President's Forum 2008

This is a year of much promise. We begin with more than 270 new first-year students, the largest incoming class ever at Bluffton. Together with new transfer students, we have enrolled our second largest number of new traditional students ever. We are glad you are here!

Last year at this event, I spoke about our campus-wide efforts to work at environmental stewardship. I am pleased to report that an enhanced Bluffton recycling system has been achieved as one lasting outcome of that work, thanks to the efforts and advocacy of many. Thank you for making this program a success. It is clearly working, judging from the volume of recyclables being collected and processed.

And those of you who were at this Forum last year might recall that I reported on our campus-wide paper use and urged creative ways to conserve. I am pleased to report some success on that front as well. Our business manager, Rick Lichtle, calculated that Bluffton's annual paper consumption two years ago in campus computer printers and photocopy machines was 3,682,000 sheets – or about 3,000 sheets of paper for each faculty, staff and student. For the academic year just completed, with everyone's awareness and creative efforts to conserve, those numbers were reduced by 26%. That's a significant achievement that we can all be proud of, and should motivate us to keep up this planet-friendly effort.

In addition to what normally makes for an exciting academic year – in the classroom, through student life activities and in a whole range of performance and athletics events – there will be plenty of special highlights this year.

I'm sure this fall there will be lots of excitement surrounding the upcoming national and local political elections. Observers are noting that younger voters are becoming energized and plugging into the political process once again, which can only bode well for society's future. We have a tremendous opportunity on this campus – knowing that students, faculty and staff come here from the full range of political perspectives – to model our "community of respect" ethic in how we engage each other on the important issues of the election season.

Also this year, Bluffton will host two national academic conferences that will bring noted scholars in their field to campus. Later this month, a group of about 300 American Historical Association participants from predominantly evangelical colleges and universities will explore the topic "World History and History that Changed the World." It will be preceded by an undergraduate student research conference that will also draw student historians from other campuses to Bluffton. We all have a great opportunity to be good hosts and to participate in a significant event.

And next summer, this campus will be the location for an interdisciplinary conference on the theological legacy of Pilgram Marpeck, an early leader in the Anabaptist movement of the Protestant Reformation in Germany and Switzerland. In case you are wondering, Pilgram Marpeck is the namesake for our Bluffton student center, Marbeck Center. According to professor Gerald Mast, Marpeck lost his job and faced persecution because his faith convictions ran contrary to political dictates of the day and he had to move from one city to another in search of tolerance. He consistently refused to defend himself with violence or coercion. More than 450 years later, that example of his faith continues to inspire many.

Civic engagement theme
This will indeed be a year full of many opportunities. As you know, this year our campus-wide civic engagement theme is "Living With Uncertainty in a Complex World." Uncertainty is never easy to deal with. It's not easy for me and I doubt that it's easy for you either. But it is an important contemporary reality that we will do well to think about together this year. We will do that in a number of ways during this academic year, all leading up to Civic Engagement Day on April 1. That day will be full of many special activities. It will be an occasion to reflect on what we have learned – on what we require in order to feel secure and how those needs translate into actions in our communities and with others.

As we move further into the 21st Century it can often seem that the future seems more and more uncertain. Whether it be about maintaining access to sufficient energy, shifting job markets, climate change, political instability, empty government coffers, a sense of deepening cultural divides and religious tensions or something as basic as whether our educational systems are up to the massive challenges we face, it often seems that everywhere we turn our attention things seem to be unsettled. This is in part because the world is becoming a more and more complex and interconnected place. A big part of that perception, I think, results from the ever-expanding tentacles of the global economy. Market forces and communication capabilities reach everywhere and draw the world's people together toward a common future as never before. But at the same time these forces increase our sense that we are also competitors in the marketplace as never before. Ours is a very different reality from only a century ago, when most things beyond the next county could safely be ignored if one chose to do so.

To be sure, one additional reality that is hard to refute is that the pace of change itself is quickening with each passing decade, a source of stress in its own right. I was struck by this a few weeks ago when I attended the funeral here in Bluffton of a remarkable 92 year-old woman named Lois Rodabaugh. Lois was remembered as a devoted wife and mother of seven children, but was also a woman at the forefront of many changes. She graduated from what was then Bluffton College in 1938, earned a master's degree from Case Western Reserve University and then worked side by side with her husband "Doc" Rodabaugh in their family medical practice in Bluffton. After earning a second master's degree in guidance and counseling, she became Bluffton's first full-time dean of students and directed the health service and taught women's studies. She accepted many leadership roles that were not typically open to women in those days and she mentored many younger women into similar endeavors.

While all this was going on in her personal life, just imagine all the other changes she navigated. At the time of her birth, in 1916, fewer than 35 percent of American families had a telephone at home – that's a black phone, connected to a land line, with a telephone number often shared by more than one household. And the Ford Model T was still in its early years of production. During her lifetime Lois Rodabaugh learned about and adapted to television, penicillin, nylon, ball point pens, ultrasound technology, communication satellites, lasers, human spaceflight, ATMs, genetically modified organisms, artificial hearts and the World Wide Web.

During this last year of her life – 2008 – technologists are perfecting 12 gigabyte USB flash drives that fit on a key chain, that sell for less than $100. These flash drives will be able to hold all of the 30,000 digitized books that by year's end will have been generated by Project Gutenberg – the entire holdings of a typical public library.[i]

I'm sure that for Lois Rodabaugh, as it is for each of us, the accelerating pace of change was most often exciting and energizing. But I think we would do well to also recognize the downsides of added stress as once familiar things and assumptions about life keep shifting. Living with uncertainty in a complex world.

Bill McKibben, author and environmental educator, suggests we are facing increasing uncertainty and change not just because of new technologies, but also because of another increasingly significant reality. [ii] During this century the world will move into unprecedented levels of human population worldwide. Due to demographic forces already in place, current projections are that the world's population, now 6.7 billion, will probably grow by about 40 percent during the next half century before reaching a peak in excess of 9 billion human beings. From a global population perspective there is no human precedent for what is to come. But then, fortunately, after reaching a peak, the world's population will likely slowly start to decline as development continues in poor countries.

If one implication of this is clear to me, it is that during this coming century, especially, we will have no choice but to learn to do a better job of forging relationships and working side by side with others on this planet. Only together can the human race adequately address the massive environmental, economic, political, social and religious changes that are being created. In today's new globally-connected reality, all the fences and walls in the world won't provide any nation with the real sense of well-being that it craves. To achieve the peaceful world that good-willed people everywhere desire we will have to learn to deal with those challenges in other ways – and I think a key starting point is to recognize and build upon the common interests and aspirations of the 6.7 billion people who share this planet with us.

In my days in graduate school at Notre Dame, I was privileged to be a teaching and research assistant to Dr. Denis Goulet, at that time perhaps the world's foremost development ethicist. He was an amazing person, having lived for periods of his life on four continents and fluent in at least as many languages. And I might add that I was greatly honored by his presence on this campus two years ago on the occasion of my inauguration – shortly before he passed away. Dr. Goulet's lifetime of research and scholarship was dedicated to furthering the understanding of how economic and social development occurs around the world. In one of his most widely-recognized books, The Cruel Choice, he suggested that there are three values that can be recognized as goals sought by all individuals and societies everywhere. [iii]

The first universal value is life-sustenance. People everywhere value the same set of life-sustaining goods: food, protective shelter and healing for self and family. Beyond those basic requirements for life-sustenance, many different life-enriching things are valued, but at the most basic level, we all value the same things as human beings.

After life-sustenance, the second universal component of the good life identified by Dr. Goulet is esteem – every person's sense of worth and of being respected by others. He suggests that all men and all women in all societies seek esteem, although they may call it identity, dignity, respect, honor or recognition. But as Goulet notes, for the first time in history, even in remote corners of the world, modern communication technology has made the poor fully aware of how impoverished they are in a world that tends to judge personal worthiness by how much a person owns. This is further increasing instability in the world in which income gaps keep widening.

The third and final component of the good life that Dr. Goulet suggests is valued across all cultures, by rich and poor alike, is freedom. As he notes, and I quote him, "Countless meanings attach to this troublesome word. At the very least it signifies an expanded range of choices for societies and their members, together with the minimization of the pursuit of some perceived good." It is both a freedom from perceived bad things, as well as freedom for achieving the goals of one's self and one's group. Goulet's point is that freedom is desired by people everywhere. But – and I think this is a very intriguing perspective – they wish to have only that degree of freedom they need to engage in spheres of activity for which they feel competent. As Goulet puts it, "To step outside that orbit may be to flirt with unmanageable anxiety."

The three universal human values that Goulet proposes – sustenance, esteem and freedom – have implications for us as we think this year about issues of security and about living with uncertainty in a complex world. Are there perspectives that might translate perceived threats into something more hopeful?

Bluffton's library provides access to a wealth of data resources that offer a rich scorecard on how countries are doing in crucial areas such as basic food security, access to clean drinking water and in literacy and infant mortality rates; in long-run environmental management, clean air and soil erosion; in promoting security and managing terrorism and armed conflict in the world; on religious trends in the world; and on income distribution and economic growth.

Here's where the "complex world" portion of our civic engagement theme really comes into play. Even more so than in the past, the world has become a place that defies quick generalization or simple analysis. Within each country are many different realities for different groups of people. The United States is a prime example of that complexity. For instance, we can proudly claim the most advanced health care technology in the world. Yet we don't measure up well compared to other rich countries where citizens have a more secure access to basic health care. Here's another example of complexity – the global movement toward free trade. It's been widely documented that free trade and global investment strategies by the owners of capital have shifted millions of jobs from high wage into low-wage and low-income countries. We know that all too well here in Ohio. Economic dislocation for many workers and business has occurred here – along with lower prices for much of what we purchase in the store and expanded opportunities and jobs for those businesses that can export their production. And at the same time these new global trade and investment patterns have created badly needed economic opportunities for some of the world's poorest populations. Across southern and eastern Asia, where by far the majority of the world's poor reside, perhaps half a billion people have been lifted out of absolute poverty in just one generation – much faster than many experts thought was even possible. Granted their incomes are still very low by our standards. But for many poor Asians, basic sustenance is now within easier reach and life expectancy is rising.

I want to shift my focus, now, to our own Bluffton campus community and share some thoughts about what this all means for us. We can't change the fact that we live in uncertain times with plenty of complex issues in store for our future. Yet there are things that we can do on our own and for each other that will better equip us to work in constructive ways with that future – a future that for all of its challenges is also full of much hope and promise.

I will describe how I believe our work at Bluffton, as students and as educators, is so important for the future we face. There are three things we do at Bluffton, not necessarily sequential, that prepare us for that future. First, we acquire knowledge. Second, we discern values. And third, we take action.

Acquiring knowledge
Throughout the ages and at every stage in life more and better knowledge is the primary antidote to uncertainty. I can well remember how – when my own two children encountered new circumstances such as the first visit to the dentist or the prospect of a family move to a far away state – they felt much more secure about what was to come after asking lots and lots and lots of questions. In these times, since much of what we will face in our future is global in nature, it makes abundant sense for our college preparation to include plenty of global content. A global education has become essential preparation for life in the 21st century, and this is what Bluffton prepares you for. Let me describe some of the ways we do it.

I begin with a reminder that our Bluffton liberal arts style of education is arguably the best type of education one can have as preparation for rapid change and uncertain times. A Bluffton degree requires that you work hard to learn solid skills of critical analysis and reflection and that you are stretched to encounter insights and perspectives beyond those needed for a single field of study. We require of you courses in humanities and religion, the natural sciences and social sciences, fine arts and more so you can better understand the world around you. Our liberal arts and sciences program creates a basis for life-long learning and provides you with the capacity to thrive in a variety of settings. It works at modeling a vision of how a community can develop shared responses to complex issues and concerns.

We believe that our cross-cultural requirement provides opportunities for you to experience a culture that is different from what you are familiar with, in a place that most likely offers sharp contrasts to life in northwest Ohio. And we know that participants most often return with enlarged perspectives and deeper understanding of how people – people whose names and faces become familiar – live elsewhere.

Here are a few comments that Bluffton students have written on their cross-cultural experience evaluations: "The ... experience connected me with people and gave me a cultural context to better understand them." "By stretching myself to go beyond my comfort zone I had experiences that became a part of who I am and the things I believe. It was absolutely critical to my academic and spiritual growth." "I am now a different person, more aware of the world around me and problems that not only affect me, but that affect a greater community."

About 85 percent of you will leave campus for a cross-cultural experience as part of your Bluffton education, which is actually quite a remarkable distinction. Just this last May term Bluffton students studied cross-culturally in Bolivia, Guatemala and Israel/Palestine, and in Arizona, Chicago, Los Angeles, New Orleans and New York City.

This past June, I accompanied Bluffton's pilot cross-cultural experience for students in our graduate MBA program. My wife Karen, a Bluffton professor of business, led the trip. The time we spent in the country of China – just before the start of the Olympic Games – helped us gain insights into a country that is so much in our news and perhaps often misunderstood by outsiders. We met with business leaders and organizations, many with commercial ties and affiliates back here in Ohio. On several occasions, we were surprised by what our Chinese contacts knew about Bluffton University. For example, Mr. Alex Koi, general manager of Cooper Tire in Shanghai, China, warmly greeted us and then began his presentation with a friendly, "So what about those Bluffton Beavers? How are they doing?" As it turns out, he had spent time exploring Bluffton's Web site and had learned a lot about the things we do at Bluffton. It was a good reminder that the Internet is very much a two-way street. Many millions of people worldwide, especially students, are taking the opportunity to learn everything they can about the United States and other countries. In a world where knowledge of others is an increasingly valuable currency, we will all benefit by paying more attention to the wider context in which we live.

That's why, in addition to a cross-cultural travel requirement, many of Bluffton's courses are designed to include global education components and why Bluffton's general education sequence concludes with a senior capstone course called "Christian Values in the Global Community." And a number of Bluffton's faculty bring their own personal global and cross-cultural experiences to the classroom setting as well. Faculty in 10 of our 12 academic departments can draw upon their own living experiences outside the United States – experiences of at least one year's duration. Many others in all departments have had shorter-term international experiences. In addition, each year Bluffton enrolls international students who bring a wealth of perspective and life experience with them. I urge us all to ask questions and to listen to global perspectives that many in our community have to offer right here on campus.

As Bluffton students, you also have access to two excellent semester-long off-campus programs supported by the university. This fall semester, a group of 16 Bluffton students is in Northern Ireland, where for 15 years participants have been able to study first-hand the historical differences and efforts at conflict resolution between the Catholic and Protestant communities of that country. In addition, Bluffton is a founding co-sponsor of a semester-long urban study and internship program in Pittsburgh, Pa.

We seek new ways and new opportunities for engaging the world. In just a few weeks, Bluffton's vice president and dean of academic affairs Dr. Sally Weaver Sommer will join a group of eight educational leaders from U.S. and Canadian colleges on a visit to the country of Iran. In the midst of the current climate of hostility between the U.S. and Canada and the government of Iran, this visit is sponsored by the Mennonite Central Committee, which has had a presence in Iran since 1991. MCC's goal is to foster people-to-people exchanges at several educational institutions in Iran and to build bridges of better understanding. We expect that Dean Weaver Sommer's visit will lead to better understanding and potential future relationships with the people of Iran.

My final example of acquiring knowledge is also personal. This past summer, I was among the 108 Bluffton faculty and staff who experienced cross-cultural learning opportunities much closer to home. My group visited a Toledo market that specializes in Middle Eastern food and then observed the Friday prayer services at the Islamic Center of Greater Toledo, the large mosque that is very visible beside I-75 at Perrysburg. Following the service we received a tour of the facility and discussed the experiences of American Muslims with the son of the mosque's Imam. Other faculty and staff trips this summer included African American, Latino, Arab American, Muslim, Indian and Hindu cultural experiences in Dearborn, Mich., and Toledo, Sylvania and Lima, Ohio. I think we all gained a lot of new insights about the rich mosaic of life right here close to home.

Building and maintaining first person global connections has long been a Bluffton tradition. Since I was part of Bluffton's MBA trip to China this summer, I was interested to learn that even though China is very much in the news these days, Bluffton has a "China connection" that dates back more than 75 years. In 1931, Ed G. and Hazel Kaufman, early Mennonite missionaries to China, brought two students to enroll at Bluffton. Stephen Wang and James Liu most likely became Bluffton's first direct encounter with China. Later, as China became more open to outsiders, Bluffton president Robert Kreider made several visits there. Then in 1982, under President Elmer Neufeld, Bluffton joined the church-sponsored China Educational Exchange program that between 1982 and 1998 brought 11 visiting Chinese professors to Bluffton. Local families hosted the visiting scholars and became part of the global connection. In more recent years, of course, China has been the site of several cross cultural trips for our undergraduate students, and we look forward to more in the future. Finally, to close the loop that was begun in 1931, while in China this summer the MBA group visited with Mr. Guo Xu, an international law attorney living in Beijing. He is the grandson of Stephen Wang, that first Bluffton student from China 77 years ago. A remarkable legacy, to be sure.

Discerning values
The second way in which a Bluffton education equips us to deal with the future we are facing is by careful discernment of values. This coming year, you will be hearing and seeing more about Bluffton's long-standing commitment to Christian values in the global community.

At Bluffton University our foundation is the Christian faith and we can live with a genuine sense of certainty based on those convictions. Bluffton's official motto, established in 1913, is "The Truth Makes Free." You will find it etched on the official seal and you will find that seal embossed on your diploma when I hand it to you at your commencement. While "The Truth Makes Free" might sound to some like a political slogan, it is actually a paraphrase of the Gospel of John, chapter 8, verses 31-32. "Then Jesus said...If you continue my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free." This is the truth as revealed through the life and ministry of Jesus Christ, a truth that can set us free from our deepest fears and uncertainties in life.

Over the years, the Bluffton University extended community of students, faculty, staff, alumni and friends have endeavored to live out that truth. Today we commonly refer to Bluffton's four enduring values of discovery, community, respect and service as ways in which we try to do that on a daily basis. In so many ways, these contributors to a more peaceful way of life are exceptionally important values for these times. The world we all live in is badly in need of discovery, community, respect and service. We here at Bluffton certainly don't own these values—many others share them with us. Yet I believe that if we are true to the best ideals of a Bluffton education, we will make a tremendous positive impact in this world. We will, in fact, be living out Bluffton's mission statement that calls us to prepare "for life as well as vocation, for responsible citizenship, for service to all peoples and ultimately for the purposes of God's universal kingdom."

Taking action
Third, and finally, a Bluffton education compels us to take action, to become engaged in helpful ways to others. Let me give a number of examples of how members from this community are already doing this.

Last year at this President's Forum, I reported on initial efforts by Bluffton faculty to explore possibilities in nearby Putnam County for applying alternative conflict resolution practices. During this past year, those efforts bore fruit. A mediation initiative involving Bluffton students is up and running in association with the Putnam County juvenile court system. More than 80 people, mostly Bluffton students, have been trained in mediation skills, and another training is scheduled for October. A number of mediations have already occurred since last spring as a way to address the concerns of juvenile crime victims and as an alternative way of dealing with probationary requirements. The Bluffton University Mediation Program is actively cultivating referrals for mediation from other community sources in Putnam County, and has aspirations of expanding its outreach restorative justice programs into Lima. Already a meeting with interested pastors in Lima has occurred and other efforts are underway to discern community needs and interests regarding mediation and other restorative justice approaches. Those efforts are being overseen by Dr. Laura Brenneman, who heads up Bluffton's peace and conflict studies program. The mediation director is Janet Mitchell, a trained lawyer and experienced mediator from the Church of the Brethren who is available to Bluffton through the Pathways program.

And last February, 20 Bluffton faculty, staff and students volunteered when called upon to facilitate a day-long dialogue among Lima Senior High students in the tense aftermath of that community's tragic shooting of a mother and small child during a police drug raid. The contribution of this Bluffton group to the challenging healing process of the Lima community was significant and I thank them for it.

In many other ways, members of the Bluffton community are taking action. Professor of sociology Lynda Nyce is spending a sabbatical year investigating the impact of immigration on local communities. Professor of psychology Pam Nath is on a two year leave of absence in New Orleans, serving with Mennonite Central Committee to assess that community's long-term post hurricane redevelopment needs and to help develop MCC's future program plans there. English professor Jeff Gundy has just returned from a sabbatical leave as a Fulbright Scholar at the University of Salzburg in Austria, where his task as a lecturer was to provide context to European students in their studies of America.

Our adult and graduate students are a special group. They come to us with significant community and church leadership experience. Through their education gained at Bluffton they are further prepared for their future professional, civic and church roles where they will contribute to develop productive organizations.

Bluffton graduates leave their own mark on the world in many helpful ways. I asked Kathy Dickson, director of Bluffton's career development office, and Tig Intagliata, campus pastor, to describe for me the service assignments in the United States and internationally undertaken in just the last two years by Bluffton graduates. You have a wonderful path to follow. Bluffton graduates have worked in a variety of assignments through Mennonite Voluntary Service – providing leadership at church camps in Illinois and Ohio, undertaking advocacy work in Washington, D.C., and working with sex offenders in Fresno, Calif. Others have served in various programs sponsored by Mennonite Central Committee, including in Nicaragua working in an orphanage for children with disabilities, in Jamaica as a legal aid for human rights work and in Bolivia and Serbia connecting people from North American churches with local groups. Still others have volunteered to work alongside Native Americans in South Dakota, and through Americorps as inner-city tutors. They have volunteered as VISTA coordinators for Habitat for Humanity in Columbus and worked on issues of poverty in Charlottesville, Va. Three Bluffton graduates have found their way to Pittsburgh, in positions supporting the PULSE program and the Pittsburgh Semester. Others are just beginning assignments or are waiting for their placements in mission and service positions in Bangladesh and elsewhere.

I encourage you to consider volunteer and service assignments at appropriate moments in your life. I know that for Karen and me, the three years we spent living and teaching in a remote high school in Kenya shortly after we were married were among the most challenging and formative years of our lives. In part that was because quite a number of the students we taught came from families that we got to know personally and who welcomed us into their homes. Our experience, living in the desert and teaching boys who wrote that they had to kill lions with hunting spears in order to save the family's goats, provided us with a global perspective that continues to influence how we understand the world to this day.

We do live in uncertain times and in a complex world. But at Bluffton we can prepare ourselves for that future and to make a difference by acquiring knowledge, discerning values and taking action where we feel called in life. We are part of a shared enterprise that matters and that makes a difference in the world. I wish you a rich and productive year.


[i] Information at

[ii] See Bill McKibben, "A Special Moment in History," in Patrick O'Meara et. al., eds., Globalization and the Challenges of a New Century. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2000, pp. 383-405.

[iii] The material for this section is taken from Denis Goulet, The Cruel Choice: A New Concept in the Theory of Development. New York: Atheneum, 1978, pp. 87-91.