Subversive ideas that have made us better

This presidential column originally appeared in the Fall/Winter 2023 issue of The Bulletin.

By REBECCA J. STOLTZFUS ’83President of Goshen College

The late American historian Carl Becker wrote about higher education:

“To establish centers of learning on the assumption that, properly supervised, no subversive ideas will be generated in them is to take a great risk.”

It is no secret and no surprise: Goshen College has been in many ways subverted – turned from below – by our inquiring and passionate students and faculty and the transformational changes they have brought about. John D. Roth ‘81, professor emeritus of history and a leading Anabaptist-Mennonite scholar, illuminates and honors that history in: A Mennonite College for Everyone(?): Goshen College and the quest for identity and inclusion, 1960-2020.

The stories in this book are very human – in turns dismaying and hopeful, but always soul-stirring. I was moved and fascinated by the vivid accounts and quotations from past leaders struggling to hold the tensions between stakeholders: governing boards, faculty, alumni, church leaders, community members and the students whom we serve. At times the tensions cannot be held. Relationships are painfully severed; obligations to long-held norms and beliefs are released, allowing for growth and new possibilities. Transformation happens, with its various consequences.

As it turns out, our deceptively simple founding motto of “Culture for Service” inspired by Jesus as the One who serves (Luke 22:27), continually transforms and challenges us, because the world we serve is dynamic and filled with magnificent diversity. That world is not external to our learning community; the world has become a part of us, and that is good.

And so our quest for identity and inclusion continues; it is part of the creative vitality of Goshen College. Tension propels our forward movement.

As I write this, many campuses are experiencing turmoil related to the heart-breaking violence unfolding in Israel/Palestine, fueling Islamophobia and anti-Semitism. The tensions that emerge on each campus are shaped by the students, faculty and local context, as well as world events. I am grateful that Goshen College demonstrates the capacity, on the whole, to address tensions with courage, creativity and compassion. In 2020, we crafted a Freedom of Speech and Expression Statement, rooted in our values, that helps us balance our commitments to free speech and to protect the dignity of all people. It is serving us well.

Our Christ-centered mission of inclusion, non-violence, reconciliation and justice is more relevant than ever. Indeed, if the ministry of reconciliation is at the heart of our Christian vocation, our most radical calling is to go deeper — not thinner — on our Anabaptist-Mennonite commitments and how they compel our work toward an identity centered in shalom. At GC our vision is that: Rooted in the way of Jesus, we seek inclusive community and transformative justice in all that we do.