Fall 2007 - Annual Review
Our Voice Is Needed
In a September 13, 2007, interview with Loren Swartzendruber, Crossroads invited the president to reflect on Eastern Mennonite University’s distinctive role in the world of higher education. Dr. Swartzendruber is the eighth president of EMU, beginning his service in January 2004.
He holds a Doctor of Ministry degree from Northern Baptist Theological Seminary, an American Baptist institution in Lombard, Illinois.
Please comment on this quotation from Excellence Without Soul: How a Great University Forgot Education, a 2005 book by Harry R. Lewis, dean of Harvard College from 1995 to 2003: “Universities have forgotten their larger educational role for college students. They succeed, better than ever, as creators and repositories of knowledge. But they have forgotten that the fundamental job of undergraduate education is to turn 18- and 19-year-olds into 21- and 22-year-olds, to help them grow up, to learn who they are, to search for a larger purpose in their lives, and to leave college as better human beings.”
I think Dr. Lewis is right – we don’t simply exist to disseminate knowledge. The real issue is that education needs to be about maturation, needs to be about helping students gain the tools to learn their entire lives. We do that here, but we do more. We unabashedly help young adults mature spiritually. We talk about faith. It comes up all the time, informally and formally. Not in an in-your-face kind of way, but in a conversational style. We are calling people – young adults, ourselves – to faithful living as individuals. In addition to that, though, we also ask, “What does it mean to live in this society as people of God who care about the larger world?”
Social ethics becomes an important discussion. The Bible talks more about poverty and the poor than it does about a lot of other issues. So here at EMU we ask about faith and poverty: What does it mean to live in a country where some people live below the poverty line? What does it mean when people don’t have access to health care? How can I as a person of faith allow that to happen without debate and dialogue?
W hen someone casually asks, “What is a Mennonite?” – how do you answer?
This often happens when I fall into conversation with someone on an airplane. Usually I ask back: “What do you know?” Often people will say, “I’ve been to Lancaster, Pennsylvania. I know who Mennonites are.” They’re usually referring to the culturally conservative Mennonites in distinctive dress and perhaps in buggies. In which case I will respond: “But there were a whole lot of Mennonites on the streets of Lancaster that you didn’t realize were Mennonite.” Then I’ll explain that we are an orthodox Christian group that had its beginnings in the early 1500s in the Reformation. We are one of the smaller Christian denominations, but we are not a cult. We are a Christian denomination that believes in non-violence as a better way to address the world’s problems and as being more faithful to what Jesus taught. This doesn’t mean that we think everybody else has to see it the way we do. But it does mean that our voice is needed and we shouldn’t back off from sharing that witness.
Does being Mennonite – and stating it frankly in the university’s name – overly narrow EMU’s field of
recruitment for students?
I’ve jokingly, but often said, when Notre Dame decides not to be Catholic then we’ll decide not to be Mennonite. Actually about 50% of our students are from other faiths, and I deeply value these students. But I do think we need a critical mass of students who embrace Anabaptist values to retain our identity and distinctiveness.
I have often said EMU probably never will grow as big as some other evangelical colleges or as big as some secular colleges. On the evangelical side, if you have an identity that’s not tied to a denomination but is generic Christian, you have a huge market. There are a lot of Baptists, Methodists, Presbyterians in this country, and they will often feel comfortable with generic Christian colleges. If you have a denominational identity, then that narrows your market, particularly if it is a denomination that’s not very large and has minority views, such as being pacifist. I happen to think that being a university with a distinctive Anabaptist flavor is something that offers the world another option. It’s not going to be attractive to everybody. So EMU will be relatively smaller. Not by design. It is just the way it is. I’m okay with that because I think if we lost that identity, the world would not be as well off.
At the same time, I believe that we would be very attractive to students from other denominations that share our distinctive values. That is a marketing challenge – to get our message to them.
Why does EMU admit non-Christians, such as Muslims, Jews, Buddhists and Hindus?
Many Christian colleges require signed faith statements. Some make incoming students sign very, very specific statements in terms of actual beliefs. I find that ironic. If we are preparing people to share their faith openly, then why wouldn’t we have a campus that has people of different faiths so we can have that dialogue? Also, we’re often dealing with people who are still forming their beliefs, so to ask them to sign a particular document at the age of 17 implies that they have it all figured out, and I don’t think that seems appropriate.
I believe we should have all kinds of conversations about what it means to be a Christian with those who aren’t Christian. Not in a coercive kind of way, but in a way that’s invitational as we say: “This is what we think it means to follow Jesus and here’s how we do it.” Part of the problem in our world is there are people of other faiths for whom a Christian is not something they really want to be. I mean if the only Christians they’ve ever known are those who want to blast them off the face of the earth, that’s not very invitational.
What do you think attracts the 50% of students who are not Mennonite here?
EMU attracts people of all kinds who are seeking an alternative to the kind of soul-less education – one that lacks larger purpose – that Dr. Lewis described at today’s Harvard University. Our undergraduates tend to be people who are willing to take some risks. For example, we expect our students to immerse themselves in a culture different from their own because we feel you can’t be well-educated without cross-cultural awareness. Our alumni often say their cross-cultural semester was the most important part of their EMU experience.
EMU also attracts a lot of students from abroad who are not Mennonite, probably because we work hard to welcome them and help them adapt. We learn from them, as well as teach them. I think they find the atmosphere of sharing, of respected exchange, attractive. I can think of a number of cases where we educated the father or mother from a foreign country and now they are sending us their children to educate. And they aren’t necessarily Mennonite.
What is your hope for our graduates?
I would like our graduates to change the world by leaving EMU thoroughly committed to offering their gifts in the service of others. The first reason to live and work is to serve God and others. So if our graduates are entrepreneurs in business, they do it because they love to create jobs and meaning, and they produce a product or service that is useful. Many of our graduates will go into education, social work, medicine…but they will, I hope, all choose those vocations out of their core values, rooted in their faith.
If our graduates are in their vocations for the purpose of serving others, then that will change the world. Our graduates understand, I hope, that they are part of a community – I know that’s an overused word – but they are not just individuals, they are part of God’s movement in the world to change the world for the better.
How does EMU reconcile its need, on one hand, for generous donations from alumni to modernize our facilities and to offer financial aid with, on the other hand, its emphasis on producing graduates who lead lives of humble service?
I don’t think that wealth in and of itself is a bad thing. There are people who take that position; there are some people who would be more of the mind that if somebody has wealth it probably means they did something unethical to get it. I’ve met far too many people of wealth for whom that just doesn’t fit. Many of them started with an idea. They were creative, visionary. They started a business and it became successful. Many of them are incredibly generous, often without any hunger for recognition. They just love EMU and want to support it.
I had donors ask me just two days ago, “Should we donate to Mennonite Central Committee or Eastern Mennonite University?” This is a couple of considerable wealth who have lived frugally all their lives. They invested in land years ago and it has become very valuable. They care about the whole church. The husband asked me, “Should I give it to feed the poor, or should I give it to EMU?” My answer was, first of all, I support Mennonite Central Committee too. Secondly, Mennonite Central Committee cannot do what it does without personnel, and personnel are going to come from us, or institutions like us. If everybody sends their money only to relief organizations and doesn’t send their money to help train people to do the relief work, the work won’t get done. So there has to be a balance.
What do you regard as EMU’s superlatives?
There is a level of community and of personal relationships on our campus that is pretty phenomenal. Part of that is due to size, but not all of it. I hear this from alums: “You know, I could just walk in and talk to ‘Mark.’ It’s not ‘Dr. So-and-So.’” A high percentage of our faculty members have their doctorates. They are well trained academically. But they are individuals. They are people. What happens when they go to chapel and David King is our song leader? He is our director of athletics. He can also be found volunteering at the Mennonite Relief Sale and on the sidelines as the proud parent of a student-athlete. So our students see our faculty and staff in a wide range of roles. They get to know them as well-rounded people. You don’t see that on many campuses.
Very few colleges are preparing people to engage in non-violent conflict transformation strategies, as we do. This comes right out of our theology, right out of our moral values. Today it is possible to point to places around the world where peace is taking root as a result of the efforts of our faculty and alumni. We ought to celebrate that.
We at small private colleges actually do a better job of getting people into graduate schools than large universities do. So I don’t buy the idea that you have to go to a big university to get into medical school. In fact, it’s the exact opposite. Our students’ rate of acceptance into medical schools and other health graduate programs is close to 100%, which is more than double the national average.
There are many universities in this country doing great things, but few doing what we do. Frankly, I don’t want this university to be like others, even if we remain relatively smaller. I want us to continue to respond to God’s call to alleviate suffering and to be good stewards of his creation.