Photo: Jon C. Gering. Photo provided by Bethel College.
Editor’s note: This is the sixth 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 Jon is focusing on: As a Christian faith-based learning community guided by the love of Jesus, we make real the infinite worth and acceptance of every person. They seek to be affordable, with a focus on faith formation that is informed by Anabaptist Christian values of service, social justice, witness, peacemaking, hospitality, prayer and knowledge of the Scriptures.
A well-known restaurant advertising slogan invites hungry travelers to “come for the food, stay for the fun!” It contains a promise (food) and a value-added component (fun) that is intended to attract people. The slogan has been appropriated by witty barbecue joints with versions that read, “Come for the ribs, stay for the dessert!” and the comically specific, “Come for the ribs, stay for the pulled pork flautas!” Colleges, like restaurants, are in the business of attracting people, specifically students. Why do students come to a college, and why do they stay?
I came to Bethel College in North Newton, Kansas, in 1991 because the football coach recruited me. I felt valued and important to the team, so I left my dusty, expansive wheat farm in Washington state and drove to the flatlands of Kansas. I stayed at Bethel College because of friends and professional mentors.
In their book How College Works, Daniel Chambliss and Christopher Takacs conclude that students need at least two good friends and just two compelling professors to optimize their chances of staying at a college. I had much more. My faith was challenged and grew in understanding, I experienced excellent academic rigor and discovered extracurricular opportunities for personal growth.
My simple slogan reads like this: I came because I was recruited by a coach, and I stayed because I had meaningful relationships with faculty and staff.
The reality was far more complex, of course. I had an abundance of white Mennonite privilege, an unearned set of advantages that made campus life easier for me compared with my peers (see Mennonite privilege by Ben Goossen). My family could afford to pay, I grew up Mennonite, I had a car, and I was a legacy student. The list of privileges continued: My grandparents were donors, faculty members knew my name, and my staff mentor had been my mother’s roommate. I was comfortable with the style of worship, the food and campus traditions. I had even registered as a conscientious objector on the eve of the Gulf War in 1990.
On the one hand, I returned to Bethel in January 2018 because the needs of the institution matched my leadership experiences and competencies. I had spent 23 years in higher education, earning a master’s degree and a Ph.D. and participating fully and joyfully in ecological field research, university teaching and higher education leadership at excellent liberal arts institutions. On the other hand, I simply wanted to replicate my Bethel experience for the current students. That required leading a rebirth of Mennonite higher education.
The rebirth realizes that we must make all students feel welcome on campus. As a Christian faith-based learning community guided by the love of Jesus, we make real the infinite worth and acceptance of every person. We prize individuals for their unique personalities, talents and life experiences. Mennonite students represent the largest denomination on Bethel’s campus, but Mennonite students are a minority within the entire student body. The majority are the “nones,” students who are nondenominational Christians. Another abundant group of “nones” are students who identify as spiritual but not religious. The students on our campus are beautifully pluralistic, presenting a mosaic of different beliefs and faith traditions. This is profoundly important because it reframes the significance of Bethel College and its relationship to Mennonite Church USA.
Bethel is the first point of contact for hundreds of students who have never heard of Mennonites or Anabaptists. Many of our students know nothing about pacifism, Menno Simons, zwiebach, borscht or Martyrs’ Mirror. They have never considered living countercultural lives inspired by the teachings of Jesus. We teach them about Mennonite values, history and practices. And every year we graduate students who go into the broader world and carry with them the values of MC USA. I like to think they are functionally Anabaptist, whatever their denominational affiliation, including none at all.
The rebirth of Mennonite higher education must also reckon with the widespread effects of income inequality. Over the last 35 years in the United States, college tuition has increased five times faster than household income, making college education less affordable than ever. Student loan debt now exceeds $1.5 trillion, the highest ever in the United States. Many students and families struggle to pay for college. The Mennonite-affiliated institutions can and should take the lead in reducing loan debt for students. After all, income inequality is a form of social injustice, and the Mennonite Higher Education Association Vision Statement requires that colleges “seek to be affordable.”
In April, Bethel College approved a new mission, vision and value set that will be foundational to our efforts at the rebirth of Mennonite higher education. By the fall of 2020, we will launch an integrated work and service program for incoming freshman that will provide tuition credit for residential students. We will join in mutually beneficial relationships to bring the model to scale and make college more affordable for all students. Decades from now, our goal is to be the first Mennonite college to graduate students without any student loan debt. When we achieve that goal, we will have made it possible for any capable student to attend our institution and graduate as a functional Anabaptist, thereby increasing human flourishing and shalom in society.
For our colleges to thrive, and for us to realize a society that functions with peace, justice and kindness, we should adopt this slogan: “Come because you are loved, valued and can afford to be here; stay for the friendships, faith formation and academic excellence.” It can be criticized for its excessive length. I’m also aware of the absence of poppyseed roll as my value-added dessert of choice, but that is a Mennonite privilege topic for a different essay.
Jon C. Gering is president of Bethel College in North Newton, Kansas.