HARRISONBURG, Va. — Students and seasoned scholars alike gathered March 24 at Eastern Mennonite University for the Centennial Histories Symposium, featuring the authors of five histories of Mennonite higher education institutions.
Among the 80 participants were representatives of each of the Mennonite Church USA-affiliated schools, all founded between 1887 and 1917. The oldest, Bethel College in North Newton, Kan., was founded in 1887; followed by Goshen (Ind.) College in 1893, Bluffton (Ohio) University in 1899, Hesston (Kan.) College in 1908 and EMU in 1917.
“Origin stories are important to help us understand present realities,” said Bluffton President James Harder, who joined presidents emeriti Loren Swartzendruber of EMU and Victor Stoltzfus of Goshen as guest speakers.
Panel sessions with authors and other commentators highlighted the “commonality and unity” among Mennonite institutions during the previous century and considered how Mennonite higher education might look in the next century, said professor Mark Metzler Sawin, who organized the conference with colleague professor Mary Sprunger.
“It was an energizing and fascinating day,” he said. “What came through was a strong desire for these schools to maintain distinctively Anabaptist identities but to do so in ways that embrace and celebrate the changes that have come and will continue to come.”
Learning from the past
Sprunger, professor of history at EMU and daughter of Keith Sprunger, professor emeritus of history at Bethel who wrote Bethel’s 125th anniversary history book, said the symposium’s genesis came from several sources.
The late historian Robert Kreider, founder of the Marpeck dean’s fund, provided some initial ideas. She also tapped into a similar roundtable hosted by Bethel to launch her father’s book and input from Hesston history author and professor John Sharp, who suggested a future-focused frame.
“He wanted to explore how board members, administrators, faculty, students and churches could learn from past mistakes and achievements,” Mary Sprunger said. “He gave me the idea that these college histories could serve not as blueprints for the future — because history doesn’t work that way — but as providing an informed understanding of how our colleges developed as we think about the future. It then made sense to focus on the five Mennonite Church USA-affiliated colleges, since we are facing many of the same challenges.”
Some of those challenges include the smaller percentage of Mennonite students, lowered denominational and institutional loyalty, and stiff competition for students, especially related to financial costs, according to Sawin and Sprunger.
After two morning sessions that spanned the first 100 years, an afternoon discussion forum stoked conversation about current challenges. Topics included:
- What should the guiding mission and purpose of Mennonite schools be in the coming years, given the changes in both the church and the student bodies?
- What can Mennonite colleges do to remain financially competitive? Do we have a responsibility to provide an education for even the economically “least of these”?
- How will Mennonite colleges 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? Where does innovation need to occur?
Current students from the colleges and universities engaged in “lively conversation, sharing ideas such as how to equip students of all backgrounds to participate in leadership opportunities around campus,” Sprunger said.
Their points helped to fuel the final session about the present and future of Mennonite higher education. Student presence and participation was noted by the other speakers, who pointed out that the future of the colleges will soon rest in their hands.
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