President's Forum

09/16/15

Harder illustrates 'Power of Purple'

BLUFFTON, Ohio—“The Power of Purple” is a new phrase at Bluffton University, but the concept is as old as the institution, Bluffton’s president said Sept. 15.

It’s about bringing people and ideas together for a greater purpose, like red and blue together make purple—Bluffton’s main school color. And “Bluffton has always been about The Power of Purple,” said Dr. James M. Harder, who went on to illustrate it with five stories that comprised his annual President’s Forum address.

A greater purpose in 1899

At the dawn of the 20th century, the village of Bluffton had about 2,000 residents, new hookups for home telephones and electricity and “a sense of commercial optimism,” owing in part to the pumping of oil from recently discovered fields around the village and the region, Harder noted.

At the same time, many Mennonite farmers and small businessmen were part of the extended community—also including the Pandora area—where their Swiss forebears had settled beginning in the 1830s.

“By the late 1800s, some of the more progressive Mennonites were interested in developing a college so their children would have opportunities for further studies leading to ministry, teaching, commerce and other activities,” the president explained. “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.”

Fast forward 116 years, and the university has over 14,800 living alumni in 49 states and 48 countries. In “yet another Power of Purple act,” he said, many of them contribute financially to their alma mater, most often to support student financial aid and campus improvements. Last year, those contributions exceeded $3.6 million, making it one of Bluffton’s best giving years ever.

Creating Bluffton’s beauty

Much of the campus started as open fields, Harder pointed out, but the wooded campus of today was an outgrowth of an ongoing, “widely shared ethic of stewardship of nature” that started with early presidents and faculty members.

“But perhaps two individuals should receive special Power of Purple credit for their efforts and foresight in this regard,” he continued, citing longtime Bluffton trustees Oliver Diller (1943-73) and James Bassett (1987-2011).

Diller, a 1930 Bluffton graduate who went on to earn a Ph.D. in forestry and a job as a state forester in Wooster, Ohio, planted many trees himself on trips back to Bluffton for trustees’ meetings.

Bassett, an award-winning landscape architect from Lima, Ohio, contributed to several rounds of campus master planning during his years on the board, and continues to help situate and refine landscaping and design elements for a new science building now in the planning stages.

Also contributing to the campus aesthetic is “a rich heritage” of outdoor sculptures and other art, the president said, recalling “Power of Purple moments” that helped make some of that art possible.

In the case of the Centennial Hall Sculpture Garden, his predecessor, Dr. Lee Snyder, was part of a group that was imagining ways in which artwork could complement Centennial Hall when the academic center opened in 2000, Harder related. Gregg Luginbuhl, now a professor of art emeritus, had “an inspiration” that Snyder embraced—to eschew purchase of one or two pieces and instead split the available funds into grants that covered the cost of raw materials for multiple sculptures, which were created by alumni artists and others with donated labor.

Today’s campus improvements

The Power of Purple has also been manifested in several new campus improvements, including the Alumni Field project, which has brought artificial turf and resurfaced running track and field event venues to Salzman Stadium.

A long-range facilities master plan completed by the board of trustees about 15 months ago identified a list of institutional needs and priorities. Among them was dealing with chronic drainage challenges and upkeep expenses associated with the former grass football field and deteriorated track surface.

Several 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,” the president said.

In addition, the trustee leaders suggested that “to capture the true Power of Purple nature of their joint efforts, the new turf field should receive the new name of Alumni Field,” he continued. “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, intramurals and other events.

“Alumni Field is the Power of Purple.”

He also cited two student-initiated projects—two new outdoor basketball courts and a fire circle with benches near Adams Bridge—as “Power of Purple improvements,” along with the renovated Hirschy Hall lobby, which was funded largely with a gift from the class of 1965.

Thinking and learning together

At Bluffton, “we value the importance of being together in our learning processes for the strongest outcomes—Power of Purple learning,” Harder said. “Even in our growing number of online courses, we do them in a way that all the students are online 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.”

The annual civic engagement theme represents “one of Bluffton’s signature ways of thinking and learning together about a topic of significance to society,” he said. This year’s theme is “Gender Roles, Relationships, Realities,” which will be explored throughout the academic year, culminating with presentations by students, faculty and staff on Civic Engagement Day next spring.

A special academic event this year is the Mennonite education conference that will bring leaders, teachers and scholars to campus Oct. 16-18. Coinciding with the conference is the launch of a book on 20th-century Mennonite historian and Bluffton faculty member C. Henry Smith by Dr. Perry Bush, a Bluffton professor of history.

Smith, also an entrepreneur who founded Citizens National Bank in Bluffton, was widely known as a public intellectual who spoke to audiences throughout the region about topics of significance. “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,” Harder maintained.

‘It’s all about relationships!’

The president closed with a tribute to Dr. Donald Schweingruber, vice president and dean of student life emeritus, who died Sept. 12 following a long struggle with cancer.

“It’s all about relationships!” was Schweingruber’s favorite phrase, and it has been engraved into the back of a metal bench installed in his honor this summer in front of Sauder Visual Arts Center.

“Indeed, the good life is all about good relationships,” Harder agreed. “And Don understood that better than most as he modeled and taught the importance of relationships to generations of Bluffton students” from 1972 until his retirement in 2005.

He had remained a close friend since then, the president added, recalling a “special Power of Purple moment” on Aug. 21 when Schweingruber was able to come to campus to see the new bench.

“Bluffton University will miss him dearly.”

The next stories

“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,” Harder said. “That’s the real Power of Purple as we experience it.”

“What will be the next Power of Purple stories in this unfolding narrative of Bluffton University?” he asked his largely student audience. “They will be yours. Now it is your story to write, to join, to be part of Bluffton’s Power of Purple legacy.”

>>> full address

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Dr. James M. Harder
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,” President Harder said. “That’s the real Power of Purple as we experience it.”
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