Centennial Histories Symposium taps into Mennonite higher ed’s ‘commonality and unity’ to face challenging times

Historians of Mennonite colleges and universities who attended the March 24 Centennial Histories Symposium at Eastern Mennonite University include, from left, John Sharp, Susan Fisher Miller, Donald Kraybill and Perry Bush. Approximately 80 participants gathered to explore the subject. (Photos by Macson McGuigan)

Students and seasoned scholars alike gathered March 24 at Eastern Mennonite University for the Centennial Histories Symposium, a day-long intellectual gathering featuring the authors of five histories of Mennonite higher education institutions.

Among the 80 participants were representatives of each of the five schools, all founded in the 30 years between 1887 and 1917. The oldest, Bethel College, was founded in 1887, followed by Goshen College (1893), Bluffton University (1899), Hesston College (1908) and EMU (1917). Since their founding, all have undergone dramatic transformations in purpose, subjects taught and extracurricular activities, and student demographics.

“Origin stories are important to help us understand present realities,” said Bluffton University President James Harder, who joined presidents emeriti Loren Swartzendruber, of EMU, and Victor Stoltzfus, of Goshen College, as guest speakers.

Panel sessions with the 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 challenges and opportunities of the next century, said Professor Mark Metzler Sawin, who organized the conference with colleague Professor Mary Sprunger.

From left: Loren Swartzendruber, Victor Stoltzfus and James Harder, current and former college and university presidents, with centennial history authors Keith Sprunger (Bethel), John Sharp (Hesston), Susan Fisher Miller (Goshen), Donald Kraybill (EMU) and Perry Bush (Bluffton).

“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 in the next years and decades.”

“Among the many stimulating aspects of this gathering,” said Susan Fisher Miller, author of Goshen College’s history, “were the ways old questions covered in the college histories were recognized, by the time we reached the evening session, to impinge with relevance on the new questions in the current life of the colleges, or even the ways the new questions cast light backward on the old.”

Learning from the past

Sprunger, a historian herself and daughter of Bethel history author Professor Keith Sprunger, said that the genesis of a comparative centennial histories symposium came from several sources: The late Robert Kreider, founder of the Marpeck Dean’s fund, provided some initial ideas. She also tapped into a similarly themed roundtable hosted by Bethel College as part of the launch of her father’s book and input from Hesston College 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,” 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.”

Students gather to discuss Mennonite higher education at the Centennial Histories Symposium. (Photo courtesy of Mary Sprunger)

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.

Crowd-sourced responses to current challenges

After two morning sessions that spanned historical context over the first 100 years, beginning with the purposes and distinctives of each school and moving into past challenges and adversity, an afternoon discussion forum stoked conversation in small groups about current challenges.

Some questions addressed include:

  • 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 now 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.

For more coverage, read a blog entry by EMU archivist Simone Horst at the Anabaptist Historians website.

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Participating authors

Perry Bush is the author of Dancing with the Kobzar: Bluffton College and Mennonite Higher Education(Cascadia Publishing House, 2000). He is professor of history at Bluffton University where he has taught since 1994. Bush has written widely on social, peace and religious history in 20th-century America in both popular and scholarly journals and is the author of three additional books, most recently Peace, Progress and the Professor: The Mennonite History of C. Henry Smith (Herald Press, 2015). He is a graduate of University of California, Berkeley, and Carnegie Mellon University.

Susan Fisher Miller is the author of Culture for Service: A History of Goshen College 1894-1994 (Goshen College, 1994). At Northwestern University, she is senior associate director in the Office of Foundation Relations, where she helps faculty members obtain research funding from private foundations. Fisher Miller previously taught at Goshen and Wheaton colleges and North Park University. She has been a member of the Goshen College Board of Directors since 2015. She is a graduate of Goshen College and Northwestern University.

Donald B. Kraybill is the author of EMU: A Century of Countercultural Education (Penn State Press, 2017). He is internationally recognized for his scholarship on Anabaptist groups and often consulted by the news media regarding the Amish. He is distinguished professor and senior fellow emeritus at the Young Center for Anabaptist and Pietist Studies at Elizabethtown College. Kraybill is the author, coauthor, or editor of many books and professional articles on Anabaptist-related topics and his Mennonite best-seller, the Upside Down Kingdom (Herald Press) has just appeared in a 40th-anniversary edition.

John Sharp is the author of Hesston’s history, A School on the Prairie: A Centennial History, 1909-2009 (Cascadia Publishing House, 2008), where he teaches history and Bible. Since, he has written My Calling to Fulfill: The Orie O. Miller Story (Herald Press, 2015) and The Bible as Story: An Introduction to Biblical Literature (WorkPlay Publishing, 2016) with co-authors Michele Hershberger and Marion Bontrager.

Keith Sprunger wrote Bethel College of Kansas 1887-2012 (Mennonite Press, 2011), his eighth and most recent book to date, to celebrate the 125th anniversary, or quasquicentennial, of Bethel’s founding. Sprunger, who is Oswald H. Wedel Professor Emeritus of History at Bethel College, has published on topics of 17th-century English and Dutch Puritanism, Mennonite history, oral history and historic preservation. He retired after nearly 40 years of teaching in 2001. He is a graduate of Wheaton College and University of Illinois.

Participating presidents

Loren Swartzendruber began his career in Mennonite higher education as associate director of admissions and associate campus pastor at EMU. He has been a pastor, a staff member on the Mennonite Board of Education, and president of Hesston College and EMU.

Victor Stoltzfus studied at Goshen College, AMBS, Kent State University and Penn State. He worked for 15 years in public universities and 15 years in administration at Goshen College, for three years as academic dean and 12 years as president (1984-1996). He is the father of current Goshen president Rebecca Stoltzfus.

James Harder, a graduate of Bethel College and University of Notre Dame, is Bluffton University’s ninth president in its 119-year history. He will have completed 12 years in that role upon his planned retirement on June 30. He has also been on the faculty at Bethel College and Bluffton in business and economics. and his wife Karen taught and worked together in Kenya, Tanzania and Bangladesh and India with Mennonite Central Committee and MEDA. Harder is active on church-wide boards and agencies.