Photo: Susan Schultz Huxman. Photo provided by Eastern Mennonite University.
Editor’s note: This is the seventh 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 Susan is focusing on: The schools work collaboratively to recruit students, provide rigorous academic programs, vocational and professional formation and job placement. 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.
“Who do you say that I am?”
This is one of the most fundamental and frequent questions that Jesus poses to his followers, curious onlookers and skeptics. As we know, answers varied wildly. Even after performing many miracles, the Gospel of Mark tells us, Jesus asks his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” Only Simon Peter utters a response: “Thou art the Christ.”
That vexing question still resonates today in different, though no less important, forms. Christian institutions, for example, like to “check the pulse” from time to time of their publics. As members of the Mennonite Higher Education Association, we want to know: What do people say about the identity of our Mennonite colleges? And the people who serve them? To learn more about what people say about EMU, visit Highlights from the President’s Desk.
I feel blessed and humbled to be named the ninth president of Eastern Mennonite University in Harrisonburg, Virginia, the school’s first woman president and first academic president. Yet I firmly believe the presidency is a partnership, and so I am indebted to my husband, Jesse, for saying, “OK, I’ll leave a management job in news and marketing to follow my wife,” not once but twice.
Recently, EMU celebrated a LOVEMU Day of Giving. What an outpouring of support from friends in 42 states. We raised $115,000 in one day. The T-shirts our faculty, staff and students displayed to “show the love” said it all: “EMU expanded my world”; “EMU feels like home”; “EMU deepened my faith”; and “EMU changed my life.” I watched our field hockey coach and women’s volleyball coach compete with great spirit to be the top EMU athletic program among 18 varsity sports to raise funds for us. This is one of many “holy moments” I am privileged to experience as president of EMU. It’s easy to be a tireless champion of our mission “to prepare students to serve and lead in a global context” in the spirit of the scripture “to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with God” (Micah 6:8).
For someone who spent over two decades on the faculty and as an administrator first for an elite private college (Wake Forest University), and then for a state research university (Wichita State University), the return to Christian universities that are unapologetic in their commitment to Mennonite values is a breath of fresh air (Conrad Grebel University College in Waterloo, Ontario, and EMU). My husband, Jesse, and I believe Mennonite colleges make a difference and change lives. It did for us. All three of our adult children have or will be graduating from three different Mennonite colleges. Two of them met spouses there too.
In 2011, when I was recruited to serve as president of Conrad Grebel, and in 2017, to serve at EMU, some amazing things had happened in my life to position me for “such a time as this.” I took some satisfaction in being called what the Chronicle of Higher Education labeled the “subversive 10%”—women in academia who are married, with more than two children, serving as senior administrators, who have found ways to become tenured and promoted in “publish or perish” research institutions in the United States.
My passion and fortitude to forge a difficult and rewarding path didn’t just happen. I was lucky to be born into university culture—literally. In my first months of life, I lived in the men’s dorm at Stetson University in Deland, Florida, where my parents were residence hall faculty hosts. Twelve years later, my dad left his position as chair of the history department and took our family of five from the beach to the prairies, where he served as president of Bethel College in North Newton, Kansas, and my mother as a trailblazing entrepreneurial helpmeet for two decades. When you add that I have been enormously privileged to have so many mentors in my life—some gentle, others more firm—who had been encouraging me over the years to get back to my Mennonite roots, I am humbled daily by this life trajectory.
As an academic who loves students, teaching and research, I did not aspire to leave the classroom. But I have found it enormously satisfying to make a difference at this level. I see my role as a supporter of student success and faculty scholarly excellence and inspired teaching. Many moons ago I was a point guard. And you know the most important statistic for a point guard? Assists. My job is to help EMU people score.
We’re better together
All six of the Mennonite higher education institutions—Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary, Bethel College, Bluffton University, EMU, Goshen College and Hesston College—are founded on the unconventional wisdom that a Christ-centered story matters in higher education, that a superior education demands the nourishing of mind, body and spirit. Our collective academic ethos is grounded in a sacred premise: all students are viewed as gifted people created and loved by God.
Most of our students in the MHEA are not Mennonite, yet many graduate with a deep appreciation for Anabaptist values and practices. How valuable is such an aspiration? The journalistic writer Anna Quindlen says, “It’s so much easier today to craft a resume than to craft a soul.” Our Mennonite schools are equipped to help students craft souls. Given that loneliness is now considered an epidemic, especially among Generation Z (ages 18-22) what a gift Mennonite education provides. The personal attention and mentoring we give is a sacred antidote to secular brokenness. Each student we graduate in the MHEA is a potential disciple for Christ. Praise be to God!
Today in higher education, especially the small, faith-based college market, we face unprecedented economic and demographic challenges. We are better equipped to weather these headwinds if we work together where there is strength and efficiency in greater numbers around program and delivery systems. The old admonition was “publish or perish”; the new one is “partner or perish.” MHEA schools are already collaborating in recruitment. Look for our shared messaging at the Mennonite Church USA convention, MennoCon19, this July. We also collaborate in programs (Collaborative MBA, sociology, doctorate of nursing practice, sustainable climate solutions, etc.), but we have just begun.
We have moral and economic imperatives to open up more pathways for people to access and afford the transformational power of a Mennonite higher education experience. We need to forge multiple entry and exit points into our distinctive academic hub of expertise, empathy and enterprising missional impact. We are each “bright stars,” but how much greater an impact we make in the cluttered universe of colleges when we form a distinctive and attractive “constellation” that prepares our students for relevant and in-demand careers and meaningful spiritual lives shaped by the reconciling love of Jesus.
As we prepare for Pentecost, and in this season of commencements, may we remember Jesus’ first words to his disciples after rising from the dead: “As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you” (John 20:21). We are called to “graduate” from individual disciples who believe Jesus is Lord to form a collective band of apostles ready to act as a body of Kingdom seekers. The Great Commission calls us to be a sent people together. What a calling!
Susan Schultz Huxman is president of Eastern Mennonite University in Harrisonburg, Virginia.