Photo: Jane M. Wood. Photo provided by Bluffton University.
Editor’s note: This is the fifth article in a seven-part series by the presidents of Mennonite Church USA higher education institutions. From March to May an article by each president will be posted every two weeks. The entire series is available at themennonite.org/mhea. Sign up for our TMail newsletter and follow us on Facebook to receive the articles.
Excerpt from MHEA vision statement Jane is focusing on: As Christian, faith-based learning communities, the schools make real the infinite worth and acceptance of every person. They endeavor to enact the biblical commandments to love God, self and neighbor and all creation. They hold together—in creative tension—scholarship and faith, knowledge and love, wise judgment and welcoming embrace.
In early April, I had the pleasure of attending my first Civic Engagement Day on the campus of Bluffton (Ohio) University. This is a day when we do not hold regularly scheduled classes in order to hold panel sessions, developed by students and faculty, to engage in interdisciplinary learning. This year’s topic, “When Talking is Tough—Respectful Conversations in a Divided Nation,” provided a forum for Bluffton’s diverse student body to engage and debate challenging questions in ways that model an approach to civic participation that is greatly needed in a world divided by increasing polarization and scarred by violence in many forms.
At Bluffton, Civic Engagement Day and all aspects of the curriculum and student experience grow directly from the university’s mission: “Shaped by the historic peace church tradition and nourished by a desire for excellence in all phases of its programs, Bluffton University seeks to prepare all students for life as well as vocation, for responsible citizenship, for service to all peoples and, ultimately, for the purposes of God’s universal kingdom.”
At Bluffton, everything begins and ends with mission. This is what drew me to serve as Bluffton’s president, and this is why I am fully dedicated to the future of Mennonite higher education.
My journey to Bluffton
I began my life in northwest Missouri, growing up in a large Methodist family where Christian faith was central to my experience. My husband, Wayne, and I raised our two daughters in Kansas City and were members at the United Methodist Church of the Resurrection. We continue to attend a Methodist church in Bluffton. While I earned my academic degrees at public universities, including a doctorate in English literature at the University of Kansas, I have spent most of my academic career serving at smaller, Christian institutions, including Mount Marty College, a Catholic, Benedictine institution in Yankton, South Dakota, where I served as vice president for academic affairs prior to coming to Bluffton.
At Mount Marty I worked with and learned from Benedictine sisters who were committed to helping students learn and grow intellectually, spiritually and in service to others. In fact, I was not planning to leave Mount Marty until I received a call from a colleague who encouraged me to take a look at Bluffton’s search profile. When I did, I was drawn to Bluffton’s mission and the way the institution communicated the centrality of mission across the full range and depth of academic programs, co-curricular experiences and the life of the university community.
Bluffton’s mission and Mennonite higher education matter
Now, as I complete my first academic year as Bluffton’s president, I have confirmed what I sensed during the search process. Bluffton is a special place. The natural beauty of the campus is enhanced by a diverse student body, where the mission statement is boldly stated on the beams of the Dining Commons and where highly committed faculty and staff guide students toward lives of meaning and purpose with a curriculum shaped and nourished by Mennonite perspectives and values.
From its founding days, Bluffton’s administrative leaders and faculty have consistently communicated a desire to educate Mennonite students along with students from diverse faith backgrounds and those without a background of religious identity and practice. This diversity contributes to a dynamic campus learning experience, especially when faculty invite students to think critically and consider alternatives to society’s longstanding assumptions about the use of force and violence to resolve conflicts.
The good news is that guiding students from all backgrounds to engage complexity on the path to becoming highly educated people is at the heart of the mission of Mennonite higher education. Many of our students do not come to us from Mennonite backgrounds. Some, as a result of their college experience, will be drawn to more active involvement with Mennonite Church USA and other established denominations. All will encounter Mennonite perspectives and values that will influence them in profound ways.
My goal as Bluffton’s president is that all our students experience the values of Mennonite higher education through the work of our faculty and staff in ways that equip them with the knowledge, wisdom and spiritual resilience they need to embody these values through lives of service to others and, ultimately, for the purposes of God’s universal kingdom.
Jane M. Wood is president of Bluffton (Ohio) University.