President’s speech: “Back to the Future: Reflections on Being GC’s 16th President”

Final farewell convocation address, delivered by Dr. James E. Brenneman, President of Goshen College, on Friday, April 21, 2017, in the Goshen College Church-Chapel (as prepared for delivery)


Good morning! Students, alums, current and former faculty, staff, presidents, board members, distinguished guests, volunteers, friends and family, I am deeply grateful for your presence here today. Mis hermanos y hermanas queridos, muchas gracias por su presencia.

When I was invited to offer some reflections on my time as president, I was a bit nervous to do so, quite frankly. Looking back can strain the neck muscles, after all, and cause one to ask about the what if’s and could’ve beens. Or to remember embarrassing moments like forgetting any one of your names more than once, or uttering malapropisms in speeches, like the time I mentioned someone wearing a rolodex instead of a Rolex.

One immediate reflection for which I am always aware and is one of the soundest pieces of advice my father gave me when I first set out, sight unseen, to GC as a student many years ago, was this: “Jim, whatever you do, try to do your best, and nine times out of ten, looking back, things will have worked out for the better one way or another.” C.S. Lewis put it this way, “Isn’t it funny how day by day nothing changes, but when you look back everything’s different?” Perhaps, so. Looking back, I do believe things at Goshen College have changed for the better.

In my inaugural address, I commented on the Psalmist’s claim (90:10) that life is short, that our days, like leaves of grass, are “too soon gone.” As I reflect on how fast my time here at Goshen College has gone, l am even more aware of the brevity of life in general and how “too soon gone” are the days of all sixteen presidents of Goshen College stretching back over the last one-hundred and twenty-three years. We, who have had the honor of leading this great institution, are, perhaps, most blessedly aware of our own impending oblivion. Ours is but one small blade of grass in a field of dreams, one stem, one branch, a leaf of an old old Maple tree whose roots run deeper and wider than any one individual or even a generation of individuals.


Having said that, I don’t want to leave the impression that I am less passionate in any way about the vision I shared in my first visit to GC as president-elect in November 2005. I like to think that I have relentlessly pursued that vision, a bit like Headmaster Albus Dumbledore at Hogwarts might have, without the magical powers, of course. Lord I wish I had some of those!

I said then and believe now that “the world needs Goshen College.” Goshen College exists to pass on to a new generation the grand and glorious values and truths articulated 500 years ago by a forward-looking, outside-the-box-thinking group of people called Anabaptists. Even as we continue to invest in cross-cultural service around the world, I asked us back then to increase our attention locally, working closely with civic and business leaders in service to the surrounding community. I imagined a transformation of our city, our region, and our beloved alma mater that would “encourage increased consideration of how best to make educational opportunities available to all.” I asked then, “Are we ready to respond to the tectonic [intercultural demographic] shift in higher education that is taking place before our very eyes,” especially members of our communities who live, play and work across the street and right next door?  “I believe we can,” I said then. Si se puede!  Yes, we can. Indeed, I said, “we must!”

I have been motivated in part by the movement of the Spirit described by the late great educator, pastor, mystic, writer, civil rights leader, Howard Thurman, who taught and inspired a host of students like Martin Luther King, Jr. at Morehouse College and thereafter. He wrote this: “The movement of the Spirit of God in [our] hearts calls us to anticipate a spirit which is yet in the making. . . to [receive] wisdom and courage to dare a deed that challenges and to kindle a hope that inspires.”

If in my time here, God’s Spirit called us to anticipate a spirit which is yet in the making, to dare a few deeds that challenge, and to kindle a few hopes that inspire, I am most grateful. I could be here all day describing so many deeds and hopes that have inspired me, while here. I am choosing to highlight only a few.

If we have shifted from a mostly ‘family-centered’ college to a vision-driven one, I hope it’s because we anticipated a spirit yet in the making. If when we agreed to a new vision a decade ago that imagined a Goshen College that would become — as we’ve articulated in our vision statement — a “recognized leader in intercultural, international, interdisciplinary, and integrative teaching and learning offering every student a life-orienting story,” what joy it is that we are realizing that dream come true. We have carried out that vision with tenacity and grit, transforming the GC core curriculum to ensure intercultural competencies and outcomes, while transforming our student demographic to a majority student-body of color in the next couple of years.

Goshen Mayor Jeremy Stutsman presents a key to the city to President Brenneman during the final convocation.

If Goshen College has helped shift the Goshen-Elkhart community conversation around diversity from that of benign neglect, even hostility at times, to that of a noble, economic enriching, attractive asset, then our vision of a vibrant inviting city and community as a truly great place to live, is fast becoming a reality.

If Goshen College has also, in the process, become closer to that beloved community Martin Luther King Jr. imagined already back when he visited here in 1960, if we have become more Christ-like in our love and embrace of others, whatever their race, creed, or orientation, then dare we imagine that there will be no past-Goshen College greater than the Goshen College yet to come? I, for one, believe that with all my heart.

In terms of our Anabaptist values, dare we insist, now more than ever, that every Anabaptist vision still to be written will grow out of the grander vision of our global awareness as a people unbound from earlier mono-cultural narratives and Anabaptist visions of the past? The Institute for the Study of Global Anabaptism, one of three institutes established in the last decade, almost guarantees by its ongoing research programs that the Anabaptist global community will be well served for years to come.

In terms of our continuing transformation as an intercultural campus and, indeed, as a driver in the economic transformation and quality of life in our region, I have no doubt that our Center for Intercultural and International Education (CIIE) will continue to lead the way, as it has since its inception. If the vision of Goshen College is coming to pass then, as I said at the formation of the Center of Intercultural Teaching and Learning/ now CIIE, it is because CIIE houses our very institutional soul.

CIIE not only holds the moral authority to keep us true to our intercultural vision internally, its strategic importance externally is gaining even more traction. It’s work, mandated at its beginning, was to help our whole region and beyond in intercultural education. Goshen College co-hosted with Notre Dame just last week, a statewide conference on Hispanic Higher education for the 31 private colleges and universities in Indiana, only one recent reminder among many of GC’s leadership in the state in intercultural transformation. Here too, I believe, there is no past-Goshen College greater than the Goshen College which is still to come.

If Goshen College has become a nationally recognized “green campus” whose counsel was sought by the White House in preparation for President Obama’s trip to the Paris Climate Accord meetings last year, then being a charter signatory of the American College and University President’s Climate Commitment, having formed GC’s Ecological Stewardship Committee, and having established the Institute for Ecological Regeneration has been well worth the countless hours and hard work resulting from those initiatives. Of course, in all of these efforts, GC’s mighty green-machine, the Merry Lea Environmental Learning Center, helped lead the way in helping Goshen College gain that national recognition. All this gives me the greatest confidence in saying, there is no past in GC’s environmental leadership greater than the ever-greener Goshen College still to come.

When I look back, it’s also the future I see. I am so grateful for each and every person who has worked so hard to help make our intercultural, inclusive, greening vision come to pass, not only in word, but also in deed.


Mistakes? Well, there were plenty enough along the way, for sure. Former Goshen College President J.Lawrence Burkholder warned fellow Mennonites and others of “the limits of perfection.” I think it was his way of saying, that “making mistakes is better than faking perfection.”  I hope that some of my mistakes have even been correct when judged by my conscience before God. On that front, St. Augustine wrote, Errore hominum providentia divina — “God’s grace works in and through human error.” Or as Luther put it in his snarky way, “God can even carve rotten wood or ride the stubborn mule.”


Today, however, above all, is a thanksgiving day in April. There is a scene in The Empire Strikes Back where the droid C-3PO (See-Threepio) is so relieved by the news that Hans Solo survives being frozen in carbonite that it exclaims, “Oh, Thank the Maker!” Sometimes, even droids cannot help but give thanks!

Perhaps, by quoting a fictional droid, I underscore the truth that the greatest gift a liberal arts education can give anyone — be it metaphorical, literary, literal or spiritual — is an ever-deepening life-long sense of gratefulness. Like C-3P0, I wish to express my deepest thanks to all the makers and the Divine Maker of this wonderful, blessed institution called Goshen College.

I am most especially thankful for all those who have helped make Goshen College the intercultural campus it is becoming, whose near majority-minority student body will soon reflect the actual diversity of our neighborhoods, the Anabaptist world communion, indeed, the biodiverse evolving earth as the Maker and Creator intended for it to be.

For me personally, and by extension for Goshen College as its 16th president, makers of the college’s intercultural vision include the teachers and classmates of my first educational experience in the ethnically diverse Mennonite-related Sharon School in the heart of Ybor City, the Cuban-quarter of Tampa, Florida. A list of my makers would include the Alvarez, Canella, Dominguez, Esposito, Garcia, Horst, Lehman, Menendez, Sauder, Tuñon, Valido and Brenneman families of Ybor City Mennonite Church. In those crucial formative years, I never knew that church or school would not include all the varied people of the neighborhood, indeed, a profound witness in the midst of a still segregated South. Without these makers, my spiritual development may have been severely arrested, my image of the possibility of a truly intercultural Mennonite church, and its colleges and universities stunted. To all of you, of my fore parents and friends back there, thanks.

I am keenly aware of the truth proclaimed by the writer of the Book of Deuteronomy that “we have all drunk from wells we did not dig, lived in houses we did not build.” For all those past and now present makers of Goshen College: GC board members, faculty, staff, administrators, donors, alumni, parents, our mayor(s) and other civic, business and community leaders, my own band-of-brothers who I meet with monthly, and so many friends of GC, and for known and unknown others who have supported me, but more importantly, embraced the vision of an ever-evolving Goshen College: thank you as well.

Not to be overlooked are the C-3PO-like functions of a college, those inorganic technologies, machines, policies, systems, ideas, chances, indeed, all the various parts and their sums behind, beneath, around and about us — makers all. All to be appreciated and thanked, too.

And, of course, I thank my strongest allies and supporters, my extended family. I especially want to acknowledge my mother, brother and parents-in-law, who were with me at my inauguration, but now have passed from this earth. To Dr. Terri, my life partner and friend, and Quinn, our son — thank you for being such great fans and helping ground me in a life that truly matters.

President Brenneman greets students during his farewell picnic on April 21, 2017.

Most of all, I wish to thank all of you students! You have been my deepest source of inspiration, motivation, rejuvenation and joy. Hands down. Without you, without your bright energies, your will to learn, your push-back, your challenges, your enthusiasms, your amazing talents that every single year blow my mind and expand my heart, without you — Goshen College would never be. It’s because of you, literally you and all future you’s to come, that I have no doubt that there is no past Goshen College greater than the Goshen College still to come.

As I leave these years behind, I must add one additional person to the list of thank you’s: the soon to be 17th president of Goshen College.Thank you for taking on this noble calling. I am as excited as all of you to know who that person will be! I promise to do everything, no matter what, in my power to make this transition the smoothest possible. I wish for the new president wisdom, and awe, and grace and joy and will pray and support the president in every way I can. I encourage each of you to do the same in the months and years to come.


When I first addressed you as president-elect in November 2005, I said then that “the world needs Goshen College!” I still believe that proclamation more than ever! Today, however, I would simply add, “and Goshen College needs the world!” The making of a liberal arts college so great as this, will always include “the world and all that dwells therein” whose many makers and Divine Maker are worthy of our deepest gratitude.