President’s speech: “Finding Education’s Sweetness: On the State of Goshen College'”

by Dr. James E. Brenneman, President of Goshen College on Friday, Aug. 20, 2010 – Goshen College all-employee brunch

There is a song that has been instilled in the souls and minds of school children from the Sudan for almost two generations now that goes something like this:
Learning is good, we have found it so,
Learning’s the best, we have found it so. . .
I will not leave school, I will not leave school
Even if we tire, we shall endure,
We shall find its sweetness in the end.
Even if we tire, we shall endure,
To find its sweetness in the end.”

Excerpts adapted from a Sudanese children’s chorus (1940)
From cover page in The Lost Boys of Sudan: An American Story of the Refugee Experience, Mark Bixler

That song and others like it helped boys like John Bul Sau, Marko Ayii and other “Lost Boys of Sudan” endure the arduous 700 mile journey on foot through the Sudanese desert to Kenya. They eventually settled with some 3800 other Sudanese refuges in the United States. Along the way, they endured the unthinkable: they saw hyenas feed on the bodies of weaker comrades, lived in constant fear that bands of soldiers who had destroyed their villages and killed many of their families would kill them. They walked, half-starved and thirsty with death as a constant companion. All the while, they hoped, dreamed, and believed in that childhood song that: “learning is good// learning is the best// even if we tire // we shall endure to find its sweetness in the end.” For many of the Lost Boys of Sudan, their dream came true. Some went on to graduate from university, overcoming amazing obstacles. And that is sweet, indeed.

Another school, another young man. Twesigye Jackson Kaguri, recounts in his newly published memoir, The Price of Stones, of seeing two brothers die of A.I.D.S. and long lines of people dying of A.I.D.S. lined up outside his parent’s home in Uganda. With out a dime to his name, but with a vision in his head, he returned home to build a school stone by stone for the “untouchable” A.I.D.S. orphans in his village. Today, Nyaka and Jutamba AIDS Orphan Schools stand as living testimonies to the unstoppable power of one man’s belief in the “sweetness of education.”

These stories remind us that the price of a good education may have less to do with money than in having a couple of stones and a dream, a vision, a dogged determination to pursue that dream to the end, no matter what the circumstance.

Here at Goshen College, over the past year or so, we have experienced some of the pain that educational institutions all across the country have had to endure. I recently read a report that said at least 72% of all American companies (including schools and government agencies) have had to down size their work force. Clearly, Goshen College is no exception to this reality. Indeed, we have lost some wonderful administrative and staff colleagues because of recent cut-backs and we anticipate some loss on the academic side as well as the Academic Prioritization process wraps up its work early this fall. The road has not been an easy one, but I am confident that we will find our way through this period of economic uncertainty.

I am confident that in spite of the ongoing enrollment fluctuations of the past 35 years, we will achieve long term sustainable growth. I want to share with you why I believe better days are ahead for Goshen College, perhaps, even the best days yet.

You may remember that almost two years ago, I poised a question adapted from Steven Garber in his best-selling book on higher education, The Fabric of Faithfulness, a question which I repeat today, “Do we [here at Goshen College] have a telos (endpoint) sufficient, personally and publicly, to orient our praxis over the course of [our] life as an [educational institution going forward]?”(57). It was my contention then and now, that whereas Goshen College has had wonderful mission statements in the past that have been for us important guides over the course of our institutional lifetime thus far, the world and church around us has sufficiently changed that the need for a paradigmatic and structural shift from a “family”-centered missions orientation to a vision-centered mission-driven orientation was and is necessary to remain viable for the future.

A rhetorical signpost of this institutional shift in focus is to frame our conversation going forward in vision-oriented language. This shift is more than just rhetorical, however, it is meant to compel us forward in new ways requiring deep structural and emotional changes in order for us to reach our hoped for destination. You may recall, when I first offered a version of this vision statement two years ago, it was a diamond in the rough in need your input, suggestions, challenges and questions, all of which has aided its refinement over time, subsequent revisions, and ultimate submission to the Board for its endorsement this past June.

I truly believe that we can build on the sure foundation of our past and construct an even stronger house of learning for tomorrow. I believe this new vision statement is, indeed, sufficient, to give shape to our work, our strategic planning, our curriculum development, our student and faculty recruitment, our financial aid decisions, our fundraising campaigns, our marketing efforts, our institutional infrastructure – our life together – for years to come.

Goshen College will be recognized as an influential leader in liberal arts education focusing on international, intercultural, interdisciplinary, and integrative teaching and learning that offers every student a life-orienting story embedded in Christ-centered core values: global citizenship, compassionate peacemaking, servant leadership and passionate learning.

Strategic Plan
With the vision statement as the driving force, I directed the President’s Council to review, revise, reduce what had been a voluminous, complex, multi-legged “beast” of a strategic plan (Anna Karenina plan) which was of very minimal use in the actual day to day decision-making process where one has to make difficult strategic decisions — to a Strategic Plan 2.0 version that is nimble, iterative, adaptable for the fast-paced world we inhabit. This revised plan (copy at end of meeting) is made up of just three priorities: integrative teaching and learning, student recruitment and best practices that guarantee (as much as possible) the outcomes we hope to achieve as stated in our Vision.

International, Intercultural Focus
Over the past year, we undertook a Cultural Audit involving some 30 interviews and focus groups on campus, to help identify the deep structures of our institution that have kept us and may keep us from realizing our vision of becoming a truly intercultural, international “house of learning.” The good news is that in many instances we are ahead of other benchmark institutions on many factors indicating cultural awareness and commitment to diversity. Indeed, this past year, Jacob Landis-Eigsti, one of our President’s Leadership Award recipients tried his hand at diversifying our student body-makeup. He pretended to be a student from Bulgaria, complete with clothing and accent, for a whole week fooling the first year students. In the second week he donned his American civies and accent and revealed his true identity. Some students still couldn’t believe he wasn’t Bulgarian. That’s one way of diversifying our campus, I guess.

Whatever sensitivities we do possess regarding cultural diversity as indicated by the Cultural Audit, the actual facts on the ground still speak louder than our words. We remain a campus with an all too small percentage of diverse students, staff and faculty to truly claim to be an intercultural, international college. We don’t yet reflect the diversity of our own local town, middle or high schools, for example, which would seem to be a minimum benchmark for making such a claim. I am not discouraged by these facts, but invigorated, inspired, challenged to do what we must to realize our intentions – which may be more possible now than ever before.

One of the clearest challenges of the Cultural Audit was to me as President and to our President’s Council suggesting we must drive the vision, decision by decision, leaving no stone unturned until our institution reflects the vision we desire in measurable terms. As I said, our student body does not yet reflect our local community. It reflects even less the shifting cultural demographics of our country. Indeed, we no longer reflect even the ethnic and cultural mix of the global Mennonite Church. Ironically, if accreditation were granted or denied based upon our diversity as it relates to our stated desires or mission, as it is granted on whether our mission relates to specific learning outcomes, our accreditation might well have been endangered 40 years ago or more, as might our credibility in the eyes of some even now.

Measuring our diversity quotient is easy enough, getting to those desired outcomes will take a lot of hard, wonderfully challenging, and joyous work. I will say a bit more in a bit about our enrollment and retention challenges in this regard in a moment.

We look forward to implementing the recommendations of the Cultural Audit. Several recommendations are already underway:

  • an evaluation category called “cultural competency” that has been added to the annual employee assessment form to challenge all of us to attend seminars, chapels, convocations, and participate in other events on and off campus that will enhance our intercultural capacities.
  • Faculty development and promotion will be tied to cultural competencies and teaching for equity.
  • We have also committed ourselves to the ongoing work and mission of the Center for Intercultural Teaching and Learning as a very high operational priority as the Lilly grant comes to an end in the next two years.
  • In recommending a more diverse faculty, I imagine developing a “deferred faculty recruitment” position (Meyer) and endowing a Faculty Diversity Chair to help guarantee a more culturally diverse faculty.

Rather than list all the rest of the recommendations here, I invite you to read the Final Report of the Cultural Audit for yourself as it becomes available in the coming weeks. We will also provide opportunity for feedback in the coming months as well.

In short, by 2042 there will be no majority culture in the United States, would that before then, we could say here at Goshen College, “we’re already there.” Now that would be living up to our vision to be “an influential leader in liberal arts education.”

Interdisciplinary, Integrative Teaching and Learning
We are embarking on one of the most creative “teaching and learning” models in higher education. We are redesigning our General Education curriculum from top to bottom, emphasizing interdisciplinary, integrative, takes shape called the Goshen Core. We will provide a student learning environment that will help a student orient himself or herself for life. The entire curriculum will be designed as a grand narrative, a grand story, with a beginning, middle and end. Students will track their learning through e-portfolios throughout their time at Goshen integrating the core values around a certain knowledge base, set of skills and learning experiences.

Today, I am also calling for the recognition of distinctive programs under the rubric of “Institutes of Learning.” Naming distinctive programs as identifiable “Institutes” will make explicit the quality of our academic work, enhance our marketing and fundraising initiatives, and help raise our profile to the benefit of us all. Indeed, I believe it will enhance our vision of becoming a truly interdisciplinary, integrative liberal arts college. To be named an Institute, a distinctive program must fulfill the following minimal criteria:

  1. Match the history, vision and values of the college.
    Have a focus that few other institutions have the ability, expertise, track record to pursue.
  2. Have a focus that is both timely and connected to the local, regional and global communities.
  3. Be able to contribute to identifying and helping solve complex problems.
  4. Have resources such as specialized expertise, funding, space, unique holdings that are aligned with the stated focus or program.
  5. At this early stage, these Institutes will be budget neutral, each continuing to function within their current budgeted allocations.

Based upon the five criteria mentioned above, Goshen College already has two such identifiably distinctive Centers under which an Institute of Learning can easily be established. A third identifiably distinctive program meeting the five minimal criteria was earlier identified through the Comprehensive Institutional Review Team process of two years ago. Goshen College’s Merry Lea Environmental Center will house the “Institute of Environmental Education and Sustainability,” while the Center of Integrative Teaching and Learning (CITL) will house the “Institute of Intercultural Studies and Leadership”. The third program of distinction will be called the “The Institute for the Study of Global Anabaptism,” which has the critical role in preserving the historical legacy of Goshen College, but also broadens the scope to include the global Anabaptist movement.

I have asked the Directors of these three proposed institutes and the Academic Dean to serve on a President’s Advisory Task Force to oversee the way in which these institutes will function within the academic and organizational structures of Goshen College.

Identifying these 3 institutes, does not in any way preclude the possibility of identifying others as well. One might imagine the following:
Institute for Business and Economic Development (CBEE)
Institute for Applied Health and Healing
Institute for Science and Religion
Institute for Fine Arts and Culture
Institute for Communication, Writing and Faith

As with everything in my report, further engagement around this Presidential initiative is most welcome. We hope to launch all three “Institutes” in their new or renewed forms in January 2011.

Offering Every Student A Life-Orienting Story
The student is and must always be the primary focus of all we do and say at Goshen College. To gift a student with an education that orients him or her for a life of service to God and to others is among the noblest of all callings. It is to experience the sweetness of teaching and learning.

No wonder every single one of us who pours heart and soul into this calling, finds it extremely frustrating to witness the slow steady decline of students coming to Goshen College at the rate of 10% per decade for the last 40 years. The decade we are currently in has averaged give or take about 850 to 900 student FTE (bringing our totals to around 1000 more or less). In my time here at GC, it has been a roller coaster ride as it has been for many years now: for three years our first year students were above 200, not too bad given our history, and last year being the highest in 27 years. Two years, including this year, we dropped below 200 (it looks like this year will be in the mid-180’s). The evidence is in. The gap between the higher enrollment years and the lower enrollment years has always been due to a lower number of Mennonite students coming on that particular year. This year is no exception. We knew going in that we would have a lower Mennonite high school graduating pool to draw from, and once again we were unable to make up that difference by recruiting the necessary non-Mennonite student to Goshen College.

Recently, I was reading an essay on Mennonite higher education by John Howard Yoder (“Christian Education: Doctrinal Orientation,” in Concern for Education, ed. Virgil Vogt, 25-26) and was completely floored by an observation he made some 45 years ago. Already then, he made the claim that it had been “only within the last five years that it has come clearly to the attention of Mennonites” that it is no longer realistic to expect “that every loyal member of the denomination should prefer a denominational institution” and to be limited by such an assumption is “in fact clearly wrong.” He goes on to say that to assume such denominational loyalty of our students and their families “has a double negative effect.” The Mennonite students who don’t choose a Mennonite college feel themselves “accused of disloyalty, and unfairly so, for not having chosen a school they were not sure they could afford and where they were not sure they could find courses meeting their need. The college on the other hand feels rejected because it has identified its reason for existence with its claim to serve the total membership of the denomination.”

He concludes that we must free ourselves from this double negative bind. We must make a case for our existence which fits the reality in which we live rather than on a false “axiom of an identity between denomination and school, which, if it ever fully existed, is hardly growing.”

That was forty-five years ago. And every year since, our enrollment decline among our Mennonite constituency and our attempts to reverse that very real trend line using guilt and throwing dollars at the cause without much success seems to prove the prescient if not prophetic insight of John Howard Yoder. Remember some months ago, I did say John Howard Yoder represented the prophetic school of thought at GC. I certainly hadn’t counted on him to weigh in on our dilemma.

Let me be blunt here. It seems I have been too nuanced in the past and have since discovered that sometimes we have talked past one another on the question of Goshen College’s future because we have not started with the same basic assessment of the facts as they relate to our future viability as an institution.

So let me be plain. It is more than likely that the make up of the student body of any viable future vision of Goshen College (or probably any Mennonite College) will most likely be about one third local, one third national/international, one third Mennonite (of all stripes). Certainly, we are arriving at the point where the larger majority of our student body will be non-Mennonite.

After 40 years of evidence, to say this is not a self-fulfilling prophecy. To believe otherwise, seems to be a case of denial. To not say it, I’m afraid, is to not tell the truth based upon the facts. (Yoder said it was clear already in 1960!! Have we not been seeing it?).

Part of our dilemma has been that we have lamented these facts or maybe denied them or if we have accepted them, we have done so reluctantly and with resignation. I can think of no less welcoming atmosphere than a place of lamentation or resignation.

I was surprised when 4 of the 6 seniors who offered senior statements or faith statements at chapel or convocation at the end of last year spoke about how difficult it was to be so different here at GC (presumably, these students were not chosen at random, but were those known to have gained much by being at GC). They used such phrases as “culture shock,” “didn’t fit in” and “having few things in common.” One said she had decided not to come back after her first year, but was persuaded to anyway. They mentioned the “Mennonite Game,” “Mennonite cliques” or insensitive questions about their backgrounds. In short, they didn’t feel valued for who they were and for the diversity and richness they brought to Goshen College. Fortunately, they all stuck it out and graduated. They all praised the life-changing education they received at Goshen College. They were grateful for the help and support they received from other students and faculty members.

I am so glad they “stuck it out” to gain so much. The question that comes to my mind, however, is why should the barriers ever have been so high to these very students who represent the majority of who our future students will be, must be, if we are to remain viable for any student, Mennonite or not?

I believe the time has come to embrace the new reality, embrace the vision of who we will become. The shift in paradigm is a shift in spirit, from lament and begrudging acceptance or resignation or fear of identity loss to arms wide open. To these future students, rather, let us say: “You are our future. We will not exist without you. We welcome you, need you, want you. And yes, we do have some things to share with you that are very important to us, but we won’t even be able to do that without you here.”

The paradigm shift I am speaking of here, ironically, is a shift back to the most fundamental of all Mennonite values – there are no Mennonites by birth – that each person is free to choose his or her path of faith. In recruitment terms, we must compete for every student, Mennonite or not on new terms.

Our goal is long term sustainable enrollment growth — enough already of the herky, jerky nature of our enrollment pattern. No doubt, one of the hardest things many of us will have to do is learn to accept and embrace the new reality (of the likelihood of a large non Mennonite student body). Prestigious Earlham College, like so many Quaker Colleges, remains a Quaker institution even as the percentage of Quaker students often remains quite small. I was told recently that when Elton Trueblood was asked whether Earlham College was still Quaker, replied, “As long as there are one or two of us here with the deep culture of Quakerism embedded in us, I’m not too worried.” Perhaps, such a calmness about maintaining Quaker identity (also with a martyr peace heritage) has to do with the Quaker sensibility that the divine light is part of every person thereby allowing a genuine openness to others at most Quaker educational institutions (cf. Bluffton College’s 100 year history).

I don’t have time to talk at length about some of the additional new ways we will be approaching enrollment at Goshen College, but to name a few:

  • raising the bar on our minimum GPA entrance expectations and
    simultaneously adding 8 proven non-cognitive admissions criteria to assist in knowing who will succeed here and how we can help a student do so
  • changing our approach to recruitment of international students
    dual enrollment with other schools
  • reaching out to local HS more and more
  • additional radio and print adds
  • better website interaction, Jenzebar up and running
  • making CITL cohorts more selective
  • heightening GPA expectations of ALANA students for Stolzfus scholarship
  • reassessing how we distribute financial aid to shape the institution we hope to become
  • collapsing our SEM and IM committees to SEM2
  • seeing a select group of emerging churches as feeders to GC (Mars Hill)
  • and yes, whether you agree with our decision to play the Anthem at GC or not, it is an attempt to lower the barrier for entering GC space, to embrace students, even those with whom one may disagree – a small accommodation, really, helping them feel at home here, so that we might well have the opportunity to engage in conversations with more and more students who are very important to our future viability, if we need that fact as motivation.

Of course, it is no secret that having more students means having more dollars for operations, so any drop in enrollment is always disheartening on that front as well. However, let me quickly say here, that I do feel a bit of a breeze at our backs in spite of the lower than hoped for enrollment numbers this year. We did close the books on last year with a reserve as we head into next year. However, we aren’t out of the woods yet, we must stay the course as we continue to deal with the structural deficits that have been with us for far too long. But we can go into the new year with hopefulness that, for now, we have some encouraging signs that the decisions we are making are the right ones. One gust of wind in our sails is the news that, in spite of the difficult year and economy, our GC fund came in over goal — giving us the highest giving rate to GC in 17 years. Awesome.

Core Values Institute
The Goshen College Core Values Institute (CVI) grows out of a deeply held conviction that I have as President of Goshen College that every student, faculty, staff and board member be given an opportunity to discover his or her part in the unfolding creation that is the Goshen College story.

The foundation for the Core Values Institute is inspired by Robert Benne’s book Quality with Soul and Albert J. Meyer’s book Realizing Our Intentions, each of whom believes a Christian college or university can maintain its historic connections to the church of its origins and remain generously welcoming of others from very different faith perspectives.

In a series of participatory sessions and educational experiences, everyone at Goshen College will be introduced to and interact with the five core values of Goshen College: Christ-centeredness, global citizenship, compassionate peacemaking, servant leadership, passionate learning. These core values grow out of its 500-year old Mennonite Christian faith heritage.

By sharing our varied stories with each other and in conversation with these five core values, everyone — from the study hall to the soccer field, from the board room to the break room — will become an integral member of the Goshen College family.

To read more about CVI see:

In conclusion, I would invite us to aspire to this vision with unstoppable determination, doggedness, and perseverance. No objective, no aim, no aspiration is more worthy than those for which we give our utmost. Indeed, as Jesus said elsewhere, “No one who puts his or her hand to the plow and looks back is worthy of the kingdom.” Or as I once heard it said differently, “Don’t look where you don’t want to go.”

I’m not suggesting that we don’t learn from our past. I’m suggesting we shouldn’t focus on our past failures, defeats and disappointments at the expense of moving forward. We need feed-back loops, to be sure, but even more importantly, we need “feed-forward loops” (Karl Pribam, Stanford neuroscientist), neural pathways of hope that woo us to that better place, that higher destiny to which we have been called, whatever our dream.

And so, will you join me in recommitting ourselves to the dream, the vision, the hoped-for-though-not-guaranteed outcome for Goshen College to become truly known as an intercultural, interdisciplinary, international community of integrative teaching and learning under the banner of our Christ-centered core values? I do believe the song that sustained the lost boys of Sudan until their vision came to be, still speaks to us as well, “Learning is good; learning’s the best; even if we tire; we shall endure// we shall find its sweetness in the end// even if we tire// we shall endure// to find its sweetness in the end.”

Creator God
We are slow fruit on the tree
Cup us gently
Patient for the moment
When the elements
Mature us to sweetness
And you pluck us
For Your table
–Linea Reimer Geiser (mother of Jonathan Geiser)
October 1978