special years at Bluffton—100 and 50 years ago

Moving now into the heart of my remarks this morning. By way of introducing them, I want you to consider the number 100 and the number 50. They relate closely to the rest of my address this morning. I must confess that this stylistic device is not original. I'm borrowing it from one of my leisure time activities this past summer...watching episodes of the former television series "Numbers" many evenings on Netflix. You might recall that series which stopped airing about three years ago. In it, a genius mathematics professor at the fictitious California Institute of Science helps his FBI agent brother solve crimes by applying a range of mathematical tools to the evidence. In fact, I suppose that I should admit that at times my wife Karen and I joined a good portion of America in the current Netflix fad of "binge watching" one episode after another of a TV series, because one tends to get hooked on knowing what happens next and because today's technology allows it. We did manage to make it through all 118 episodes of "Numbers" —over the summer, I assure you, and not in a single sitting! It's probably best not to be too proud of such a feat.

Well each episode began by displaying four numbers of interest for the viewer to consider. I'm only going to do half of that this morning. I want you to consider two numbers...100 and 50. Both numbers relate to what happened here at Bluffton one century and one-half a century ago, and how that is still important today and into our future.

100 years ago: The remarkable transformations of 1913-14

The academic year 1913-14, exactly one hundred years ago, was a very significant year of transformation in the life of this institution. It was really quite a remarkable year for Bluffton, and decisions made then continue to help shape and define us today. On the screen is a photograph of the official seal of Bluffton University. When you graduate from Bluffton, this seal will appear on your diploma and on your official course transcript. Two elements of this seal actually date back 114 years. They are the year of this institution's founding—1899—and the outlined image of the bell tower of our first building, College Hall. Construction of College Hall began in 1899, in what was then a 10 acre cow pasture just west of the town of Bluffton, and was completed and welcomed the first class of students in the fall of 1900.

But this morning I want to talk about the two elements on our university's seal that were adopted exactly 100 years ago. It is an important centennial year for Bluffton in that regard. It was during the 1913-14 school year that the name Bluffton College was added to the seal, replacing our short-lived original name of Central Mennonite College in a change designed to reflect the more inclusive characteristics of the institution. And second, that same year our cherished motto, "The Truth Makes Free," was adopted, and incorporated within the seal.

It was an exciting year of transformation for the college—marked by what Bluffton history professor Perry Bush termed "a series of breathtaking developments" in his highly readable narrative account of Bluffton's first 100 years, Dancing with the Kobzar. (And I highly commend this book to you if you want to read many fascinating vignettes about Bluffton and our students during those years.) Before 1913, for its first fourteen years of existence, the students who enrolled here took primarily high school academy or junior college-level courses. After 1913, Bluffton College passed the 200 student enrollment mark for the first time, and the senior class that fall contained eight candidates for the B.A. degree the following spring. Soon Bluffton wrapped up its academy phase, and achieved its aspiration of becoming a four-year baccalaureate institution with the continued growth and development of its programs and facilities.

These were exciting times, and times of change—and not just at Bluffton College. Woodrow Wilson, 28th president of the United States, had just taken office in the spring of 1913 and was steering the country into a new era of progressivism with a broadly-based reform movement. Espousing high ideals amidst his soaring rhetoric, President Wilson brought to the White House credentials including his service as a former president of Princeton University. His administration placed a high value on comprehensive education for everyone as a foundation for a well-functioning democracy. They took on a reform agenda to curb the abuses of unconstrained corporate capitalism and political corruption. They busted trusts, brought increased regulation to the banking system, established child labor laws and other labor safeguards, and championed women's right to vote. But Wilson also had one significant blind spot that I must mention, a blind spot that is connected to this year's civic engagement theme. According to his biographers, President Wilson was "deeply racist in his thoughts and politics, and was apparently comfortable being so." He even moved to segregate federal workers. Yet at the same time he was a Presbyterian of deep religious faith who believed in an ethic of service to others and championed forums for international cooperation rather than nationalistic militarism, for which he was later awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

Very much resonating with this national mood of progressivism in 1913 were the leaders of Bluffton College. Dr. Samuel K. Mosiman was in his fourth year as Bluffton's second president. That same year he was joined in College Hall administrative circles by Noah Byers, who had himself left the presidency of Goshen College in Indiana to serve as Bluffton's academic dean under President Mosiman. Byers wanted to be a part of this newly energized group of what he termed united progressive Mennonites, who wanted to more fully engage the world. Dean Byers brought with him to Bluffton several outstanding young faculty members from Goshen College who went on to extraordinarily productive careers here, among them Mennonite historian Dr. C. Henry Smith, whose reputation ranged far beyond Mennonite circles—and incidentally, who later founded the bank in Bluffton that today is called Citizens National Bank.

These early 1900s academic leaders at Bluffton were innovative and creative, if not a bit headstrong. They had embraced the academic tools they had learned at places like the University of Chicago—including empiricism, a learning philosophy which places strong emphasis on what can be observed by our senses, and which led to such discoveries as the theory of evolution along with new approaches in the social sciences. These Bluffton faculty members and administrators had been exposed to mainstream intellectual and cultural life of their day and found it good, observes Professor Bush. They were among the new cohort of leaders who took it as their life's mission "to expose their Mennonite people to these fine fruits as well," he notes. They wanted to share that excitement and insight of the learning process more widely within the church. As you might imagine, there were pockets of hesitation, if not at times resistance to new ways of thinking and acculturation. Particularly among Bluffton's more conservative constituencies, Bush observes, "the local church tended to distrust the high-flown ideals of the college."

Adopting Bluffton's motto: "The Truth Makes Free"

In this context, the Board and leaders of Bluffton College at a meeting in August 1913 adopted the motto, "The Truth Makes Free" for the newly renamed school. It was a short motto of only four words. But it was one that no doubt was chosen to send a strong and clear message to all who would see it—in reality, a double message about the commitments and intentions of the school. Over the years it has remained a cherished and most appropriate descriptor of the deepest purposes of Bluffton University.

In its most direct interpretation, "The Truth Makes Free" motto identifies Bluffton as an institution fully committed to its strong Christian underpinnings. The motto is taken from the Bible, and abbreviates two verses from the Gospel of John, chapter 8, verses 31 and 32: "Then Jesus said...'If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free." So our motto, "The Truth Makes Free," refers to the truth as revealed through the life and ministry of Jesus Christ. It reflects the conviction of Bluffton's leaders 100 years ago that if we really want to know what God intends for us, there is no better place to look in the Bible than at what Jesus Christ himself actually taught and did while he was on Earth.

Not too many years ago, a popular slogan posed the question "What Would Jesus Do?" In some ways, that slogan points in the same direction as Bluffton's motto. It implies that what Jesus was trying to teach us was not just rhetoric or nice sounding words—he really wanted people to put into practice his radical ideas which challenged the ways of the world when he was alive, and which still do today.

The example of Christ is why at Bluffton, we place a strong focus on working in peaceful, non-violent ways to create a world of justice for all. The example of Christ is why at Bluffton we do our best to love and respect our neighbors and be generous with them—even our neighbors near and far who might be very different from ourselves. The example of Christ is why at Bluffton we seek to follow truths that can pull us out of our comfort zone. We can't avoid the difficult fact that Jesus called his followers to create an upside-down kingdom in this world—a community where people who are most in need get priority help. A kingdom where, in Jesus' teaching, the last will be first, the weak and marginalized are helped to stand tall, and where fair and just economic systems are the bottom-line values.

So these are among the truths that offer freedom from the destructive ways of the world, and they motivated Bluffton's motto already back in 1913, "The Truth Makes Free."

But, in reading Bluffton's history, it is apparent that our early leaders likely intended a second and parallel meaning for this motto. In these same four words from Christ's teaching, they saw support for the virtuous pursuit of knowledge, or truth, in its own right. We are called to be faithful people, but we are also responsible for the development of our own God-given minds in good ways. We are called to lives of both faith and reason.

In 1913, Bluffton's leaders were products of what in those days was a fairly rarified world of higher education that had taught them expansive and creative ways of thinking and problem-solving. They wanted to share those enlightened perspectives with others, and particularly with the members of their churches who might have been suspicious of too much education.

One hundred years ago, a reading of our history shows that Bluffton's leaders wanted this university to challenge narrow ways of thinking and old habits of thought, and to more fully engage society. To them, that meant creating on this campus a vibrant academic climate where any and all ideas could be discussed and evaluated. They believed that faith—and human reason grounded in faith—need not be in contradiction with each other. They believed in the power of knowledge to free people from fears that are often unfounded—"The Truth Makes Free."

One hundred years ago as the school year began in the fall of 1913, the new academic dean of the newly renamed Bluffton College addressed the assembled students and faculty. "With open and willing minds we will search for truth wherever it may be found," Noah Byers proclaimed. "We want not mere walking encyclopedias or bookworms but men and women ready to take their place in the work of a needy world, ready to serve the church and society by doing some useful work."

New buildings, the Honor System and collegiate ideals

Before I leave the number 100 behind and move on to the number 50, I want to briefly mention some of the other remarkable events of the pivotal 1913-14 year in Bluffton's history. At that point in time, the campus consisted of one building, College Hall, in which all activities of the college happened. Imagine that! Students lived in rented facilities, and a cow pasture provided the only outlet for athletic endeavors.

That would soon change. In the fall of that year, now 100 years ago, the young college took its first big steps forward by engaging in intensive fundraising for badly-needed additional facilities. Soon after, ground was broken for Bluffton's second and third permanent buildings, and both were ready for use the following school year at a total cost of $100,000. At that price, I kind of wish they had built some more facilities while they were at it!

The original portion of stately Ropp Hall, a women's dormitory, was finished first. Its classic white columned front porch design looked out over the Little Riley creek and the first students moved in after it was dedicated in December 1914. It was a quality building that was meant to last, and we still use it today following two later expansions.

In Bluffton's very early years, science classes were taught in the lower level of College Hall, where the Business Office is today. More space was needed and the same building boom also met that need, and also provided space for additional classrooms. Bluffton's first science building was opened in 1915 just beside where Centennial Hall now stands. Today, that four-story brick building still stands, although a former majestic walkway leading up to a grand front stairway and entrance are no more and the building is only lightly used following the relocation of most science instruction in 1978 to the newly built Shoker Science Center.

Today we know Bluffton's first science building as Berky Hall. It was renamed in honor of a much-loved faculty member, H.W. Berky, who taught for 45 years following his arrival to teach chemistry that same fall of 1913. It is interesting to ponder, by way of historical context, that many of the elements on chemistry's periodic table were not yet identified in 1913, and for that matter, the planet Pluto would not be discovered for another 17 years—and then be reclassified as a "dwarf planet" 76 years after that! Yet science was already judged to be an increasingly critical part of a proper college education, and President Mosiman wanted to expand Bluffton's offerings.

H.W. Berky (he seldom used his first name of Herbert) brought much more than just his knowledge of chemistry to Bluffton. For a start, his own education included classical training in Greek, history and other such subjects. A recent graduate of Princeton University, he brought with him a desire to inculcate upon Bluffton many of the same collegiate ideals that he had experienced in his former Ivy League context. It was under the influence of H.W. Berky that soon Bluffton's faculty adopted an honor code system modeled after the one that H.W. had experienced at Princeton. You still know it well in 2013—100 years later—taking exams while unsupervised by your professors and affixing your signatures to the statement that begins: "I am unaware of any inappropriate aid having been given or received..."

It was also under the strong influence of Professor H.W. Berky in the years soon following 1913 that Bluffton's faculty moved to embrace the traditional collegiate ideals of academic excellence paired with the benefits of intercollegiate athletics for developing personal character, sportsmanship, and physical abilities. During his 45 years in the classroom, Professor Berky also, at varying times, coached tennis, football, men's and women's basketball and baseball. He undoubtedly had a strong hand in the famous November "Mud Bowl" of 1921. In that game of legends, a scrappy Bluffton College football team beat the much larger University of Toledo 6-0.

So much more happened at Bluffton College 100 years ago during the pivotal fall of 1913, including faculty authorization of student government and a Student Senate. But it's time to jump forward 50 years to the fall of 1963—another year of many defining moments on campus and around us.

50 years ago: The civil rights struggle and two stories from Bluffton

I make this stop in my journey of numbers to connect with this year's civic engagement theme. Each year, the faculty selects a theme of contemporary importance in our society and uses it to frame many different discovery and learning opportunities throughout the year that are related to it. This year's civic engagement theme is "Race and Ethnicity in America: Celebration, Struggle, Opportunity."

I expect you saw some of the recent commemorative media coverage of a landmark event in American history, almost exactly 50 years ago on August 28, 1963. In reality, that was not all that long ago; many of your grandparents would likely have strong memories of their own experiences then as young adults in their late teens or twenties. That day, at the culmination of the massive March on Washington, civil rights activist and peacemaker Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., delivered his now famous "I Have A Dream" speech to more than a quarter million people from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C.—a speech in which Dr. King so eloquently laid out his vision for an America free of all racial divides.

The Bluffton campus in the fall of 1963 was alive with student activism in support of civil rights, as was the case on many college and university campuses. I am very much looking forward to learning more about Bluffton's experience in this regard from Professor Perry Bush's upcoming presentation on "Race and Ethnicity at Bluffton University," at Forum in three weeks, on October 1.

Remember that overt racial segregation was still practiced in the early 1960s in many places in the United States. For example, it wasn't until 1962 that the University of Mississippi admitted its first black student, James Meredith. Bluffton welcomed students of all races as students in those days, but it didn't mean that our students of color could fully escape the impact of society's racial prejudices. I want to share with you two stories from this era of former Bluffton students' own experiences with overt racism—both of them helpful to our civic engagement theme work this year.

For the first story, I will read directly from the second volume of the autobiography of Dr. Robert S. Kreider, published just last year. Dr. Kreider served as Bluffton's academic dean from 1954-65, and then as Bluffton's fifth president during the years 1965-72. He writes as follows:
In 1957, the year following the Rosa Parks event and the Montgomery bus boycott, the College Board responded to rising concern over race by issuing a statement on race relations and the campus. The most eloquent Bluffton statement on race relations was not written on paper. It occurred in Kentucky in the fall of 1956. Bluffton's football team, with an 8 and 0 record, went to Centre College for the last game of the season and lost. On the way home the team stopped to eat at a cafeteria. Some had food on their trays when Elbert Dubenion and Willis Taylor, blacks, came along the line and were refused. The word spread. Ron Lora, team member (and I should add, a former Bluffton Trustee), remembers it as an "awkward, embarrassing" experience: "When team members discovered what was occurring, we simply set down our trays and walked out. No one ate.... It was a teachable moment, but we didn't talk much about it."
This was a particularly remarkable moment in Bluffton's history, by any account. It was a spontaneous moment in which these Bluffton student athletes made a simple, peaceful, and very clear statement in opposition to such discrimination against their teammates. It was also a very powerful testimony of their values.

My second and final story is a bit longer. Two years ago, we welcomed back to campus some of our outstanding alumni to speak at a special celebration of the legacy of Bluffton's long-standing social work program.

One of those speakers, who I met for the first time at that event, was Dr. Elaine Ragsdale Schott who graduated from Bluffton in 1966 with a major in social work and a minor in psychology. Dr. Schott has had a long and distinguished career. After she graduated from Bluffton she went on to graduate school. Her work history includes past positions in human services and mental health for the state of Michigan. Most recently she has directed the School of Social Work at Grand Valley State University in Grand Rapids, Michigan, where she continues today as a professor.

Those are impressive enough credentials, but that's not why I am talking about Elaine Ragsdale Schott this morning. At her May Day presentation, she included what I thought were some striking personal insights about growing up African American in the 1960s and coming to study at Bluffton—insights that were triggered in her own memory by her return to the Musselman Library reading room after a 45 year absence. I recently visited with Dr. Schott and asked if I could share a portion of her personal experience with you. She graciously agreed.

Elaine grew up in Virginia and attended public school through twelfth grade there. As a southern state, Virginia had racial divisions that were very real during the 1950s and early 1960s when she was in school—for example, she states, "there was no kindergarten for Black children." Elaine was a good student, craved knowledge and loved spending as much time as possible just reading books. Since her family could own very few, she described to me how she managed to gain access to books as a young girl.

Blacks were not allowed to enter or use the public library in her county. So she would walk to the library once or twice a week hoping that she would catch the librarian on a day when she was in the mood to let Elaine inside. Elaine was only permitted to enter the basement storage area and touch, and sometimes borrow, the older books that were being discarded for missing or worn pages. She recalls that on a good day, she was allowed to enter for 10-15 minutes and could take some books home. On a bad day—often if there were other people around—she recalls being loudly admonished for "having the gall to be here." Then, inevitably, as Elaine recounted, it was, "Nigger get the hell out of here!"

She is able to reflect upon this undoubtedly painful experience with a bit of humor today. "Looking back, I must have been a glutton for punishment to subject myself to such things (just to have books to read)," she recalls. "I do remember that I overcame my fear of lizards, and I began to admire the strength and patterns of spider webs in the library basement."

When it came time for Elaine to select a college, she recalls the decision that she had to make. Many of her African-American friends chose to go to one of the historically black colleges in the south that were open to their attendance, but she was aware of the lifetime limitation at that time of such a decision. At that time, many of the states outside of the south did not acknowledge degrees earned at historically black institutions, and employers sometimes threw out applications with such credentials. So Elaine set her sights on enrolling at a college somewhere in the north.

As a curious and adventurous young person, she recalls wanting to get as far away from home for college as her parents would allow. Ohio seemed to be about the right distance, so she researched information about schools in this region and ended up selecting Bluffton sight unseen—in part because it was a smaller school, in part because of financial aid possibilities, and in part because of the very favorable ratio of male to female students at the time—a criterion she finds quite humorous in hindsight!

Elaine says she didn't know at all what it would be like for her as a black student at Bluffton. When she arrived here in the fall of 1962, she met her roommate and other students on her floor, and was linked up with a host family in the area. She recalls that most people made very genuine and helpful efforts to make her feel comfortable and welcome at Bluffton. Yet even her roommates, she recalls, couldn't fully understand some of the realities of her experience as an African American. She also remembers overhearing the parents of a student across the hall expressing their apprehension because she was living in the dorm. Yet for the most part, Elaine recalls having a very good experience as a Bluffton student. One of her friends came to visit from New York City and could not believe that the campus was so friendly.

I began this story by noting that, at Dr. Schott's presentation two years ago, climbing the stairs in Musselman Library up to the second floor reading room brought back very strong memories for her. She recalled, then, how much she had loved spending time in the Bluffton library as a student—just enjoying the collection and reading as many good books as she could find time for. Yet because of her painful library experiences as a child, every time she ascended the stairs in the Bluffton library she found herself tensing up. "I really kept thinking, 'When is it going to happen?'" she recalls. "When am I going to be asked to leave the library?" She adds, "I know it was an irrational fear. But for me it wasn't irrational. It had been part of my reality and I was scarred by it. Those fears really didn't fully dissipate until my junior year at Bluffton when I was more certain of my acceptance."

For Elaine Ragsdale Schott, Bluffton in the 1960s was a place where she could prepare herself for a most productive career to come and for a life of service to others. Her story of experiencing acceptance and respect here is one that we would wish for all students of all backgrounds. Today, in 2013, much has evolved in America with regard to racism. We are thankful for that, yet just listening to current events tells us that we still have more work to do as a nation.

Under this year's civic engagement theme we will explore together in different ways the struggles, celebration and opportunities that are associated with race and ethnicity in America. My hope is that Bluffton's motto, "The Truth Makes Free," will inspire all of us on this campus to a deeper understanding of these and other complex issues. And may our resulting actions demonstrate a hunger for justice and a willingness to serve others. I wish you all a very good year at Bluffton.