President's Forum

Dr. James M. Harder
Sept. 13, 2016

 “Bluffton as a Community of Respect”

I appreciate seeing everyone here this morning at the 2016 President’s Forum.  We’re already two weeks into the new academic year and there’s great energy all around campus.  Each year, our Bluffton community is defined in important and unique ways by the interests, talents and energies of students, staff and faculty.  I’m looking forward to being a part of what this year brings.  These are exciting times!

I’ve organized my remarks for this morning’s presentation into two sections.  In the first section I’m going to highlight some new developments at Bluffton this year—all with the potential to enhance the opportunities for students.  In the second section I’m going to talk about Bluffton’s “community of respect”—an ethos that is lodged deep within the DNA of our campus life.  Our community of respect approach shapes who we are as a Bluffton University community and what we can offer to the world because we are Bluffton.  I also think it’s a particularly timely subject.

New developments:  residence hall improvements

I’ll begin with the latest news, at least from a facilities perspective.  Last spring, we announced plans for enhancements to three of our student residence buildings on campus.  The Board of Trustees authorized spending up to $3 million on these projects.  After significant study, and input from many of you, we gave top priority to a total rebuild and significant enlargement of bathroom, shower and laundry facilities and some of the other common spaces in Bren-Dell Hall and Hirschy Annex, which together can house 200 students.  We are also creating our first apartment-style living options on campus.

I’m pleased to report that over the summer, the Bren-Dell Hall improvements were completed—and I’d be really disappointed if Bren-Dell residents haven’t noticed them this fall!  It was a race to the finish for the contractors given the short construction time-line, and I want to add a big thanks to Bluffton’s own Buildings and Grounds and Student Life staff members who worked hard to help complete the final steps of the project just before students returned.

This fall, Hirschy Annex is closed for its own similar renovation.  I am assured that Hirschy’s improvements will be completed by the end of this semester, so students can move back into Hirschy for the spring.  If you are among those living in temporary rooms elsewhere on campus, thanks for your patience and flexibility—the changed space will be worth it!

And third, renovations are well underway across the creek in Riley Court for the creation of the first fully-functional student apartments on campus.  Dean of Students Julie DeGraw regularly assures me that there is student interest in living there, and that some of you would actually rather be responsible for your own cooking and cleaning—so we are giving it a test.  This fall, current upper class students will be given the first option to sign up for apartment living on campus—with move-in expected at the end of Christmas break.  The initial project is for a total of 36 beds in six apartments, each with three two-person bed rooms, a fully-functioning kitchen, common living area, washer and dryer, and two individual full bathrooms.  The air-conditioned apartments will also receive new energy-efficient windows and additional insulation for a greener environmental footprint.   We look forward to this additional student housing option on campus.

New developments:  academic programs and student activities

Another significant change this fall is an expansion of our academic program offerings.  About a year and a half ago, the Board of Trustees provided seed money to begin two new undergraduate programs in health-care related professions.  After evaluating Bluffton’s academic strengths and resources, and pairing them with information about prospective student interests, faculty approved new programs in nursing, and in speech-language pathology and audiology.  We are very pleased to welcome two highly-experienced and qualified directors for these programs.  Dr. Sherri Winegardner, who herself is a Bluffton alumna, is directing Bluffton’s nursing program, which we are undertaking in partnership with the well-regarded Northwest State Community College nursing program.  Christina Bender, an experienced practitioner, is directing Bluffton’s new speech-language pathology and audiology program.  In both cases, we had only a few months to recruit students for this fall’s program intake.  But already, the results are very promising.  Ten students are in the first speech-language pathology and audiology course, and several students are already beginning the nursing program, with more expected for spring semester.

In addition to these academic programs, we are working in other ways to respond to student interests and to boost student enrollment for next fall (2017).  This past year, a faculty and staff group, the Creating Together Leadership Team, researched and recommended two new activity-based student recruiting initiatives, which were initiated over the summer.

Later this academic year, a new creative publication—a literary journal produced by Bluffton students with a faculty advisor/coach—will be launched.  It will be a well-organized activity open to all interested student writers—not just English and writing majors.  And as is the case for athletic teams, we will devote resources to recruit new students to this creative team—students with specific interests in the processes needed to produce an innovative publication, to be called Bridge:  Bluffton’s Literary Journal.  Leading that effort is Jamie Lyn Smith, who joined Bluffton’s English department faculty this fall, and who will also fill the faculty vacancy in Creative Writing.   It’s a novel recruiting experiment, but one that we believe holds real potential to help attract students with a wide range of academic interests to Bluffton.

Also, in the same way and for similar reasons, we are expanding Bluffton student opportunities in the area of intercollegiate athletics.  By this time next year, Bluffton students will have returned to the links, as we field teams in men’s and women’s golf within the Heartland Collegiate Athletic Conference.  Our goal is a strong roster for both squads, already in the first year. Toward that end we have already hired a coach to begin recruiting—Adam Craig, who joined the athletic department staff just two weeks ago.

New developments:  Augsburger Path

I’ve been involved in planning for another construction project at the edge of campus that is about to enhance our Bluffton experience in very positive ways.  Since it was formed in 2010, I’ve been part of a local community leaders’ group known as the Bluffton Pedestrian and Bike Pathways Board.  We are charged by the Bluffton Village Council with implementing a long-range master plan for constructing a series of walking, jogging and biking pathways around and through the town.  A couple of segments of such pathways have existed in Bluffton since the 1980s.  Two years ago we opened another segment of the network on the east side of town, from the former stone quarry lake, along an abandoned railroad right-of-way, and ending in the vicinity of the fast-food restaurants by the Interstate highway exit.  Perhaps some of you have found and used this pathway.

Our next Pathways project will be much more visible to you and useful to you because it is very close to our campus.  Construction will start at the end of this month and be completed by November.  It is a six-tenth of a mile paved pathway beginning across the road from the Alumni Field football scoreboard.  The pathway will extend westward, along the north side of Augsburger Road, through the edge of the Bluffton University Nature Preserve, and out to the Maple Crest Senior Living Village.  I often see the many members of our Bluffton community who have reason to either bike, walk or run along the existing narrow Augsburger Road heading out of town.  This new path will make those activities so much easier, safer and enjoyable.  And it will certainly help more of us find our way to the Nature Preserve in an environmentally-friendly way!  A grant from the Ohio Department of Transportation and additional fundraising efforts by the Bluffton Lions Club Foundation and the generosity of land-owners, including Bluffton University, have made this wonderful project possible.

New developments:  Austin E. Knowlton Science Center

And last, but certainly not least, in this list of campus developments is the significant progress being made toward construction of the new Austin E. Knowlton Science Center on campus.  This is a much bigger project, and therefore a multi-year process.  My goal is that first-year students hearing me today will benefit from learning in this new facility before you graduate from Bluffton.  This planned large three-story building will have state-of-the-art teaching and laboratory spaces for academic majors including biology, chemistry, physics, dietetics, mathematics, pre-medicine, and our newest programs in nursing and in speech-language pathology and audiology.  It will be located on the site where the vacant Lincoln Hall now stands—in the center of campus.  

As many of you will remember, this past February, during the Bluffton Board of Trustees meeting, we announced receiving the largest single gift in Bluffton’s history, a $4 million grant commitment from the Austin E. Knowlton Foundation of Cincinnati to name the new building.  Since then, we have been working behind the scenes to secure additional lead gifts for this $14.5 million project.  This fall, we will move the fund-raising campaign into a more visible and public phase—in fact, one kick-off event, for Bluffton’s own faculty and staff community, will occur at noon tomorrow under a tent you will see set up on the lawn beside Centennial Hall.  And students:  I want you to be aware that we don’t use any of your tuition dollars to construct facilities on campus.  When a new building goes up, it’s because Bluffton alumni, friends and supportive businesses who have benefitted from Bluffton in the past believe in “giving back.”  This wonderful support helps make possible the quality education that you expect and that you receive at Bluffton—and it’s my hope that someday many of you will want to do the same for the next generations of students.

Bluffton’s enduring value of “respect”

And now I will move to the second part of my remarks—which will focus on an important Bluffton value that shapes what we do here and what we contribute to the world.  Bluffton students frequently hear reference to Bluffton’s four enduring values of discovery, community, respect and service—the values that are depicted on the banners displayed behind me and that in many ways define the core values of Bluffton’s faith-based educational experience.  This year, I want to focus on the enduring value of “respect.”  I think it’s a timely and important topic, not just for us here at Bluffton, but for the world we live in.

Reflections on respect from summer travels

This past July, on our summer vacation travels to the distant countries of Vietnam and Cambodia in Southeast Asia, where our children happened to be working in service assignments, Karen and I came face-to-face with the evidence of what can happen when there is a total loss of respect for the humanity of others.

Today, Vietnam and Cambodia are very peaceful, open and beautiful countries compared to the civil unrest, wars and turmoil afflicting other places around the world.  Yet as history shows, that was not always the case for these two nations.  I was a high school student as the American war in Vietnam was winding down.  In fact, I was sitting in the same chair as many of you, as a first-year college student in April 1975, when the South Vietnamese capital of Saigon fell and the United States essentially abandoned its long, costly and tragic war effort in that country.  I remember thinking, “finally, it’s over.  Now the fighting and the killing on all sides of the conflict can stop.”

But that same month, in April 1975, a four-year period of terror in neighboring Cambodia began that most of the world only later learned about.  Taking advantage of the broader regional instability created by the Vietnam War, a man named Pol Pot and his Cambodian political organization named the Khmer Rouge, took military control of Phnom Penh, the capitol city of their own country.  This occurred on April 17, 1975.  Within just several days, Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge forced the nearly two million residents of Phnom Penh, and other urban areas, into the villages and farmlands of the countryside.  The cities and their institutions—businesses, civic organizations, and especially schools—were left empty and non-functional.  This was done strictly for ideological reasons—an attempt to copy the political re-education and rural development approach taken in 1958 by China’s Communist Party Chairman Mao Zedong.

Then, over the next four years in Cambodia, from 1975-79, many of the displaced residents were rounded up, imprisoned and tortured until they made false confessions for crimes against the state that they hadn’t committed.  Then they were photographed and executed, one by one.  During these four years, one in four Cambodians—an estimated two million out of a total population of eight million—were killed.  Most of the dead were guilty of nothing more than being among the educated class of people.  Anyone who had soft hands or who wore eye glasses was at greatest risk of arrest. 

During our summer travels, Karen and I visited several historical locations that today’s Cambodians have carefully preserved to memorialize the dead, to tell the story—and to try to prevent such genocide in the future.  These included the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum at the site of the high school that was converted into the infamous S-21prison, and the “Killing Fields” at the edge of Phnom Penh where prisoners were executed and buried in shallow graves.

My purpose in recounting this painful history from Cambodia this morning is to point out what happens when there is a total breakdown of respect for other human beings—and at the most basic level even of the right for unarmed, innocent people to live.  This was not directly a war over land or scarce resources.  This was one group of human beings killing another group of human beings—all citizens of the same country—over a difference in ideology.

And sadly, history keeps repeating itself.  Karen and I left the killing field memorials of Cambodia asking ourselves where such similar memorials will someday be constructed for the horrific events that are still happening in our world today—perhaps in Syria, in Iraq, or elsewhere.

The rise of “incivility” in America

Such events are clearly the most tragic manifestation of the collapse of respect.  Yet it’s also clear that respect can break down in other less physically threatening, yet still harmful ways. These days in our own country, many observers are concerned about what they see as the basic loss of respect for others in the form of rising “incivility” across our society—defined as deliberately rude or unsociable speech or behavior.  For a number of years, the global communications firm Weber Shandwick has been tracking this phenomenon.  Their 2016 report on Civility in America finds that 95 percent of Americans now believe that lack of civility is a problem, with nearly three-quarters saying that civility has declined in the past few years.  In fact, 70 percent of their respondents describe incivility in this country as being at “crisis” levels.[1]

Business organizations are increasingly concerned about the detrimental impact of declining civility in the workplace among co-workers.  And this lack of respect often has some very real consequences.  For example, studies in health-care organizations report that when people work in environments characterized by incivility, they are more likely to miss information that is right in front of their eyes, leading to more medical errors and higher death rates of patients.   In general, research shows that civil behavior at work lifts people—that employees feel valued and powerful when respected.  Conversely, incivility among employees at work holds people down and makes people feel small.[2]

Unfortunately, our nation’s colleges and universities are not immune from their own manifestations of this problem.  A report published last year in the Journal of Applied Psychology found that “Incivility,  …defined as insensitive behavior that displays a lack of regard for others, is rampant and on the rise” in academia.  An article in the Chronicle of Higher Education lamented the “regular calls for an end to faculty incivility—the rudeness, abusive language, bullying, and general meanness that seem to characterize many of our interactions.”[3]  Fortunately, I don’t think these types of faculty behaviors are a valid description of the academic environment at Bluffton!

And finally, we are all aware of the profoundly negative tone and tenor of verbal exchanges that have come to define the current era in American political discourse.  Thoughtful political observers such as The New York Times columnist David Brooks regularly describe the real and lasting damage to our country’s cohesion and social fabric that can occur with such an approach—there is real cause for concern of long-term damage.[4]

Bluffton’s “Community of Respect” tradition

So let me bring this back much closer to home—to our life together as a community of students, faculty and staff at Bluffton University.  Of course we are far from perfect.  But over many years Bluffton has developed an intentional and carefully-considered set of relational values that has come to be called Bluffton’s “Community of Respect” statement.  This statement helps guide our ways of relating to each other as a campus community.  It stands in meaningful contrast to the rising tones of disrespect and incivility that too often characterize our wider society today.  It is my belief and my observation that Bluffton is indeed different in this regard.  We do strive to live and learn in a “Community of Respect”—and it makes a real, positive difference for all who are part of it.  And, my strong desire is that what we learn and practice here is extended beyond this Bluffton community.

Bluffton’s “Community of Respect” statement appears on the back cover of each year’s Fall Welcome guide for new students.  It reads:

Bluffton strives to be a community of respect where everyone is held in mutual high regard.  Our belief that every human being is created in the image of God demands that we recognize in each human being that ‘divine spark,’ and that all of us welcome and celebrate the diversity in which we have been created as children of God.  As members of the Bluffton University community, we strive to treat with respect each member of the community.  Our standards of campus conduct are based on the mutual respect we believe we are committed to extend to each other.

So this is our guide for campus relationships.  It is a statement both of who we are and who we want to be as a campus community—where everyone is valued, where we care for each other, and where we can celebrate both our differences and our commonalities in a shared communal experience.

At the statement’s core is an understanding that every human being is created in the image of God and therefore we must hold each other in mutual high regard—even when we might be in deep disagreement or in conflict with one another.  It certainly doesn’t mean that in an academic environment everyone needs to think alike—that would hardly produce opportunities for learning or for personal growth.  But our commitment to maintaining a “Community of Respect” does foster a relationship-valuing environment where positive rather than negative outcomes are much more likely to emerge, even from the most fundamental differences and disagreements, should they exist.

As an historian at heart, I was curious about the origin of Bluffton’s “Community of Respect” statement.  Although Bluffton’s ethos of respect for diversity can be seen all the way back in our founding documents from 1899, one of Bluffton’s longest-serving employees, Mark Bourassa, tells me that Bluffton’s “Community of Respect” statement took its current form 21 years ago.  A master’s degree student in student affairs personnel from Bowling Green Student University, Eric Fulcomer, was completing a two-year-long internship on our campus under long-time Bluffton Dean of Students Don Schweingruber.  In the spring of 1995, Eric wrote a statement for a final class project that described Bluffton’s community of respect.  The following fall, Eric was hired by Bluffton to be Director of Marbeck Center.  Mark Bourassa recalls that Eric’s class project statement, with just a bit of editorial tweaking from then Provost Don Pannabecker, became a topic of student and faculty conversation that year—with comments showing up on student opinion boards and in the school newspaper, The Witmarsum.  It also was the theme for an annual faculty and staff retreat.  By fall of 1996, Bluffton’s “Community of Respect” statement made its first appearance in Bluffton’s First Year Seminar reader, and to this day the statement is a prominent part of our new student orientation process.

What perhaps interested students most in the fall of 1995 was an implication of the “Community of Respect” statement:  if all would manage their interpersonal relationships under such a high standard of respect for others, there would likely be less need for additional behavioral rules and regulations.  Bluffton library archivist Carrie Phillips has located an editorial in the Bluffton student newspaper from November 1995 that made such a point.  Assistant editor Jennifer “Skippy” Warren wrote, “I’m not saying that [Bluffton] should change its policies or discard all the rules (although that would be interesting.)  Why not try simply having the ‘Community of Respect’ as a guide for all students for a quarter and see what kind of response occurs.  I think people would be surprised how well this might work.”[5]

Living out Bluffton’s value of respect today

Well fast forward to 2016, and of course we still do have some student life rules and regulations at Bluffton.  But I also sense that we tend to minimize the thickness of the printed rulebook at Bluffton and rely on the core values of our “Community of Respect” to guide us.  Bluffton’s long-standing Honor Code under which Bluffton professors leave the classroom during examinations is one such example.  Our use of “restorative justice” processes by Student Life staff in student discipline cases—designed to mend and restore relationships damaged by a behavioral offense—is another example.

And certainly Bluffton’s academic curriculum itself is designed to lift up and reinforce the value of respect.  That value comes through in the teaching of many Bluffton professors and also in our general education curriculum in courses such as “Becoming a Scholar,” “Issues in Modern America,” and “Christian Values in a Global Community.”  So much of laying the foundation for an ethic of respect, and for bridging diversity, is helping each other learn to see the world through another person’s point of view.  That is why Bluffton places such a high premium on our cross-cultural education program during May Term, investing teaching resources in educational travel for most all of our students to places such as China, Botswana, Bolivia, Israel/Palestine, Iceland, Chicago, Appalachian Kentucky, and the U.S. borderlands region with Mexico.

Two weeks ago I attended the Commissioning Service for the eleven Bluffton students who were leaving the next day for a semester-long experience in the Central American country of Guatemala. The service was held at the Peace Throne rocks near the bank of the Little Riley Creek. Several faculty and staff speakers shared their hopes for the students.  These students are now in a country with a complex history of peace and conflict, where they are learning new things about their host country and host families and about themselves and their own country of origin.  This experiential learning—that goes beyond what can be learned in the classroom—is another way that we in the Bluffton community develop our capacity to understand and live as a “Community of Respect.” And I can’t emphasize enough how much our influence is needed in the world these days.

Two teachers of respect

In the past month, the Bluffton University community lost two long-serving, retired, emeriti faculty members whose combined 60 years of teaching here exemplified their own deep personal commitments to fostering an ethic of respect.  Let me conclude by offering some descriptions about how they did that—gleaned from the comments of friends and colleagues who knew them well.

J. Richard Weaver served as Bluffton professor of chemistry and physics from 1950-1987.  He was a bright intellectual, a scholar with a keen love or learning who was curious about nearly everything.  Yet Dr. Weaver also took a real interest in other people, and made it his priority to spend time engaging them in ways that demonstrated how much he cared about them and in ways that positively impacted their lives.

In comments sent to his family or stated at his memorial service, several of his former students reflected on how they always felt respect from this professor—even as “average” students who sometimes struggled to maintain C’s in his challenging courses.  One said, “He constantly showed respect for wherever the student was…he never would put them down.  He would respect people no matter what intellectual ability they might have, no matter what their interests, or where they came from.”  And Dr. Weaver was not dogmatic.  He was very willing to listen to many ideas on a topic.  He never told anyone what they should believe, yet he wasn’t shy about giving his own perspective.  He respected people to draw their own conclusions.  In these ways, Professor Dick Weaver demonstrated his high respect for the intellectual process of developing knowledge, and of using critical thinking.

Dr. Weaver was also a globalist in his worldview.  During his own days as a Bluffton student, he helped found the Peace Club.  Later in his life, he contributed many hours and resources to a variety of causes related to world peace, educational opportunity, refugees and social justice.

Another dear friend of Bluffton, James Satterwhite, passed away about a month ago after taking early retirement in 2007 and struggling with a progressive disability.  Dr. Satterwhite had served as a professor of history and political science since 1984, and saw a major part of his work as expanding the world’s horizons for Bluffton students.  Throughout these years, he practiced his own commitments to building greater international respect and understanding through active peacemaking and nurturing the power of ideas in those he encountered.  An annual student achievement award carries his  name today.

Jim Satterwhite was an amazing global citizen, fluent in five other languages—Polish, Czech, Russian, Serbo-Croation and Japanese.  Through his various international scholarship and teacher exchange activities over the years, he also drew a number of international students into studies at Bluffton, further enriching this community.

One close faculty colleague recalls Jim’s penchant for quietly telling wry, sometimes dumb jokes.  Most of his jokes were situated in a cross-cultural context and thus sometimes required the listener to dig a big deeper to fully understand the joke’s source of amusement.  Jim would repeat the joke, smile, and then give a bit more explanation if you needed it—and in so doing, showing his respect and desire to learn more about other cultures.

For many Bluffton students, Jim Satterwhite’s first-person accounts of his service during multiple summers as a member of Christian Peacemaker Teams were most influential.  That work is all about nurturing a climate of respect in some of the most intractable conflicts in the world.  Most of Jim’s work was in Israel/Palestine.  As a member of CPT, he would stand with and sometimes deliberately stand between people in conflict—encouraging the formation of relationships and greater two-way conversation and possible understanding rather than unhelpful and destructive forms of violence.

He spoke regularly about this work as a guest speaker in several Bluffton courses, and to many of our adult degree completion students in their “Living in a Global Community” capstone course.  His constant strategy to all sides in a conflict—what he tried to get across to students as he described his work in real-world conflict situations with CPT—was to view the other person as a human being worthy of respect.  And even if Dr. Satterwhite had a personal opinion about the conflict, he still explained the deep feelings held on both sides of a conflict at an individual level.  He would say that to really understand where both sides were coming from, one has to understand their fears.  And even though one might still be in opposition for largely political reasons, a more positive foundation of respect of others is possible.

I’ve been talking this morning about Bluffton’s “community of respect,” and these last two stories of two remarkable individuals are symbolic of the stories I could share of the many other members of our current and past Bluffton community who work to create a world where people and their ideas are respected.

Bluffton as a model of respect

Last year, we started using the phrase “The Power of Purple” to describe what happens at Bluffton.  Yes, purple is our primary athletic color—and it’s a powerful color at that.  But purple is also a particularly rich color, and one with the quality of being produced by the combination of red and blue—an example of diversity and of differences coming together.  Bluffton is all about bringing people and ideas together for a greater purpose.  We are about a long-standing commitment to living, learning and working together as a community of respect.

We are convinced that this approach to respectful relationships is something that we can model and share with others beyond our campus.  This is clearly a big need in our broader society—and one that we can help address.  My wish for all of us at Bluffton is that we take every opportunity this year to further strengthen our community of respect.

Thank you for your attention this morning.  I wish you all the best in the year to come.  And may it be a very good year for each of you.

 



[1] Cited at www.webershandwick.com/news/article/civility-in-america-2016-us-facing-a-civility-crisis.

[2] Christine Porath, “No Time to be Nice at Work,” New York Times, June 19, 2015.

[3] Both quotes from Patrick M. Scanlon, “Halting Academic Incivility (That’s the Nice Word for It),” Chronicle of Higher Education, March 13, 2016.

[4] See, for example, David Brooks, “Are We on the Path to National Ruin?” New York Times, July 12, 2016.

[5] Jennifer Warren, “Change?  At BC?” editorial in The Witmarsum, November 3, 1995, p. 2.