President's Forum

Dr. James M. Harder
September 15, 2015

Thank you all for your presence this morning at the 2015 President’s Forum.  I wish you could all enjoy the view here from the front—it’s always inspiring to look out at this assembly of Bluffton students, faculty, staff and friends of the university at our first regular Tuesday morning Forum event of the year.  And I have high confidence that during Bluffton’s 116th year—together, we will make this a very good year.

There’s a new Bluffton slogan making its highly visible debut across campus this fall.  Have you seen it?  “The Power of Purple.”  It’s on the wall at mealtimes in The Commons.  Soon it will be up on new welcome banners alongside our campus walkways.  It’s on the cover of the Bluffton viewbook for prospective students.  And some of you are wearing it on your wrists, or on T-shirts, or on other articles of clothing.

The Power of Purple.  It’s a newly-trademarked phrase that describes Bluffton, yet it isn’t a new reality on our campus.  That’s why I like it so much.  Bluffton has always been about The Power of Purple.  Purple is a great color, and a good one for Bluffton.  It is created when two other good, solid colors—red and blue—come together.  As we know, Bluffton is a very special place that excels in bringing things together—in ways that create a vibrant, diverse, faith-based teaching and learning community.  As we say, “At Bluffton, we bring together people and ideas for a greater purpose.”  That’s the real Power of Purple as we experience it at Bluffton.

This morning I’m going to recount some stories that illustrate Bluffton’s Power of Purple.  Some of these stories are from Bluffton’s past, and some are happening right now.  For some of you, these stories will be new.  For others, some of what I say this morning will be more familiar territory.  But I love telling Bluffton’s stories because of what they say about who we are—and what they illustrate about Bluffton’s Power of Purple.  I have five stories to recount this morning…

The Power of Purple:  a greater purpose in 1899
The first story goes back to 1899, to the founding of our school 116 years ago.  Imagine the village of Bluffton at the turn of the century, with its 2,000 residents, as the 1900s dawned.  Like many small towns across America at that time, passenger trains and horse-drawn wagons were more common modes of transportation than were the new motor cars, which were still appearing only as rare sightings.  Just the year before, the first houses in Bluffton had received telephone and electricity hookups.  A sense of commercial optimism prevailed—after all, oil was being pumped from recently-discovered fields around Bluffton and throughout the region.

As part of this vibrant community, in the Bluffton and Pandora areas were many local Mennonite—farmers and small businessmen.  They were the descendants of a group of Mennonites from Switzerland who had settled in northwest Ohio as early as 1833, taking advantage of its abundant land opportunities.

By the late 1800s, some of the more progressive Mennonites were interested in developing a college so that their children would have opportunities for further studies leading to ministry, teaching, commerce or other life activities.  The interests of these Mennonite leaders intersected with those of other Bluffton town leaders and businessmen, who shared the desire for their growing community to reap the many advantages of becoming a “college town.”  In short, in what might be called Bluffton’s first Power of Purple moment, these two groups of unusual allies, farmers and town residents, worked together to found what was originally known as Central Mennonite College, right here, in the village of Bluffton—bringing together people and ideas for a greater purpose.

Bluffton’s own professor of history, Dr. Perry Bush, tells the full story of the founding of what became Bluffton College in his centennial year history, Dancing With the Kobzar, published in 2000I encourage you to read it—you’ll gain a rich understanding of the essence of Bluffton University.  The book tells of the determined organizing and fund-raising efforts among groups of regional Mennonites at our founding, and the support and contributions of the villagers of Bluffton.  It tells how on a cold day in January 1899, the college organizers “took a break from deliberations and trudged through six inches of snow to the ten-acre cow pasture west of town that a local citizen, Judge Eaton, had donated as the college grounds.”[i]  That field is our central campus today.  And on that cold morning, stomping around in the snow, the college’s first Trustees selected the location, at the crest of a small rise adjacent to the Little Riley Creek, for the construction of the college’s first building, which would become College Hall.  It was in a natural stand of hardwood trees—hickories and oaks, and a favorite picnic site for the townspeople of Bluffton—that the future Bluffton University put down its own roots.

Five months later, in June of 1899, a large crowd gathered at the location to lay the cornerstone for the new College Hall as it was being constructed.  The man who was to become Bluffton’s first president, Noah C. Hirschy, was asked to give the major address of the day—in English.  Back then, the worship services and prayers of the local Mennonites were often still in the German language.  Hirschy spoke movingly and with passion about the potential and promise of the new school.  As Professor Bush notes, Hirschy outlined the problems of the day—political and foreign policy crises that gripped the nation and social problems of hunger and want.  He foresaw a college that would approach the world with faith and with engagement.  “It would prepare young men and women to take up an activist Christianity ‘adapted more closely to the needs of the age.’  From such efforts, Hirschy profoundly concluded, ‘let us expect great things….’”[ii]  It was an audacious proclamation of intent, yet indeed a foreshadowing of things to come.

But Hirschy was also a realist.  At noon on Monday, November 5, 1900, he stood at the podium in the new college chapel in a just-completed College Hall, gazing out on the first-year assembly of five faculty and 19 students.  His opening speech named the very evident fact that “this is a modest beginning on a very small scale.”  And yet, he urged those assembled, “despise not the day of small things. … It is ours at the beginning to lay foundations.”[iii]

Those foundations that were laid early in our school’s history continue to this day at Bluffton University.  In President Hirschy’s words, the new school would be concerned about much more than “the acquisition of mere knowledge.”  As Professor Bush’s summary of that opening address records it, the new college “would pursue a higher calling.  Its aim would be to produce stalwart Christian men and women of ‘life and character’ who would stay true to the principles in which they were thoroughly grounded.”[iv]  And perhaps equally important to the future trajectory of Bluffton, the school’s original documents—though compiled by a group of early leaders who were nearly all Mennonites—declared that the college “shall be open to all.”  This rich and inclusive mixture of students and Christian faith traditions throughout Bluffton’s history has become a defining characteristic, and a real strength, of Bluffton.

President Noah Hirschy’s early vision for what today is known as Bluffton University was both bold and highly relevant for his day, just as it is for these current days:  an institution for higher education, motivated by Christian convictions, and grounded in the peace church tradition.  A place where, as today’s Bluffton University mission statement puts it so eloquently, we seek “to prepare 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.”

Bluffton students over the years have developed many special traditions.  One of my favorites is a custom of many of the residents of Hirschy Hall.  Are the rest of you aware of it?  Just inside the main lobby entrance is a bronze casting of the face of Bluffton’s first president, Dr. Noah C. Hirschy, the building’s namesake.  Its shiny nose bears testament to the practice, over many years, of students ritualistically touching that nose as they enter and exit the building.   

For me, this visible tie to Bluffton’s past is an example of the intergenerational support that has built and sustained Bluffton over the years.  Bluffton has 14,824 living alumni today, scattered in 49 states and in 48 countries around the world.  (If one of you would graduate this spring and move to Hawaii, that would make me very happy!)  Each Bluffton alumnus has his or her own Bluffton experience and memories, just as you are living your experience today.  Each year, many of our alumni generously contribute financially to Bluffton—yet another Power of Purple act—most often to help support student financial aid and to support many of campus improvement projects over the years.  In fact, last year, this group of loyal Bluffton supporters contributed a total of $3,635,000 to the university, making it one of Bluffton’s best giving years ever.  We are all very grateful for that support, which is given by people who believe in the value and the purposes of extending Bluffton’s enduring educational mission, which stretches back 116 years to our school’s founding.

The Power of Purple:  creating Bluffton’s beauty
My second story this morning features the special beauty of our campus.  At Bluffton we are truly blessed with a spectacular natural campus setting along the banks of the Little Riley Creek, and also within the Bluffton University Nature Preserve.  The campus is beautiful any time of the year—and visitors to campus frequently remark about that fact.  In addition to benefitting from nature’s beauty, over the years great care has been taken to incorporate on campus a number of outdoor art sculptures and other creative landscaping—including our famous gently curving network of sidewalks!

Since so much of our campus today is covered by soaring, mature trees, many are surprised to learn that at Bluffton’s founding, other than a few pockets of trees here and there, much of the future campus was open fields.  Early pictures of the campus, such as this one with the old steam plant in the foreground and the original 1914 Berky Science Building in the background, show a wide-open campus.  And even along the creek, may of the trees in earlier days had been cut down by villagers in search of convenient firewood.

So how did we end up with the beautifully-wooded campus we enjoy today?  Some years ago a “campus tree walk” brochure was created that documented at least 40 species of trees, including varieties of ash, sycamore, lindens, cedar, oak, spruce, pine, maple, ironwood, gum trees, buckeyes, beech, locust, cottonwood, magnolia, walnut, hackberry, hickory, cypress, chestnuts and more.  Clearly we have had a widely-shared ethic of stewardship of nature throughout our history.  These campus values started with early presidents and faculty members, and continue today as care is taken in every building project to protect and extend our natural campus heritage.  But perhaps two individuals should receive special Power of Purple credit for their efforts and foresight in this regard.  They also served a combined 54 years as members of the Bluffton Board of Trustees.

Oliver Diller was a remarkable man whose special talents and love of trees were gifted to Bluffton over many years.  Diller graduated from Bluffton in the early 1930s and then went on to earn a Ph.D. in forestry and a job as a state forester in the eastern Ohio town of Wooster.  Stories abound of Ollie Diller’s many trips back to campus during his 30 years of service on Bluffton’s board, from 1943-1973.  Over those years, the back of his old pick-up truck was full of hundreds of small trees, many of which he planted himself.  Now 70 years later, his influence on campus is nothing short of spectacular.

More recently, Bluffton has benefited from the eye for beauty and technical abilities of renowned landscape architect James Bassett of Lima, who among other professional projects designed award-winning landscaping for the Kansas City Zoo and for Muirfield Village in Dublin, Ohio.  Jim Bassett, whose wife JoAnn is a Bluffton graduate, retired from Bluffton’s board in 2011.  But similarly to Oliver Diller, Jim Bassett leaves an enduring legacy of beauty on our campus from his 24 years of service on the board.  His thoughtful manner and professional eye contributed significantly to several rounds of campus master planning during his years on the board—including design of the gently curving network of sidewalks on our campus.  He helped situate and refine the landscaping and design elements of all of Bluffton’s more recent building projects—Centennial Hall and Sommer Center among them—and continues in this role as we plan for a new science building yet to come.

Our beautiful campus is not an accident of history—there are many Power of Purple moments behind it created by people such as Oliver Diller and Jim Bassett.

I mentioned Bluffton’s rich heritage of outdoor sculptures and campus art earlier, all of which add so much additional interest to the overall campus aesthetic.  As one walks around campus, one encounters multiple pieces by noted faculty artists such as John P. Klassen or famous art alumni such as Jack Earl.  There are more intriguing stories here than I have time to tell this morning, but let me focus only on the sculptures that make up the Centennial Hall Sculpture Garden.  Have you wondered about the back stories of this artwork as you walk around the outside of Centennial Hall?

Its creation was another Power of Purple moment for Bluffton—people and ideas coming together for a greater purpose.  My immediate predecessor, Dr. Lee Snyder, Bluffton’s eighth president and the first woman to serve in such a role among all of the Mennonite college presidents, was part of a campus group imagining ways in which artwork could complement our new campus academic center, Centennial Hall, when it opened in 2000, during Bluffton’s 100th year.  Professor of art, Gregg Luginbuhl, had an inspiration—an idea that President Snyder immediately embraced and implemented.  Rather than spend the available funds on just one or two purchased items, how about splitting the funds into grants that could cover the cost of raw materials on a number of pieces of sculpture that would be made just for Bluffton?  Then, Bluffton’s alumni artists and others associated with the school in some way could receive the funds for materials and be invited to donate their talent and labor to achieve the vision of the finished project.  It was indeed a Power of Purple success story, as these images from the Centennial Hall Sculpture Garden illustrate.

And before I leave this story, you are probably curious about another notable Bluffton outdoor sculpture—“Constellation Earth.”  I’m sure you’ve noticed it—it’s hard to miss for several reasons!  The one I’ll mention is its prominent location in the middle of Snyder Circle, outside the technology center entrance of Centennial Hall.

The Constellation Earth sculpture is a bronze casting by the renowned artist Paul Granlund, who was artist-in-residence at Gustavus Adolphus College in Minnesota during most of his career.  Its seven human figures represent the seven continents on our planet.  They are all linked together, illustrating the solidarity and unity of all human races and peoples, yet in a way that allows them to seemingly “float” freely in space.  It is a dramatic work of art that, since its installation on campus in 1996, resonates perfectly with the core of Bluffton’s institutional mission.

From Paul Granlund’s molds, five originals of the Constellation Earth sculpture were cast before the molds were destroyed.  The first stands in the Peace Park in Nagasaki, Japan—part of a reflective memorial to the atomic bombing of that city at the close of World War II.  Two of the other four originals are in Minnesota, one stands in Iowa, and the final original is here at Bluffton University.  How did that happen?  It’s really another Power of Purple story involving many connections and shared interests coming together for a greater purpose.

Bluffton’s Sauder Visual Arts Center still probably felt like a new building in 1994 when art professor Gregg Luginbuhl was searching for a traveling exhibit to appear in its Grace Albrecht Gallery.  He was aware of sculptor Paul Granlund’s work, and also that his (Gregg’s) wife Karen’s mother, who lived in Minnesota, was a friend of Paul Granlund’s sister.  That connection eventually brought Paul Granlund and a show of his work to this campus.  But there’s more to this story.  Independently of this, Bluffton’s president at the time, Dr. Elmer Neufeld, saw in the Chronicle of Higher Education a photograph of Constellation Earth.  He clipped it and called it to the attention of Professor of Education Libby Hostetler, who at the time was developing the new Lion and Lamb Peace Arts Center on our campus.  President Neufeld’s comment was, “Wouldn’t it be wonderful to have something like this on campus?”  Only later, when Granlund’s traveling display appeared in the Sauder Visual Arts Center, did Professor Hostetler recognize a small replica model of Constellation Earth appearing in that display as the subject of the photograph that President Neufeld had previously shown her. 

To complete the story, Paul Granlund agreed to make one more original for Bluffton before the molds were destroyed.  Alumna Grace Albrecht agreed to fund the purchase.  And the following summer, Professor Luginbuhl secured a faculty summer research grant that allowed him to travel to Granlund’s studio in Minnesota, where he assisted Granlund in casting Bluffton’s edition of Constellation Earth.  In recounting these details, Gregg also shared with me that this casting experience was instrumental in his ability, a bit more than a decade later, to make his own bronze casting of the “Touching Home” sculpture, which sits adjacent to Memorial Field as the university’s tribute to those involved in our tragic baseball bus accident in 2007.  All of these coincidences are compelling Power of Purple moments from Bluffton’s past.

The Power of Purple:  today’s campus improvements
But now, let’s move to the present.  The Power of Purple continues at Bluffton.  And in my next story, it’s an expression of the spirit of Bluffton’s alumni and our current students—who will become the next proud alumni of Bluffton University.

Just three days ago, on a beautiful afternoon at Salzman Stadium, many of you witnessed a great football game—not just because the Beavers emerged victorious, 38-26, in a closely-contested game against the visiting Baldwin-Wallace University Yellow Jackets.  But it was also the first football game—and the first victory—on the newly-installed Field-Turf.  Surrounding the field is also a resurfaced running track and field event venues, some new fencing, sidewalks, pavement and landscaping.

It is a wonderful set of improvements that will benefit our student-athletes and many others for years to come.  I called this a Power of Purple story—Bluffton’s way of bringing together people and ideas for a greater purpose.  Let me explain how this happened.  About 15 months ago, the Board of Trustees completed its work on a long-range facilities master plan, which identified a long list of institutional needs and priorities.  As you might be aware, the top priority of this plan, on which planning is currently under way, is achieving for Bluffton a new science building.  A second challenge is undertaking needed improvements to our student residence facilities, and plans are underway as well in that regard—quite possibly beginning as early as this coming summer.

Yet there are other needs identified by the master plan as well, including dealing with chronic drainage challenges and upkeep expenses associated with the former grass football field and deteriorated track surface.  Several members of Bluffton’s Board of Trustees took the initiative to help Bluffton achieve the new turf field by leading a fund-raising effort among what ended up being 196 Bluffton alumni and friends—many of them former football players—to collectively raise the $750,000 required for this project.  And, the Trustee leaders suggested that in order to capture the true Power of Purple nature of their joint efforts, the new turf field should receive the new name of Alumni Field.  That is a most appropriate name for a new field at Bluffton—a field made possible by the generosity of so many former students, and one that will be used intensively by current and future Bluffton students—not only for football games and practice, but also, as needed, for soccer, early spring practice for baseball and softball teams when natural grass fields are still too soggy, for intramural activities for all students, as well as for other occasional activities.  Alumni Field is the Power of Purple.

This summer also brought several other Power of Purple improvements to our campus.  Two of them were achievements by you, our students—and I want to thank you and celebrate them with you this morning!  Both were initiatives led by last year’s Student Senate, which required an approval process by a majority of students to authorize spending a portion of student reserve funds for special projects.  You chose to approve construction of two new outdoor basketball courts, as well as a new fire circle with benches in a beautiful setting near the Little Riley Creek and the Adams Bridge.  Thank you for your help in making this a better campus experience, not just for your own benefit, but also for the enjoyment of future generations of Bluffton students.

The final summer improvement is in Hirschy Hall—the newly renovated and refurnished front lobby.  This was a Power of Purple project as well.  Last spring, at their 50th class reunion at Bluffton’s May Day celebration, the members of the Class of 1965 contributed a good portion of the funds needed for this renovation project.  Some of them were among the first residents of Hirschy hall when it opened in 1963, during their junior year, and their generosity has now helped us renovate the building for current residents of Hirschy Hall.  That has always been one of Bluffton’s great strengths, as successive generations of Bluffton’s students and alumni continue to invest in Bluffton’s future and the Power of Purple.

The Power of Purple:  thinking and learning together
My fourth story of the morning is about how, at Bluffton, we excel at thinking together and learning together.  There are many ways to learn, but at Bluffton we value the importance of being together in our learning processes for the strongest outcomes—Power of Purple learning—bringing together people and ideas for a greater purpose.  Even in our growing number of on-line courses, we do them synchronously, in a way that all the students are on-line at the same time with full voice and video internet connections from wherever they are, so that students and faculty can interact with each other much as if they were sitting together in the same classroom.

Of course one of Bluffton’s signature ways of thinking and learning together about a topic of significance to society is our annual Civic Engagement theme and related program—a tradition we began at Bluffton nine years ago, in the fall of 2007.  This learning opportunity draws the whole campus community together, and each year I am among the many who are inspired in April when our annual Civic Engagement Day presentations by students, faculty and staff showcase some of the fruits of that learning.  This year’s topic is another very relevant one:  “Gender Roles, Relationships, Realities.”  I anticipate it will yield some intriguing insights throughout the year, since it is a topic that we can all relate to. 

As an economist, a question that would interest me (and perhaps one of you will want to take it up), is what will be the long-run impact of the changing gender proportions of students in our nation’s colleges and universities.  When I was in high school (now too many years ago!), college campuses were dominated, numerically, by males – about 58 per cent males to 42 per cent female students.  And it’s no surprise that overall it was a more male-dominated society as a result.  Today, nearly the exact reverse has come to be true in college.  In the current academic year in the U.S., about 57 per cent of undergraduate students will be women, and only 43 per cent will be men. [v]  Now there’s an interesting social science research topic!  Will the social patterns of the past continue?  How will society be affected as a higher percentage of women than men graduate from college? Will there be a reversal of patterns we’ve seen in the past with respect to males in leadership roles?  Education is a powerful force for change in society.

In several weeks, Bluffton will be hosting a national conference focusing on a slice of that analysis of special significance to Bluffton’s history as a Mennonite-related institution.  The weekend of October 16-18, we will be host to more than a hundred academics, education leaders and other guests from across the U.S. and Canada, coming to a conference organized by several Bluffton faculty and staff members titled “Mennonite Education:  Past, Present and Future.”  You might be aware that Bluffton is one of about nine Mennonite colleges, universities and seminaries in the U.S. and Canada.  This conference will include some very interesting presentations on the impact and trajectory of that educational legacy—as members of the Bluffton University community you are welcome to attend any sessions that might interest you.

Coinciding with this conference is the official launch of a new and very significant biography on the life of one of Bluffton’s early faculty members, Dr. C. Henry Smith.  As the pre-eminent Mennonite historian of his day, Dr. Smith taught history here for 33 years, from 1913 to 1946.  His abundant energy also extended into his various entrepreneurial activities, including the founding of a bank in Bluffton that today has become a sizable regional bank, the Citizen’s National Bank.  C. Henry Smith was also widely known as a public intellectual who spoke to audiences all over the region on topics of significance to his day.  He didn’t know it then, but Dr. Smith was demonstrating Bluffton’s Power of Purple in that process as he sought to build greater public awareness and understanding.  The author of this highly readable volume is our own Dr. Perry Bush and I know that many of you will want to read this book as soon as it is made available during and beyond the upcoming conference on October 16.  And congratulations to Perry on this achievement of scholarship!

Power of Purple:  “It’s all about relationships!”
My final Power of Purple story of the morning has a title:  “It’s all about relationships!”

The Bluffton experience truly is “all about relationships.”  Over the years we’ve come to understand the special qualities and importance of Bluffton’s community of respect.  Visitors to campus often detect it and comment on it.  Our community of respect describes an important quality of relationships at Bluffton.  And at least, during the past 40 or so years, no one individual has had a more profound impact on modeling and nurturing these types of relationships within our campus community of students, faculty and staff than this man—Dr. Don Schweingruber.  Don was Bluffton’s Dean of Students, among other senior administrative titles, for 33 years, from 1972 to 2005.  Since then, he has remained a close friend and advisor to many of us on campus.

Shortly after the start of the football game on Saturday afternoon, I received notice that Don had passed away at the Bluffton Hospital from complications of his 15-year struggle with cancer.  We are thankful that modern medical technology continued to keep his life productive nearly until the end of his time with us.

Don was a soft-spoken leader and mentor for many, with a giant influence.  Bluffton University will miss him dearly.  I know that literally hundreds of the many students he worked with during his 33 years as Dean of Students have continued to stay in close contact with him, even throughout his retirement years.  His annual Leadership Development Program was an important influence on the lives and career trajectories of many.  So were small groups and home Bible studies that he and his wife Nancy often hosted.  I’m grateful to Don for being the person most responsible for ensuring a good start to my own presidency through chairing my inauguration committee nine years ago, and he has remained a close friend and supporter since then.

A special Power of Purple moment involving Don Schweingruber happened on campus on August 21, just over three weeks ago.  In what was his last trip away from home, Don was able to come to campus to view a new bench that had been installed in his honor by the university over the summer.  The bench is located at the top of the slope in front of Sauder Visual Arts Center.  Its location commands a view of the beautiful campus and trees stretching out along the Little Riley Creek below.

But this is also very much a Don Schweingruber bench.  Engraved into its metal back is Don’s favorite and oft-repeated phrase, for which anyone who know him well will long remember:  “It’s all about relationships.”  Indeed, the good life is all about good relationships.  And Don understood that better than most as he modeled and taught the importance of relationships to generations of Bluffton students.  We will truly miss him.

This morning we’ve ventured through stories from the life of this campus community’s past and present that illustrate Bluffton’s Power of Purple—stories that capture the inclusive faith-based nature of Bluffton’s founding in 1899, that tell of the love of nature and aesthetic beauty on our campus, that recount shared efforts leading to campus improvements, that illustrate ways in which we come together for thinking, for learning and for scholarship, and that focus on the fundamental importance of relationships.

What will be the next Power of Purple stories in this unfolding narrative of Bluffton University?  They will be yours.  Now it is your story to write…to join, to be part of Bluffton’s Power of Purple legacy.  I wish you all a very good and fulfilling year to come. 

 


[i] Perry Bush, Dancing with the Kobzar: Bluffton College and Mennonite Higher Education, 1899-1999 (Telford, PA:  Pandora Press U.S., 2000), p. 35.

[ii] Bush, p. 36.

[iii] Bush, p. 26.

[iv] Bush, p. 26.

[v] National Center for Educational Statistics, http://nces.ed.gov/programs/digest/d13/tables/dt13_303.10.asp.