Inaugural Address: “Distinctively Goshen”

Inaugural address, delivered by Dr. Rebecca J. Stoltzfus, president of Goshen College, on Saturday, Feb. 17, 2018, in the Music Center’s Sauder Concert Hall (as prepared for delivery)

Dr. Clemens, past presidents, members of the Board of Directors, honored delegates from other universities and colleges, beloved colleagues from Cornell, fellow faculty, staff, students, alumni, members of our civic community, and friends of Goshen College:

Conrad, I accept the trust and the charge that you and the Board of Directors have given to me, and I do so with humility and with joy.

Next year, this institution will be 125 years old. It did not come into being casually, and certainly not by chance. It came into being through the extraordinary vision and energy of the first generation of Mennonites to attain higher education and by Mennonite youth, many of them straight off the farm. And they taught and learned together with faculty and local students who were not from the Mennonite tradition but who were inspired to join this Elkhart County experiment. Together they discovered the thrill of ideas, debate, and scholarship. Together they created:

  • A college that was built in something of the manner of a barn-raising, with the president laying planks across a muddy plot of farm land to welcome the first class.
  • A college for mainly rural, Mennonite students from families with little or no experience of college education.
  • A college where literary societies quickly became the rage, staging spirited competitions that drew nearly every member of the campus community as well as local citizens to their every Friday evening debates.

In 1913, three years after Goshen College offered its first baccalaureate degrees, Milo March, completed his first two years at Goshen College, went on to Princeton University, and then to Oxford on a Rhodes Scholarship. He later stated that it was at Goshen where “he really learned how to study.”

Today we honor those founding men and women, who pressed their vision and energy as cultural and academic entrepreneurs — pressing sometimes within and sometimes against the social boundaries of the Mennonite church as it moved from the 19th into the 20th century.

Today, we face an historic degree of tension and social pressure in higher education, reflected in a tangled debate about the worth of a college degree, the appropriate role of debt in obtaining that degree, and concerns that college degree attainment in the U.S. is stagnant overall and inequitable by race and income level. This, in the face of research showing that a college degree is also strongly and positively associated with people’s lifetime earnings and sense of thriving and well-being.

If we at Goshen are to navigate and illuminate a way through this turbulence, our particular light must shine even more brightly. If we are to persevere and indeed flourish for another 125 years, we must be clear and confident about what we offer the world.

Such an education, I propose, will have certain distinctive and defining qualities. These qualities are not new to us, but are re-affirmations of who we have been. I offer you today four affirmations, which I believe are distinctively Goshen, and which yet need to be renewed for this new time.

I affirm that a Goshen education will continue to express and to integrate the transcendent values of beauty, truth, and goodness.

We offer an education that liberates through engaging the whole person; it awakens and enlarges the capabilities of our students through the integration of the arts, the sciences, the humanities, and the application of knowledge to do good.

These days, liberal arts education is being severely questioned. The 11th president of Goshen College, J. Lawrence Burkholder, wrote in 1983 that our commitment to integrative learning is in fact a part of our faithful call not to conform to the pressures of the world. It is part of our theology of education. He wrote:

“I would suggest that a worthy expression of non-conformity these days would be to resist the inclination . . . to be satisfied with fragments. Rather, the challenge is to think systematically and comprehensively. We must have the courage of rational association and creative synthesis. This means making core curricula as attractive as possible and thinking as broadly and as synthetically as we can. / In a post-modern age, to build rational structures by tying together as much of what is good, true and beautiful as possible is to be non-conformed at its deepest level.”

Thirty-five years later, I can say with confidence that the Goshen Core curriculum is outstanding in its integrative nature. No curriculum is perfect or immutable; but what this faculty has made is exceptionally creative, interdisciplinary, and integrative.

My second affirmation is that a Goshen education will be one in which the faculty are outstanding scholars engaged in the pursuit of truth. They are scholars in their disciplines and they are scholars of teaching and learning. I am here, in part, because of my deep respect for this faculty, and because I am determined to support them.

And so I say to our faculty: Today you are behind me on this stage. But every day I am your president, I will be behind you.

Teaching is a vocation that is terribly demanding — and often delightful. This creative delight is possible when, in the words of Paulo Freire:

“The teacher is no longer merely the-one-who-teaches, but one who is taught in dialogue with the students, who in turn — while being taught — also teaches. They become jointly responsible for a process in which all grow.”

And thus our work happens in a truth-seeking community.

Parker Palmer, considered one of the most influential leaders in education, describes truth as “an eternal conversation about things that matter, conducted with passion and discipline. . . .” The academic disciplines, ideally, teach us sets of practices and standards for making inferences and holding conversations about truth.

At its best, our truth-seeking community includes many diversities of experience, intelligence, identity, and academic discipline, and advances our knowledge through creative conflict, not competition. When our teaching is relevant to our lives and our students’ lives, when it involves controversial ideas or challenging methods, conflict arises.

Palmer continues: “We welcome creative conflict not because we are angry or hostile, but because conflict is required to correct our biases and prejudices about the nature of things.”

Let us embrace relevance, controversy and challenge! Let us practice how to listen deeply, to be curious about our differences and to create a conversational space when it is uncomfortable — even distressing. Let us manifest our respect for the intrinsic worth of every member of our campus community, and also our freedom to ask challenging questions and speak opposing views.

Third, I affirm that a Goshen education will continue to be experiential and transformative to an unusual and adventuresome degree. Our education combines acquired knowledge and direct experience. Study leads to experience and experience leads to study. Whether in a classroom or community or lab or oratory or stage, experiential learning challenges you to “try this!” Then you will know something to be true or false for yourself.

Goshen College students “try this” when restoring prairies on our campus and measuring the return of species of plants and pollinators. When learning not only French or Spanish, but also Wolof or Quechua as they build relationships with host families in Senegal and Peru. When learning as students within a local prison classroom as ‘outsiders,’ alongside the ‘insider’ incarcerated students. When learning to see how racism hangs on, within our society, and yes — within our campus — and when practicing skills to dismantle this and other forms of oppression.

Throughout our history, Goshen scholars have written a great deal about transformative education — which I stand behind. I also want to hold this over-used term to its true and high standard. It does not come cheap.

Education always involves growth and change. The Catholic scholar, Richard Rohr, makes this distinction:

“Transformative education happens not simply when something new begins but when something old falls apart.”

It invites and sometimes forces the learner to go to a new place because the old place is not working anymore. Goshen challenges learners to let many “prior things” fall apart — received world views or biases or privilege that stand in the way of our becoming the people we long to be, and to bring about the world we want to live in.

Looking back on my own experience at Goshen I can see how my own transformations that happened here have affected my life and my career. On my Study-Service Term in Haiti, I learned that living simply and vulnerably as a cultural outsider brought about moments of deep connection and happiness. My prior idea that wealth and power were the keys to joy and beauty fell apart. As a woman, my experiences and relationships here taught me that being female did not make me less scientific or less able to be a leader. My prior ideas about my own capabilities fell apart.

These “prior things” did not go down without a struggle. Transformation is not tidy. The process of old ideas falling apart is disruptive and chaotic. It usually includes a disconcerting reorientation. This is where friends, mentors, teachers, and one’s own intelligent, shining soul become essential ingredients.

Being unusually accustomed to transformative learning, our students, staff and faculty, at their best, possess qualities of patient, wise warm-heartedness in our moments of transformative growth.

Finally, I affirm that a Goshen education is rooted and established in love — or in the words of our motto, in “Culture for Service.”

I affirm that we are rooted in an educated conscious love, formed and transformed by the way of Jesus. A love that gives us courage to be vulnerable and to be fierce when called upon to act for goodness.

This taproot of love leads us to make particular commitments in this time and place:

  • At a time in our nation when social inequalities are increasing, we will strive to craft policies and choose actions that expand social opportunity and increase equity.
  • At a time when the rhetoric of higher education pits job preparation against holistic human development, our education will be holistic and prepare our graduates for great careers.
  • At a time when the arts and humanities are viewed as non-profitable, we will preserve them, because they enable us to make a world that is worth living in.
  • At a time when we are overwhelmed by disconnected information, we will host “the eternal conversation about things that matter.”

I stand on the shoulders of past leaders, some no longer with us and some here today. Thank you, presidents Brenneman, Showalter and the first President Stoltzfus, my father. Thank you interim presidents Newbold, Yordy, and Weaver. Thank you all for your work in leading this institution. And thank you to the friends, alumni, faculty, staff and students whose devotion to Goshen has cultivated and sustained this distinctive college for more than 124 years.

But our work is never complete. As I look ahead, I want not only to build on our current distinctions, but to imagine a vibrant future as well.

I imagine a future where we openly engage with and invest in this Maple City of Goshen, this Elkhart County and this region of Michiana — a future in which we see our commitment to local place and land and people as a part of our distinctive strength, a wellspring of learning and relevance. This city claims as its motto that we are ‘uncommonly great at the common good.’ It is our very good fortune to be a part of this common good.

I imagine us growing in our knowledge and relationship to the Potawatomi and Miami people who originally inhabited the lands of Goshen College.

I imagine our campus culture being transformed by the full participation of the increasingly diverse student body who are choosing a Goshen College education. I imagine a Goshen College transformed by that new reality; willing to let “prior things fall apart” when our transformation requires it. And to create new things together.

Most of all, I imagine the joy of working with this community to create shared vision and new aspirations as we continue to offer a distinctive and excellent Goshen College experience for life, leadership and service.

I am deeply honored to accept the role of president of Goshen College. I accept your charge with deep humility, because the trust you are extending is so great. No one is wholly adequate for this task, and I will need your patience and companionship as we learn together the work that lies before us and the decisions that we will be called to make. I accept your charge with deep gladness, and I will serve you with my whole heart and being. May we be strengthened in our inner beings with power through the Spirit, and may Christ dwell in our hearts through faith as we go forward, rooted and grounded in love.