President's Inaugural Address

Dr. James M. Harder
Ninth President of Bluffton University
October 8, 2006
Founders Hall, 3 p.m.

Extending Our Reach

Thank you, Chairman Stutzman, and thank you President Kreider, for those very kind words of introduction. We are greatly honored by the presence of so many delegates to this inauguration. And thank you—everyone—for sharing in this celebration of Bluffton University with your heartfelt words of support, with your prayers, with your musical talents, with your behind-the-scenes work, and with your presence.

My life is inseparable from that of my family and I want to thank many members of my extended family for coming today—from Kansas and Ontario, from Oklahoma and Minnesota, from Indiana and Ohio, South Dakota and Iowa. And thanks to some very dear friends who are here from the east coast and the west coast and many points in between.

Finally, I would likely not be standing in front of you today were it not for the love and support I receive in so many ways from my wife Karen, and from our children Annalisa and John. All I can say is thank you Karen. And Annalisa and John, I take great comfort in knowing you won't let me get away with taking this president thing too seriously!

As has already been noted, today marks the first time that five Bluffton presidents share a podium together. I am most grateful that each of you could be here. And I must confess, I am just a little bit more than awed at the experience, accumulated wisdom, and institutional history that is sitting behind me! Together, you've done this job for 41 years. I've been at it for not quite 10 weeks!

But it is very fitting for former presidents to gather on the occasion of an inauguration. Together, all eight of Bluffton's former presidents—and those with whom they have worked—have brought Bluffton University to where it is today.

Much has changed at Bluffton during its 107 years of existence, much has remained constant.

In the Fall of 1900, what was then named Central Mennonite College opened its doors for the first time and enrolled its first students. Electricity and telephone service had arrived in the village of Bluffton just two years earlier, and the first two motor cars had just made their appearance on Main Street. The school's founders held high levels of enthusiasm and commitment. But the challenge they had set for themselves was equally formidable.

When the first president, Noah C. Hirschy left the college in 1908, after eight years in office, he told the small student body "it becomes almost painful to place into other hands so incomplete a piece of work." [ 1] At that time Bluffton still consisted of only one building, a rented dormitory, and a cow pasture for athletic activities. But, as Professor Perry Bush recounts in Bluffton's centennial history, the vision of Bluffton's founders continued to develop and gather strength under successive generations of those who have so deeply embraced this place.

A second academic building, Berky Hall, was constructed in 1915 while Samuel Mosiman was president. A year later students raised $950 in the community and built from wood a steam-heated indoor athletic structure. They nicknamed it "The Barn" and managed to pack in as many as 1,000 spectators for big events.

The Depression years of the 1930s and chronic enrollment challenges into the subsequent war years very nearly extinguished Bluffton's flame. But President Rosenberger and Bluffton's faculty, staff and constituents somehow kept that mission moving forward. They often endured real personal financial sacrifice. But as remains the case today, a deep sense of calling, conviction and ultimate purpose under girded their ties to this place—and God's purpose for Bluffton was continued.

Even though the academic program was solid, it took Bluffton's longest-serving president, "Prexy" Ramseyer, until 1953 to establish financial stability to the point that Bluffton's elusive goal of accreditation by the North Central Association was achieved. Significant institutional growth and development continued under Presidents Kreider, Sprunger, Neufeld and Snyder. In 1995 Bluffton crossed the 1,000 enrollment threshold for the first time in its history. That same year Bluffton began offering select master's degree programs. And just two years ago, in 2004, Bluffton took the university name.

I think it would be a fair conclusion that Bluffton's founders from more than a century ago would scarcely be able to recognize the many changes and developments that mark the Bluffton University of today. Perhaps only stately College Hall, the noblest of Bluffton's abundant trees, and the quietly meandering Little Riley Creek that bisects the campus would be among the visual constants.

But I dare conclude that one other characteristic of the original Bluffton would still be recognized by our founders, even after 107 years. And this constant is by far the most critical dimension of Bluffton University. I speak of what is at the heart of Bluffton: engaging the lives of students and sending them into the world as transformed individuals--as our mission statement so eloquently concludes--"for service to all peoples and ultimately for the purposes of God's universal kingdom."

My pledge today, as I assume the role of Bluffton's president, is to continue to nurture this enduring mission. I will do my best to hold it and promote it with the same fervor as has been so clearly demonstrated by my each of my predecessors.

This coming spring, during commencement ceremonies, Bluffton will likely cross another threshold. For the first time in its history, Bluffton will have 10,000 living alumni. Already, this group of teachers, of pastors, of business professionals and farmers, of artists and musicians, of social workers, of scientists and medical professionals, of coaches and voluntary service workers...and the list goes on...live in all 50 states, in Puerto Rico, in the U.S. Virgin Islands, and in 44 other countries. Bluffton makes its mark, not only in its classrooms and student life programs, but also on the world through the lifetime achievements of our alumni. The evidence shows that this smallish institution located in rural northwest Ohio has had a remarkable reach.

Yet I believe that this continuing and unchanging educational mission compels us today to extend even further the reach of Bluffton University. Why? Because the values at the core of a Bluffton education are so badly needed in today's world. This is a world of unprecedented ability and potential, but also one with mounting challenges of a social, religious, political, economic and environmental nature.

It is a world that struggles to maintain a broadly inclusive definition of community and neighbor. It is a world that too often prefers to demonize others and to fear differences rather than to nurture social respect and lift up universal human interests. It is a world in which some adherents of all the world's great religious traditions seem willing to justify the use of violence to promote their human agendas--as if violence were somehow consistent with God's will. It is a world reaping the bounty of modern technology married to the unprecedented productive power of the global market system. Yet it is also a world that could all too easily be destroyed by its own technology, and one that appears to lack the will to face up to the deepening inequalities of wealth and power generated in today's economy. God created for us this gloriously beautiful world, but human activity is now threatening its natural limits.

Yes, we do live in challenging times. But we will do well to remember that no generation has lived without concern for the future. We move forward, as have our predecessors, thankful for much that is good in this world, and committed to being among the positive forces for changing that which is not good.

I am convinced that Bluffton University has, since its founding, graduated students well-equipped to serve our world and help meet its needs.

Bluffton seeks to prepare graduates who have discovered while in college not only a passion for knowledge of the academic disciplines, but also the deeper wisdom of life's purpose, of personal faith and social ethics, and of the wider world. Bluffton seeks to model authentic community in all its relationships. We seek to build a community that is inclusive and welcoming, that recognizes the responsibilities and accountabilities to one another, and that strives to approach differences with reason and respect. Bluffton is infused with an ethic of service to others—intentionally biased towards the marginal and vulnerablein the world. That ethic commits to upholding each other's burdens, and to a non-violent way of being.

It is because we hold such values, consistent with the life witness of the greatest teacher, Jesus Christ, that Bluffton must move forward, continuing its mission, extending its reach. How is it then, that we can achieve this in the years ahead?

First, we extend Bluffton's reach by remaining true to our inclusive peace church tradition.
Even at Bluffton's founding in 1899, it was clear that this school was foreseen to be a place to educate students from the founding denomination. But it was also to be a school that explicitly welcomed "students of all backgrounds." The curriculum plan was to educate church leaders, but also to educate students interested in the liberal arts, professions, and in the world of business and commerce. From its beginning, Bluffton sought to engage the wider society in ways consistent with the Mennonite/Anabaptist heritage of its founders.

Today, Bluffton stands firmly rooted in that historic peace church tradition, believing that it has special relevance for today's world. By choice and as reflected in our mission statement, Bluffton remains closely aligned with the denomination Mennonite Church USA. Bluffton is committed to the centrality of the Scriptures, and to teaching values such as social justice, non-violent conflict resolution, community accountability, and an ethic of service to others that have long been values at the core of the Mennonite/Anabaptist movement. But these values are not unique to Mennonites—they are, after all, Christ-centered values. Followers of all faith traditions who embrace these values in their own ways are very much on equal footing here. And we endeavor to welcome to this school students of all backgrounds who are willing to explore such values, whether or not they can embrace them as their own.

In her own inaugural address in 1996, President Lee Snyder noted that Bluffton takes seriously its societal and global connections and responsibilities. In her words, "The challenge is one of fostering a call to service, of nurturing in our students an appreciation for the way of peace and nonviolence." [2]

Sadly, many influences in today's world seem to work in opposite directions. The world is in urgent need of people and places that apply equal energy and equal passion to advancing the ways of non-violent conflict resolution—to discovering paths and approaches that lead away from perpetual cycles of human violence. We at Bluffton want to be a part of that conversation in constructive and non-judgmental ways. A recent first of its kind book, the collaborative work of 23 Bluffton faculty members, is evidence of that effort. Teaching Peace: Nonviolence and the Liberal Arts shows how a nonviolent perspective can intersect with disciplines across the academic curriculum—from acting to biology, from mathematics to psychology, and from economics to theology.

In this, and in many other ways, Bluffton University is planting seeds of peace and justice in the twenty-first century. It is impossible to predict the eventual fruit of ourwork. But its transformative potential is enormous.

Second, we extend Bluffton's reach by modeling an authentic community of respect on this campus that students take into the world.

Bluffton holds high expectations for its own community life. Campus residency requirements and our substantial commitment to student life programming, and even the architectural planning of Bluffton's campus, attest to that. And the honor code, in use since 1918, symbolizes and demonstrates our shared commitment to personal and intellectual integrity. No monitor is in the classroom during tests or exams. Students write and sign the pledge, "I am unaware of any aid having been given or received during this examination." This reminds us and reinforces our commitments to each other, and is an important feature of our community of respect.

This is the challenging task we set before us in building a community of respect: It should be reflected campus wide in how students, staff and faculty related to each other. It should shape the culture of classrooms, residence halls, extracurricular activities, and athletics. A community of respect should be evident as we engage each other's religious, political, social and economic points of view, and in the tone of conversations between our Young Democrat and Young Republican student organizations—and around faculty/staff coffee breaks. It should expect equality in gender relationships. It should challenge all forms of racism and ethnic stereotyping. It should be noticed by visitors who are welcomed to campus.

The scripture text from 1 Peter, read by President Elmer Neufeld, issues much a similar challenge to the early Christian church. It is addressed as words of encouragement to the Christians living in Asia Minor—what is present-day Turkey. They were a scattered group of people, struggling to cope in an environment that was increasingly hostile to them. Living out their new Christian faith required them to reject much of their past cultural practice. As time passed, Romans recognized that the early Christians were a radically different people and began to persecute them. I Peter addresses the need for Christian believers to maintain strong mutually-supportive communities as a way to sustain themselves and to continue to bear witness to others.

The particular verses we heard from chapter 4 describe how Christians were to act toward one another other within their own communities—even as they also sought to follow Christ's example of loving the enemies who were persecuting them. These early Christians were certainly not all of one mind. But I Peter is clear in how they were to engage each other. They were urged to care for one another and to be hospitable without complaint. They were to serve one another with the gifts that God gave them and to speak only God's truth. This was to be a loving and serving community, a Christian community of respect.

Earlier this year, many of the writings of President Elmer Neufeld were collected and published in the book From the President's Desk. In many of these essays, President Neufeld distilled the Christian mandate into two basic principles that are also reflected in the passage from 1 Peter. In the words of President Neufeld, we must live by "the ultimate principles which Jesus enunciated—love for God and love for one's neighbor." [3]

These two principles—love for God and love for one's neighbor—are also the path to a community of respect. The message is straightforward, yet it in many ways it is extremely challenging to achieve in these times so characterized by secular models of division and hostility. But the rewards of living and learning in a community of respect are enormous. It opens doors to building trust and to engaging diversity. And both trust and diversity open doors to the unfamiliar and to the world. It empowers the type of personal growth that can only occur when we put ourselves in position to learn from the life experiences and unique perspectives of those who are not like us—and who might, in fact, disagree with us.

We undoubtedly fall short of the high ideals we have established for building an authentic and diverse community on this campus. Yet there is clearly something remarkable about Bluffton's community of respect. We do make a difference in the world and we will work hard to continue in that goal.

When students graduate, they become part of new communities and work places. In Ohio alone, these Bluffton alumni include 800 active teachers, 100 social workers, hundreds of business professionals and many others. They carry with them a deepened commitment to the values of community, of neighbor, and of responsibility to others.

Friday evening, at the Alumni Banquet, we heard stories of how four Bluffton alumni have implemented these values in their lives—as pastor, as professor and researcher, as special needs youth worker, and as volunteers in numerous settings. We rejoice in the many ways in which Bluffton's reach is extended through the fruitful lives of our alumni.

Third, we extend Bluffton's reach by daring to be different.
This was evident at Bluffton's founding, and we must continue to be willing to take this risk today. Like all good colleges and universities we aspire toward nothing short of academic excellence in all of our programs and in our faculty's research. The difference I speak of is Bluffton's continuing commitment to do that in alignment with the words of our motto, "The Truth Makes Free"--words visible on the University's seal in front of me. This motto is taken from the eighth chapter of the Gospel of John: "If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free."

President Ben Sprunger's own inaugural address reflected on the nature of this truth. He called for "an environment where scholarship, Christian faith and Anabaptist values are examined simultaneously, not segmented...," an approach that he described as a "unifying educational experience." [4]

I believe that rather than limiting academic freedom, as some would claim, this approach opens the doors to discovering the truth about all dimensions of life—body, mind and soul.

I believe that a Bluffton's Christian liberal arts education produces graduates prepared to address real human problems. It produces graduates of character prepared to become both intellectual and moral leaders in their communities. It produces graduates with strong personal convictions, but also with appropriate humility. It produces knowledgeable and skilled graduates who—like their teachers—are not afraid to be a bit different themselves—and who, because of that, will be able to make a real difference in this world.

This is not a particularly easy path of education, because it raises difficult questions that must be confronted. But if Bluffton remains true to its mission, if we seek the truth that makes us free, we are unlikely to ever be totally comfortable in our work.

This is an education that prepares and does things for us, but also one that does things to us. In the view of philosopher and theologian Nicholas Wolterstorff, it "pulls us forward to take action in the world, to help bring about human flourishing, suggesting that we cannot remain indifferent to the plight of those around us." [5]

At Bluffton, we must continue to challenge each other to act upon our understanding of the needs of the world, to dare to be different, when necessary, in doing those things which we believe to be right.

As I noted at the outset, this work is intergenerational. Today it is my time to assume the role of Bluffton's president. The day will come when I will pass it on to someone else.

I was most honored, earlier in this program, to have been introduced by my friend and mentor, President Robert Kreider. An essay he penned in 1986, entitled "The Recovery of the Academic Vision," closed with the following words:

Our vision?
To tell the story.
To be a community.
To find joy in the community of scholarship.
To go forth with a vocation to transform.
To be aware that the hour is late. [6]

My hope is for Bluffton University to move forward in the years ahead, continuing to extend its reach in support of the purposes of God's universal kingdom.


 

[1] Perry Bush, Dancing with the Kobzar: Bluffton College and Mennonite Higher Education, 1899-1999 (Telford, PA: Pandora Press U.S., 2000), 58.

[2] Lee Snyder, "And So Let us Expect Great Things," president's inaugural address, October 6, 1996, p. 8.

[3] Elmer Neufeld, From the President's Desk: Scope Articles, 1978-1996 (published by the family in 2006), p. 34.

[4] Benjamin Sprunger, "A Road Less Traveled By...," president's inaugural address, October 27, 1972, pp. 5, 6.

[5] Nicholas Wolterstorff, Educating for Shalom: Essays on Christian Higher Education (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2004), xiii.

[6] Robert S. Kreider, Looking Back into the Future (North Newton, KS: Bethel College, 1998), p. 237.