Photo credit: Macson McGuigan/EMU
In celebration of Eastern Mennonite University’s centennial year, history professors Mary Sprunger and Mark Sawin planned a symposium centered around the centennial histories of the five MCUSA colleges: Bethel1, Goshen, Bluffton, Hesston, and EMU. They brought together the five authors of centennial histories as well as past presidents to share their reflections on the histories of the schools. The symposium offered an opportunity for consideration of how the past of these schools plays into their present and future.
The first session was a panel discussion where each author gave a brief overview of the histories of their institution. The authors shared in order of school age; Keith Sprunger from Bethel first, then Susan Fisher Miller from Goshen, Perry Bush from Bluffton, John Sharp from Hesston, and finally Donald Kraybill from EMU. It was interesting to hear parallels in the motives for some of the schools’ foundings. There was a common thread of these schools starting in order to save Mennonite students–both to save them from the evils of the world and to save them from leaving so that their talents could be used in the church. All of the authors recognized that loyal faculty and staff have seen the schools through very difficult times. They also echoed a theme of change and adaptation across the five schools stories. But some differences were apparent as well–Midwest vs. East coast, “liberal” vs. “conservative”, and an openness to the world vs. a fortress mentality. Past presidents Loren Swartzendruber and Victor Stoltzfus and outgoing Bluffton president James Harder also shared their reflections.
In the second session the authors shared about challenges throughout the schools’ history. Keith Sprunger shared about Bethel first, mentioning issues like financial struggles, low enrollment, difficulty in finding quality faculty, and diversity. These topics would be echoed by many of the authors on the panel. Susan Fisher Miller discussed declining Mennonite enrollment and pondered whether the Mennonite institutions have become victims of their own success–did they nurture strong minds early on who then moved on to “greener pastures” of more prestigious education and subsequently encouraged their children to do the same? Perry Bush spoke about how Mennonite institutions are now a part of the national marketplace of higher ed and have to contend with issues like being competitive cost-wise, offering good value for money, and finding support outside of traditional church and parachurch organizations. John Sharp mentioned the historic lack of cooperation between Hesston and Bethel even though they are located just a few miles apart. Don Kraybill spoke of the particular issue of encouraging diversity at EMC while contending with the Jim Crow-era South. The authors all acknowledged ongoing “sibling rivalry” between the institutions, but noted that early attitudes of isolation and competition have since been replaced with an attitude of cooperation.
The third session was a time where groups of faculty, students, staff, administrators and authors gathered around tables for conversation. Participants discussed the morning’s sessions as well as questions from a prepared handout that asked:
- What should the guiding mission and purpose of Mennonite schools be in coming years given the changes in both the church and the student bodies?
- Is being distinctively ‘Mennonite’ important?
- Institutions by necessity grow and change. How will Mennonite institutions need to change to remain relevant in the future? What are the ‘givens’ that must remain? What are the traditions that may need to change?
There was a second handout highlighting enrollment trends at the Mennonite institutions over the past fifteen years. It broke down enrollment by MCUSA conference, trends of Mennonite student attendance, and overall full-time Mennonite traditional undergraduate enrollment at the schools. These graphs can be found here: http://bit.ly/MennoHS & http://bit.ly/MennoSystem
These questions and the data sparked fascinating conversations surrounding Mennonite identity and population at the institutions, what it means to be a Mennonite institution in the face of dwindling Mennonite attendance, and what impact larger societal trends are having on these institutions.
In the final session the authors gave their final thoughts on how the first centuries of these institutions will inform the next. Many reiterated the distinctiveness of these five institutions in maintaining their Mennonite identity over their histories and the importance of loyal faculty and alumni. Susan Fisher Miller highlighted the benefits of diversity and an international focus. Perry Bush reminded the group of how radical and attractive the Anabaptist perspective can be to students, both Mennonite and non-Mennonite, and said he believes remaining distinctly Anabaptist and following a Third Way is the best path forward for our schools. John Sharp posed the question: who are we serving if the church that we serve is scattering? Don Kraybill had to leave early but left remarks that were read reflecting on the difficulties of maintaining Mennonite institutions of higher education without a critical mass of Mennonite students and strong church support. Finally, students responded to what they had discussed in the afternoon. They spoke of their appreciation for the opportunity to learn more about the history of their institutions and called for more cooperation and conversation between the student bodies of the schools.
Many in the Q&A sessions voiced a wish that these conversations had taken place long ago and a desire to see them continue in the future. It was a hopeful time for me to see such cooperation and engagement across a variety of sectors in our Mennonite institutions and I, too, hope that these conversations continue as we all work toward our common goal of providing distinctive, faith-based, Anabaptist education. As I reflect on the symposium, I feel that it is clear that the Mennonite institutions of higher ed are entering a new era. The old models are unreliable and in order to survive and thrive there must be an openness to new ways of being. This brings uncertainty, grappling with questions of identity, and, at times, pain. But it feels necessary to ensure the survival of these beloved institutions in their second centuries. As someone who was shaped by Mennonite education and feels privileged to work at EMU, I hope that the challenges facing the institutions will spark creativity, cooperation, and positive change and allow for the continued flourishing of our Mennonite institutions.
Special thanks to Mark Sawin, Mary Sprunger, Barbara Byer, Scott Barge and all others who contributed to facilitate this fantastic symposium.
- Bethel’s history was written to commemorate its 125th anniversary. ↩